It is important to understand which aspects of war are likely to change and which are not. We must stay abreast of the process of change for the belligerent who first exploits a development in the art and science of war gains a significant advantage if we are ignorant of the changing face of war. We will find ourselves unequal to its challenges.[i]
These words are drawn from Warfighting, the capstone doctrinal document of the U.S. Marine Corps. They help explain an important cultural attribute of the Corps’s ethos, that of anticipatory adaptation to the changing character of war. And they also help explain what animates the actions of General David Berger, the current Commandant (senior military officer) of the Marine Corps. He is convinced the organization, training, equipment, and posture of the service–its overall force design–is not keeping up with the evolving character of war and needs to be changed as a matter of some urgency.
Accordingly, soon after General Berger became Commandant on 11 July 2019, he made plain that big changes were afoot for the Marine Corps. He wrote:
Our current force design, optimized for large-scale amphibious forcible entry and sustained operations ashore, has persisted unchanged in its essential inspiration since the 1950s… I am convinced that the defining attributes of our current force design are no longer what the nation requires of the Marine Corps.[ii]
He made it his top priority to bring the Marine Corps more into alignment with both the changing character of war and international security environment, and he announced a plan called Force Design 2030 to accomplish this aim.
But today, a group composed primarily of disaffected retired generals vehemently disagree with General Berger’s overall vision of a future Marine Corps–so much so, that they are mounting a sweeping public relations campaign to stop him from getting it off the drawing board.[iii] While the Commandant is in no way obligated to listen to their complaints, the thoughts and inputs of retired Marines, particularly general officers, have long been valued by serving Commandants (the same can be said of all service chiefs). But this campaign takes “input” to an unsettling degree. The retired generals have made their objections known to General Berger and are expecting him to heed their preferences to preserve the status quo. Up to this point, Berger has not done so–or at least not enough for their liking. They, therefore, decided to “seek legislation that would halt the [Commandant’s] ongoing efforts until a more thorough requirements-based future is reviewed.”[iv]
There is a term for this approach: a shake-down. There is nothing remotely like this behavior in Marine Corps history. Those who wage the campaign feel their attempts to engage Commandant Berger have either been ignored or rebuffed. Having failed to force a reversal of the Commandant’s direction that has been carefully designed and tested over the past two years, they feel the only way forward is to relentlessly and publicly denigrate his plans. Toward this aim, they have published a spate of attacks in numerous fora. They have gone so far as to engage a lobbying firm to help persuade Congress Berger is on the wrong path. As a Marine veteran myself, I am stunned, saddened, and embarrassed these respected gentlemen would pursue such drastic, unseemly tactics.
For those who are not Marines, the best way to think about this messy public debate is to view it as a custody fight between the grandparents and parents of a beloved child. The child, of course, is the Marine Corps. The retired general officers are the child’s grandparents. General Berger is the parent. The grandparents object to the way Gen. Berger is raising their grandchild. They have tried to get him to change his ways, to no avail. They have therefore decided to take the Commandant to court (Congress) to seek an injunction against his plans.
Grandparents have a high bar to climb in child custody fights against parents. One tactic is to try to make the case the parent is an unfit guardian. That tactic clearly won’t work. No one would accept that General David Berger, a career Marine with a sterling command and combat record, is unfit to be Commandant of the Marine Corps. A second tactic is to claim, “extraordinary circumstances that would drastically affect the welfare of the child.”[v] This is the approach being pursued by the retired generals.
The purpose of this paper is to try to sort through the arguments that Berger’s Force Design 2030 poses an unwarranted threat to the Marines’ role as a “homogenous, all-encompassing “force in readiness,” and to judge them on their merits. To do this, a review of Force Design 2030 and its antecedents is in order.
General Berger States his Case for Change
Soon after General Berger became Commandant, as is customary, he published his Commandant’s Planning Guidance (CPG). This serves as the authoritative document for Service-level planning and provides a common direction to the Marine Corps Total Force… describing where the Marine Corps is going and why.”[vi]
Berger’s guidance endorsed the conclusion of his immediate predecessor, General Robert Neller, that “The Marine Corps is not organized, trained, equipped, or postured to meet the demands of the rapidly evolving future operating environment.” [vii] General Berger made it his top priority to remedy this situation.
Toward this end, the Commandant announced he would personally lead a new force design effort.[viii] His participation would build on his time as head of Marine Corps Combat Development and Integration, an organization that, among other things, develops future operational concepts and helps the serving Commandant plan, design, and implement a Marine Corps aligned with the National Defense Strategy, relevant Defense Planning Guidance and his own planning guidance.[ix] Additionally, General Berger could draw upon his time as Commanding General, First Marine Expeditionary Force; Commanding General, U.S. Marine Forces, Pacific; direct participation in five years of naval and global war games that explored the future national security environment, the changing character of war, and the rising threat from China in the Pacific.[x] As a result, he arrived as Commandant with some broad preliminary judgments about both the future and Marine Corps force design, which he offered in his planning guidance. Among them, four stand out to me.
Judgment 1: The future Marine Corps must be organized, trained, equipped and postured to conduct distributed operations.
Berger argued that the “character of war in the future will be much different than that of the recent past,”[xi] dominated by what he would later refer to as the “mature precision strike regime.”[xii] At its core, then, his force design effort was a deliberate reaction to the widespread development and fielding of deadly accurate guided munitions fire–directed and controlled by increasingly capable command, control, communications, computer and cyber intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance networks. This trend was upending the traditional American way of war, and Berger’s conclusions about what to do about it were backed up by combat operations during Operation Desert Storm and since, the steady development of and extensive Chinese anti-access/area-denial network in the Western Pacific, and the results of over 30 years of war games and campaign analyses.
In this new highly lethal warfighting regime, the function of mass on the battlefield and legacy conceptions of naval expeditionary and combined arms operations were changing. In the face of persistent guided munitions attack, future Marine forces would first need to master distributed operations, which would “drive the continued evolution of the future operating environment.”[xiii] Indeed, given its imperative for future force design, codifying distributed operations would be critical to the overall effort.[xiv] One characteristic of a distributed operations-capable Marine Corps would be its ability to disaggregate into smaller, mobile units with lower signatures to make their targeting and attack by an enemy more difficult. General Berger wasn’t expecting to make these smaller units invisible; that was a bridge too far. He was instead shooting for an acceptable degree of survivability on battlefields swept by guided munitions.
The second required characteristic of a distributed force is for its smaller more mobile units to disperse across a contested battlespace and apply decisive battlefield effects from such a distributed posture, synchronized and guided by commander’s intent and mission-type orders in accordance with Marine Corps’ maneuver warfare doctrine. As he said:
Achieving this end state requires a force that can create the virtues of mass without the vulnerabilities of concentration, thanks to mobile and low-signature sensors and weapons.[xv]
The Commandant went out of his way to explain why distributed operations would be required in the mature precision strike regime and the advantages he believed would accrue from them.[xvi] He wrote, “Success will be defined in terms of finding the smallest, lowest signature options that yield the maximum operational utility.”[xvii] As a start, Force Design 2030 would push combined arms down to the squad level–giving this smallest unit of action its own organic scouting (i.e., sensing) assets as well as the guided munitions to exploit them.[xviii] This thinking built on the Hunter Warrior experiments promoted and tested by the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory during the tenure of Commandant Charles C. Krulak in the late 1990s.[xix]
The logic of distributed operations is theater agnostic and applicable across the full range of military operations–from high-end campaigns against peer competitors, to combat operations against regional state powers, to “brush fire wars” and counter-terrorism operations. Distributed operations would also be useful for the day-to-day competition the “gray zone,” below the level of armed conflict. As Berger saw it,
A force composed of highly capable tactical units that can perform combined arms operations at all echelons, enabled by organic air and logistics, is a force that can execute the complex missions defined by our emerging concepts in any potential theater.[xx]
Judgment 2: The Chinese anti-access/area denial threat in the Western Pacific is the “pacing threat” for a future naval expeditionary force in the precision strike regime and calls for a different set of amphibious capabilities.
Although Berger considered a distributed operations-capable Marine Corps good against any adversary, the 2018 National Defense Strategy and its associated Defense Planning Guidance designated the People’s Republic of China as the pacing threat, and the Indian Ocean and Western as the priority theater(s). Force Design 2030 would reflect this authoritative guidance, one in which the Marine Corps is well suited, given its relationship with the Navy and its strong posture in Japan and Hawaii. In this case, “pacing threat” meant a fight against China in the Western Pacific was to be Force Design 2030’s most serious stress test. If Force Design 2030 could fight and win against China’s land-based anti-access/area-denial network, it would likely overmatch any other conventional adversary armed with guided munitions and battle networks.
Under any circumstances. the appearance of land based anti-access/area-denial networks in the Western Pacific and beyond made “closer naval integration an imperative.”[xxi] Large-scale amphibious assaults in the Western Pacific would be far too vulnerable and risky to mount. As a result, perhaps the biggest bombshell in Berger’s planning guidance was that the Marine Corps would no longer use the longstanding “requirement” (quotation marks in the original) to conduct a 2.0 Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) amphibious assault to help size and shape the force. In truth, since 9-11, the Marine Corps had been sized and shaped primarily to service the wartime demands in the Central Command area of responsibility. But the 2.0 MEB requirement provided the foundation for the size of the amphibious fleet (38 ships), the “requisite capacity” for vehicles and ship-to-shore connectors and the Maritime Prepositioning Force.[xxii] Rejecting this guiding metric was a tectonic shift for a service that had identified itself with the amphibious assault mission for a century. That announcement, in and of itself, was enough to guarantee substantial pushback from some active and retired Marines.
The Commandant made clear that he did not think amphibious assaults were “irrelevant or an operational anachronism.”[xxiii] However, the appearance of powerful anti-access-area-denial networks called for different types of amphibious capabilities in support of an integrated naval campaign in the Western Pacific. Accordingly, Force Design 2030 called for III Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF), forward based in the Pacific, to be transformed into a new “fight tonight, stand in force capability to persist inside an adversary’s weapon system threat range, create a mutually contested space, and facilitate the larger naval campaign.”[xxiv]
Translated, III MEF would become a force capable of operating inside the Chinese anti-access/area-denial network from the first day of any future conflict and enabling prompt and persistent forward sea control and denial operations in support of a broader integrated naval campaign. A key aim would be for a redesigned III MEF able to win the reconnaissance/counter-reconnaissance battle against the People’s Liberation Army and Navy along the first island chain that stretches from Japan to Taiwan and the Philippines, requiring “an agile, stealthy tactical system employing forces that are able to locate, target, and fire precisely first (emphasis added).[xxv]
It is important to note these ideas were not cut out of whole cloth. Berger’s call for closer naval integration echoed those of every Commandant since 2012 (Commandants Conway, Amos, Dunford and Neller), all of whom anticipated the ultimate withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq and Afghanistan and an end to sustained Marine Corps combat operations ashore in the Middle East. All espoused a desire for the Marines to return to their naval roots, and to extend its relevance to the nation’s priority strategic challenges. Furthermore, the idea of a stand-in force capability sprang from two concepts developed in close partnership with the U.S. Navy before General Berger became Commandant–Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE) and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO). Both were consistent with the Navy’s capstone Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) concept. Indeed, Gen Neller, Berger’s immediate successor, began wargames and analysis on a Marine Corps force design consistent with these concepts well before General Berger’s arrival. These efforts informed his own planning guidance.
While the 2.0 MEB “requirement,” would be eliminated, Force Design 2030 would retain the Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) construct, which is the secret sauce for the Marine Corps’ demonstrated ability to task organize for any mission. Marine air-ground task forces come in all shapes and sizes, but each has a headquarters element, ground combat element, air combat element, and logistics element. Each element can be tailored for any mission assigned. The Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) would remain the Corps’ principal warfighting organization, and the Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) would continue to be its primary “forward operating crisis response force.”[xxvi]
Judgment 3: Given expected budgets, pursuing any new force design would require the Marine Corps to divest some legacy programs and force structure to invest in needed future capabilities.
It is relevant to understand that General Berger formulated Force Design 2030 just as the sequestration years were ending. Demand for resources among the four services and within the Marine Corps itself was still intense. His philosophy was therefore to “seek the affordable and plentiful at the expense of the exquisite and few.”[xxvii] In his planning guidance, Berger also announced he was willing to trade legacy capability to pursue the advanced capabilities needed to make Force Design 2030 a reality and achieve operational success.[xxviii] This was hardly a novel approach. It was adopted by every single service chief at the time, all of whom faced the same challenge.
Beyond announcing the elimination of the 2.0 MEB amphibious “requirement,” the Commandant did not explicitly list capability divestments in his planning guidance, instead opting to provide general guidance for how future divestment decisions would be made.[xxix] In contrast, he was quite specific about the general investments he was confident 2030 Marine Corps would need. These included ground-based long-range precision fires; unmanned systems; command and control capabilities suitable for a degraded environment; air and missile defense; and emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence.[xxx]
There were no surprises here. The capabilities mirrored those called for in the 2018 National Defense Strategy. And all were consistent with his thoughts on the precision strike regime and the need for a future force able to disaggregate and conduct distributed operations.
Judgment 4: The urgent requirement to adopt Marine Corps force design for the future operating environment meant change must start immediately; “essential to charting our course in an era of strategic fluidity and rapid change will be the effective integration of professional wargaming in force design…”[xxxi]
In this, General Berger was heeding the 2018 National Defense Strategy’s call for “urgent change at significant scale.”[xxxii] Accordingly, General Berger did not think the voyage toward Force Design 2030 could wait for a precise understanding of the desired destination. As such, he wrote, “While others may wait for a clearer picture of the future operating environment, we will focus our efforts on driving change and influencing future operation environment outcomes” (emphasis mine).[xxxiii]
In one of his most cited essays, the late Michael Howard wrote that leaders responsible for preparing for future security challenges must look forward into the unknown and compared their role to that of a “sailor navigating by dead reckoning.” Defense policy makers and chiefs of the Services have to let go of the terra firma of past wars and extrapolate forward without a clear idea of when and where the next war will be.[xxxiv]
General Berger was confident that a force organized, trained, equipped and postured to conduct distributed operations provided an accurate base course for change, and he was ready to push off from terra firma toward a not yet fully defined destination. Nevertheless, General Berger was fully aware he was navigating primarily by dead reckoning through a fog of uncertainty. To mitigate strategic risk, he therefore announced a major focus during his tenure as Commandant would be a “campaign of learning” involving his “direct, personal [and] regular engagement…to drive an integrated process of wargaming and experimentation” that will rapidly produce solutions for further development.”.[xxxv] This approach is a time-tested way for military organizations to prepare for an uncertain future. As Williamson “Wick” Murray and Barry Watts, noted experts in military transformation, said, “Institutional processes for exploring, testing and refining conceptions of future war are literally a sine qua non of successful military innovation.”[xxxvi]
General Berger Announces His Initial Decisions
While the Marine Corps is among the most conservative of the armed forces, it has a rich history of operational innovation: amphibious assault, close air support, the creation of the Marine-Air Ground Task Force, and the adoption of vertical and short take-off and landing aircraft are just a few examples. And whatever else one thinks about Berger’s planning guidance, one must acknowledge it represents a bold (critics would say reckless) departure from Marine Corps orthodoxy, particularly the turn away from an emphasis on large scale amphibious assaults and sustained ground combat operations ashore toward a force design built around the imperative for distributed operations and naval expeditionary campaigns in the face of anti-access/area-denial networks.
Still, Berger’s planning guidance was more about making the rationale for “sweeping changes” than it was providing a specific blueprint for action. The initial blueprint came in the Commandant’s first report on Force Design 2030, which was then sketched out in more detail in the Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations and A Concept for Stand-In Forces. Taken together, these three documents explained the Commandant’s preliminary decisions on divestment of legacy capabilities and investment in new capabilities, suggested tentative changes to existing organizations, and discussed how future Fleet Marine Forces would operate as part of an integrated naval campaign.
Force Design 2030, the first of these documents, codified the three trends behind the necessity for change: the mature precision strike regime; gray zone activities, and the need for maritime campaigning.”[xxxvii] It then laid out the initial force design of the 2030 Marine Corps and compared it against the existing, legacy design.
Among the document’s more consequential decisions, Berger announced the divestment of one of eight infantry regimental headquarters; the divestment of three of 24 active component infantry battalions, two of six reserve battalions, as well as the redesign of all remaining battalions; a dramatic restructuring of Marine Corps cannon and rocket artillery capabilities; the divestment of all organic tank units; and modifications to Marine Corps aviation plans.
- The divestment of one of eight infantry regimental headquarters.
Infantry regiments are the primary ground combat units in Marine divisions, which are themselves the ground combat element of a Marine Expeditionary Force. While the MEF would remain the Corps’ primary warfighting organization, Force Design 2030’s three MEFs would not be identical. As initially envisioned, two infantry regiments and one artillery regiment assigned to the 3d Marine Division based in the Pacific would all be reconfigured as new Marine Littoral Regiments (MLRs)–an experimental construct for naval campaigning in the precision strike regime.[xxxviii] However, General Berger cautioned there was not enough experimental evidence to support an immediate top to bottom reorganization of III MEF. Accordingly, the 3d Marine regiment in Hawaii would become a singular experimental organization to test, validate and refine the MLR structure.[xxxix] The infantry regiments in the other two MEFs would remain largely unchanged, except for their redesigned infantry battalions (see next under).
- The divestment of three of 24 active component infantry battalions and two of six reserve component battalions, and the redesign of all remaining battalions.
Based on the elimination of the 2.0 MEB amphibious assault requirement and the evolution of joint war plans, FD 2030’s remaining seven regiments and 25 battalions were deemed adequate to satisfy naval and joint requirements.[xl] However, General Berger decided the battalions themselves needed to be redesigned with distributed operations in mind. As such, combined arms capability would be pushed down to the squad level, with the addition of the Multipurpose Anti-Armor Anti-personnel Weapon System (MAAWS),— a lightweight, 84 mm reloadable recoilless rifle– organic unmanned aerial vehicles, and loitering attack drones.[xli] Like the MLR, the final design of the reorganized infantry battalion would be determined after live-force experimentation involving three infantry battalions, one in each Marine division.[xlii]
- A dramatic restructuring of Marine Corps cannon and rocket artillery capabilities.
General Berger believed the Marine Corps’ focus on indirect fire capabilities had heretofore “fixated on those capabilities with sufficient range and lethality to support infantry and ground maneuver.” He deemed this singular focus as being “no longer appropriate or acceptable.”[xliii] He wanted future Marine Corps indirect fire capabilities to boast more range, more precision, and more lethality, all while being more suited to distributed operations.
Much has been made of Force Design 2030’s divestment of no less than 16 of 21 155mm cannon batteries. But that cut has been offset by an increase from seven to 21 rocket artillery batteries armed with the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS. The best way to think about these changes is that while the future Marine Corps will have two fewer total firing batteries than the legacy force design (falling from 28 to 26) the resulting force would be more mobile, easier to conceal, and far more capable and deadly. The M777, the standard 155mm howitzer now in service, is towed by a seven-ton truck. In travel configuration, the combination of the truck and howitzer is over 53 feet long. The cannon normally fires unguided shells to a range of 24-30 kilometers (km). It can also fire a guided shell to 40 km with an accuracy of 10 meters.[xliv] In contrast, the HIMARS system is an integrated transport launcher on a 6×6, all-wheel drive, 5-ton truck. The entire system in travel configuration is 23 feet long. It fires guided rockets to ranges of 40-150 km, and guided ballistic missiles out to 300 km, with an accuracy of 5 meters. Moreover, its 200-pound unitary warhead is equivalent to the explosive charge of a 250-pound small diameter bomb–and 13 times larger than a 155 mm artillery round.[xlv] The rocket batteries will also provide the basis, over time, for cross-domain expeditionary ballistic and cruise missiles capable of anti-ship attack and longer-range ballistic missiles out to 499 km and beyond.[xlvi]
- Divestment of all organic tank units.
Berger believed he had sufficient evidence to conclude that despite their usefulness in past wars, tanks were “operationally unsuitable for our highest-priority challenges in the future.”[xlvii] Accordingly, all seven companies of active and reserve tanks would be divested. In addition, two of six companies of tracked assault amphibian vehicles and all three bridging companies needed to support sustained armor operations ashore would go. All old and increasingly unsafe tracked assault amphibian vehicles would be replaced on a one-for-one basis by the new wheeled Amphibious Combat Vehicle, optimized for operations on land.[xlviii] Finally, the number of wheeled Light Armored Reconnaissance companies would be increased from nine to 12, although the Commandant wanted to see more evidence before making this move.[xlix] Should the future force ever need tank support, it would be requested from the U.S. Army.[l]
Force Design 2030 also announced several modifications to Marine Corps aviation plans.
- The total number of active component strike fighter squadrons remained unchanged at 18, albeit with a reduction in aircraft per squadron to ten from 16. The reduction reflected, in part, the difficulty in training and maintaining enough pilots for the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, the Marines’ primary tactical aircraft.[li]
- Three MV-22 tiltrotor squadrons, three heavy lift helicopter squadrons, and “at least” two light attack helicopter squadrons would be divested, leaving 14, five and five squadrons of each type aircraft, respectively. These moves were made possible by the reduction of three infantry battalions, which made these squadrons excess to need.[lii]
- The only increases in aviation capability would come in the form of one additional aerial refueler squadron (from three to four) and three additional unmanned aerial vehicle squadrons (from three to six).[liii]
In total, these and other changes would see the 2019/2020 total Fleet Marine Force Structure decrease by some 12,000 Marines by 2030, and result in overall potential savings of $12 billion to help pay for equipment modernization, training modernization, and other force development priorities outlined in FD 2030.[liv]
Once again, however, to further refine and develop an understanding of initial changes and changes to come, General Berger emphasized the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab would lead a “continuous cycle of learning and adjustment” involving “concept refinement, wargaming, analysis and simulation and experimentation.”[lv]
The unease stirred by Berger’s planning guidance only grew after the publication of Force Design 2030. Consequently, he felt compelled to further expand on the rationale behind his decisions in a June 2020 Marine Corps Gazette article entitled, “The Case for Change: Meeting the Principal Challenges Facing the Corps,” and another article in the April 2021 edition of Military Review Online, entitled “Preparing for the Future: Marine Corps Support to Joint Operations in Contested Littorals.”
The Commandant did not reiterate his decisions in these articles. Instead, he once again laid out and expanded his thinking upon the three principal developments driving the need for sweeping changes: the rise and maturation of the precision strike regime; gray zone strategies involving multi-domain competition within the mature precision strike regime; and the imperative of maritime campaigning. He also cautioned that while it was important to remember that “’answers’ are elusive when the task is preparation for an unknowable future,” the three developments he outlined demanded that he not wait for perfect answers before pursuing change in response. Berger therefore said “the next great challenge” would be analyzing his initial force design decisions “through integrated Naval wargaming and analysis but most importantly in real-world, live experimentation,” and adjusting plans based on their findings.[lvi]
General Berger Makes Subsequent Course Adjustments
The Commandant’s first adjustments to his initial decisions came in annual updates to Force Design 2030, published in April 2021 and April 2022. These reports provided updates on activities in support of the force design campaign of learning. For example, the 2021 report announced that the 12 light armored reconnaissance battalions in the Force Design 2030 objective force would be transformed into “multi-domain reconnaissance units” with the “capabilities necessary to succeed in a contested information environment.”[lvii] The 2022 report announced the successful demonstration of the new Navy Marine Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System (NMESIS), consisting of two modified Navy vertical launch systems on a remotely operated Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, able to fire Navy anti-ship missiles.[lviii] Both reports continued to emphasize how the ongoing campaign of learning would continue to inform the final force design.
The Grandparents Intervene
As it turned out, Berger was wrong. His next great challenge would not be continuing to analyze changes, it would be contending with a concerted effort by over two dozen retired Marine generals and defense executives to stop Force Design 2030 in its tracks.
In the view of the grandparents, Berger’s ideas and plans were “insufficiently tested or intrinsically flawed.”[lix] Worse, from their perspective, General Berger did not appear inclined to listen to their criticisms and change course. After “several unsuccessful attempts…to engage in quiet dialogue” with the Commandant, the opponents decided to make their objections public. They formed a daily working group of 17 retired generals to communicate concerns to national leaders and published a “letter of concern,” signed by 22 retired four-star generals.[lx] They also engaged a lobbying firm to convey their concerns to Congress and to seek its intervention to block General Berger’s plans.
The underlying premise of these opponents was laid out in an article by a highly decorated retired Marine who served as Secretary of the Navy and Virginia state Senator, Jim Webb. He argued that Berger lacked carte blanche to make significant changes to Marine Corps force structure, and even if he did, his plans were not approved by the Secretary of the Navy, Secretary of Defense, or Congress.[lxi] Therefore, Congress should enact legislation to halt further pursuit of FD 2030 “until a more thorough, requirements-based future…is reviewed and approved.”[lxii]
Let’s apply some facts to the first part of this premise. Each year, the Commandant of the Marines Corps, like all service chiefs, creates what is called a Program Objective Memorandum (POM). This describes how a service chief wants to allot current and future year funding for a force design that meets both service and defense planning guidance. If a Commandant wants to make significant changes to Marine Corps force structure, they need to prepare a POM that reflects the desired changes. Once developed, the Commandant then briefs and seeks approval of their plans from both the Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of Defense. If approved, the memorandum becomes a part of an overall defense program assembled by the Secretary of Defense. The program is then sent to the Office of Management and Budget, to be incorporated in the President’s budget estimate submission to Congress. In essence, OMB’s delivery of the administration’s submission to Congress signals the President’s endorsement of anything included therein. Once delivered, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees unpack Department of Defense plans, study them, and decide whether to authorize and fund them. The former Commandants among the opponents know this process well. They followed it when they held the office.
Force Design 2030 was included in the Marine Corps’ Fiscal Year 2021 (FY 2021) Program Objective Memorandum. It was approved by then-Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer and briefed directly to then-Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist at the Deputy’s Management Action Group (the organ that reviews service POMs for the Secretary of Defense). Per standard practice, it was then considered by the Director of Cost Analysis and Program Evaluation and endorsed. Based on supportive recommendations from both that director and the Deputy Secretary, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper approved Force Design 2030 and transferred approximately $500 million to the Marine Corps budget to help pay for aspects of it.[lxiii] It was incorporated into the overall defense program and president’s budget request, which was considered and approved by Congress. What Senator Webb described–a wily Commandant sneaking a force structure plan through the Department of Defense and by Congress–literally could never happen.
The real story is that the grandparents simply believe they know what’s best for the child, and they hope to enlist Congress on their side to prevent the Commandant from veering from their thinking. But who would Congress ask to make a more thorough, requirements-based future review? Some sort of Commission? A think tank? The retired generals themselves? Since this exercise is fundamentally about imagining the future, what evidence is there that anyone of them has a better answer? And in any case, since Congress has already authorized the changes made so far and appropriated funds to pay for them, enlisting them as part of this scheme seems like an unlikely outcome. Especially since they have accused the Congress of being asleep at the switch when FD 2030 was presented in the FY 2021 POM.
This has not moderated the grandparents’ efforts. Their attacks on the Commandant’s vision cover a wide front, stemming from one overriding concern: Force Design 2030 threatens the Marine Corps’ longstanding role as “a homogenous, all-encompassing ‘force-in-readiness’ that can go anywhere and fight anyone on any level short of nuclear war.”[lxiv]
In 1952, after the surprise outbreak of the Korean War, the early reversals suffered by the U.S. Army in that conflict, and the subsequent stunning combat performance of the Marine Corps, the 82nd Congress wrote:
[The Marine Corps] has fully demonstrated the vital need for the existence of a strong force in readiness … The nation’s shock troops must be the most ready when the nation is generally least ready…[lxv]
Since then, the Marine Corps has fiercely embraced the role as the nation’s “9-1-1 force” to the point it now lies at the very heart of its institutional identity. The grandparents believe the changes found in Force Design 2030 risk this “obligation to our national security.”[lxvi]
The problem with this argument is what makes a “force-in-readiness” is very much in the eye of the beholder. Title 10 of the U.S. Code provides the legal basis for the roles, missions, and organization of the U.S. Department of Defense and each of the armed services. As codified in the Code, Congress directs that the Marine Corps shall include no less than three combat divisions and three air wings, and be organized, trained, and equipped to provide fleet marine forces of combined arms, together with supporting air components, for service with the fleet…”[lxvii] Force Design 2030 retains a Fleet Marine Force of three divisions and wings, so it continues to meet that basic legal requirement. However, it underscores readiness for a larger and more challenging operating environment, and a more potent opposition, instead of irregular challenges or stability operations in failed states. The current Fleet Marine Forces can still handle those, but Force Design 2030 does not compromise risk for the more demanding missions, per the guidance of current and past administrations.
Beyond that, Congress expects the force in readiness to be a “balanced force…for a naval campaign and, at the same time, a ground and air striking force ready to suppress or contain international disturbances short of large-scale war.”[lxviii] As discussed, Force Design 2030 is specifically designed for the imperative of integrated naval campaigns, particularly for the pacing threat in the Western Pacific. It is also designed to excel in day-to-day competition in the gray zone below the threshold of armed conflict, where Marine agility, naval maneuver options, and political utility still matter. So, in this regard, Force Design 2030 appears entirely consistent with law. However, the grandparents argue Force Design 2030 ground and air striking forces are dangerously unbalanced.
Title 10 offers little help in judging this assertion. Beyond setting a minimum size of three division-wing teams, the only expectation it sets for Marine Corps capabilities is “such other land combat, aviation, and other services as may be organic therein.”[lxix] Congress thus leaves it to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Secretary of the Navy and Secretary of Defense to determine the most appropriate organic capabilities in their POM, and these capabilities change over time based on threats, technology, and war plans. It is certainly true the capabilities and combat power envisioned in Force Design 2030 will be different from today’s force. That is the aim of Berger’s entire exercise. But the grandparents buttress their claim that the force redesign results in an unbalanced ground and air striking force primarily by focusing solely on its associated divestments., especially the divestment of tanks and the reduction in cannon artillery. They assert such cuts will result in a “hollow force.”[lxx]
However, the grandparents make little effort to provide context for the divestments. When highlighting the divestments, they overlook the tradeoffs such as the gained additive manning or resources for investments, and the cost/benefit choices. For example, they often fail to mention the reductions to some aviation squadrons are tied to the elimination of three infantry battalions which make these units excess to need. They occasionally acknowledge the reduction in 16 howitzer batteries is offset by 14 new rocket artillery battalions, but imply the rockets are only useful in naval campaigns and not combat operations ashore.[lxxi]
Beyond its organic capabilities, a force-in-readiness must be ready to perform any other duties that the President may direct with little notice. As conceived by the Marine Corps, the force-in-readiness must therefore be like an organizational Swiss army knife, able to quickly change its form and capabilities to perform any task assigned. The Swiss Army knife versatility of the Marine Corps comes in the form of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force construct that allows rapid, efficient task organization for any assigned mission. Just as today, Force Design 2030 retains the MAGTF construct, with the MEF as its primary warfighting organization and the MEU as its primary forward operating crisis response force.
Finally, a force in readiness needs to be, well, ready. General Berger emphasizes the need for the Corps of today and tomorrow to be ready for any challenge, like every Commandant before him. Not just ready to deploy or get out of garrison, but ready to respond to aggression in a world in which we face peer threats, not the past threats of the Unipolar era over which we enjoyed a decided combat overmatch. It seems unlikely that the 2030 Commandant will be any different. And in any event, arguing over what the state of readiness of the Marine Corps in 2030 is a fruitless endeavor.
To further buttress their case that Force Design 2030 will result in a debilitated force-in-readiness, the grandparents make two supporting arguments:
Force Design 2030 is betting all on a conflict with China in the Western Pacific, which “risks turning the Marine Corps into a niche force optimized for one conflict that is unlikely to occur, while hobbling its ability to meet security challenges that are certain.”[lxxii]
The law tasks the Marine Corps to be organized, trained and equipped to provide fleet marine forces of combined arms “for the conduct of such land operations as may be essential to the prosecution of a naval campaign.”[lxxiii] That’s exactly what Force Design 2030 aims for. So this complaint rests on the observation that the military’s poor record of predicting the next war argues for maintaining flexibility and not over-focusing on a singular threat or contingency.[lxxiv] If this poor record were not enough, the grandparents point to the Commandant’s apparent utter disregard for other potential future threats when he writes:
We will build one force — optimized for naval expeditionary warfare in contested spaces, purpose-built to facilitate sea denial and assured access in support of the fleets. That single purpose-built future force will be applied against other challenges across the globe; however, we will not seek to hedge or balance our investments to account for those contingencies (emphasis added).[lxxv]
It’s highly unlikely that General Berger would dispute the military’s poor record of predicting the next war. But he would certainly, and does, argue the Marines must provide what the Department of Defense asks of them. The National Defense Strategy and Defense Planning Guidance are the authoritative documents in this regard, and they tell the Marine Corps (and all the services) that China is the pacing threat, and that they need to be ready to win a war with China if one comes. The Office of the Secretary of Defense has defined those priorities, assessed the risk to other tasks, and allocated resources in line with this direction. Accordingly, Navy and Marine Corps concepts aim to help develop war-winning capabilities if conflict with China breaks. Force Design 2030 is consistent with both the highest guidance and these concepts. This explains why successive Secretaries of the Navy and Secretaries of Defense have approved Force Design 2030, as has Congress in both the FY 2021 and FY 2022 defense authorizations and appropriations.
Moreover, the claim that General Berger will not seek to hedge or balance investments to account for contingencies beyond naval expeditionary warfare in contested spaces is an overly restrictive description of the Commandant’s thinking. He argues that while FD 2030 will be applied to problems and conflicts globally, it cannot afford to build multiple forces optimized for specific contingencies like arctic warfare, urban warfare and desert warfare. The future Marine Corps would be able to “execute the complex mission defined by our emerging concepts…in any potential theater.”[lxxvi]
And in any event, the grandparents’ argument is a straw man. It reflects either a misapprehension of Force Design 2030 or a willful mischaracterization of it. Berger is designing a force able to fight, survive and win in mature precision strike regime. This criterion is both theater and threat agnostic, and hardly seems a recipe for a less flexible force in readiness. Indeed, in a recent Congressional hearing, when Representative Mike Gallagher (R, WI) asked General Todd Wolters, current Commander of U.S. European Command, how the changes being contemplated by the Marine Corps might affect his future options, General Wolters said they would “dramatically enhance” them.
A second concern closely related to the degradation of the force-in-readiness role is “By eliminating tanks and gutting infantry, artillery and aviation, [FD 2030] severely degrades the Marine Corps’ ability to conduct combined arms warfare.”[lxxvii]
Warfighting, Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication One (MCDP-1), is the capstone Marine Corps doctrinal publication. It defines combined arms “as the full integration of arms in such a way that to counteract one, the enemy must become more vulnerable to another.” The intent is to “pose the enemy not just with a problem, but with a dilemma–a no win situation.”[lxxviii]
The grandparents’ assertion that the three main components of combined arms are infantry, tanks and artillery is thus not only doctrinally incorrect, it fails to consider that the precision strike regime and new types of arms have rendered that type of combined arms warfare subordinate to multi-domain warfare, where rocket and cannon artillery, organic precision weapons, loitering munitions and drone attacks, cyber strikes, and electronic attack will provide commanders at every echelon with more, and more varied, arms to pose dilemmas for future foes. Far from degrading the Marine Corps’ ability to conduct combined arms warfare, Force Design 2030 will dramatically enhance its ability to employ combined arms against peer competitors and not just Third World actors and failed states.
The opponents’ response is that this type of wishful thinking demonstrates that Berger and his future Marine Corps adopt “the techno-centric view of push button warfare at long range,” rejecting the Corps’ longstanding “more visceral” view that war will be “brutal, dirty, chaotic, bloody, often at close range–and deeply human.”[lxxix] This smear is ironically all at odds with the grandparents’ own 1990s vision of the Corps’ major warfighting priorities: the extremely expensive standoff capabilities of F-35, the MV-22 and the debacle of the $3B water-skiing Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. The implication now being, of course, that Force Design 2030’s emphasis on long-range lethality will debilitate all Marines and make them less capable warriors.
This negative view of technology is counter to Marine Corps doctrine. As said in MCDP-1, Warfighting:
One major catalyst of change is the advancement of technology. As the hardware of war improves through technological development, so must the tactical, operational, and strategic usage to its improved capabilities both to maximize our own capabilities and to counteract our enemy’s.[lxxx]
Indeed, a strong case can be made the “visceral school” prevented the Corps from making just the type of changes championed in Force Design 2030 that the Marine Corps first experimented with in the late 1990s in a series of experiments called Hunter Warrior. Then, as now, the argument that killing enemies from a distance somehow diminished Marines was used to prevent the experiments from leading to any substantive change.[lxxxi]Said another way, this type of backward thinking lost the Marine Corps 20 years of time to make the changes that advances in technology called for.
In any event, before making such a smear, the grandparents would do well to remember what their own parents had to say on the subject. In “Club and Knife Fighting,” the Marine Corps’ basic World War II hand-to-hand fighting film, the very first thing that young Marines getting ready to storm fortified beaches are told is, “to kill your enemy from as great a distance as possible is good sense–and basic to Marine Corps tactics (emphasis mine).”[lxxxii] Perhaps the grandparents should heed this timeless advice and not worry so much over the grit and warfighting prowess of future Marines.
Force Design 2030: Threat or Opportunity?
Force Design 2030 will result in a Marine Corps unlike any in the past. The question is, have the grandparents made a compelling case that it will harm the Marine Corps? Will Force Design 2030 be hobbled by an unwise fixation on maritime campaigning against the People’s Republic of China? Will it be incapable of conducting combined arms operations, or fulfilling its longstanding force-in-readiness role?
Stated differently: Do the changes being pursued by General Berger constitute a threat to the Marine Corp, or the means for it to be ready for a far more hostile international security environment and more lethal battlefields?
The true answer to these questions is we cannot know for sure. We are talking about the future, which is obscured by a fog of uncertainty, and judgments about future risk are always difficult to adjudge. While the grandparents assert that allowing the Commandant to proceed is just too risky for the child and must be stopped before it is irrevocably harmed, there is arguably more risk associated with complacency and relying on legacy capabilities than there is with adopting new concepts and capabilities. Indeed, it seems to me the arguments put forth by the grandparents reflect more than mere complacency; they suggest a willful blindness about the discontinuities that are driving the Commandant to pursue urgent change. The grandparents fault almost every decision made by Gen Berger while failing to acknowledge the changing security environment, including technology diffusion and the rise of peer competition. Most importantly, they offer no real alternative other than standing pat. Their lack of foresight or recognition of evidence from contemporary conflict is startling, and at odds with the distinguished history of the Marine Corps, derived from its ethos of anticipatory adaptation to the changing character of war.
So, the last and most pressing question is: is there enough evidence for Congress to intervene and prevent the Commandant of the Marine Corps from pursuing the future he foresees? The answer to that is a resounding no. Congress should continue to endorse Force Design 2030 and support the Commandant’s plans, as they have already done.
Robert O. Work spent 27 years on active duty as a Marine artillery and MAGTF officer. He is a former Undersecretary of the Navy and Chief Executive Officer of the Center for a New American Security. He served as the Deputy Secretary of Defense alongside three Secretaries of Defense spanning both the Obama and Trump administrations.
[i] U.S. Marine Corps, Warfighting, Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication One (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy, 20 June 1997), p. 17.
[ii] David H. Berger, General, USMC, Commandant of the Marine Corps, Force Design 2030, March 2020, at https://www.hqmc.marines.mil/Portals/142/Docs/CMC38%20Force%20Design%202030%20Report%20Phase%20I%20and%20II.pdf?ver=2020-03-26-121328-460, p. 2.
[iii] See Paul McLeary and Lee Hudson, “How two dozen retired generals are trying to stop an overhaul of the Marines,” Politico, at https://www.politico.com/news/2022/04/01/corps-detat-how-two-dozen-retired-generals-are-trying-to-stop-an-overhaul-of-the-marines-00022446
[iv] General Tony Zinni, USMC, retired, “Retired General Officer Outreach,” an open letter to Congress, undated.
[v] Parenthood in America, “The Battle for the Best Interests of the Grandchild,” at https://parenthood.library.wisc.edu/Newton/Newton.html.
[vi] General David H. Berger, 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps, Commandant’s Planning Guidance, at https://www.hqmc.marines.mil/Portals/142/Docs/%2038th%20Commandant%27s%20Planning%20Guidance_2019.pdf?ver=2019-07-16-200152-700, p. 1.
[vii] Ibid., p.1.
[viii] CPG, p. 2.
[ix] Combat Development and Integration (CD&I) Force Development System Overview, at https://www.mccdc.marines.mil/About/What-we-do/CD-I-Overview/.
[x] CPG, p. 3.
[xi] CPG, p. 9.
[xii] FD 2030, p. 3.
[xiii] CPG, p. 12.
[xv] CPG, p. 3.
[xvi] CPG, p. 12.
[xvii] CPG, p. 11.
[xviii] CPG, p. 12.
[xx] Force Design 2030, Annual Update, April 2022, p. 2.
[xxi] CPG, P. 2.
[xxii] CPG, p. 4.
[xxiii] CPG, p. 5.
[xxiv] CPG, p. 3.
[xxv] CPG, p. 14.
[xxvi] CPG, p. 3.
[xxvii] CPG, p. 4.
[xxviii] CPG, p. 2.
[xxix] CPG, p. 15.
[xxx] CPG, pp.13-15.
[xxxi] FD 2030, p. 11.
[xxxii] Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Defense, 2018), p. 11.
[xxxiii] CPG, pp. 11-12.
[xxxiv] Michael Howard, “Military Science in an Age of Peace,” Journal of the Royal United Services Institute Vol. 119, No. 1 (March 1974), p. 4.
[xxxv] CPG, p. 18.
[xxxvi] Williamson Murray and Allan Millett, eds, Innovation in the Interwar Period (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 410.
[xxxvii] FD 2030, p. 3
[xxxviii] TMEABO, p. A-9.
[xxxix] FD 2030, p. 10.
[xl] FD 2030, p. 8.
[xli] TMEABO, p. A-8.
[xlii] FD 2030, p. 9.
[xliii] CPG, p. 13.
[xlvi] FD 2030, p. 8.
[xlix] FD 2030, p. 10.
[l] FD 2030, p. 7.
[li] FD 2030, p. 7.
[lii] FD 2030, p. 8.
[liii] FD 2030, p. 7.
[liv] FD 2030, pp. 7-8.
[lv] FD 2030, p. 11.
[lvi] Gen David H. Berger, “The Case for Change,” Marine Corps Gazette, June 2020, p. 12.
[lvii] Gen David H. Berger, Force Design 2030: Annual Update, April 2021, p. 3.
[lviii] “Navy Marine Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System (NMESIS), US,” at https://www.naval-technology.com/projects/navy-marine-expeditionary-ship-interdiction-system-nmesis-us/.
[lix] Jim Webb, “Momentous Changes in the US Marine Corps’ Force Organization Deserve Debate,” Wall Street Journal Opinion. March 25, 2022.
[lxii] General Tony Zinni, USMC, retired, “Retired General Officer Outreach.”
[lxiii] Conversation between the author and former Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist. April 8, 2022.
[lxiv] Webb, “Momentous Changes in the US Marine Corps’ Force Organization Deserve Debate.”
[lxv] Mathew Rohlfing, Jonathan Frerichs, and Mark Nostro, “To Be Most Ready When the Nation is Least Ready, the Marines Need a New Headquarters,” War on the Rocks, at https://warontherocks.com/2020/01/to-be-most-ready-when-the-nation-is-least-ready-the-marines-need-a-new-headquarters/.
[lxvi] Zinni, USMC, retired, “Retired General Officer Outreach.”
[lxx] Zinni, USMC, retired, “Retired General Officer Outreach.”
[lxxi] Webb, “Momentous Changes in the US Marine Corps’ Force Organization Deserve Debate.”
[lxxii] Gen. Jack Sheehan, Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro and Joshua Muravchik,” Wasteful Spending, a Shrinking Force and the Marine Corp’s Big Bet,” Wall Street Journal, 10 March 2022, at https://www.wsj.com/articles/usmc-marine-corps-military-spending-defense-tanks-shrinking-force-buildup-sheehan-punaro-muravchik-11646868181.
[lxxiii] “Title 10, U.S. Code, Section 5063. United States Marine Corps: composition; functions.”
[lxxiv] Sheehan, Punaro and Muravchik,” Wasteful Spending, a Shrinking Force and the Marine Corp’s Big Bet.”
[lxxv] CPG, p. 5.
[lxxvi] Gen David H. Berger, Force Design 2030: Annual Update, April 2022, p. 2.
[lxxvii] John F. Schmitt, “The Marines are Marching toward Irrelevance,” National Review Plus, April 2, 2022, at https://www.nationalreview.com/2022/04/the-marines-are-marching-toward-irrelevance/.
[lxxviii] U.S. Marine Corps, Warfighting, p. 94.
[lxxix] Schmitt, “The Marines are Marching toward Irrelevance.”
[lxxx] U.S. Marine Corps, Warfighting, p. 17.
[lxxxi] Maj John F. Schmitt, USMCR, “A Critique of the HUNTER WARRIOR Concept,” Marine Corps Association, June 1, 1998, at https://mca-marines.org/blog/gazette/a-critique-of-the-hunter-warrior-concept/.
[lxxxii] “Club and Knife Fighting,” U.S. Marine Corps Training Film, found at https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwijkrbNqsH3AhWDpnIEHbIRAwYQtwJ6BAgLEAI&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DqpzwAMP7C54&usg=AOvVaw27t6g-mf296CB1K8bq8PQ8.