Let the Commandant Lead the Marine Corps
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger is under siege. From former senator, secretary of the Navy, and decorated Marine Corps veteran Jim Webb to living Marine Corps legend Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, the criticisms of his Force Design 2030 have been loud and comprehensive. On April 1, Politico reported, “an influential group of over two dozen retired generals have launched a counteroffensive against his plans to transform the Marine Corps.” Most recently, rather than denigrating Berger’s vision and ambition, former Marine infantry officer and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict Owen West highlighted process issues surrounding how Force Design 2030 was designed and implemented.
Gen. Berger has ignited what one observer characterized as an intellectual civil war within the Marine Corps. Criticism has been directed along two fronts: the aggressive reforms themselves and how the commandant developed them. The contempt for Force Design 2030 stems in considerable measure from perceptions that the future Marine Corps will be too narrowly focused on China and, in a future fight against the People’s Liberation Army, rely far too heavily on advanced technology instead of the tenacity and prowess of marines themselves. On the process side, critics argue that the commandant made decisions in a black box under the influence of groupthink and without open experimentation and testing.
By historical standards, Gen. Berger’s ongoing reforms to the service are extreme: cutting infantry battalions, shrinking cannon artillery in favor of rocket batteries, cutting heavy armor in favor of light armor, and reducing heavy-lift and light/attack helicopter squadrons. However, these changes do align with the service’s proud legacy of radical innovation and adaptation. Moreover, these changes also align with senior Pentagon civilian directives to the Marine Corps over the past five years. These changes are also strongly supported by Congress, as key leaders on Capitol Hill have urged Pentagon leaders to concentrate specifically on the rapidly growing threat from the Chinese Communist Party.
The Marine Corps has endured precisely because it has always been prescient in seeing the battlefield of the future and swiftly adjusting its force design and operational concepts accordingly. While Vladimir Putin’s Russia has demonstrated its capacity to redirect Washington’s attention to European security, its abysmal military performance in Ukraine has confirmed that China is America’s most critical and comprehensive national security threat. The reforms proposed by Force Design 2030 are essential to confronting China and, despite many assaults from retired leaders, they have already received significant public support and ultimately fit with the Marine Corps’ prized tradition of adapting to survive. Gen. Berger’s critics should give him the breathing space required to fight this fight.
Adaptation in Asia
The Marine Corps’ ability to adapt to a previous rising power in Asia and check its seemingly unstoppable advance is one of the main reasons it still exists. In 1911, the Joint Army and Navy Board developed War Plan Orange, which laid the foundation for the island-hopping campaign that soldiers, sailors, and Marines would later execute as they fought across the Pacific toward Japan’s home islands. Maj. Earl Ellis updated the plan in 1921 to include the employment of modern naval platforms and weapon systems. This document — Plan 712, Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia — forms the doctrinal basis for the new expeditionary advanced base operations concept.
The Solomon Islands campaign that began in mid-1942 and lasted until early 1943 marked the Allies’ first large-scale land offensive against the Empire of Japan. In a series of battles near Lunga Point on the island of Guadalcanal, men of the 1st Marine Division, fighting both the jungle and the Japanese army, earned legendary status for their heroic defense against relentless enemy human-wave attacks.
It is thus both timely and alarming that while the Marine Corps is in the throes of such a heated debate over its future, a resurgent China is taking a page from the Imperial Japanese playbook by strategically acquiring access to many of the same islands Marines fought so fiercely to retake eight decades ago. In late March, a draft was leaked of an alleged new security pact between the Solomon Islands and China. The agreement provides Beijing with a wide-ranging mandate to intervene in support of both the domestic political regime and China’s broad interests in the country.
The Solomon Islands is not the only Pacific Island nation that Beijing has courted. Papua New Guinea, famous in Marine Corps lore for the Bougainville Island campaign of World War II, has long been a target. Chinese plans to finance the development of a port on Manus Island, located 1000 kilometers northwest of Bougainville, caught the United States and Australia off guard. While the two governments successfully thwarted this move, the recent Solomon Islands agreement demonstrates the inevitability of Chinese army overseas base expansion which necessitates a Marine Corps that can fight and win intense island warfare.
Rising to China’s Challenge
There are exceptionally few people outside of the U.S. intelligence community who understand the full capabilities of the Chinese military and, more specifically, its refurbished and reformed Rocket Force. The Department of Defense has no analog to this service and, for decades, has been limited by the restrictions of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. It is precisely in the weapon systems that this treaty prohibits where China has established unmatched dominance. By optimizing its wide array of anti-ship cruise missiles and engineering a new type of weapon system, the anti-ship ballistic missile, and then maximizing the number of delivery systems able to employ them, the Chinese military has developed a highly effective strategy to blunt the pointy spear of America’s force projection capabilities, which rely on exquisite, expensive, and hard to reproduce platforms. The rocket force has a multi-domain targeting solution for nearly all of them. Traditional areas where the U.S. military used to operate with impunity, such as the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea, would, in the event of a conflict, become so saturated with Chinese missiles that American losses would be catastrophic. Thus, in any future contingency off the Chinese coast, America’s most advanced weapon systems will be forced to operate at such an extreme standoff distance that they will be effectively useless. The Pentagon’s wargames have shown how terrible the joint force might perform in a war with China over Taiwan.
All the military services have individual plans and novel concepts to operate against the Chinese military. Yet only the Marine Corps, via Force Design 2030 and its associated operating concept of expeditionary advanced basing, is innovative and aggressive enough to succeed in a future fight with China. What distinguishes Gen. Berger’s plans for the Marine Corps of 2030 is a willingness to operate within the range of the Chinese rocket force and its other strike forces, as stand-in forces. This understanding and acknowledgment of the Chinese threat and plan to mitigate operational losses represents America’s first credible military countermove to the Chinese precision strike counter-intervention strategy.
In his critique of Force Design 2030, former Marine infantry officer John Schmitt acknowledged the threat posed by Chinese long-range anti-access weapons systems but exuded confidence that “U.S. forces will develop tactics to defeat the anti-access system, just as they developed the tactics necessary to seize fortified islands in the Pacific in the Second World War.” Yet, the U.S. military did not wait until Japan attacked Pearl Harbor to prepare the concepts and tactics necessary to prevail. It foresaw the coming conflict and created the conditions required to win. When will U.S. forces develop the tactics needed to defeat China if not now? This notion that they will figure it out when the time comes forgoes the benefits of realistic combat training the Marine Corps is currently executing in preparation for a future war.
In the absence of an element that is both willing and capable of operating within range of the Chinese forces, the United States would be leaving its forces in Asia vulnerable to attack. The Navy knows its carriers and surface combatants are highly vulnerable and, aware that they cannot be replaced expediently, will not risk a rocket force missile barrage. The Air Force lacks the forward basing to support the extreme combat ranges that any fight off the Chinese coast will demand. The Army’s infantry brigade combat teams are too heavy for it to surge its soldiers and equipment into the theater rapidly. America’s special operations forces are not properly trained and equipped to fight the Chinese military conventionally at scale. The Marine Corps is America’s only fighting force taking the steps necessary to fill this role. Rather than relying on America’s prime defense contractors to marginally increase the ranges of decades-old platforms and weapon systems, the Marine Corps is asking if its legacy arms and concepts are even relevant in a fight against China. The service prides itself on being “the most ready when the nation is least ready.” Given the clear need within the Department of Defense for an organization to fill this glaring operational gap, why shouldn’t we expect and want the Marine Corps, as it has countless times in the past, to rise to the challenge?
Recognizing the Need for Reform
Even as it was taking ground in the Middle East over the last two decades, the Marine Corps was losing institutional relevance to the U.S. Army and U.S. Special Operations Command. Since its island-hopping campaign in WWII, what has distinguished Marine Corps operations from its Army counterpart? Fellow jarheads will inevitably make the case that, juxtaposed with soldiers, Marines have been far more effective. Yet this assertion only leads to the uncomfortable realization that U.S. Special Operations Command, in the same period, has bureaucratically outmaneuvered and outperformed the conventional Marine Corps on the battlefield. While the Marine Corps often boasts of fielding the best light-infantry force in the world, the 75th Ranger Regiment would undoubtedly beg to differ. Infantry assaults (ground and heliborne), raids, conventional defense, military operations in urban terrain, and long-range reconnaissance have been subsumed into other branches of the military. What, then, can the Marine Corps still call its own?
Gen. Berger was not the first commandant to highlight the need for across-the-board reform for the institution to maintain both relevance and combat proficiency. The same Politico article that highlighted the “revolt of the generals” noted these force-wide institutional changes did not begin with the current commandant but rather his predecessor. In testimony to Congress in June 2017, Gen. Robert Neller, as commandant, made clear the Marine Corps was ill-prepared for the coming fight:
In the last year, we invested considerable time and energy formulating the Marine Corps Operating Concept and its supporting Marine Corps Force 2025 initiative. These institutional efforts were spurred by a critical self-assessment that revealed the Marine Corps is not organized, trained, equipped, or postured to meet the demands of the rapidly evolving future operating environment … The Marine Corps must modernize and change to deter conflict, compete and, when necessary, fight and win against our adversaries.
Stephen LaRose, a Marine infantryman and member of the Close Combat Lethality Task Force, knows better than just about anyone what the Marine Corps needs at the tactical level. His recent commentary disputes the claim that Force Design 2030 has not been subject to rigid and realistic experimentation. In a direct rebuttal to the commandant’s critics and a nod to the Marine Corps’ indispensable value in a China fight, LaRose writes, “Gen. David Berger’s Force Design 2030 is doing more than any other military service’s plan to realize Mattis’ intent on close-combat lethality.”
Outside of Marine Corps channels, the commandant has backing from the commander responsible for deploying and operationally maneuvering U.S. military forces in the event of a conflict with China. During testimony in front of the House Armed Services Committee in March, Indo-Pacific Command Commander Adm. John Aquilino expressed clear support for expeditionary advanced basing, the emerging Marine littoral regiment construct, and the speed at which Gen. Berger was implementing these concepts. It is important to note, given the criticism that Gen. Berger’s reforms only apply in the Indo-Pacific, that the head of U.S. European Command, Gen. Todd Wolters, also recently emphasized to the House Armed Services Committee the critical importance that they are already having in the most contested littoral regions in Europe.
From a resourcing standpoint, Congress has also shown a willingness to support and fund Force Design 2030. And not all Marine veterans agree with the harsh appraisals of service-wide reform. In a late May Wall Street Journal opinion piece co-signed by their fellow marines in Congress, Rep. Seth Moulton and Rep. Michael Gallagher directly challenged critics by arguing that Gen. Berger’s plan “restores the Marines to their original and most sacred mission: the maritime defense of America and its allies. And it ensures that even in a new era of warfare the Marines are still the first to fight.”
A Tradition of Innovation
Every marine is familiar with the phrase “improvise, adapt, and overcome.” Having internalized the challenge that the organization has no right to exist because it simply represents a “second land army,” the Marine Corps has always found a way to be the military force America both wanted and needed. Gen. Berger’s vision for the Marine Corps of 2030 sets it up for success on both fronts.
The commandant is not changing the organization’s core tenet of leveraging combined arms to locate, close with, and destroy the enemy. Rather, he is simply modernizing the combined arms concept by incorporating new tools of war and divesting those no longer operationally relevant based on the gravest contemporary threat. Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, deputy commandant for combat development and integration and former I Marine Expeditionary Force commander, summed this up in early May: “Combined arms is more than towed cannon artillery, tanks, and aviation. It’s information, cyber, and space … We always, always build to the worst-case scenario, which in this case, is clearly China.”
Rather than an attack on new capabilities and concepts, it seems the Commandant’s critics are responding to what they see as an assault on the culture and spirit of the Corps they love. Retired Army officer Tom Hanson recently explained this perceived institutional affront as being driven “from a perception that Berger’s plan challenges the Corps’ culture and is ‘antithetical to the Marine Corps’ sense of identity.’”
Despite its outward appearance of rigidity, the Marine Corps, both past and present, has been well-served by its incubation of a culture where well-informed debate is both welcome and vital to its continued success. Disagreement, failure, and experimentation in peace and wartime have been invaluable to the service’s ability to out-think and outmaneuver America’s adversaries. Criticism and divergence over specific aspects Force Design 2030 should be debated and addressed, to include the claims and critiques offered by Owen West in these pages.
But the Marine Corps has also benefited from unquestioned deference to hierarchical authority once a command decision is made and orders are issued. Undercutting confidence in the commandant’s leadership and undermining financial support from Capitol Hill is inimical to the interests of marines, the Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, and American national security. If Washington lets the commandant execute and fund his plan while respectfully providing constructive feedback as it is implemented, the Marine Corps of 2030 — equipped with America’s best technology, armed with theater and mission-specific weapon systems, and expertly trained on their tactical integration and employment — can be the lethal force the U.S. needs to give China pause. And if conflict occurs, it will effectively operate within and subsequently destroy China’s counter-intervention bubble to facilitate the U.S. military’s freedom to operate.
Nicholas Hanson is a joint-degree MPP and MBA candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the Harvard Business School. He graduated with distinction from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2011, served as a ground intelligence officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, and made rotations to East, Southeast, and South Asia.