A Chat with the Commandant: Gen. David H. Berger on the Marine Corps’ New Direction

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As listeners of this podcast know, the Marine Corps is taking a new direction. The latest document to lay out this vision is Force Design 2030. The commandant, Gen. David H. Berger, aims to cut the size of the Marine Corps and let go of some legacy systems (most notably tanks) in order to — in the words of a recent article in the Economist — turn the Corps into “a commando-like infantry force with nimbler weapons: drone squadrons will double in number and rocket batteries will triple.” In Berger’s view, the Marine Corps must make these changes in order to work with the other armed services to deter the People’s Republic of China, if necessary, or win a war against it.


Ryan spoke with Berger to get the inside story of these reforms, which he describes as being in their earliest phase. “This is not the end of the journey” he said, “but rather the beginning.” And he calls upon more voices to chime in with criticism to ensure the Marine Corps is ready for the future of war.




Ryan: General Krulak famously said that the nation doesn’t need a Marine Corps, it wants one. Did that inform how you thought about this journey to reform the Marine Corps?

Gen. Berger: I don’t know how you’d frame “inform.” General Krulak’s been a great advisor to me from before, when I went to Quantico. In fact, I spoke with him yesterday evening. As far as the quote, I don’t know if there’s a direct linkage or not, but without a doubt, our sense was not intuitively, but more analytically based on war games; it was, the Marine Corps had to change or else we would reach a point sometime in the future when we would be in an over-matched situation, and we were not going to allow that. I don’t know about America’s view of the Marine Corps, but certainly the Marine Corps, in terms of what we need to do for the nation, we had to change and we couldn’t wait any longer. We couldn’t postpone that change.

Ryan: Could you lay out the intellectual journey behind this effort, the path to the commandant’s planning guidance and the Force Design? How did it start for you personally, for the Marine Corps institutionally? When did this vision become clear to you?

Gen. Berger: Well, first of all, there’s no way I’m going to take credit for it in its entirety, because the institution started it some years ago. And my predecessor, and his before him, recognized that whenever the efforts in the Middle East were going to wind down that we would need to adjust the Marine Corps, not just because of the Middle East, but also because of the threats that the nation could see before us. I wish I could take credit for it — I can’t. It started long before me.

Gen. Berger: Personally, I would say [I was] most informed by initially the couple years when I was in Camp Pendleton, California, as the commander of the First Marine Expeditionary Force out there, because your focus is on both the Middle East and INDOPACOM. And then two years in Hawaii as the commander of Marine Forces Pacific, that’s when it really came into focus for me. Not just the Indo-Pacific, but really with the rise of Russia and China, and before the national defense strategy, it was pretty clear to the commanders out there and our boss at the time, Admiral Harry Harris, that the world was changing. Great commanders out there, like Admiral Swift and General O’Shaughnessy and General Brown, all could see clearly that with the rising capabilities we were going to need to make some significant changes.

Gen. Berger: So I came to Quantico for a year. The commandant gave me the privilege of being in charge of combat development. So there you’re the integrator for capabilities that the Marine Corps is going to need and training that we’re going to need in the future. So it came even clearer into focus there. It clearly wasn’t, like, “show up in July for a changeover of the commandant and then sit down with a piece of paper.” It was evolving long before that.

Ryan: The Force Design document identifies the importance of war games, which you mentioned earlier, to the overall thinking behind this. Well, I assume many of these were classified. Can you discuss at all the importance of these experiences and the types of war games that were used to inform this effort?

Gen. Berger: Yeah, and staying at the unclassed level like you brought up, I would say a couple things. First, the realization that you’re entering what people call an era of “great power competition,” or however you want to articulate that, which began to drive war gaming in that our peer, or near peer, adversaries are developing capabilities and capacities, both of which we need to account for and war game against. And so there’s a series of war games, which I was lucky enough to be part of over the last three or four years. Without exception I would say that, if in those war games the outcome was if the joint force, and more narrowly, I would say the maritime forces, Navy and Marine Corps, if in the future, if we use the same formations, the same methods, the same capabilities against an evolving threat, then it’s a really hard fight and it doesn’t turn out well.

Gen. Berger: So it drove us to ask ourselves, “If we’re going to maintain an overmatch, an edge in advantage, how do we need to reshape ourselves?” So war games, I think, are critical. Now the variables in a war game always are the human beings, of course, because somebody has to play the adversary, or in the role of the adversary. Then if that changes every time, every war game, it’s really difficult to get consistent analyses or conclusions out of it. So part of the key is having folks who understand the adversary and consistently play the adversary’s role, not mimic us; not to try to fight like us, but to actually operate in the way that the adversary would.

Gen. Berger: The long and short of all that was not now in the near term, but at some point within a 10–year period, we need to make some fundamental changes to the maritime forces if we’re going to maintain an overmatch.

Ryan: Could you walk us through, for those listeners of War on the Rocks who haven’t yet read it, what’s in the Force Design document?

Gen. Berger: It’s hard to capture in a dozen or so pages eight or nine months’ worth of work, but what the Force Design report itself attempts to do is say, “Here’s where we started on this journey and why.” In other words, it wasn’t intuition. It wasn’t just a gut feeling. It wasn’t as though we woke up one day and decided, “Wow, we should really change the structure of the Marine Corps.” So the first step was to lay out the logic for why we needed to redesign the Marine Corps.

Gen. Berger: The second step was, in the flow of things, to think through the assumptions, because if you’re going to redesign an organization, you have to make some assumptions about the future. And the basics for us were that our budget in future years would be flat, or worse, less; in other words, it would not be increasing, but would be flat. Now, we don’t know that to be true, but we made that assumption. We made the assumption that our competitors, peer competitors, would continue to evolve and field new capabilities, that technology would make certain advancements over time, and that China would continue to be a growing potential adversary. And that, in the scheme of things for the nation, the Indo-Pacific, although certainly not the only theater, would be the primary focus.

Gen. Berger: The last step was a piece of guidance from me that the Marine Corps is this nation’s crisis response force by law, by role, and by function. So whatever we build for the structure, the design for the future of the structure of the Marine Corps, it must be capable of responding to any crisis, anywhere in the world, without any notice. That was the first step in a framing the problem in our vernacular.

Gen. Berger: Then a small group of about 10 or 12, supported by the rest of the headquarters, spent a month and a half doing an initial design of the force, which was then handed over to our Combat Development Command in Quantico for the next four or five months for refinement and war gaming and analysis. That was the methodology that we used. Clearly, as we tried to explain in the Force Design report, where we are right now is not the end of the journey, but actually the very beginning. This is a 10–year or more effort for the Marine Corps.

Gen. Berger: The most important part is to not fall in love with our conclusions too early. Constantly test our assumptions, constantly war game, constantly experiment, watch the threats, watch the adversary, watch technology, and be willing to make adjustments along the way. So we’re in step one of 10 maybe. This isn’t the final chapter and we’re not done with it. This is actually just the beginning.

Ryan: Knowing that we don’t want to come up with the final answers yet, because as you just said, it’s a 10–year effort, but what does the Marine Corps of the future look like that will be able to deter and if necessary, defeat China in a war, and how is it different from how it looks today?

Gen. Berger: Part of the answer to that question is, and you have to embrace — which I do — is the premise of the National Defense Strategy, which the foundation of this strategy is deterrence. So we have to build a maritime forest that can as effectively as possible, within the resources we have, deter Russia, deter China, and be ready to respond to a crisis anywhere. So what does the Marine Corps look like in the future compared to what it does today? Today, we are built for a large scale amphibious forcible entry. We’re built for sustained land operations — in other words, the force ashore. We are heavy. We are built for force protection to protect our force. It was the force that we evolved over the past 15 years to match up for what we had to do in the Middle East.

Gen. Berger: To do what we need to do in the future, we have to become lighter. We absolutely have to become more naval and operate as a single maritime force. We have to be able to operate while distributed. We have to be able to operate in very austere environments where there is no [inaudible 00:00:11:19], there is no bottled water flown in, and where we have to be able to move ourselves around in smaller units so that if we’re in a situation where we’re inside an adversary’s collection, weapons engagement, weapons’ ranges. If you’re going to operate in there all the time, which we think we must do as a stand-in force, then you’ve got to be able to move or else if they can find you and they can kill you. So the mobility aspect of it is pretty important.

Gen. Berger: So I think in some aspects, we’ll retain some parts of what we have right now and that we’re fielding right now. In other ways we will shed some capabilities that were useful in Korea, useful in World War II, useful in the past, but not what we need going forward.

Ryan: There’s been some criticism of your planning guidance and the Force Design report. One of the critiques that I’ve heard is that you risk optimizing against one enemy at the expense of flexibility, that these reforms or this redesign could hobble the Marine Corps against adversaries that it’s most likely to fight historically, sort of Baathists, Iraq style, regional powers or insurgencies. What do you say to that?

Gen. Berger: First off, I would say I am trained like others as a critical thinker. So criticism is a good thing because that means people are reading, people are debating, people are checking our homework. So I would get nervous if no one was criticizing, because that means either people are blindly accepting what someone presumes or nobody’s paying any attention at all, and both of them are bad. So criticism and critiques are absolutely great things because that forces you to come up with a logical argument that’s supportable. If you can’t do that, then you’ve got to take two steps back and start over.

Gen. Berger: Our approach to that critique of, “You’re building a very tailored force for the high end, not applicable in the most probably anticipated or most probable kind of scenario”— here’s how I would characterize that. We’re building a force that, in terms of capability, is matched up against a high-end capability. The premise is that if you do that, if you build that kind of a force, then you can use that force anywhere in the world, in any scenario; you can adapt it. But the inverse is not true. If you build a low-end force, or a medium (however you want to characterize it), if you build that capability of a force, you cannot ramp up against a higher end adversary.

Gen. Berger: So in our charge to support the National Defense Strategy and execute the defense planning guidance, we are pacing ourselves in terms of capability against China. Not the most likely scenario, but we are absolutely confident that if you have that set of capabilities, you can support a natural disaster response, you can do a non-combatant evacuation, you can reinforce an embassy, you can do the other missions that we are more likely going to have to do. But the opposite is not true because you would be over-matched if you took a low-end force, or if you aimed at the center point and built that force, you could not ramp it up to the high end. You wouldn’t be equipped for it. You wouldn’t be trained for it.

Ryan: Another critique I’ve heard is that this is not a truly joint effort in that Navy-Marine integration by itself isn’t jointness. How do you view this as a part of the overall joint effort? What do you have to say to that critique?

Gen. Berger: I would say this isn’t a negative statement at all, but because of the nature of the Marine Corps over a couple hundred years, we are inherently more joint by nature than anybody else because we have all the elements that the rest of the joint force has, all organic within the Marine Corps. It’s why it was built that way, to be a kind of a self-contained crisis response force, so we are inherently joint. I would say, to the term naval integration, here’s kind of our view on that.

Gen. Berger: At the center piece, at the core, the most important element of that [integration] is tactical, the effectiveness, and from a war fighting lens, the lethality — the war-fighting effectiveness depends on the ability of the Marine Corps and Navy, and the joint force to be able to operate as a single force. It’s very clear against a peer threat that you cannot win, you cannot sustain a fight as a service. None of the services can. Our adversaries have watched how we organize, train, and equip, have mimicked that, and have built their forces to be joint. If we go the other way, if we go back to try to operate as a service, it’s going to be a mismatch.

Gen. Berger: So everything that we do is framed in terms of how we can support the fleet commander. How can the maritime force support the joint force commander? We are under no misconception that the Marine Corps alone is going to win a battle or win a fight. We operate as part of a maritime force, as part of a joint force.

Ryan: And what’s your view of the Marine Corps’ role specifically in the joint all-domain command and control construct?

Gen. Berger: I think that’s a fascinating concept that is on the front end of being constructed in terms of what it actually is and is not, because I’ve heard a lot of discussion over the past eight to 12 months about what it is and what it is not. It’s not a thing, it’s not a capability. It’s not a view on it, I’m just giving you my translation, my interpretation, which is that JADC2 isn’t a thing; it isn’t a box, it isn’t a network. What we have to be able to do, clearly, is ensure that all elements of the joint force be able to communicate, to move information throughout that force.

Gen. Berger: If JADC2 is the nomenclature that best supports that concept, great. But at the same time, I think all of us senior leaders clearly understand that, on the high end or even on the lower end, the adversaries believe that the weak points perhaps of the U.S. military … If you’re going to go after the U.S. military, what you ought to do is go after their logistics and go after their command and control. So joint all-domain command and control for us means the ability to move data, move information throughout the force, but also be resilient. The whole system has to be able to not be so fragile that if the adversary is that effective in his attempts to partially degrade your network, that it doesn’t come to an all-stop. That elements at all levels can continue to fight.

Ryan: As you know, as well as anyone, it’s one thing to put these things into documents and it’s another thing to sort of make them happen. How much of these changes, of these reforms, are up to you versus other stakeholders in the Marine Corps versus the department of the Navy versus Congress? What are the barriers ahead or the hurdles ahead?

Gen. Berger: Well, I think you’re pretty naive if someone believes that you can reorganize your force in the Department of Defense in the blind, without the understanding and support, first of all, of Congress because they resource us and they provide the essential policy oversight. So a key step in all of this is informing and consulting with them to make sure we explain why we think this is necessary, how the Marine Corps needs to reorganize, and how that supports the joint force overall. That’s our job, to be able to explain that in an understandable, plain language kind of way. So you’re not going to do this around Congress at all, and they have the final vote. I am obligated to make sure that the Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of Defense understand the same logic, what we do know for sure, and how we’re going to start moving out on that, and what we don’t know yet. So we have to do more testing, more evaluation, more assessment. My peers, the other joint chief, absolutely yes. Because again, we aren’t going to operate as single services. So if I build a Marine Corp that can’t mesh into the joint force, can’t enable what they have to do, then I’m way out of line and they’ll make sure that doesn’t happen. We work together to develop the joint force. So I think at each one of those levels, each one of those echelons that you highlighted, you don’t do it independently at all. And their input is huge because they’re also moving. The Army and the Air Force and the Navy are also evolving. So it’s not like one is moving and the other elements are stationary. You have to account for all the moving variables at the same time.

Ryan: What do you have to say to communities in the Marine Corps who might feel disenfranchised that they are losing out in some way? Most notably armor as the Marine Corps now plans to get rid of all of its tanks.

Gen. Berger: Well, the great part about … I know this is probably going to sound a bit altruistic, but the great part about being a marine is when somebody not in the military asks you, “Hey, what do you do?” I mean without exception, the answer from a marine’s going to be, “Well, I’m a marine.” That’s important to remember. There clearly is a anticipation or a whatever you want to call it among communities, like, “what’s next?” Because they understand we have to change. I don’t know that there’s any opposing view that we can just keep static where we are, not change but still be the relevant, fighting kind of response force that we got to be. So everybody senses that we must change.

Gen. Berger: What they’re waiting on is an explanation of what that means. Where’s the Marine Corps headed? For me in particular and specifically in our community, what does that mean for us? And the way that we’re explaining it is will be a decade-long or more transition. We’re not getting rid of tanks this afternoon. We’re not getting rid of elements tomorrow morning. We have to evolve. We have to change the force over time so that we’re capable of doing the job that we have to do all along the way. Because what we can’t do is take the Marine Corps off the playing field for a couple of years, reshape ourselves, and then go back out there and say, “Okay, we’re ready.” So we have to be ready every day, every week, to respond.

Gen. Berger: To me, this is an exciting time in the Marine Corps because after each major conflict, the Marine Corps has recognized that it needed to reshape itself for the future and it’s not half steps to get there. There are some risks that go along with that. But for a couple hundred years, the Marine Corps has been pretty bold in recognizing that we are not preparing ourselves to fight the last war while looking over our shoulder. We have to make the moves now to be relevant, to be ready in the future.

Ryan: A topic that doesn’t seem sexy to most people but it actually ends up being very important, I was wondering if you could comment on changes to the headquarters organization.

Gen. Berger: The first step in this process was look at our active duty fleet Marine forces, which is the stage we’re in right now, where we understand the initial conclusions and the changes we’ve got to make, and there’s more to learn. The next step will be to look at the supporting establishment, which is what we call it. This refers to all the parts of the Marine Corps that are not deployable elements. The headquarters Marine Corps itself and even the headquarters at each of the Marine expeditionary forces, the divisions, the wings, the MLG, our logistics group — we have to look at our reserves because we operate very differently than the other services. Our reserve forces are used in a very different manner than the other services. So we have to look at all of those parts and they have to match where we think we’re going to be in the future.

Gen. Berger: And all this, as I prefaced it with the planning group last summer — although nobody wants to have a smaller Marine Corps, myself included — we are willing to do to have a better Marine Corps. Quality matters more than just having a great big Marine Corps and trying to preserve structure. It starts to become hollow and we’re not going to allow that.

Ryan: I’ve had a number of marines express interest and curiosity in how this will affect personnel and talent management in the Marine Corps.

Gen. Berger: We have a lot of room to improve, and that’s not a derogatory statement. But we have room to improve in both training and how we manage our people. Human resource management or talent management or whatever the appropriate term is, we have a lot of room to work in there. Our systems, our processes for how we manage human beings in the marines are largely pretty much the same as they were in the 60s and 70s, which were effective then. We have to become much, much more agile in how we retain the right marines at different grades, how we manage the force in terms of the education at different stages, how we enable them to frankly have more flexibility in their kind of career-personal life balance, or we’re going to lose them, they’re going to leave, because the situation you have to avoid is losing the marine whom you really want to keep, but who doesn’t see a way to have a family and a career at the same time.

Gen. Berger: So we’re going to have to find ways to be much more flexible than we have been in the past in terms of how to retain the talent that we have. And some of it involves pretty easy steps. The Marine Corps, like the other services, does a great job of sending us to school along the way in our careers. In those periods when we go to school, we get an evaluation, but it’s not graded. There is no assessment. It’s just completed. We have to assess how people are doing. If we’re going to send them to a year’s worth of school somewhere, we’d better assess how much they’re applying themselves in that academic environment because it should be competitive. We’re expecting them to learn. So in some ways the changes are pretty easy. In other ways I think it’s going to take time, but we have to update our manpower, our human resources, our processes.

Ryan: Shifting gears a little bit, especially since the Marines United scandal, there has been a lot of pressure and attention on the Marine Corps when it comes to cultural change. Dave Barno and Nora Bensahel write a great column for us at War on the Rocks called Strategic Outpost Note that, while you say there’s no place in the Marine Corps for those who are intolerant of their fellow marines’ gender or sexual orientation, that there’s still a lot more to do, especially compared to the other services in the Marine Corps about fully integrating women into every corner of your service’s warrior culture. How do you view that problem?

Gen. Berger: There is no nothing off limits. There is nothing beyond your ability. If you have the competence, if you have the abilities, every field is open. Now it becomes a function of recruiting and advertising, or in other words, soliciting a more balanced, more diverse force because our belief fundamentally is that we’re going to make better decisions. We’re going to fight and operate better if we’re a more diverse force. We’re not doing it to be politically correct, but science proves that if you have a more diverse group of people, you are going to reach better decisions, you’re going to operate better. We’re all about combat effectiveness. We have to move in that direction. There is no field off limits right now.

Gen. Berger: At the same time, the nature of what we’re called to do as marines calls for extremely high standards of performance. We’re not going to lower the standards of performance in order to artificially get to a percentage of anything. The standards are the standards because that’s what it takes to win. That’s what it takes to fight and win. I think over time, clearly more and more, the fields throughout the Marine Corps will be more and more populated by a more diverse group of people. But I’m not going to lower the standards, because then you put in jeopardy the very units that you throw into combat. That have to operate in combat.

Gen. Berger: There are things, though, that we are starting to do now, which are not my ideas, but great suggestions about what the women who came into the Marine Corps before all these fields were open. Can we reach out to them? Absolutely, yes. Can we ask them, “Hey, I know you didn’t have a chance when you were a Lieutenant or when you were a PFC, but would you want to try to become an infantry man or an artilleryman or whatever?” So we need to offer this not just to the current force and to the force we’re recruiting, but to those for whom four or five years ago that opportunity wasn’t available. We need to aggressively keep asking, “Hey, the playing field’s wide open. You want to try this out? Absolutely. We’d love to have you.”

Ryan: Now, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s this global pandemic going on. It’s changed everything about everything. How has the pandemic changed your personal battle rhythm? How do you run a major military service whilst in social isolation?

Gen. Berger: Probably like other large organizations, it has caused a change in the way we work. We don’t have big meetings in the Pentagon. I think somebody told me yesterday there are usually 25,000 or 30,000 people who work in the Pentagon. But I think now it’s under 3,000 coming to work each day, which probably seems like a lot to some people, but in this pretty big building for 3,000 people … You can walk for about five minutes and not see anybody. All of our meetings are more spread out. Most of our meetings now are by video teleconference.

Gen. Berger: Much less travel, although the secretary has reminded us that there is an important role for senior leaders to be seen to visit units when it’s when it’s needed. Just don’t drag a large entourage around with you and take care of what you need to do, but be mindful of the risks that are associated with it. So it has changed in some in terms of how the meetings and discussions go. It has changed travel to some degree, in the Marine Corps and in all the other services. It has had an impact on recruiting, on recruit training, on unit training, unit deployments — all that has been impacted for sure.

Ryan: What are three things you’d like marines to hear directly from you about the pandemic?

Gen. Berger: First of all, take care of themselves and their families I would say, for a lot of reasons, but we have to watch out for ourselves. And marines, we have a saying that we never leave a marine behind. So we have to take care of each other; we have to take care of ourselves if we’re going to sustain the fighting force that our nation needs. So we got to take care of ourselves and our families, and take care of each other. Second part, there is a mission to do and that remains a focus. Just because there is a pandemic, it doesn’t mean all the rest of the nefarious things that some countries, some organizations, some groups would like to do; they don’t take a knee, they don’t take a break. So we aren’t going to take … We can’t take any either. We’re not going to.

Gen. Berger: So we have to do the training that’s necessary to make sure that we’re a ready force for whatever crisis might pop up. So stay focused on the mission, take care of each other. Lastly, I would say the great part just about service members period and all volunteer forces is that they help the community. In other words, outside. They don’t just hunker down in their homes and kind of, fortress American, “I’m not going out and not doing anything for anybody.” But I would tell them, keep it doing what you can for your community, for your neighborhood, for all the people around you, and be unselfish in it. And marines are awesome at doing that.

Ryan: At the end of a long day and probably a fair amount of the evening too at work, what’s your drink of choice?

Gen. Berger: I grew up on a farm, so I’m not very complicated. A beer is pretty basic for me.

Ryan: Do you have a favorite beer?

Gen. Berger: Yeah, if somebody else is paying for it, that’s my favorite. And as long as it’s cold. No, not really a favorite one. No.

Ryan: All right. What is the last book you’ve read that changed your mind about something important?

Gen. Berger: Probably like everybody else I try to read a lot of variety. The last one? I’d say a book recommended to me by somebody else to work here in The Pentagon, it’s called Humility Is The New Smart. And it was a good book in terms of it helping me to look at things in a different way, in a machine learning, in a AI kind of enabled world going forward. What is the role of the human being. And basically, it was a pretty fascinating book in terms of here’s perhaps the world of the future and how the humility … What’s your role, how do you fit into that future world? It was pretty helpful. And I read another one which is sort of related called Ego Is The Enemy. Sort of in the same realm of humility and that sort of thing.

Ryan: And final question that I have for you, who have been two of the most important people that you have had in your career?

Gen. Berger: My dad, number one. Kind of sounds, I don’t know, “mom and apple pie,” but he’s the smartest guy I’ve ever met. Best role model anybody could ever have. Taught me … Continues to teach me more about life than any other person. Within the military … I’d say at least in the last 10, 15 years, it’s probably been General Dunford, more in terms of not trying to be like him, but in your words a great kind of mentor. How to think about things, how to keep a balance in your life, how to keep things in perspective, how to handle maximum stress without letting it overwhelm you. So I think he’s probably another very impactful one for me.

Ryan: Great. Well, I really appreciate your time. This was great. And when this pandemic stuff is all over, maybe we can grab a beer sometime. We live right around the corner from each other.

Gen. Berger: As long as you’re buying, all right.

Ryan: Definitely.

Gen. Berger: I’m just kidding. Yeah. I enjoyed it. Thanks very much.

Ryan: Take care.


Further reading and listening:



Image attached: Adapted from U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Isaac D. Martinez