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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

Zombie Ideas Could Doom the Marine Corps’ Future

Robert Work is the Rick Grimes of U.S. Marine Corps force design, forever blazing away at faulty ideas.

A Marine with Company G, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response – Central Command, fires an AT4 antitank rocket launcher in the Central Command area of operations, March 23, 2015. The 2/7 Marines participated in a range that tests their ability to conduct an integrated combined arms assault against a simulated enemy position. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Will Perkins/Released)

Robert Work is the Rick Grimes of U.S. Marine Corps force design, forever blazing away at faulty ideas. Victories in such an endeavor are uncertain and impermanent. Some bad ideas are like the walking corpses that hounded Rick and his ragtag band of survivors after the zombie apocalypse. No matter how many times you gun them down, ten, a hundred, or a thousand more just like them come shambling toward you. Eventually you run out of ammo, and they overrun you. 

Like the walking dead, bad ideas can carry the day. They win when their purveyors repeat them so incessantly that weary defenders throw up their hands in despair, or when witnesses to the debate conclude there must be something to the ghoulish ideas because they are so often expressed. 

Call it an inhuman-wave assault, one meant to drown out sound ideas rather than defeat them. 

Over at War on the Rocks last week, Work, a retired U.S. Marine colonel who also served as undersecretary of the navy and deputy defense secretary, replied again to undead assertions from a group of retired generals and senior officials. Last year around this time, the retirees in question took to inveighing against Force Design 2030, Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger’s scheme to retool the Marine Corps to wage island warfare as an adjunct to navy fleet operations. The uproar quieted for a time after Work and some of his trusty sidekicks pushed back, but it surged anew this spring. 

The title of Work’s recent WOTR piece, which is an excerpt, proclaims that, “The opponents of Marine reform have lost, but won’t move on.” (The full article is available under a more anodyne title at Texas National Security Review. Read the whole thing.) 


A Change in Course for the Marine Corps

Force Design 2030 marks the U.S. Marines’ turn back to the sea after two decades of ground combat against insurgents and terrorists. The change has not set well with some 20 retirees, a who’s-who of Marine luminaries who cast themselves as intellectual descendants of past Marine Corps defenders. “Berger’s opponents,” Work writes, “refer to themselves as ‘Chowder II,’ a reference to the original ‘Chowder Society’ formed in 1946 to fight efforts to limit the post-war role of the U.S. Marine Corps — if not eliminate it entirely.” 

The line of descent from the Chowder Society is crooked at best. Observes Work, “The original Chowder Society was fighting against external attacks on the Marine Corps that were being made by the U.S. Army, Defense Department leadership, and the Truman administration” (his emphasis). 

As Work noted in his first broadside in this debate, which appeared in these pixels a year ago this week, an internal rebellion against Marine Corps policy is unprecedented in the institution’s annals. Work likened Force Design 2030 critics to grandparents asserting custody of their grandchild, usurping the authority of parents and legal guardians in the process. In effect, Chowder II claimed that Gen. Berger had done an end-run around Congress to commence an ill-considered effort to modify the Marine Corps’ force structure. They demanded the effort come to a halt while Congress held hearings. 

This was a transparent effort to mire Force Design 2030 in the legislative process. Never mind that Congress has gone along with the redesign initiative since its inception. Berger is not some service chief gone rogue. 

Like past entries, Robert Work’s new TNSR essay is a blow-by-blow refutation of the criticisms lofted Berger’s way from Chowderites. Apropos of nothing, I have to congratulate Work on the gentlemanly tone he takes. It stands in contrast to the caustic tone of the Force Design 2030 critiques. He dubs the Chowder II crew “Chowderites.” A less collegial nickname occurred to this loyal son of New England. 

Policy and Personnel

The critiques from Chowder II are vague. They are emotional in tone and often plain wrong on the facts. Work’s reply, on the other hand, is empirical and damning. Rather than reprise Work’s article, which speaks for itself, I would venture to guess why we are hearing a crescendo of complaints now. My guess is this: It is because Gen. Berger’s four-year tenure as commandant is almost up, and rumor has it the commandant is among the leading candidates for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — America’s top uniformed military post. 

Casting aspersions on Force Design 2030, Berger’s signature force-planning initiative, could be useful from the Chowderites’ standpoint. For one thing, raising a ruckus could discourage the White House from nominating a like-minded successor. It could even discourage a like-minded commandant from forging ahead with the effort. Either would suit Chowderites just fine. For another, new controversy could damage Berger’s candidacy for Joint Chiefs chairman. Caricaturing him as a renegade could undercut his support in the U.S. Senate, which must confirm his appointment if he is nominated by the White House. Denying Berger the chairman’s seat, where he would remain in position to shape the Marine Corps’ future, likely ranks atop Chowderites’ to-do list. 

People are policy. Force Design 2030 could go forward if another true believer succeeds Berger, if Berger wins appointment to the chairmanship, or both. That is the doomsday scenario for Chowder II. The effort could perish if he’s forced into retirement and if criticism cows the next commandant into backing down. That’s the best-case outcome for Force Design 2030’s critics. Chowderites have released the zombie horde again in hopes of reshaping the personnel battlespace at a critical time, or so I surmise. 

Lock and load, friends of Berger. 

Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation & Future Warfare, Marine Corps University. The views voiced here are his alone. 

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”



  1. Jacksonian Libertarian

    May 15, 2023 at 5:27 pm

    Gen. Berger should be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he is by far the most adaptable to the realities of the Information Age smart weapons, and the other services are in desperate need of his skill. These fossils are going to get our troops killed by the thousands because they are living in the past.

    Never in the history of the evolution of weapons has such a huge divide in Combat Power occurred between one generation and an other, and in such a short period of time. The gulf in Combat Power between Industrial Age dumb weapons and Information Age smart weapons is on the order of 500 to 1. Most of the leading lights of the Industrial Age Order of Battle have become obsolete, only fit to fight against backward 3rd world hellholes.

    There is a common saying that “Generals are always preparing to fight the last war”. This is just a recognition that Generals are conservative and cannot agree on anything except the past. But this is not a virtue, but a strategic blunder when weapons have made such huge advances and require an entirely new doctrine to use.

    The Pentagon is buying the wrong weapons, and paying insane amounts for them.

    I will venture to say that every one of Gen. Berger’s critics predicted Russia would overwhelm Ukraine in a matter of days, based solely on their 3 to 1 advantage in men and material. Some of us were saying the Russian’s were a paper tiger, and the few thousand ATGM’s and Manpads the West had provided Ukraine were going to slaughter the Russians, and we were right.

    Combat Power rule of thumb: 1 smart weapon = 500 dumb weapons

    The unmanned battlefield is here. It will only take “off the shelf” engineering to produce the weapons. The low tech poorest nation in Europe Ukraine is leading the way with improvised UAV’s, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Remote controlled androids, small (cigar sized) “Ex-Wife” style anti-personnel/anti-material smart weapons, cheap long range attritable UAV’s, etc. are the future of warfare.

    The people that adapt to the new way of war the fastest, will dominate the battlefield.

  2. Commentar

    May 15, 2023 at 7:54 pm

    USMC could well go the way of the dodo if someone like Biden decides to use it for reckless adventures.

    Reckless adventures are the domain of the CIA not marines. Or maybe the special forces.

    But does Biden know that.

    Marines are good only when the enemy or the target has been thoroughly bashed by B-52s and not before.

    But obviously, people in biden’s age-class wouldn’t have a clue.

    Thus to protect the very future of marines, the US public must get rid of Joe Biden and company.

    Joe Biden, hunter, James, Hallie and Nancy pelosi.

  3. Duane

    May 16, 2023 at 6:44 am

    The military bureaucratic leadership is always lethargic and completely resistant to change of any kind … and is usually dedicated to fighting the last war, not the next war, because they only war they have experience in is the last war where they earned their stars.

    This is nothing new – the career field grade and senior officers of the US Army insisted on fighting the Indian wars of the latter years of the 19th century like they fought each other during the Civil War – massed battles of like sized forces, toe to toe, volley to volley. Multiple massacres from Fetterman to Custer proved that what worked before didn’t necessarily work against a different foe in different circumstances. Similarly, the senior military leadership of western allies like France thought the next war would be just like the Great War, with static trench warfare and immobile armies … but Germany’s Wehrmacht proved otherwise with their “blitzkrieg” lightning fast motorized mobile forces that simply bypassed fortifications, or else landed paratroopers on top of the forts and took them from above.

    Berger is to be commended for trying to prepare for the next war, not the recent little land wars in the hell holes of the middle east, where the opponents rode camels and had nothing but AK-47s, RPG-7s and IEDs to fight with. And also, bravo to Berger to recognize that the reason for being of the marines is to fight in the littorals, not in the middle of a desert 800 miles from the ocean. The Army can handle that stuff fine.

  4. David Chang

    May 16, 2023 at 10:14 am

    God bless people in the world.

    The 1957 U.S. nuclear policy report, which concluded that the United States must maintain sufficient nuclear weapons and sufficient conventional troops to counter socialism wars made by atheism parties in the world. It’s for the final war.

    With simple words, Dr. Holmes thinks that the Navy should have the correct policy and strategy, but the Democratic Party opposes correct thought. Democratic Party believes socialism and evolution, so Democratic Party promotes progressive and calls correct thought obsolete, Democratic Party is the same as Communist Party.

    But war is caused by politics, the Marine Corps and the Navy should not argue about Force Design 2030, but should discuss that the atheism party will destroy the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.

    As the current debate on the naval budget, the Democratic Party opposes the correct naval strategy thoughts: protecting commercial shipping lines, defending the country’s strategy locations, and guarding the supply ports established by the U.S. with the consent of foreign countries. The strategy of the Democratic Party is the same as the Communist Party and the Nazis. They all make total war, and their thought origin is the atheism philosophy. Clausewitz’s strategy is total war from Immanuel Kant. “one would have to mean by it that it is quite right if human beings so disposed destroy one another and thus find perpetual peace in the vast grave that covers all the horrors of violence along with their authors.”

    Liddell Hart learned from Clausewitz and wrote the British version of war theory, so Liddell Hart wrote the German atheism philosophy theory to the British military theory. His indirect approach is not only attacking the logistics, but also incite to attack the enemy’s industrial cities, mines and commercial cities. He believes that attacking the enemy’s weaknesses will make the enemy surrender, but doing so just makes the war to be total war, because people want to win.

    Therefore, we should think about the correct theory of sea power again, and whether the correct theory of sea power is the theory of the China People’s Liberation Army for occupying the South China Sea. So we would understand the wrong thought of the Democratic Party with considering the political problems implicit in the correct theory of sea power carefully.

    With Simple words, because the Democratic Party’s policy is ordering the U.S. Navy to prepare for coastal war, but to conceal this policy, the Democratic Party ordering the Navy and Marine Corps to accept this war plan without sufficient budget.

    Then we would know the tactics of the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party proposed the offset strategy in 1970, copied the military affairs revolution proposed by socialism Russia in 1980, and announced the total war plan for two large battlefields in 1997. Because the strategy thought of Democratic Party is the same as Communist Party, none of the offset, balance, rebalance, or NGAD can prevent the United States from falling into total war.

    However, the Democratic Party and the Communist Party promote total war and anti-war at the same time. This is our history. So I hope that the Marine Corps would oppose the total war first, prevent the United States from being attacked by nuclear weapons before final war, and pray to God, then oppose the wrong defense budget announced by the Democratic Party with correct strategy and tactics theory, such as the dilemma of the socialism warfare in Ukraine.

    God bless America.

  5. HAT451

    May 16, 2023 at 2:55 pm

    We need both, smart ordinance, as well as dumb ordinance in sufficient quantities to sustain low intensity conflicts, operations other then war, as well as kinetic operations similar in size and duration as the current Russia-Ukraine conflict.

    This means we have to rely on old proven technology, while developing new systems. Unfortunately, the only way to really test something new is in battle. If the foundational analysis of the new technology is solid, and it is effective, it needs to be expanded. If not, it needs to be either canceled, archived, or redesigned.

    Unfortunately, this is very expensive in dollars and time. But if the dollars and time is not invested up front right now, then the billpayer will be excessive battlefield KIA and WIA.

  6. David Chang

    May 16, 2023 at 3:05 pm

    God bless people in the world.

    Mr. Robert Work does not tell the China civil war policy of Democratic Party. This policy should not be classified, but the Democratic Party never talks about it in public.

    When the China Communist Party declared Taiwan Province of the Republic of China to be A2/AD, some U.S. naval operation officers began discussing naval operation in the Western Pacific and discussing the strategy and tactics of operation in this region. At this time, there is no Marine Corps involved in the discussion, because the first stage of the defense of Taiwan Province is the naval battle and an air battle, and the location of the decisive battlefield is from Okinawa to Guam. The mission of the Marine Corps should be the second stage.

    In the Tightening the Chain published in 2019, CSBA says “The Marine Corps Operating Concept (MOC) provides a framework for how the Marine Corps and Navy team will organize, train, fight, and win in future conflicts. Within the MOC framework, subordinate operating concepts include Littoral Operations in Contested Environments and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations. These subordinate concepts emphasize using hard-to-target forward bases, a wider range of maritime platforms, cross-domain fires, distributable units, and lighter and more agile forces for offensive operations in support of sea control. ”

    But in the Force Design 2030 published in 2020, the USN says “The most logical way to approach divestment is to take a systems perspective and reduce infantry battalions while proportionally reducing the organizations dedicated to supporting these battalions- direct support artillery, ground mobility assets, assault support aviation, light attack aviation, and combat service support capabilities whose capacity is similarly related to the size of the ground and air combat elements to be supported.” “We must acknowledge the impacts of proliferated precision long-range fires, mines, and other smart weapons, and seek innovative ways to overcome these threat capabilities.”

    So USMC became the vanguard without the necessary fire support, while the Navy fleet became the rearguard. Therefore, the retired Generals of USMC say that marines should have the necessary heavy weapons.

    If the Democratic Party thinks that the necessary heavy weapons could be replaced by the artillery and missiles of the CVBG, it should be after the CVBG achieves air superiority over Taiwan Province.

    If the Democratic Party thinks Taiwan Province of the Republic of China is a prepositioned stock place for USMC, the Democratic Party should ask the House to restore MUTUAL DEFENSE TREATY BETWEEN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA AND THE REPUBLIC OF CHINA. But in doing so the United States declared participation in the civil war of the Republic of China.  

    Therefore, we should not put USMC in an avoidable danger. If USMC falls into this danger, it will put the CVBG in major danger. So A2/Ad is a trap, the defensive battlefields of CVBG shall be from Okinawa to Guam, but the Democratic Party should not exaggerate the strategy importance of Taiwan Province of the Republic of China.

    God bless America.

  7. David Chang

    May 17, 2023 at 2:07 pm

    God bless people in the world.

    Every time I see people say a specific thing is a revolution, I always think of the philosophy education that the Communist Party propagates to the Asia people. The Communist Party says that Einstein’s quantum theory is a scientific revolution, It is a new science to overthrow the laws of gravity.

    The vast majority of Asia people believe the Communist Party’s policy, and laugh at Newton’s theory of gravity, worship Einstein, so quantum  is a buzzword. But they don’t understand the engineering calculations and causality of quantum theory. They only believe new people, new things, like a brave new world.

    The Democratic Party is promoting the same wrong thought as the Communist Party to the people in the United States, teaching the people to like the new and doppose the old, which they call democratic progress, such as UAV is a symbol of democracy.

    There are new tactics promoted in the U.S. naval community recently, so I think of the Line of battle, Enfilade and defilade, Raking fire, capping the T, and circular formation.

    The U.S. Navy study the relationship of AAW, ASW, and ASuW seriously, or called tactical logic, for decades. CVBG battle is as usual. CVBG decisive battle is like cavalry charges hundreds of years ago. Think of CVBG as cavalry, missile as extension of spear, lance, or arrow, and submarines as underground traps.

    As military principles, CVBG’s tactic of ASuW, whether ancient or future, are going on salvo as basic. However, the SSG and FSG decided by the Navy for DMO are not the circular formation, but the arrow formation.

    CVBG’s circular formation and FSG’s arrow formation are two of eight combat formations that accustomed by China and Japan military. China people call the Eightfold Battle Formation, and Yamaga Sokō wrote the Eight Battle Formations in his book”Bukyouzensho”. So I think there shall be same formations in the U.S. civil war.

    Although we always make new models of weapons, we always combat by military principles and physics laws on the land, in the sea, in the sky and space.

    God bless America.

  8. Tamerlane

    May 17, 2023 at 6:33 pm

    Tangential observation here—somewhat removed from the singular question re: Marine Corps reorganization:

    In my opinion as a mustang field grade officer who has served from junior enlisted up through NCO before making that leap, virtually every single general officer within the armed forces should be sacked, and most of the senior 06s. They have utterly failed in their combined effort to prevail and achieve combat and strategic victory in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya etc for the past 25 years. These generals and senior leaders are not inherently conservative, they are inherently political sycophants, and having served under a wide array of them, I would sack the lot of them if given the opportunity.

  9. William Tate

    May 18, 2023 at 11:06 am

    The Commandant is clearly over the target. Robert Work’s lengthy and detailed essay in TNSR was long on facts and yielded a continuous series of body blows against the Chowder II acolytes vague assertions of pending doom.

  10. Lawrence Moran

    May 26, 2023 at 6:20 pm

    @Tamerlane. Sir, as a veteran that served in the U.S. Army of the 1960’s, and a student of Military History and current affairs, and Geopolitics. I agree with you regarding the U.S. Military Senior officers in all of the U.S. Armed Forces. They have often put their allegiance to their individual services first, rather than to what is best for the country they serve. They all have their “prestige weapons”, that they think bolster the importance of their services. The Navy with its fixation for huge floating targets known as Super Carriers. Further, I have to wonder what geniuses thought the failed “Littoral frigates” were a great idea, and I continue to become VERY emotional about the way the Zumwalt destroyer class was mishandled. You design a ship around a weapons system that is TOO expensive to use? The U.S. Air Force dominated by fighter jet jockeys, that go crazy at the idea of designing and fielding ground support aircraft like the excellent A-10. But have a “fit” when the U.S. Army campaigns for their own close support aircraft. Mr. Work, and Mr. Holmes seem to feel that General Berger, is the “Billy Mitchel” of today. Talk about fighting the last war. It seems to me that’s exactly what General Berger envisions in designing the new U.S. Marine Corp. Fighting from island to island? Marines fighting the Chinese the way they fought the Japanese in WWII? This sounds totally crazy to me. Why in the world would anyone want to take, or retake artificial islands that the Chinese have fabricated? Destroy their supply lines, isolate them, and target them from afar. No need to have Marines charging over sandy beaches or doing aerial assaults. I’m confused as to what General Berger’s vision is. If it is to use long range missiles to defeat the enemy. Then why do the Marines have to step foot on any devastated islands? Who wants to occupy a bunch of artificial islands? In my opinion, the only landings the Marines would have to make. Is to recover territories owned by U.S. allies like the Philippines etc. If History is a lesson, than the WWII tactic of by passing unimportant enemy held islands, and leaving the enemy occupying them to “wither on the vine.”, is the best tactic. Someone said, battles and wars are won by the side that sucks the least. To my mind, the U.S. Military command political sycophants are just as egotistical and arrogant as the leaders of Western Militaries of the past That made huge blunders and sacrificed hundreds of thousands of troops due to incompetence and hubris.

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