Note: page number references are provided in the following discussion, for your convenience.
The document seems to be starting from the premise of Berger’s predecessor, Commandant Neller, who stated,
The Marine Corps is not organized, trained, equipped, or postured to meet the demands of the rapidly evolving future operating environment. (p.1)
This Commandant seems to be taking the statement to heart and looking to modify the Corps to be able to meet the requirements of future combat, as he sees them. Fair enough. Let’s run through some of the major changes.
Force design is my number one priority. … We will divest of legacy defense programs and force structure that support legacy capabilities. If provided the opportunity to secure additional modernization dollars in exchange for force structure, I am prepared to do so. (p.2)
This seems to be suggesting that extensive termination of legacy equipment and capabilities is coming. Potentially, this is a very good thing as all the services have extensive legacy equipment and capabilities that are ill-suited to our next war – with China directly or Chinese proxies. The danger here is that what Berger deems unusable legacy capabilities may actually be quite useful. One such example is tanks. The Marines have been shedding tanks both from inventory (meaning active units) and from deployment with tanks being left out of the inventory of deployed ARG/MEUs. There is a worrisome trend in the military, today, to eliminate or de-emphasize firepower in favor of data and networks. As we’ve discussed repeatedly, this is misguided, to put it politely. Since the guidance document offers no specifics, we’ll have to wait and see what gets cut and what gets emphasized.
This also raises a larger question. The changes called for in the guidance document look to be substantial, sweeping, and revolutionary. That begs the question, are they wise? This is all going to happen based on the views of one person, Gen. Berger. If he’s right that’s great but if he’s wrong we could see the Corps irreparably harmed for decades to come. For example, this Commandant seems to be continuing and reinforcing his predecessor’s attempt to become part of the naval campaign – a very questionable proposition that duplicates many existing naval capabilities to no good purpose. An example of the duplication is Berger’s statement that he sees value in the ‘Lightning Carrier’ (the F-35B LHA) (p.3). This is an attempt to move in on the carrier budget with a decidedly inferior capability compared to the Nimitz/Ford.
There has been no discussion of the proposed changes nor has the Commandant invited any discussion. In fact, the tone of the document strongly suggests that discussion will be actively discouraged. That’s never a good thing. This is the Emperor’s Clothes scenario. Given the history of Navy and Marine leadership, my confidence that this one person has the right vision for the Corps is very low.
Moving on …
The Commandant describes the organizational force emphasis.
The Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) will remain our principal warfighting organization; … III MEF will become our main focus-of-effort, designed to provide U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (U.S. INDOPACOM) and the Commander, 7th Fleet with a fight-tonight, standin force capability to persist inside an adversary’s weapon systems threat range, create a mutually contested space, and facilitate the larger naval campaign. (p.3)
Nice to see that he recognizes that China is the main threat. Disturbing to see, again, the attempt to move in on the Navy responsibilities by ‘facilitating the larger naval campaign’. Commandant, you’re not in the naval campaign business. Stay in your lane.
Forward deployed forces are addressed.
The majority of defense professionals continue to support our conclusions regarding the efficacy of forward deployed forces …
This is not intended to be a defense of the status quo as our forces currently forward deployed lack the requisite capabilities to deter our adversaries and persist in a contested space to facilitate sea denial. (p.3)
Again, good and bad. The good is that the Commandant recognizes that our currently forward deployed forces are incapable and bad that, despite that evidence, he wants to continue the practice. The key will be how and whether he can make those forces more capable.
One avenue the Commandant suggests, and another example of duplicating capabilities, is using HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) to launch anti-ship missiles. (p.3) I have yet to hear anyone elucidate a viable CONOPS for such a capability. Sensors, in particular, are a weak link that no one has addressed.
Regarding the amphibious force structure, the Commandant makes a noteworthy and wise statement.
We must continue to seek the affordable and plentiful at the expense of the exquisite and few when conceiving of the future amphibious portion of the fleet. (p.4)
He recognizes that our forces are too concentrated and represent too big a risk,
… illogical to continue to concentrate our forces on a few large ships. The adversary will quickly recognize that striking while concentrated (aboard ship) is the preferred option. (p.4)
and calls for more numerous and lower end transport ships so, good for that. However, he then continues his expansion into trying to run the Navy with this statement,
… the Navy and Marine Corps must ensure larger surface combatants possess mission agility… (p.4)
I’m sorry but when did it become the Marine’s job to define larger surface combatant capabilities? He then blatantly states that he’s looking to expand the Marines by absorbing some traditional Navy responsibilities.
… we must engage in a more robust discussion regarding naval expeditionary forces and
capabilities not currently resident within the Marine Corps such as coastal / riverine forces, naval construction forces, and mine countermeasure forces. We must ask ourselves whether it is prudent to absorb some of those functions, forces, and capabilities to create a single naval expeditionary force whereby the Commandant could better ensure their readiness and resourcing. (p.4)
He’s flat out saying that he thinks the Marines should be running chunks of the Navy and that he, the Commandant, is the person best able to run portions of the Navy. Simply stunning! The various services have always had a battle for budget slice and responsibilities but this is a naked power grab.
The Commandant then rules out traditional amphibious assaults.
Visions of a massed naval armada nine nautical miles off-shore in the South China Sea preparing to launch the landing force in swarms of ACVs, LCUs, and LCACs are impractical and unreasonable. (p.5)
Okay, that being the case, why are the Marines buying ACVs? Why are we maintaining a large amphibious fleet that costs untold billions of dollars to buy and operate? To be fair, the Commandant notes that the current amphibious fleet is not ideal.
He also correctly notes the vulnerability of the MPF fleet.
Maritime Prepositioning Force (MPF) … our MPF ships would be highly vulnerable and difficult to protect. (p.5)
Disturbingly, the Commandant seems totally committed to the mythical, hidden, forward operating base, dubbed Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO).
EABO enable naval forces to partner and persist forward to control and deny contested areas where legacy naval forces cannot be prudently employed without accepting disproportionate risk. (p.11)
This is exactly the kind of vague, near-magical capability that the Marines have been claiming without ever explaining how such a base will be maintained, supplied, and conduct significant operations all while remaining hidden and immune from enemy fires. Until someone can explain that, this concept will remain pure fantasy. The belief that this kind of base can perform all manner of combat miracles while ‘legacy naval forces cannot be prudently employed’ is wishful thinking at its most extreme.
The intrusion into naval matters continues,
We must develop capabilities to facilitate sea denial and sea control … (p.13)
Again, the Marine’s responsibility is forcible entry and actions from the sea, not sea denial and sea control. The Marines lack the ability to execute their own responsibilities let alone intruding on the Navy’s. Again, this intrusion is a budget grab, pure and simple.
In summary, the Commandant clearly has a vision for the Corps – a significantly different vision than any of his predecessors and he makes it clear that he has no interest in entertaining any discussion of his planned changes. That’s a very risky position to take. Dissent or disagreement is stamped out and rigidity is codified. If his changes are all correct then … great. If not, no one will tell him and, even if they do, he’s making it clear that he won’t listen.
To be fair, there is much to like in the document. Many aspects of it have been discussed in this blog and I wholeheartedly approve. However, there is much that is quite disturbing. The systematic grab of naval responsibilities is the most troubling and is already leading to inefficient duplication of capabilities while neglecting core capabilities and missions.
For better or worse, this Commandant seems determined to radically change the Marine Corps for decades to come.
(1)Commandant’s Planning Guidance, 2019, https://www.hqmc.marines.mil/Portals/142/Docs/%2038th%20Commandant's%20Planning%20Guidance_2019.pdf?ver=2019-07-16-200152-700