No Sure Victory: The Marines New Force Design Plan and the Politics of Implementation

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Last year, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger outlined a transformative vision for the service. The move stunned national security experts. As a former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee tweeted at the time, “The blood of sacred cows is all over this thing.”

An intensive planning effort followed, the fruits of which the Marines recently revealed in its Force Design Plan 2030. The goal over the next decade is to field a notably smaller force that is better at working with the U.S. Navy, capable of operating in littoral environments, and less vulnerable to long-range precision-guided weapons.

A great deal of digital ink has been spilled both here at War on the Rocks and elsewhere about the plan’s strategic implications and whether or not the commandant is steering the Corps in the “right” direction. This debate is obviously important, but it has thus far overlooked an equally vital question: can Berger implement his vision? After all, decades of scholarship on military innovation suggest that although the conditions might seem ripe for change, the commandant must be prepared to do battle with opponents from both outside and within the Corps.

Why Change? Why Now?

Two intertwined threats are ostensibly driving Berger’s effort to steer the Marine Corps in a new direction: the reemergence of so-called “great-power competition” and China’s race to develop long-range weapons that can hit transport ships long before they deliver marines to the beach. That environmental change of this type would produce innovation is both intuitive and consistent with longstanding assumptions about how new threats cause states to seek new sources of military power.



Yet a second factor is likely also at play: inter-service rivalry over resources. Berger implied as much in a recent War on the Rocks podcast when he said the Corps must be prepared to operate in a fiscally constrained environment. There is a hidden upside to inter-service rivalry. Scholars such as Stephen Rosen, Owen Cote, and Harvey Sapolsky think that it produces market-like competition that leads to innovation. Evidence that it does can be found in the development of various ballistic missile programs, the Army’s pentomic division and rotary wing aircraft, and the Marines’ own amphibious warfare doctrine.

In fact, the Corps has a long history of reinventing itself in times of fiscal austerity and heightened threat, a trend which suggests that the institution is culturally predisposed to embrace change. General Victor Krulak saw organizational flexibility as an evolutionary coping mechanism to avoid being dominated by the Navy or absorbed by the Army. Terry Terriff goes further, suggesting that the Marines are innovative because their endless quest for relevance and survival imbued them with a “culture of paranoia”.

It is also worth keeping the commandant’s plan in perspective. His proposed changes, while bold, are far from extreme for an institution that has a long history of reinventing itself. Recall that the Continental Congress created a marine corps to invade Nova Scotia. The planned attack failed to materialize, so marines spent the next 142 years guarding embassies and protecting Navy officers from their sailors instead. America’s entry into the First World War turned the Corps into a second army. Marines spent the interwar period learning to fight insurgents and pioneering the amphibious warfare doctrine that brought them fame in the Second World War. Vietnam meant re-learning counterinsurgency, but the Corps quickly pivoted back to conventional operations in the wake of that conflict by adopting a radical new maneuver warfare doctrine. During the 1990s, marines focused on preparing for high-intensity combat, despite constantly deploying to support “operations other than war.” This fixation meant re-re-learning counterinsurgency in order to wage the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as scholars like Jeannie Johnson and James Russell document. 

Vision, Meet Implementation 

The threat environment, fiscal uncertainty, and the Marine Corps’ unique history of continual reinvention might make change seem like a foregone conclusion. Unfortunately, the politics of implementation could still derail the current proposal. In particular, Berger must be prepared to face stiff opposition from both inside and outside the organization. For example, his plan to cut tanks and divest in advanced fighter jets threatens powerful and well-connected interests, like the defense firms that build M1 Abrams and F-35s.

The plan is still in its earliest stages, and as such, it has not yet upset the budgetary apple cart. But it inevitably will. The RAND Corporation’s Jonathan Wong, for example, identifies more than $700 million in investments in the fiscal year 2021 budget across just four capability areas from which Force Design 2030 plans to divest. Continued investments in these legacy programs during the next budget cycle could be a powerful indicator that the commandant’s vision is not being translated into policy.  When it does, those whose bottom line it threatens will do everything in their power to strangle the proverbial baby in the crib.

The commandant cannot afford to overlook those inside his organization who disagree with his plan, either because the plan threatens their parochial interests or because they sincerely think it will make the Corps less effective. As much as we like to think that marines always follow orders, the fact is that opponents have many perfectly legal ways to block change. The Marine Corps is a large, complex, and far-flung institution. Every commandant has limited bandwidth and a relatively short tenure. Internal opponents can therefore slow-roll changes they dislike, sideline those who support the commandant, and implement new ideas in ways that guarantee they fail.

These sorts of obstacles convince scholars like Barry Posen that the only way to guarantee change is for civilian officials is to intervene in the military and impose it from the top down. However, Deborah Avant highlights how hard it can be for civilian leaders to adequately monitor military leaders in countries, like the United States, with divided government institutions. Competition between the executive and legislative branches tends to monopolize time that could otherwise be put to use providing oversight of the military. Kristen Harkness and Michael Hunzeker similarly show how political imperatives can prevent militaries from adapting to battlefield realities.

More insidiously, Caitlin Talmadge shows us that civilian intervention can actually damage military effectiveness when it is motivated by a political agenda. And while the type of coup-proofing that Talmadge highlights is more of a concern in authoritarian regimes than in American civil-military relations, the current administration’s interventions with the military tend to be motivated by a desire to pursue its political prerogatives rather than ensuring its effectiveness.

Preparing for the Real Fight

What can Berger do to ensure that his transformation of the Marine Corps will succeed?

To be blunt, the commandant needs a campaign plan to circumvent, neutralize, or defeat those inside and outside the organization that oppose his vision for the Marine Corps. Ideally, he should have had such a plan in place before publicly announcing his intentions. Nevertheless, a belated effort is better than no campaign at all.

Within the Marine Corps, Berger should play a personal and forceful role in overcoming internal resistance to his plans. In particular, the commandant needs to protect the careers and promotions of those who support his vision. Stephen Rosen identified this stratagem nearly 30 years ago. Looking at 21 cases of military innovation, he discovered that successful change depends on top leaders protecting and promoting the careers of reform-minded junior- and mid-career officers. Change will struggle to take root when those who must back a vision for change today worry that they will jeopardize their careers tomorrow.

Externally, the commandant needs to aggressively build a coalition of like-minded defense officials, such as think tank scholars (especially those who will soon become defense officials) and congressional leaders. In his study of U.S. Army transformation efforts after Vietnam, Ben Jensen finds that broad networks linking internal advocates with their counterparts across the defense establishment can help change to take root.

Winning the Next War

Facing threats from China, the proliferation of long-range precision weapons, and the emerging fiscal constraints have ripened the conditions for the Marine Corps to reorient itself away from two decades of counterinsurgency in the Middle East, and realign the force with its maritime roots. The Marines’ history and culture provide reason for optimism that it can undertake this transformation. Nevertheless, Gen. Berger’s plan threatens vested interests both inside and outside the service. Overcoming these obstacles means protecting those officers who share his vision and building a broad coalition of supporters throughout the defense establishment.

Ultimately, only time will reveal whether Gen. Berger’s vision is the “right” one for the future. Some critics worry that his proposals could cause the institution to forget the hard-earned counterinsurgency lessons already learned. Others think these changes will pigeonhole the Corps by robbing it of the flexibility it will need to prevail in a high-end war with China. Regardless, the commandant should be applauded for instigating this important debate. Whether or not he wins it, however, will depend on his determined engagement and leadership.



Matthew Fay is a PhD candidate in political science at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. His dissertation research focuses on military adaptation in combined arms warfare. 

Michael A. Hunzeker is an assistant professor of political science at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, where he is also associate director of the Center for Security Policy Studies. His book on competitive learning in the First World War is forthcoming with Cornell University Press. He served in the Marine Corps from 2000-2006.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps (Photo by Cpl. Eric Tso)