Gen. David H. Berger on the Marine Corps of the Future
Gen. David H. Berger, commandant of the Marine Corps, had Ryan Evans over for a discussion on the service he leads. As rising great powers and transformative technologies reshape warfare, presenting marines with new challenges, how should the Marine Corps adapt? From talent management to force transformation, listen to their wide-ranging conversation about what the service needs to become in order to remain a top-tier fighting force.
Reading and listening for this episode:
- Talent Management 2030
- Force Design 2030
- “Your Ideas Matter: The Making of Marine Strategic Planning and the Future of the Marine Corps,” War on the Rocks (podcast), August 2019
RYAN EVANS (01:26): I’d like to start by hearing your vision for all these changes that are enacted in your talent management strategy, Future Force. How is the Marine Corps you’re trying to realize by 2030 different from the Marine Corps today?
GEN. DAVID BERGER (01:39): Part of it is process as we describe in there, but you’re talking about, what’s the aim point, sort of — what is the product that we’re after. I think it’s not a radical departure from today, but it is a force that has the maturity, the judgment, the experience matches what we think they’re going to have to do. And by that, I mean if you assume that we’re going to need to operate more distributed, more spread out, and that presumes then that more junior leaders are making decisions that were a level or two up previously. Then they have to have not just the authority, but they got to have the experience, the judgment to make good calls on their own in lieu of any kind of detailed guidance from your boss, your superior. That is a little different force than we are shaped to do right now, or not shaped to do, but that we’re built of right now. I think we have to retain the aggressive, physical, driving teamwork approach that Marines are known for, but now bring in the ability to have each one of us have multiple skill sets and the experience in education to make decisions that may be one or two levels above had made in the past. That’s what we need.
RYAN EVANS (03:03): And so focusing on the personnel piece, because you’ve also made, as a lot of our listeners know, changes to what you believe the Marine Corps needs to have in terms of equipment and doctrine to be able to do, but on the personnel issues, what week-to-week, month-to-month problems were you responding to? What kinds of personnel problems were you seeing, not just as commandant, but in your career before that informed this talent management strategy that you’ve enacted?
GEN. DAVID BERGER (03:29): One, the first part, looking out into the future you asked about before, that’s where I think we need the force to go to. So it wasn’t that today’s force was completely unhinged and fallen off the rails. But there are clearly indicators over the past several years that the framework that we have had since the mid-1970s was beginning to show some wear. The indicators, the symptoms, like we have talked about before: the percentage of Marines who don’t complete their initial contract, the challenges in retention, especially in certain fields where there’s competition in the marketplace for that talent outside — always has been, but now much more intense — a different body of people coming into the military with different goals, different priorities, different set of focus. We have to meet them. We have to understand them. We have to learn their propensity, which is maybe different than 15, 20 years ago. So the indicators were things like recruiting, retention, and the mismatch of we have a body to put in a billet, but it’s not the right match for where we have to go.
RYAN EVANS (04:49): A big part of this vision is giving marines a lot more control over their career, which will lead to better retention. But do you worry that it could also create shortfalls in certain occupational specialties where there’s a lot of training and investment needed, like aviation or something else?
GEN. DAVID BERGER (05:05): Not worried, but yeah, I think that has to be part of the factor. I would add to that, there’s also geographic locations, which are less — more or less popular, let’s just say. So we have to have a framework that doesn’t allow just free and open market where everybody rushes to their favorite place and nobody wants to go to, you name the base, the station that isn’t maybe so popular. So there has to be a balance for sure. Ultimately, the service has needs. And that’s what, I think same as any organization, you’re trying to match talent with requirement. So ultimately, the service will make the decisions, but we’re trying to reach a better balance where you can see all the things that are on the menu at once. You can actually communicate with multiple options for you next summer and get to a better fit. And then I think the headquarters steps in for whatever the percentage is, that’s not a good fit. Then we make assignments. We fix that. But right now I think it’s 90-10 the other way.
RYAN EVANS (06:13): Yeah. One of the things I like about this document is it lays out a vision, but it’s also very honest about it’s going to take time. So I think 2025 is your aim for when this is fully enacted. There’s going to be, I’m sure a lot of experimentation and research between now and then.
GEN. DAVID BERGER (06:28): Experimentation, and we got to spend some money. We have to buy both the software and the framework that allows the systems. Right now we have multiple disparate systems in manpower and training and all, that we have to bring together to make this work. Because if you’re going to some assignment next summer, we got to stitch together different information pathways that right now aren’t connected at all in order to get there. So we’re going to have to spend some money to bring those systems into 2024-, 2025-like timeframe and find a way to fuse them so that all that information’s available at once, not in different stove pipes.
RYAN EVANS (07:14): On the tech side, one thing that struck me about this document in a refreshing way, but it was very scathing about the current technology and the paperwork burden on ordinary marines in a way that everyone — this is of course something that everyone knows, but you don’t see acknowledged often in high level official documents — where one of the things that’s repeated often in the document is these are things, these are tools in terms of submitting certain paperwork or certain admin that’s available to everyone else in the private sector. It’s just normal. We need to bring it into the Marine Corps. If it’s just normal, what beyond spending money are the hurdles to making those things happen? Because one would think, well, let’s just get some of these are efficiency tools that can be free online. Some of these are not very complicated, but what are the real burdens that you see?
GEN. DAVID BERGER (08:00): Some of the systems that we have built over the last 15-20 years were not proprietary in the kind of commercial sense, but proprietary in terms of the information that the data that’s in there about you and me and [Maj.] Eric [Flanagan], that we wanted to protect, that we wanted to make sure didn’t get out or misused. So it was insulated. There were walls built around that. To use the data like the way you’re describing, we have to understand what the risk is in removing some of those barriers, and the interfaces between those different information systems, how to do that, how to do that properly. Every marine, like you point out, every one of us sitting here has a phone. We need to get what’s right now on a mainframe sort of laptop approach into the Marine’s phone so that he can see real-time, so that he can operate real-time. But we have one system for recruiting, one system for active duty, another system for reserves, another system for training and education. They’re all disparate systems.
RYAN EVANS (09:08): When it comes to big ambitious plans, the devil can kind of be in the details sometimes. So one term that I saw in this document — there’s a few variations of it — but “high-performing marines,” “best-performing marines.” That’s one of those terms that can mean a lot of things. And the Air Force has had this system that’s been criticized a lot and is in the process of changing about high-performing officers, that went too far in one direction in terms of determining basically who might be a Gen. by the time they might be a captain or something. How are you going to define “high-performing,” especially when marines are going to be asked to do so many different types of things beyond the traditional activities that a marine might be expected to do? But as you put it in a speech I think you gave recently about, they’re going to be expected to fight in places where they don’t even have a presence. So how do you define that term high-performing? Or how are you at least thinking about this?
GEN. DAVID BERGER (09:58): We live in a real world, the one you’re describing. Now not all of us develop at the same rate. Some of us bloom really early and just go 100 miles an hour. And they’re the ones that all of us know, God, they’re going places. Some of us, the rest of us maybe don’t grow at the same pace. We have to have a system that’s flexible enough for ones who don’t, like, it may take four or five or six years for them to get out of the gates and start moving. To answer your question about how do we measure high-performing individual, how do we identify high-performing individuals? We’re beginning to have the tools now that we didn’t have before. For me, for Eric, it was physical fitness. It was the basic mental aptitude tests and our evaluations. And that was really just about it. But now, for example, on the enlisted Marines side, we’re able to measure hundreds of finite elements of a person’s performance based on what their requirements are that we couldn’t measure before and didn’t capture before. It was very subjective. Well, there’ll always be a subjective part. If you’re my commanding officer or my platoon sergeant or whatever, we can’t erase that, because you’re going to see things in me potential-wise that aren’t going to be on a piece of paper — that we have to leave room for that, because you have to inspire me to get to the next level. That’s not always going to be easily captured in data. So the human part of your assessment of me where I am right now and where my potential is, we have to protect that. It can’t be just a database-driven decision.
RYAN EVANS (11:40): All right. The idea of — in this document —of lateral entry has gotten a lot of attention and a lot of criticism where people are worried that it might compromise the culture of the Marine Corps because you’re letting people come in, I think it was up to the O-5 rank, that might have specialized skills. And some critics might say giving someone the status of Marine, it’s a big change from, I think the cyber auxiliary model under your predecessor [Gen. [Robert B.] Neller] — he let civilians in. So how are you looking at this problem in terms of maintaining that sort of aggressive marine culture that you alluded to earlier while still letting people with specialized skills become marines pretty later in their life and possibly be in command of other marines who have been in the service since the beginning of their adulthood?
GEN. DAVID BERGER (12:30): Part of my role in this, and the sergeant major’s role, I think as leaders of a service is to allow us to think through things. In other words, to open the door wide enough to have a conversation. The danger in that is people draw their conclusions: “Oh my God, no, there’s not going to be any bootcamp or officer candidate school. And people are just going to vault into some mid kind of management positions.” None of that is in place right now. I’m allowing us to have a discussion about it. I don’t know if we’ll ever take one, but we should at least be realistic and say our choices are either we’re going to have these holes in our structure that we can’t fill, or we look at alternate ways of bringing somebody in, who has experience in what we need and what would we be willing to do? I don’t, nothing I’ve said is — I have never said anything about skipping bootcamp or skipping officer candidate school. But I’m a practical person. If somebody’s been working in a field for five, six years, I don’t think we can bring them in as a private or second lieutenant and start at the bottom and live in the barracks. They have families. They already have work experience that we need at a higher level and we are paying at a higher level. So I don’t know whether we’ll bring in one. I want us to be able to have the hard conversations. That’s all. If we decide to bring in one or none or 50, that’s to be determined.
RYAN EVANS (14:04): What lessons have you garnered from the other services, because it’s something that the other services are struggling with as well in terms of this lateral entry idea or recruiting civilian talent into uniform?
GEN. DAVID BERGER (14:15): You highlighted, I think the premier one, which is the culture, the ethos of the organization: Does it challenge that? Does it start to fracture that? Are we hiring like hired guns with special skills in technical fields that start to erode the wholeness of the organization like what it’s viewed from the outside? That’s clearly, I think at the top of the list.
RYAN EVANS (14:38): One of the things that I was very excited to read about was lateral moves as opposed to entry, but letting people stay working on the issues that they’re passionate about and really good at. I mean I’ve really been a long-time critic of the up-or-out system. What sort of reaction have you seen from different parts of the Marine Corps on this idea?
Are there people that worry that by devaluing command, for example, that this is another thing that might risk fracturing the culture?
GEN. DAVID BERGER (15:10): I haven’t heard anything negative in terms of we shouldn’t talk about that, because most of us who have sat on promotion boards before struggle with that aspect of calling people out who didn’t have command, sometimes their own choice, sometimes timing. And to your point, they’re up or out. So we can see they’re going to leave the service, but that’s talent that we’re leaving on the table.
So my sense is so far, there’s no, “Let’s not talk about it. We’re fine.” It’s more like, “Okay, well, what would that actually look like if we allowed staff officers, the way you’re describing, to have a career path all the way to the top? What would that actually look like?” Because the converse is, this is what holds us back is, “Okay. Well that means there’s some commander that you’re not going to promote. And you’re going to favor a staff officer.” Well, let’s talk about that. Let’s think about that.
RYAN EVANS (16:09): Yeah. And up-or-out was a post-World War II thing anyway, so the last, could argue, war that we definitely won was before this. And so when it comes to the talent marketplace, which is another idea that I liked, did you and your team look closely at the Army’s experience with this? I know Gen. [J.P] McGee was working on this as well.
GEN. DAVID BERGER (16:26): Army and the Air Force, and we will not dive into that without drawing from there, the lessons that they learn, a couple which we mentioned earlier. Early on, they struggled with the sites, the locations that people didn’t want to go to. So if it’s a free and open marketplace, there’s those bases where people don’t want to go — how are you going to manage that? There were the needs of … The second part was the needs of the service and how do you balance the needs, the desires of the person versus the needs of the service? There is a balance there for sure.
RYAN EVANS (17:02): I think it’s fair to say that the Marine Corps has been slower at addressing diversity issues than the other services. Diversity is discussed a lot in this document. What’s your vision for how the Marine Corps does or doesn’t need to become more diverse and how things might need to change to accommodate that?
GEN. DAVID BERGER (17:18): There’s some folks I know who use metrics percentages, numbers, as a driver. That’s not the case for me. The value of diversity for us is directly related to warfighting and ability to make good decisions. Which I hold — my premise is homogeneous, pure homogeneous organizations are not going to be as strong as diverse organizations. They’re not going to be as agile. They’re going to have so many blind spots because we are all kind of brought up the same. So it’s not about a certain number of this or that. It’s the power — and I think this is where, you have seen the same as you travel around the world, when you operate with other organizations, other militaries, and they don’t have what we have, the giant melting pot, it’s evident. It’s not, but it’s something that we take for granted.
It’s not, we walk around going, “We’re so powerful because we’re so diverse.” We instantly start talking about females and color of skin, when really it’s about when the chips are down, when it’s really hard, our military elements are so creative, so they can come to really good solutions really fast and see all aspects of it. Partly because of our training and all, but partly because we’re not all alike. And we see things through different lenses. It’s so powerful, but you don’t see it because you take it for granted until you operate with others who don’t have that advantage that we do.
RYAN EVANS (18:53): Alright, this is a question from one of our readers. The Marine Corps has made some steps to gender-integrate recruit training with men and women training in both recruit depots, but not in the same platoon side by side. Why not go all the way and fully integrate recruit training like the other branches of service do?
GEN. DAVID BERGER (19:07): It is integrated. As you point out, there are men and women at both Parris Island and San Diego and officer candidate school. There are men and women training side by side, same curriculum, same standards. Everything is the same. The difference is at the platoon level, you can’t join the Marines like you can join the other services — you actually have to become. There’s a transformation, like Gen. [Carl Epting] Mundy spoke of, that happens. That transformation is really, really hard. The cohesiveness in the platoon is hard to describe, but it’s a crucial element of as many of us as possible making it through together. In those early days of basic training, you’re going to rely heavily on, “I just want to quit this afternoon.” And your other teammates going, “Absolutely no.” But why? Because they have common experiences, they’re in the same squad bay as you. The training in our basic phase is much different than the other services, where there’s a training day and then sleep. Not in ours. It’s 24 hours. The training that happens inside the squad bay actually is more than outside the squad bay. That’s the platoon that billets together in that squad bay is the strength of making it through, is the element of the strength of that transformation. So we billet just like everybody else, just like the other services, they billet, they lodge, they billet at night by gender because that’s the law and it should be. The difference is we train and the training continues in the barracks. It’s not an end of the training day at 17:00.
RYAN EVANS (21:07): You’ve overseen some of the most ambitious reforms or reform plans for service that we’ve seen in a long time. But a lot of these inherently have a long time horizon, long beyond your tenure. So I’m sure you’re tracking how this is being received by different parts of the Marine Corps, different occupational specialties, in Congress, among retired marines who have left the service obviously, but are still important stakeholders, and the public and internal conversation about the Marine Corps. So a lot of these people are skeptical, whether it was getting rid of tanks or I don’t need to list it all to you — you live this. What are some of the differences in terms of how this is being received — first of a few questions — in terms of a generational breakdown?
GEN. DAVID BERGER (21:56): First, I don’t take credit for the volume of changes that were undertaken in a way that it all happened in a couple years. It didn’t. The groundwork was laid by Gen. [James] Conway and Gen. [James] Amos and Gen. [Robert] Neller and Gen. [Joe] Dunford who along the way, set certain things in place that allowed us to change at the speed we’re changing right now. We could not have, in other words, unless they did. Gen. Dunford and Gen. Amos fundamentally changed the way acquisition in the Marine Corps was done. Gen. Neller solved a lot, attacked head-on the social problems that were brought to light while he was commandant and put prohibited activities in place long before there was extremism and everything else that allowed me to say, “We’re not going to have Confederate flags and extremists, all that stuff in the barracks. We’re not going to allow that.”
Well, I couldn’t have done that unless Gen. Neller had laid the table beforehand, really hard work by my predecessors. The uneasiness, I think you’re talking about, generationally or by timeframe? I think it’s too easy to say, “Well, old folks are going to resist it and young folks are going to embrace it.” That’s probably a literal read of it, but I think not entirely fair. Rightfully so, I think the alumni sort of retired marines who served on active duty some time ago — they love the Marine Corps, they care about the Marine Corps. So their concern is, they don’t want that upended. They don’t want it ripped apart. I look at all their criticisms through the lens of: they care. They don’t hate me. They actually care a lot about the Marine Corps and they’re trying to help make sure we don’t take a wrong step.
GEN. DAVID BERGER (23:54): The ones who are in the Marine Corps right now, I would say the middle part of the Marine Corps, the staff sergeants, gunnery sergeants, captains, majors, lieutenant colonels … they are living the move-fast-now sort of timeframe. They have an aim point that we’ve given them, but I have not prescribed the path to get there. So they have the freedom now to try things, to experiment, to learn on their own. That’s what all of us love to have: that opportunity. I think the senior current serving leaders in the Marine Corps, we wrestle with how to get the resources, how to move policy along at the speed we have to. Those are things we wrestle with, but I’m really … The most exciting fun part to watch is the middle part of the Marine Corps that is go. They clearly recognize we have to change, and they’re not tied in with a narrow path. They’re figuring it out.
RYAN EVANS (25:03): What would you say to people — just to pick one community that I think has been a little more skeptical or reticent about some of these changes — to members of the aviation community that might be wondering about the future of what they do in the Marine Corps, especially when it comes to the F-35?
GEN. DAVID BERGER (25:20): First, I would say I do the same. I’d say we have the F-35 and the MV-22, the 53-K, we have those great aircraft because people before me, they fought really hard battles to get the capabilities that we have right now. They were not easy at all. Because, hell, you remember, like in the MV-22 early days, sort of like way back in the Harrier early days, there were like, “Kill that program. It’s bad. It’s not going anywhere.” And now those of us who had those capabilities in Iraq and in Afghanistan go, “God, how many lives did the MV-22 save?” So, I’m glad that they fought for those capabilities. Going forward, what is close air support going forward? What is the future of vertical lift for the Marine Corps, for the Army, going forward? How much is manned? How much is not?
Even in the unmanned, how much is sensing the sort of collecting versus the, “We need a weapon system on everything that flies”? Those are things we have to sort through. So I think we have never sat back on our haunches and say, “Smoke a cigarette. We’re good. We have the capabilities we need. We’re fine.” The Marine Corps’ strength has been, “We’re never comfortable with where we are. We’re trying to figure out where we need to go.”
GEN. DAVID BERGER (26:46): I don’t think the community is unsettled. I think we’re charting a path now that we have the capabilities that we need in 2020, 2021, we’re looking, what does it mean down the road? Where do we have to go?
RYAN EVANS (27:00): You’ve noted, as have many others, that we have a really bad record of predicting where the next war is.
GEN. DAVID BERGER (27:05): Yeah.
RYAN EVANS (27:05): But China is the pacing challenge.
GEN. DAVID BERGER (27:07): It is.
RYAN EVANS (27:07): And a lot of your reforms I think, are enacted with China in mind as an adversary. I’m not sure if you read it, but in War on the Rocks recently, Mike Horowitz of Penn wrote a really interesting article where he argued that the way you look at capacity and modernization should change depending on when you think the threat of war is the most highest, whether it’s in the next five years or —
GEN. DAVID BERGER (27:28): Yeah.
RYAN EVANS (27:29): — 15 years later. Just to read a quick passage from it: “The default U.S. defense strategy is to hedge against the risk of war in all timeframes. In a world of limited budgets though, it’s not possible to maximize U.S. capabilities in all time periods simultaneously. This means that, despite the uncertainty of even the best risk assessments, Washington will need to place bets to sustain its defense leadership in the Indo-Pacific. America may need ‘more’ to deter and defeat China, but the right ‘more’ or depends on the timing.”
GEN. DAVID BERGER (27:54): Yeah.
RYAN EVANS (27:55): You are very much retuning the Marine Corps with a lot of these questions in mind. So how do you grapple with this? And not just in terms of, deter and defeat might mean two different kinds of forces as well.
GEN. DAVID BERGER (28:09): Yeah. I’m familiar with the article because a close friend of mine who is really a forward thinker sent it to me. And I’m glad he did. The three timeframes that Mike lays out I think are as good as any. But really, it’s not about the dates on the timeframes. He just breaks out, “Hey, we got to think our way through this.” I agree with his premise that trying to cover all bets equally is an approach, maybe not the best one. I think as we move forward, we don’t actually know the answer to that because the answer partly lies in the adversary’s lane and we can’t forecast that with certitude. As he points out, we are a very open, transparent country and the PLA-N, the PRC is much more opaque.
He highlights in there some things we should do to probably hedge and opaqueness as is part of that, that he — if I remember right — he says, we think about maybe being a little more opaque in the reveal/conceal sort of approach. We probably shouldn’t be so open kimono, open book where everybody can see all our stuff and counter it really fast. What do I think? It’s not binary. It’s a false choice, today’s readiness or tomorrow’s modernization. That false choice is the trap to avoid at all costs. I think in the near term, what you need is some element of the joint force that can provide enough deterrence while the rest modifies, while the rest modernizes. So, what does that mean? That means, an element that’s forward that counters in an asymmetrical way the way that the PRC is moving right now. Doesn’t allow them to continue below the level of conflict to advance what they’re doing at the detriment of all the other countries in the region — you need something to counter that. And it has to be responsive enough that to your point it is a deterrent, but it’s also if something does heat up, it’s capable enough. It’s that it can cause the adversary to change their approach.
I don’t think that’s the entire joint force forward-ready all the time. We’ve tried that in the past — it doesn’t work. We tried the converse of that too, prior to Korea: Nothing was ready, and we paid a price for that early on. So I think some portion of the joint force now being the deterrence, combined with the strategic deterrent element, which is huge — that buys you time to modernize the rest of the force is a hedge, an approach to hedge. It can’t be everybody gets a certain portion of the pie and we’re going to hedge against all timeframes. I don’t think that’s the right approach.
RYAN EVANS (31:23): What are you seeing in terms of how our allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific are watching and responding to our own reform and modernization efforts in terms of how they view themselves as fitting into this?
GEN. DAVID BERGER (31:35): If you broke that question down into the capabilities that they’re pursuing, the concepts that they’re working on, I think the answers lie in their own force design [and] force development. If you look at Japan, Australia, in other words, to a lesser degree, the ROKs [South Koreans] in the somewhat narrow lane of amphibious expeditionary capability, they’re very much moving quickly now to build a force that has the power projection expeditionary capability, like an amphib ship, and amphibious capabilities, much like we have, that is interoperable, not quite interdependent, but very interoperable with us.
I think the concepts, I would draw a distinction between sometimes in the past being self-critical, we have brought forth a concept and said, “This is the way the U.S. operates. You have to do it this way. Very prescriptive, very arrogant sort of approach. This is our doctrine: You want to work with us? Here’s the playbook.” And I’m exaggerating to make a point, but that’s not the right approach. Around the world it’s not the right approach. The right approach, I think is: “What are you trying to do, and how can we help you get there faster?”
And the indicators for that, for me, are things like the Japanese Self-Defense Force that develops their own expeditionary force really quickly. We didn’t prescribe how to do that. They did it. But there were elements there. They couldn’t move quickly enough on their own that our forces in Japan helped them to do, but we didn’t create a mirror image of ourself, like you point out. Where you ask them, “What do you want? How can we help?”
RYAN EVANS (33:31): One of the most wicked operational challenges, of course, in the Indo-Pacific is missile salvos from China, especially in a region where we have a lot of fixed bases, and I know your vision of the Marine Corps and others tries to handle that in part through dispersal. But what about, it’s still part of a joint force when it comes to resupply and rallying and all these other operations that need to take place. If fixed spaces are taken out, how are you thinking about this through the Marines’ perspective?
GEN. DAVID BERGER (34:01): Perhaps that’s a great question. Maybe a couple, three ways to look at that. One would be what you have to do is prevent the linear approach, like their wall against our wall, first island chain against what they have in mainland China — that sort of linear facing off at each other. Okay, that’s definitely not a healthy approach. There’s an aspect of “home team” that people have written about in the last month or two that are, I think, helpful here, in terms of analyzing a force on force and who has actually the home-team versus away-team advantage, and what do they really mean?
But I think that you have to avoid the linear part and the way to avoid it is having a defense in depth or an in-depth approach that is the front-most stand-in force all the way back that presents an adversary: You can’t break through our line and you’re done. We have all this depth to work with and if you want to challenge us, you’re going to challenge us in the whole depth of that. That’s one. The second I would say is, more than just dispersal and being distributed, is the mobility that we have to provide those commanders that comes along with that. So that Eric — not only is his force dispersed, but he has with him the means to move around that force to make it really challenging for the adversary to target him real-time.
In other words, you’re presenting the adversary with, if they choose to go offensive, A, he’s got to find them — really hard, because they’re spread out, smaller units. B, they’re on the move all the time — they’re displacing every 48, 72 hours. I mean, I got a heck of a targeting problem there. And then by the time, if I could solve all of that inside my kill chain sort of thing, is it worth it? Is it worth spending missiles on that? There’s always been an advantage to the defense. What China is trying to do, what the PRC is trying to do, is expand in ways that are coercive and violate the ways that other countries in the region want to operate.
We have the strength and we have to flip it upside down from where it’s not A2/AD. We’re not trying to invade anything. They have to overcome the collective defense of a region in the same way that Russia would have to, or anybody else. That’s the strength, right? How do you stitch that together?
RYAN EVANS (36:43): What are one or two issues you’d like a little more help from Congress on before the end of your tenure? What are issues that … There’s a lot you can do as commandant. There’s also a lot that you depend on when it comes to support from the Department of the Navy, other people in the chain, but Congress specifically — power of the purse — what are some things you’d like to see from Congress in terms of beyond the last NDAA?
GEN. DAVID BERGER (37:05): Yeah, first of all, I think everybody would probably answer this the same way: a budget. Operating under continued resolution … there’s 15 problems with that, and we’re going to have a hearing, I think that the House appropriations chair has asked for in early January, to do just that. And I think she wants the service chiefs to my understanding to say what does this mean? This continuing resolution and longer, what does that actually mean? So what do we need from Congress? We need a budget on time, we need predictability.
In terms of resources, I’ve been really clear. We have not asked for any budget increase for two years now, not asking it for this year either. So I’m not asking for more money. I’m asking Congress to look hard. I think to your question, Congress in their proper oversight role should figure out what parts of the military are moving in the right direction. Do you reward that good behavior? Do you incentivize? Do you resource so that they can get there quickly and not default to: Everybody gets a certain percentage. Everybody’s parochial interests are taken care of.
We’re moving at a high rate of change, because I’m driven. I think we have to do that. That either gets penalized or gets rewarded. Other than that, I think people ask about acquisition reform and that’s a perennial sort of a drumbeat from folks. I think Congress has given us some tools that we now have to demonstrate we can use, and then they should open up the purse strings more and more in terms of rapid acquisition and fielding. But you have to demonstrate good behavior. I think it’s impractical or it’s not right for them to just open up the whole kitty bank and go, “Well, you can move as fast as you want and just write all the checks you want.”
No, I think things like DPRI [Defense Posture Realignment Initiative] are really going to be an important measure in terms of how we use it as a tool to help deter adverse behavior in the Pacific. We are going to need their help in terms of posturing the force around the world. Some of that is resources, but some of it is working with other countries and the State Department in terms of adjusting our posture from post-World War II, to where we should be, going forward. There’s a lot of things Congress should do.
I think the first part is — I’m stating the obvious — the first part is a budget. It’s really hard to run an organization where you don’t know how much money you got to work with — really hard.
RYAN EVANS (40:04): We had a, what I would call a historic statement, although it hasn’t really yet been followed up by any action where you had the chairman who’s an Army general say that the Navy probably needs to get bigger and the Army might need to get smaller. We haven’t seen any action on that yet. What’s your view? You talked about we shouldn’t split up the budget by service, that doesn’t make sense anymore in terms of everyone gets an equal share, given the changing state of the world. What’s your view on, if the Navy does get more resources probably not in this year’s, but next year’s, where would you like to see in terms of Navy-Marine integration? Where would you like to see more spending?
GEN. DAVID BERGER (40:43): Yeah. At the tactical level, I’m really happy to see the level of integration that happens at the numbered fleet and numbered MEF [Marine expeditionary force] level for us. That level, that in Japan and on the West Coast and the East Coast, that’s moving quickly. We need to support that with resources because they’re not slowing down. They’re moving very quickly. And they’re to the point now where they’re starting to integrate what the Navy uses, a maritime operation center — how do we integrate those where it makes sense? So some of that’s going to take resources.
I think the wargaming and experimentation in a virtual sense, that all takes resources to do also, that’s going to become more and more and more critical, not just because you can’t do live because it costs a lot, but partly because you don’t want to do everything live because everybody can see that. So much more, I think is going to go into the virtual world in terms of wargaming and training and experimentation, because you really don’t want to show all your cards all the time.
GEN. DAVID BERGER (41:55): That’s going to take resources. At the upper level at the service headquarters level, it’s everything from ships to weapon systems, to training and education, to the people part, all of which going forward, where it does make sense that the CNO and I said, okay, if we throw in together, one plus one is going to equal more than two. That should be resourced, too.
RYAN EVANS (42:27): In your talent management document, you talk quite a bit about PME, professional military education. What’s your vision of how … Secretary James Mattis, when he was secretary of defense, was of course quite scathing about the state of professional military education in his National Defense Strategy. What’s your view on how things have changed since then and how things need to change still in the future, especially as far as the Marine Corps is concerned?
GEN. DAVID BERGER (42:50): Part of it is speed. Part of it, you mentioned earlier, the portability of that education. There’s still a lot of value, of course, in going to a certain place for nine months, and if you’re a captain or a major and getting a complete education update in an environment with all your peers, there’s a lot of value in that. It’s not all practical either. It’s not all doable. We have to make education much more portable than it is right now. You and I talked before we started here about how do you continue your PME when you’re on ship? How do you not take a time out for a couple months while you’re underway?
We don’t incentivize performance in PME either. If there’s five of us and we’re all going through school, it’s pass/fail. Well, that’s not a lot of incentive for anybody really to learn more broadly or deeper. There should be some incentive there to drive people to when they are delving into their PME, their professional military education, that it’s incentivized. It’s not everybody gets a ribbon sort of, everybody gets a medal sort of, on the soccer team approach. No, we actually have to … Has to be some rigor there and we have to incentivize superior performance. If we’re actually going to reward academic, the learning part, got to be incentivized. It’s not right now.
RYAN EVANS (44:18): We ran a survey not too long ago for members of all the services and asked them a couple questions on wargaming. One of the questions we asked is, how important do you think wargaming is for your career and success in your career? And I think it was almost 90 percent said very important — important or very important. And then we asked, how many of you have regular access to wargaming? And it was a very small percentage. What can we do to change that? Not just in terms of CONOP [concept of operations] wargaming, but educational wargaming.
GEN. DAVID BERGER (44:56): Educational wargaming — I’ll take them in reverse order — educational wargaming. This is a shift that at our Marine Corps wargaming. This is a shift at our Marine Corps University in Quantico, where it has been underway for about two years now, and it’s not there yet. A lot more wargaming and less lecture, to your point. There needs to be the underpinnings of, what does history tell us? What does doctrine say today? But beyond that, you got to actually get into wargaming to put your brain in gear and think. So, much more wargaming in our professional education. That’s going to come at the expense of some other aspects of the brick-and-mortar learning, sit in a lecture, but we think that trade-off is worthwhile. Why? Because in a wargame, you’re not penalized if you get it wrong, or didn’t get it all the way right. The more times you do that, the more comfortable you are understanding how to accept risk, what’s the difference between gamble and risk? How do you actually think through in a dynamic way?
We have to make it force-on-force as well. In other words, the problem for wargaming can’t be you against a set-piece adversary. Actually, it’s got to be against somebody else who’s thinking too, because the decision you made an hour ago, you may be rethinking that if it’s a force-on-force sort of scenario. A lot of change in terms of changing to more portable, more force-on-force, that education part. And I would agree with Secretary Mattis. We have a long way to catch up here. PME is very good right now, but it’s got to move quickly to take us where we got to go.
RYAN EVANS (46:40): A lot of the ideas that have made their way into these ambitious reform documents for the Marine Corps have been kicked around and some have even started in articles online and publications, not just like War on the Rocks, but also the Gazette. What are some of the issues that you want to see marines debating, discussing, and talking about in public fora today that might help you and the next commandant think through major challenges?
GEN. DAVID BERGER (47:05): When I was a captain, I went to Fort Benning, to the Army captain course for infantry officers. And for that school period, that seven-month period, we had templates that could tell you exactly what the Soviet Union military, how they were going to operate. Situational templates, doctrinal templates. That’s how we wargamed. And you kind of knew them inside out, from their weapon systems all the way to how they would operate. And it was very predictable. We don’t have anything like that now. We don’t have anything for, in other words, the pacing challenge, we don’t have the equivalent of that, that’s usable. How are they organized? How do they think? How do their leaders developed? We don’t have the equivalent of templates. We don’t have them right now. I don’t know what that looks like, but we need it. I sense we have to figure that out. If you’re actually going to fight against an adversary, you’ve got to know how they’re organized. Not just their weapon systems, but how they think, how they make decisions.
Deterrence. There were really good thoughtful experts on deterrence in the seventies and eighties. Fifties, sixties, seventies, early eighties. We need that debated. We need that discussed right now. I don’t think it’s a lift, in other words, out of the Soviet Union versus the U.S., all we got to do is dust off some books and we’re there. This is a much different view on deterrence going forward. I don’t think any single approach to deterrence is going to work. But deterrence by punishment and deterrence by denial, in other words, aren’t off the table, but they’re not enough.
What about deterrence by entanglement? What about deterrence by detection? What about all the different variations that we ought to think about? Those need to be debated. Those have to be discussed. Those have to be tried. What does deterrence by entanglement mean? What does deterrence by detection mean in practice? What does it mean, in the context, in other words, of not an open, hot conflict, but in gray zone every week, active campaigning … what’s going to work? Because from one argument, you could say that deterrence has worked. We’re not at war with China or Russia today, or Iran, so deterrence is working.
I think that’s too simplistic a read, because if they’re advancing their objectives and ours are eroding, I would argue that deterrence is not working. It is working from a literal, “we’re not at hot war with them,” but it’s not working if their objectives are moving forward, and ours are moving backwards. I don’t think that’s winning at all. A different conversation, a wide-open conversation about things like deterrence, but not just at the strategic level, but no, down at the tactical level. What does that mean? What does your unit do to deter?
Third, I just offer one other. We’ve become not lazy, but very comfortable in logistics, because we could. But we have to have a conversation about how we’re going to do logistics in a contested environment, where they can threaten everything from the internet in the U.S., that stitches together our production lines and our supply chains, all the way in the U.S., all the way forward. Well, okay, if all that now is under threat, how do we do logistics? How do we sustain the force? How do we distribute supplies? How do we move the force? These are things I think War on the Rocks and the readers and thinkers can help us get after.
RYAN EVANS (51:04): Thank you. Yeah, I think those are great topics. It also reminds me, your last point, especially, Cathal Nolan wrote this great book called the Allure of Battle a couple years ago. I don’t know if you read it, but it’s an amazing book. But one of the arguments that he makes is that great-power wars, historically, are not decided by a decisive battle or a brilliant general, but rather by which power is able to stay in the fight longer through financial stability, political stability, and also logistics and supply. And I worry that we are assuming, and I’m using “we” in an intentionally very vague sense, that this would be a short war. When in fact, it might be a very long one. And how do we sustain ourselves logistically and through other means throughout that process? I worry we’re not thinking enough about that.
A couple personal questions. Imagine this scenario: You’re sitting in civilian clothes, and you end up meeting a young person who’s considering a career in the military, but they’re not sure. They don’t know a lot about the military, the different services. You can tell that person, that young person, one story from your career to inspire them to join the Marine Corps. What’s that story?
GEN. DAVID BERGER (52:12): Wow. When I was a lieutenant colonel, a battalion commander, at Camp Lejeune. There’s parts of the military that are on a high state of readiness, and you rotate. Your unit may have it for a couple months, and then his unit, and then mine. For this period of time, our unit was on that high state of readiness alert, in case there was a crisis around the world. 10:00, 10:30 at night on Sunday night, get a phone call: Come in. Can’t talk about it over the phone. So I went in, and it turns out we have to deploy the whole battalion plus more. And we got to be in the air in 16 hours. Those are things that you live for. That kind of challenge.
In other words, that opportunity brings together everything that you join the Marine Corps for. It’s the unknown, it’s doing good for the country, it’s the chance to practice all the skills that you’re trained to do. You have to operate as a team. You can’t do it individually at all. And you’re going to figure it out, really, when you get there. You’re going to go in with all the training and the capability that you built up to that point, but you don’t know the situation on the ground. You’re going to have to adapt.
I don’t know where you get that rush anywhere else. That’s why we join the Marines, to get that one phone call on Sunday night, to go to the unknown on short notice, be in the air in 16 hours, land in some unfamiliar place where people are shooting at you, and sort it out. That’s a huge adrenaline rush.
RYAN EVANS (54:13): As you know, one of those units was recently deployed to Kabul, to assist in the evacuation. And I believe it was 12 Marines and one Navy corpsman lost in that tragic suicide bombing. We live in a very cynical age, and I think servicemembers are especially cynical for a lot of understandable reasons. And it’s something I’ve noticed a lot over the years, but something that really took me off guard in a really inspiring way, was the amount of unprompted admiration I heard expressed for those who were able — and even jealousy, in a sense — who were able to deploy there for a much more straightforward mission than the ones that service members have been tasked to accomplish over the last generation. And I find that very striking. And obviously, the loss of life was a huge tragedy, but I wonder if you’d be willing to talk about your personal reaction when you got that news?
GEN. DAVID BERGER (55:12): On the one hand, you know that the Marines knew the risks when they deployed there. And no one forced them: They volunteered, and they know what they’re in for. So, on the one hand, they’re doing what they’re trained to do, they’re doing what they volunteered to do, they’re doing it for all the right reasons. Of course, it is a gut punch when it happens, because these are young lives and families that are never going to recover from that pain. That bleeding is never going to stop, ever. It’s not like six months or a year later, it can be healed, like a wound that will close up. It never closes up completely at all.
The Marine Corps is pretty small. You know, personally, the leaders that are there. You know this is not their first rodeo. They’ve been in really hard spots before, in combat. So, there was no question in my mind that we did something wrong, immediately, because I know the commanders there, you have so much confidence in their decision-making that it’s not, wonder what went wrong. You know the caliber and the experience level of the leaders.
Those of us who have lost fellow servicemembers, and everything from the initial call to the family, which most of us have done personally, all the way to being a casualty assistance officer through the memorials, to the funerals — that’s a lifelong venture. And you know that when you get that phone call. This is going to be a lifelong thing. Later on, when you understand what actually happened there, it doesn’t make you feel any better inside, but the positives of it are, to your point: they were saving lives. To them, they knew exactly what they were doing, in other words. They were trying to save every life they could, while protecting the Marine on their left and on their right. That’s as complicated as it gets. Their focus is so clear.
It’s a very complex operating environment, but to them: Get out as many as we can. Protect my fellow marines. That’s what it’s about. It’s nothing higher or grander than that. At the root of it, we should never lose sight of that. They have to have a clear mission. We have to know that they’re trying to protect themselves, their fellow Marines, their brothers and sisters, all the time. But they took risks, as we always do, to get as many individuals out as they could. There’s a lot to be proud of as a nation and individually as a marine in that. What bigger values could you have than that?
RYAN EVANS (58:37): I stopped the interview right there, because I really couldn’t think of a better and more meaningful way to end this important episode. Thank you so much for listening to this episode of the War on the Rocks podcast. Be safe and healthy in the new year.
Image: U.S. Marine Corps (Photo by Sgt. Olivia Ortiz)