A Striking New Vision for the Marines, and a Wakeup Call for the Other Services
Military planning documents rarely draw more than a yawn in Washington, but the new Marine Corps Commandant’s Planning Guidance is proving an exception. Crafted by newly appointed Gen. David Berger, it lays out a striking new vision for the Corps — and jettisons a sizable number of long-held Marine articles of faith along the way. Berger’s guidance is both hard-hitting and remarkably well-written, all the better for a document meant to be widely read and disruptive.
In many ways, the planning guidance responds to growing turbulence inside the Marine Corps. Since 2001, marines have served as the nation’s second land army in Afghanistan and then Iraq, organized crisis response task forces, and forged a special operations component, while still clinging tightly to their historic mission of large-scale amphibious landings. These widely divergent directions have led some marines to question their identity, with one even arguing that the service suffers from a multiple personality disorder. Thinkers both inside and outside the Corps have called on senior Marine leaders to help redefine its central purpose.
The new guidance responds to those concerns by charting a distinctively new course for the Marine Corps. Berger clearly states what will not change: It will remain the nation’s elite force-in-readiness. Yet he is remarkably candid about the aspects of his service that must change, be newly developed, or be thrown overboard. He will unquestionably face an uphill struggle in implementing this vision — confronting the many years that the Marine Corps has invested in counter-insurgency conflicts, shrinking resources, and entrenched bureaucratic interests in the Pentagon and defense industry. But if he succeeds, he will have boldly transformed his organization for the very real challenges of the future. His vision creates some challenges for the other services in terms of roles and missions, but it should nevertheless catalyze their efforts to create equally far-sighted future guidance.
So What’s New for the Marine Corps?
The Marines Will Focus on Naval Operations Once Again
Berger correctly argues that future adversaries will be increasingly able to contest and even deny access to the maritime domain, where the United States has long held unchallenged superiority. He therefore intends to overhaul the Marine Corps so that it can operate inside this contested space during a major maritime fight. The planning guidance specifically rejects the notion that the Marine Corps is a standalone fighting force that the Navy simply supports with sea transport, airpower, and logistics. Instead, Berger plans to forge a tight, supporting partnership with the Navy, making the Marines an essential component of all forms of naval warfare. He intends to detail more marines to Navy ships and staffs, assign more Marine forces to the fleet, and integrate Marine Corps officers into all elements of Navy planning. All newly minted Marine flag officers will even be required to attend the Navy’s course on joint maritime operations. This will be an immense conceptual and cultural change for the Corps, since expeditionary naval warfare has not been the central mission of the service since it pioneered its amphibious role during World War II in the Pacific.
The Marines Will Focus Primarily on the Pacific
Berger repeatedly highlights the growing military threat posed by China, especially its sea denial capabilities. In response, he explicitly reallocates Marine forces away from the Middle East and other combatant commands, to double down in the Pacific. The III Marine Expeditionary Force “will become our main focus-of-effort,” he writes, and will solely support the commanders of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and the Navy’s 7th Fleet. The I Marine Expeditionary Force will also focus on the region and the 3rd Fleet. Though the regimental-sized 7th Marines will continue to support operations in the Middle East, Berger directly states that the Marine Corps will “increasingly accept risk” as far as I Marine Expeditionary Force’s “habitual relationship” with Central Command is concerned. Beyond the Pacific, II Marine Expeditionary Force will focus on supporting operations in Europe and the Atlantic, which is consistent with the 2018 National Defense Strategy’s focus on Russia as the other major competitor with the United States.
The Marines Will Fight Differently
Berger goes far beyond the other service chiefs in describing how existing doctrine, weapons, and operational concepts are no longer adequate for the wars of the future, especially given the ever-growing threat from anti-access and area denial capabilities. Since marines will have to operate within the range of proliferating enemy precision fires, they will need to disperse into small units to avoid being targeted. This will require many new capabilities, including high-endurance loitering sensors and munitions, communications and radars with a low probability of intercept and detection, and advanced air defense systems. Berger wants the Marine Corps to develop precision land-based fires with ranges beyond 350 nautical miles, to attack moving targets afloat and ashore. The new guidance also notes that the Corps has already started experimenting with novel ways to use existing capabilities, such as basing up to 20 F-35B aircraft (which have short takeoff and vertical landing capabilities) on big-deck amphibious ships to provide more dispersed and survivable airpower to the Navy. These changes will revolutionize how marines fight throughout the remainder of this century.
The Marines Need Fewer Amphibs, More Unmanned Systems, and Possibly Fewer Marines
Berger argues that large and expensive manned platforms will become ever more exposed to attack and will make marines ever more vulnerable by concentrating them in too few places. Instead, in a pointed phrase that should apply to all of the services, he stresses that the Marine Corps “must continue to seek the affordable and plentiful at the expense of the exquisite and few.” This suggests that the Marine Corps needs a greater number of smaller and more specialized ships, as well as “an array of low-signature, affordable, and risk-worthy [read: unmanned and expendable] platforms and payloads.” How does Berger plan to pay for all this? He frankly states that he is willing to trade Marine force structure for modernization dollars, which would inevitably shrink the size of his service. Berger’s powers of persuasion will be tested by skeptics in the ranks, by Congress, and, when it comes to reducing the number of large amphibious ships, by the defense industry as well.
Marines Should Have More Freedom to Do Their Jobs
Since the threat environment will require increasingly distributed operations, Berger wants combined arms operations to be pushed from infantry companies down to individual rifle squads and reconnaissance teams. That means an even greater emphasis on mission command, a flexible philosophy that trusts subordinates to take a great deal of initiative to achieve their commander’s intent. The commandant’s guidance therefore stresses doing everything possible to ensure that marines focus on warfighting instead of an excessive number of administrative tasks, like basic data entry and redundant processes. Even more importantly, however, Berger strongly warns against the corrosive effects of commanders who impose too much rigidity on their subordinates while training at home. All of the services face some version of this pernicious problem (as we’ve previously noted about the Army). Berger deserves credit for identifying it so clearly and stressing how much it undermines effective warfighting.
Marine Culture Is Changing, But Not Enough
While every marine is still expected to be a rifleman, Berger’s guidance makes clear that the exclusive dominance of infantry and aviation inside the Marine Corps is slowly ebbing. Throughout the planning guidance, Berger highlights the growing warfighting contributions of marines who are not on the front line. He also takes on the deeply egalitarian ethos of the Corps, which holds that all marines are elite, by repeatedly insisting upon the need to single out and reward top performers while simultaneously ushering out those who do not measure up.
Though Berger states that there is no place in the Marine Corps for those who are “intolerant of their fellow Marines’ gender or sexual orientation,” he otherwise skirts the central cultural challenge of the Marine Corps: fully integrating women into every corner of its warrior culture. The Corps continues to pose the greatest cultural barriers to female servicemembers taking on a full range of roles, especially in ground combat units. Only the Marines still run gender-segregated initial entry training, which sends a message to all marines that there are different expectations for women, and which perpetuates disparities throughout the service. Until the Corps honestly addresses this fundamental cultural issue, it will continue to deprive itself of a sizable portion of the nation’s most talented citizens — and fall short of fully living up to its core values of honor, courage, and commitment. (The cover of the document takes a small step forward on this, featuring a female Marine battalion commander marching in front of her troops.)
Implications for the Other Services and Special Operations Forces
The commandant’s guidance provides a revolutionary new direction for the Marine Corps, but it also presents some serious challenges to the other services as they prepare for the future fight. Berger’s plans to reshape the Corps will open up some new roles-and-missions issues that might chafe some of his fellow chiefs.
The Air Force
The Air Force should draw two key lessons from Berger’s new guidance. First, and most importantly, it needs to follow Berger’s lead in moving away from expensive, exquisite legacy platforms, and shift more rapidly toward far bigger investment in large numbers of cheap, unmanned, and expendable systems for a major war. As Chris Brose notes, the Air Force is deeply over-invested in short-range manned tactical fighters. The Air Force desperately needs to reduce its F-35 buy and start procuring smaller, unmanned, and eventually largely autonomous aircraft, just as Berger plans to do for amphibious shipping and watercraft. Second, the Air Force needs to partner closely with the Marine Corps to better integrate their operating concepts for a major war in the Pacific. Air Force leaders should increasingly plan to work with — and perhaps even rely upon — the Marine Corps for missions to seize and protect advanced bases, provide elements of air defense, and conduct long-range fires against enemy platforms that threaten air operations. Increasingly dispersed Marine rifle squads and recon teams should also be authorized to call in Air Force strikes — though this would pose a severe cultural challenge to the Air Force, which has long resisted permitting any strikes that are not directed by an Air Force controller or qualified aviator.
Berger wants the Marine Corps to be the most agile, flexible, and mobile ground force in the Pacific — which the Army will see as a threat to its evolving role in the theater. His guidance directly challenges how the Army plans to conduct multi-domain operations in a future conflict with China, and essentially relegates the Army’s role in the Pacific to defending the Korean peninsula. The Army will likely push back hard against Berger’s plans to develop land-based long-range fires, since that has long been an Army mission. Then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley frequently stressed the need to disperse soldiers on the battlefield, just as the Marine Corps guidance does. But Berger’s plans to provide greater independence and combined arms capabilities down to Marine squads should push the Army to accelerate its thinking in this direction. The Army should also take a page from the planning guidance and add greater uncertainty and battlefield-like chaos into garrison life, since its culture of over-engineered planning often produces initiative-killing directions (such as a 21-page order with annexes for an annual event to clean up trash and pine cones at Fort Bragg.)
Although the Navy will surely welcome the return of the Marines as full partners in naval warfare, Berger’s sharp critique of big, expensive legacy platforms deeply undercuts current Navy shipbuilding priorities. Berger sees the need for platforms that are small, plentiful, specialized, and unmanned or minimally manned so that naval forces can continue to operate effectively inside the contested zone even if they absorb substantial losses. Yet the Navy’s shipbuilding program remains heavily weighted in the other direction, producing small numbers of highly capable but staggeringly expensive multipurpose ships (including a Ford-class carrier, three Virginia-class submarines, and three Burke-class destroyers in 2020 alone). These large, densely manned platforms are becoming far too valuable to be risked in a contested zone dominated by adversary anti-access and area denial defenses. Berger’s guidance may already be contributing to a shift in the Navy’s 2019 Force Structure Assessment, which should be out by the end of the year. Early reports suggest that entirely new types of ships may be added, such as large unmanned surface ships and submarines. Whether the Navy (and Congress) is prepared to cancel or reduce any significant number of its long-planned billion-dollar warships to resource this transformative shift is another question.
Special Operations Forces
Berger’s vision of dispersed, small-unit operations closely resembles how special operations forces operate today. As the new guidance is implemented, the Marine Corps and U.S. Special Operations Command should increasingly work together to develop new operational concepts and capabilities — including weapons, communications gear, intelligence systems, and insertion platforms. But Berger also needs to learn an important lesson from special operations forces about what distributed operations require. Special operators routinely conduct highly independent missions characterized by high risk, great agility, and little oversight. In order to do so effectively, they are nearly always older than conventional troops, trained for much longer periods, and carefully screened for maturity and psychological toughness. But today, the Marine Corps (and the Army) typically puts its youngest and least-experienced people at the cutting edge of the battlefield. Berger’s vision may require the Corps to rethink its model of fighting primarily with 18-year-old marines — which would be another culture-shattering challenge for the 21st-century Marine Corps.
A Catalyst for Change Across the Services?
Berger has produced a remarkable set of guidance that will influence the direction of the Marine Corps for years to come. His incisive thinking and willingness to publicly take on his service’s long-held sacrosanct dogmas demonstrates fresh thinking, candor, and unusual courage. His clear guidance for the Marines should push the other service chiefs to be equally honest and to issue similarly bold and transformative guidance for their own forces. If Berger’s groundbreaking effort helps nudge the rest of the military into more realistic thinking about war in the 21st century, it will have served an even more important purpose than reshaping the Marine Corps.
Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, U.S. Army (Ret.) and Dr. Nora Bensahel are Visiting Professors of Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and Senior Fellows at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies. They are also Contributing Editors at War on the Rocks, where their column appears monthly. Sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter to track their articles as well as their public events.