The Center of a Formation

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Each service recognizes that the center of a color guard with two guards and an even number of color bearers is the space between the two bearers. If the team has an odd number of color bearers, the center is the center color bearer. Simple. For a platoon/flight, there is a little more too it but…

It’s Not Rocket Science

Now, you can MAKE this rocket science and confuse everyone around you with your lack of understanding if you want but you are doing a disservice to others.

Let’s get some terms defined:

Center by Service

The Army does not define Center. The Army drill and ceremonies manuals have simply stated the commander (squad leader, platoon Sgt/leader, company commander, etc.) is centered on the formation.

The Marine Corps (Navy and Coast Guard) definition: “The middle element of a formation with an odd number of elements or the left center element of a formation with an even number of elements.”

The Air Force (Space Force) definition: “The middle point of a formation. On an odd-numbered front, the center is the center person or element. On an even-numbered front, the center is the right center person or element.” (Emphasis mine.)

  • When the USAF first became an independent service, it took some information for drill and ceremonies from the Army, some from the Marine Corps, and then made up some standards. This might be where the confusion lies because of the USAF’s added term, Front, we must define it because this is key to the USAF explanation as to how it completely differs from the Marine Corps definition.

Front by Service

The Army does not define Front, specifically. However, it does have a graphic that has been around for decades showing that the Front of a formation is when it is in column.

The Marine Corps definition: “The space occupied by an element or a formation, measured from one flank to the other. The front of an individual is considered to be 22 inches.”

The USAF definition: “The space occupied by a unit, measured from flank to flank [“flank to flank” is the left or right, which only applies to the formation aligned in column -DM]. The front of an individual is considered to be 22 inches.”

And just to make sure we are all on the same page, let’s go ahead and get Element out in the open.

Element by Service

The Army does not define Element, specifically. However, it does describe formations as “the elements of a unit.” (TC 3-21.5, ix, first paragraph.)

The Marine Corps definition: “An individual, squad, section, platoon, company, or other unit that is part of a larger unit.” (Emphasis mine.) “Or other unit” must then include a rank because the MCO requires the formation commander to NOT be centered on the platoon with even-numbered ranks.

The USAF definition: “The basic formation; that is, the smallest drill unit comprised of at least 3, but usually 8 to 12 individuals, one of whom is designated the element leader.”

  • This definition is not exact and needs more information.
    • The AF/SF do not drill at the element level and uses Army standards for element (squad) drill.
    • Technically, an element is an individual, element (squad), flight, squadron, etc. that is part of a larger group. But the AF covers for not using that definition by giving us “Unit”.
  • Unit
    • Any portion of a given formation.

Where Some in the AF Get Confused

Above, I highlighted the word Front because you will see it does not appear in the MCO definition of Center but appears in the AFPAM definition. “On an odd-numbered front” – ODD NUMBERED FRONT. Only the FRONT. For the AF, the front is only identified when marching in column formation, element (squad) leaders leading. This has NOTHING to do with the placement of the formation commander, no matter whet direction the formation marches.

The USAF image for Front (1960)
The USAF image for Front (1956)

The Marine Corps Extends the Definition of Center and Front

For the MCO, and ONLY for the Marine Corps, navy, and Coast Guard, the Front switches but only when marching to the flank. I’ll explain. A platoon can march for any distance with squad leaders leading (The rectangles in the image below with the “X”) and can make small changes in direction by marching to the right or left flank so that the squad leaders are to the left or right (respectively) of the formation. For the Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard (ONLY!), the commander falls in line to the left of center rank but only when marching to the flank.

MCO 5060.20 Center when marching to the flank

Clarity is not the strong suit of the US military, regardless of branch. Still, the MCO seems to have better and more accurate descriptions- mostly but not all. Having a Front on the side of a formation isn’t necessary. Staying centered works just fine.

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