The first thing that jumped out at me was the Commandant’s personal impetus for the radical changes he intends to make. We are all shaped by our experiences and it is natural to wonder what experiences shaped this Commandant to the degree that he believes a wholesale remake of the Corps is called for. Well, he lays out what motivated him.
That prioritization was the result of my direct participation in five years of naval and global war games while the Commanding General of I MEF, Commander of Marine Corps Forces Pacific, and Deputy Commandant for Combat Development and Integration. Those war games helped shape my conclusion that modest and incremental improvements to our existing force structure and legacy capabilities would be insufficient to overcome evolving threat capabilities, nor would they enable us to develop forces required to execute our approved naval concepts. (1)
So, the primary driving force that shaped the Commandant’s views is five years of war games. This leads to a couple of thoughts.
It would have been nice to see a nod to history as a driver/shaper of his views since he has no actual peer level combat experience to draw on. Why not draw on the lessons of those who did experience peer combat? Now, I’ve got to be fair and acknowledge that the purpose of the FD 2030 was not to detail the Commandant’s life story and all the things that have influenced him so he may well be a student of history, however, the military, today, seems not to study history and seems to have no desire to partake of the lessons of historical combat and, lacking a specific nod to history from the Commandant, I lump him into the same category.
War games are wonderful tools, however, they suffer from one huge weakness and that is that the value of the game is a direct reflection of the value of the opposing force that is programmed into the game. In other words, garbage assumptions in … garbage results out (GIGO). Unfortunately, the military has a reputation for unrealistic games with pre-ordained results. Were the Commandant’s five years of gaming a series of well designed, accurate, open, free play exercises or were they the usual scripted, pre-ordained games? Is the Commandant’s basis for overhauling the Corps founded on good war games or the usual GIGO games?
Troublingly, assuming that the Commandant wasn’t playing these war games by himself, why is he the only one to come to the conclusion that the Marines need to be radically overhauled? Of all the game participants, he’s the only one who has come to that conclusion, at least publicly. Did everyone else draw the wrong conclusions and only he drew the right one? That’s possible but not likely. You’ve got to wonder if the Commandant is the outlier.
Now, just because he’s the only one to reach his conclusion does not necessarily mean he’s wrong. Having a solitary, contrary position in the face of institutional opposition is kind of the definition of a visionary. However, it’s also kind of the definition of a lunatic. So, which one is the Commandant? I have my opinion and you can form your own.
Finally, my colleague over at SNAFU website raises the question of war games and asks how bad the results must have been to motivate the Commandant to embark on such radical changes?
The war games that led to USMC Force Design 2030 must have been awful...
War games obviously showed us getting smashed...or in a fight so hard that it stunned participants. (2)
SNAFU’s take on the war games is thought provoking, for sure, but there may be another explanation. Instead of the games demonstrating that the Marines were ‘smashed’, I think it’s far more likely that the games demonstrated that the Marines, in their current form, simply weren’t needed and played no significant role. That would, indeed, stun the Commandant because that would be a direct threat to the Marine’s relevance and budget slice. A budgetary threat would induce a survival instinct reaction in any modern general and I suspect the Commandant’s restructuring response is more about restructuring the Marines to be budget relevant than to be combat relevant. That the two may (or may not) go hand in hand is just fortuitous.
Moving on …
One concern I’ve had from day one of the Commandant’s tenure is the degree of insularity that he has manifested. This reshaping of the Corps is his and his alone. He has actively discouraged and limited input from any other source than himself. This breeds an inevitable “emperor’s clothes” mentality. We see this demonstrated in the Commandant’s initial efforts:
Phase I focused on problem framing, began in July 2019, and centered on a small operational planning team (OPT) that worked directly with me to establish an initial visualization of the future force … (1)
Noteworthy is that the Commandant did not range out to seek input but, rather, concentrated inward with just a small group whose thoughts and actions he could control – ‘a small operational planning team that worked directly with me’.
Another troubling aspect of the FD 2030 related to the suspect nature of the war gaming is the lack of actual exercises supporting the conclusions already drawn.
Limited experimentation has been conducted upon discrete elements of the future force utilizing approved naval concepts, to include some carefully constrained tests of the ability of the F-35B to operate and be sustained from austere, undeveloped landing sites.
A single, limited-objective experiment addressing aspects of the organization, training, and equipment of a Marine infantry battalion was conducted … (1)
So, suspect war games and limited and constrained real world exercises are the foundation of this radical change? Does that seem wise?
To be fair, the FD 2030 acknowledges the need for further exercises.
We will need to conduct full-scale, empirically-based experimentation of the future force in realistic maritime and littoral terrain. (1)
Unfortunately, the course has already been set. The Commandant has already begun the overhaul of the Corps and future exercises will be too late to alter the trajectory. The exercises should have been conducted prior to committing to the overhaul, not after. Again, this demonstrates that the Commandant has already made up his mind and done so with scant, reliable input from any source other than his own experience.
Berger notes that F-35 numbers are, as yet, unknown.
I am not convinced that we have a clear understanding yet of F-35 capacity requirements for the future force. (1)
I assume this means that the Commandant is not yet sure how many F-35s he wants. This seems slightly at odds with his stated plan to reduce squadron numbers from 16 aircraft to 10 unless he’s possibly anticipating further cuts?
Berger goes on to state that ‘ground tactical combat vehicles’ will undergo further reductions not identified in the initial cuts.
Addressing land based anti-ship missiles which will become the focus of the Marine Corps under the Commandant’s plan, he had this to say,
This requirement is based on one of the more well-supported conclusions from wargaming analysis conducted to date. (1)
That Berger believes this to be one of the more well-supported conclusions from the war games suggests to me that the games were pre-ordained to produce this result. The illogic of the concept would seem to be evident from any realistic war game so the strongly positive result suggests that the games were not realistic.
For decades, the Marines have been focused on a replacement for the venerable AAV and have finally settled on the ACV despite proclaiming that the era of amphibious assaults is over. If amphibious assaults are a thing of the past, why does the Corps need ACVs? The logical discontinuity, here, is breathtaking. Berger, at least, seems to recognize this and states that Amphibious Combat Vehicles (ACV) will be reduced by some unspecified number.
One fact from Berger’s document comes through with absolute clarity and that is his commitment of the Marine Corps to a concept of distributed operations (DO). Addressing the notion of a redesigned infantry battalion, he notes,
We must conduct more live-force experimentation to ensure our proposed design results in a truly DO-capable force. (1)
His focus is unerringly on distributed operations.
Now, here is a breathtaking summary of uncertainty.
I am not confident that we have identified the additional structure required to provide the tactical maneuver and logistical sustainment needed to execute DMO, LOCE and EABO in contested littoral environments against our pacing threat. While not an afterthought by any means, I do not believe our Phase I and II efforts gave logistics sufficient attention. (1)
Berger acknowledges that the foundational sustainment of penny packet forces, in enemy territory, may well be inadequate. This is exactly one of my primary objections to the concept. Despite his doubts, he has already fully committed the Corps to the concept !!!!!!! Essentially, he’s saying, I’m not sure this can work but we’re going to do it anyway. This is not rational thinking.
What happens when Berger’s own commissioned study produces results he doesn’t like? He responds, thusly,
The Phase II IPT seems to have produced an incrementally improved version of today’s 3-ship ARG/MEU. This vision falls short of our future needs. We cannot accept or accede to recommendations for incremental change or better versions of legacy capabilities … (1)
His own study produced a result he didn’t want so he’s ignoring it. This man is accepting no outside input that is not exactly in line with his own thinking. This is dangerous.
What does Berger need in the future to support his objectives? For one, more war gaming. However, it will be carefully controlled, pre-ordained gaming.
To further refine and develop our understanding of force design changes, I am directing the immediate implementation of an intensive program of iterative concept refinement, wargaming, analysis and simulation, and experimentation. I will be personally involved in and responsible for setting priorities and ensuring that necessary resources are made available for this effort. (1) [emphasis added]
It is clear that Berger is not going to allow any war game to produce a result that does not support his vision.
What makes analyzing this Commandant a challenge is that he’s not completely wrong. If he were a total idiot then it would be easy to analyze his failings and write him off as a crackpot. However, much of what he observes in the world and much of what he says is spot on. His analysis of the challenges and shortcomings of the current Marine Corps force structure is largely correct. Where he fails is in his solutions to those problems. In other words, he sees the problem but fails in the answer.
Along with his recognition of China as the main threat, here’s some more examples of his observations that are absolutely correct:
“… an array of low signature, affordable, and risk-worthy platforms …”
“…create the virtues of mass without the vulnerabilities of concentration …”
“…foreign humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and noncombatant evacuations do not define us – they are not our identity.”
“There is no avoiding attrition. In contingency operations against peer adversaries, we will lose aircraft, ships, ground tactical vehicles, and personnel. Force resilience – the ability of a force to absorb loss and continue to operate decisively – is critical.”
If only his solution was as good as his analysis of the problem!
We’ve discussed the enormous degree of fantasy involved in believing that you can insert, supply, and operate sea control forces inside enemy territory without the enemy observing and destroying you. I have yet to hear the Commandant explain how this can successfully happen. In fact, he explicitly acknowledges that the logistical support for such operations is likely inadequate and yet he is fully committed to the concept. This is not rational.
Commandant Berger comes so close to being exactly what the Marines need in a leader and yet he falls so far short of the right answer that he will ruin the Marines as a relevant, capable fighting force.
(1)”Force Design 2030”, Department of the Navy, Mar-2020
(2)SNAFU website, “The war games that led to USMC Force Design 2030 must have been awful...”, posted by Solomon, 28-Mar-2020,https://www.snafu-solomon.com/2020/03/the-war-games-that-led-to-usmc-force.html