To briefly review some of the key points from the Commandant’s Guidance document, the Commandant …
- has made clear that he is willing to eliminate legacy assets to achieve his modernization goals.
- is advocating abandoning the long standing 38-ship amphibious fleet and 2 MEB lift requirement.
- has made clear his intention to control and influence more of the naval side of things by assigning more Marine Corps forces to the Fleet and putting Marine Corps experts in the fleet Maritime Operations Centers.
- recognizes that China is our main threat.
- recognizes that our forward deployed forces lack the combat capability to deter our enemies and persist in a contested environment.
- advocates for an extensive role in land based, forward deployed, sea control.
- desires affordable and numerous amphibious vessels over a few exquisite, large amphibious ships.
- wishes to explore absorbing traditional Navy functions such as coastal / riverine forces, naval construction forces, and mine countermeasure forces.
- sees expeditionary bases as a foundation of future war.
- strongly advocates dispersal of forces (distributed operations).
- will eliminate all Marine Corps wargaming efforts except for the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory. (1, p.18)
Here’s the problem with all this: it’s one man’s opinion and it’s an opinion that is not backed up by much experience (the concepts, not his personal service record) or experimentation and he’s brooking no professional disagreement or diversity of thought. It’s his way or the highway and alternative thinkers are not welcome.
If he’s correct about his vision and path then he’ll drag the Marines into a better future in one, sudden convulsion. On the other hand, if he’s wrong he’ll set the Marines back for decades to come.
So, which is it? Is he right or wrong?
Well, there’s only two ways to know. One, is to have a war and see if he was right. Two, is to conduct extensive wargame experimentation before implementation. The problem with the first way, war, is obvious – if he’s wrong, it will be too late to change. The problem with the second way is that he has already decided to fully commit without supporting evidence and experimentation and the experimentation he’s going to conduct is, without a doubt, going to be pre-determined. He’s basically stated that. He’s already determined that the experimentation will support his vision and all that’s left is to tweak the ‘how to implement’ issues around the periphery.
In short, the Commandant is Adm. Rickover but with even more power. He has the vision and everyone else can shut up and join him or leave the service.
There is much to like about the Commandant’s vision but there is also much to question. As a general statement, I like his recognition of the current problems. He has a much clearer grasp of the problems than any of his predecessors. What I have trouble with is his general solution which is to embrace distributed, penny packet, expeditionary forces. It is very difficult to see how scattered, small units and fantasy expeditionary bases are going to defeat a peer enemy. Honestly, it seems like this is a budget grab and an attempt to remain relevant in a Chinese/Pacific war.
Let’s look a bit closer at a few of the specific issues that are questionable.
I don’t have any particular problem in abandoning the traditional big deck, amphibious fleet since I’ve stated repeatedly that I don’t see any strategic or operational need for amphibious assaults in any reasonable scenario. While I agree with the movement away from large amphibious fleets, I completely disagree with where the Marine’s redirected emphasis seems to be going which is towards distributed, small units. I’ve repeatedly posted about the folly of small units in a peer war so I won’t belabor it further, here.
Berger wants to eliminate legacy systems that have little or no “demand signal”. (1, p.15) The flaw in this logic is that many (most?) high end, peer war systems have no “demand signal” outside of actual war. A system or asset may be of no use in the peacetime, low threat operations and conflicts we typically engage in but might be critically important in a high end, peer war. To eliminate those systems based on lack of ‘demand signal’ is potentially foolhardy and shortsighted.
There is a strong sense that Berger will ruthlessly eliminate any alternative thinking or disagreement. For example, the elimination of all forms of wargaming other than the single Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory is troubling in that it certainly seems as if the intention is to stifle alternative thinking, experimentation , and dissent. This single, strictly controlled wargame effort suggests that outcomes will be pre-ordained to support his theories and philosophies.
He essentially says that all communications must strictly adhere to his published decrees. As he flatly states,
We must communicate with precision and consistency, based on a common focus and a unified message. (1)
I interpret this to mean that no alternative thinking or discussion will be allowed. While I recognize the importance of unity and focus of effort, there is a very fine line between unity and suppression of thought. If Berger’s approach is wrong, who will speak out?
The Commandant has made clear that he is intent on injecting the Marines into the Navy’s business. The Marines have recently been telling the Navy how to design ships, what type of ships are needed, and how to fight and it appears that Berger intends to not only continue this trend but formalize it by inserting Marine officers into the Navy command structure where and when he can. The only thing more disturbing than this trend is the Navy’s apparent acquiescence to it. Further, Berger’s comments about absorbing Navy functions into the Corps is worrisome in the extreme and, again, smacks of empire building.
Berger strongly supports forward, dispersed, expeditionary forces and bases. This is a very questionable approach, as we’ve discussed in previous posts. This concerns me more than anything else because it is the foundation of how the Marines will structure their forces and how they will fight. If this is wrong – and I believe it is – then the entire Marine Corps is wrong. This ties back to the wargaming and free discussion, both of which appear as if they will be rigidly controlled and regulated. Without any alternative thinking, erroneous approaches become impossible to correct and this is the path I fear the Marines are headed down.
To summarize and repeat, there is much to like about the Commandant’s guidance but also much to be concerned about. If Berger is right, the Marines have a bright future but if he is wrong the Marines are in for decades of problems and irrelevancy in a war. The check and balance on this kind of revolutionary change in approach should be free and open wargaming and discussion but Berger seems determined to eliminate any dissenting voices. This is extremely worrisome.
(1)“Commandant’s Planning Guidance, 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps”, General David H. Berger, Issued July 2019