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The War Against Force Design 2030 Is Hurting the Marine Corps

Chowder II can either participate productively to improve Force Design, or it can continue to undermine the institution its members proudly served.

M777 Howitzers. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
U.S. Marines with Golf Battery, 2d Battalion, 11th Marines, currently attached to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, and Australian Defence Forces with 109th Battery, 4th Regiment, fire an M777 155 mm Howitzer during Exercise Talisman Sabre 21 on Shoalwater Bay Training Area, Queensland, Australia, July 17, 2021. Australian and U.S. Forces combine biennually for Talisman Sabre, a month-long multi-domain exercise that strengthens allied and partner capabilities to respond to the full range of Indo-Pacific security concerts. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Ujian Gosun)

Since former Commandant General David Berger unveiled Force Design 2030 (FD2030) just over four years ago, the Marine Corps has undergone immense change to prepare for a war in the Pacific against a peer competitor.  Force Design posits that at least a portion of the Marine Corps needs to be optimized to fight from small, distributed bases inside the First Island Chain. This has knock-on effects throughout the “man, train, and equip” responsibilities of the Corps. 

While certain communities within the service took umbrage at aspects of FD2030, the reaction of active-duty Marines appears largely positive. But one group of Marines has united in opposition to FD2030—a group of retired senior Marine leaders. This chorus of retired GOs has adopted the nom-de-plume, or perhaps, nom-de-guerre, “Chowder II.” They have loudly and publicly denounced Force Design as gelding the Corps by de-emphasizing Marine Air Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs), the construct under which most of the Corps’ combat forces are organized. 

Chowder II counts several prominent general officers as members, including former Commandants Amos, Conway, and Krulak. While whatever private counsel they provided behind closed doors is purely their business as officers and gentlemen, the discord their public pronouncements have created is not.  

Disagreement is not the problem—in a perfect world, this dissent would be a part of the “campaign of learning” within Force Design. Had this been constrained to debates at wonky DC think tanks or the pages of Marine Corps Gazette and Proceedings, this would just be professional discourse. But their public campaign has taken this past the point of respectful disagreement into the realm of undermining a commander. Regardless of the merits of Chowder II’s objections, the way in which these arguments are  being presented can only undermine good order and discipline and the long-term health of the Corps.  

Chowder II and its members have taken their campaign to the mass market press in venues such as Newsweek and The Hill. They post regularly on a Substack account called “Marine Corps Compass Points,” which presents a daily feed of essays condemning FD2030, often featuring unusual allegories relating combined arms to golf, eating at diners, and other activities designed to appeal to younger officers. They have appealed directly to Congress, achieving at least one win — the latest NDAA requires an independent review of FD2030. What could have been a civil and professional debate is now a chaotic food fight detrimental to the image of the Marine Corps in the eyes of both the public and civilian leadership.

This public dissent is another example of the continuing breakdown of norms in American society in general and national leadership in particular. Despite insisting it holds higher standards of conduct and decorum than civilian society,  the Corps is starting to prove that it shares some of the same problems. The military as an institution has shown this degradation for a while. For example, we now routinely see open letters from various groups of senior officers taking positions in elections and partisan issues. Chowder II’s activism is another step towards the degradation of these norms, with dire consequences to the culture of the service that will degrade its effectiveness far more than any misfire in FD2030. 

The Corps as an institution has an obligation to take strong steps to re-establish standards of conduct amongst retired general officers. Debate over potential courses of action is healthy, but Marines of all ranks are supposed to know that once a leader has decided on a course of action, all hands are supposed to stop arguing and start executing the commander’s intent.

Chowder II’s ongoing campaign to undermine FD2030 has transformed its function from discussion to disruption. To understand the difference, look at the group’s namesake, Brute’s Chowder Society.

Different kinds of Chowder

Most discussions of chowder begin with “Manhattan or New England?” In this case, the original Chowder recipe was not cooked up to contradict the Commandant or other senior uniformed leader. Instead, it was a small cell led by then active duty Lieutenant Colonel “Brute” Krulak and acted on the behalf of Commandant General Vandegrift to support his vision of the Corps. This was needed because the Commandant’s faced fierce anti-Marine sentiment within both the Executive and Legislative Branches.

After World War II, the Marine Corps faced demotion to a small naval constabulary force and possibly dissolution. Brute’s Chowder Society provided the analysis, rhetoric, and behind-the-scenes lobbying that helped save the Corps through a legislative mandate in the National Security Act of 1947. 

Today, Chowder II members and devotees claim that distinguished mantle to, in their view, save the Corps by opposing the Commandant. They misappropriate Brute Krulak’s legacy, claiming that Force Design 2030, though endorsed by two Commandants, represents the death of the Marine Corps. Casting the Commandant as the enemy of his own Corps is the inverse, not the reincarnation, of the Chowder legacy.

The rhetorical battle

Are some of Chowder II’s criticisms valid? Almost certainly. The Marine Corps’ reversal of several of its FD2030 initiatives, such as dramatic cuts in V-22 and H-1 squadrons, is indicative of the willingness of current Marine Corps leadership to adjust plans as events dictate.

The current Commandant has no obligation to consult retired senior officers. He seeks the counsel of his predecessors out of decorum, tradition, or to simply get a different perspective, but he is in no way obligated to do so. He alone bears responsibility for everything his command does or fails to do. This was true when General Berger was handed the colors and is still true for General Smith. It was true when Generals Amos, Conway, and Krulak served as Commandant, as well as when Generals Zinni, Fulford, and Sheehan served as combatant commanders. None of them would have tolerated their predecessors taking public shots from the cheap seats.

There are venues for the Corps to get the input of its elder statesmen. The Corps has a “graybeard” system in which relevant experts, particularly general officers, are invited to symposiums and meetings to provide input and buy-in on service policies. This is often on a contract basis. As this same demographic often have consulting contracts and corporate board seats, conflicts of interest are very likely. Like politicians and PACs, perhaps their financial interests might just happen to align with their personal beliefs. That this presents the perception of conflicts of interest might be part of why their inputs weren’t solicited during the initial rollout of FD2030. That many of those loudly criticizing FD2030 also have interests in defense companies certainly casts doubt on their objectivity.

While many, though not all, of those involved in Chowder II are fairly wired into current events by virtue of their peer groups and defense consulting jobs, they also no longer have Combat Development and Integration Command working for them to provide expert study and analysis. The officers of Chowder II may see themselves as keepers of the flame in terms of Marine Corps traditions, but they have no more standing to criticize the current commandant than former commanders at any level. It is safe to say that if any of them caught a retired lieutenant colonel publicly criticizing his relief as a battalion commander, they would be outraged. 

It’s their Corps now

Regardless of the level of distinction in terms of awards and rank we achieve in our Marine Corps careers, they all end in one of three ways–you quit, you get fired, or you die. All three entitle veterans to the exact same amount of input in current operations.

This calls for some degree of humility and trust. Marines, like the members of any institution, eventually turn over the watch to younger generations, trusting that they will do the right things, because they were trained properly. Trust in them should reflect the trust the older generation has in itself. That’s a major difference between an enduring institution and a normal group. 

Just as any unit has only one commander at a time, there is only one Commandant at a time. In this case, the Commandant’s scheme of maneuver has also been endorsed by the civilian DoD leadership under two administrations and by Congress over three budgets. Once a commander has issued his orders, the time for open debate is over, and the time for action has begun. 

Not one, but two Commandants have issued their marching orders. While professional debate sharpens the blade, Chowder II’s continued professional sabotage only serves to weaken the steel. There is still debate to be had over the direction of the Corps, but like any professional debate, it needs to take place within the norms of the profession. In this case, that means within the bounds of traditional military decorum and respect for serving commanders. Chowder II can either participate productively to improve Force Design, or it can continue to undermine the institution its members proudly served.

About the Author: Carl Forsling 

Carl Forsling is a retired Marine officer and V-22 pilot who regularly writes on national security and military issues. He works in the aerospace and defense industry and lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Written By

Carl Forsling is a retired Marine officer and V-22 pilot who regularly writes on national security and military issues. He works in the aerospace and defense industry and lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

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