Commandant Berger was a guest speaker on a USNI Proceedings podcast (1) and discussed his vision of Marines conducting ASW. A link to the podcast is referenced below. It’s around 44 minutes and is well worth listening to. It offers some insight and perspective on the Commandant’s thinking on ASW and a number of other topics. I’ll examine the Commandant’s statements and see what insights we can gain. The podcast timeframes are listed with each quote, for those who wish to hear it for themselves.
The Commandant started by laying out the basis for his motivation and he cited Title 10 and his desire to support naval campaigns. Of course, the cynical might see that support as a budget grab more than a core belief.
More specifically, his rationale for involving the Marines in ASW is that precision strike has eliminated any inherent advantage the surface Navy has. However, he believes that the Navy retains a significant advantage in undersea warfare and wants to help ‘maintain and grow’ that advantage and sees Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) as the means to do that.
Berger acknowledges that most of the EABO discussions and planning were classified or not publicized, leaving observers to form their own idea about what his vision is – the implication being that observers are wrong. I got the sense that Berger felt that the lack of public support – or out and out opposition and criticism – was unfair. Well, that’s what you get when you operate in total secrecy. If you want support, you have to provide at least some basic information. No one is asking for detailed operational plans but you have to give observers something to work with if you want their support. The lack of transparency has been a strategic mistake on his part.
Here is Berger’s statement about a major portion of EABO operations which is different than what has previously been put forth:
I think a huge aspect of how we’re going to use EABO going forward is how we’re going to, what the naval force might call scouting and counter-scouting, or the Army calls reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance.” (1, 8:27)
Expeditionary naval forces … they’re going to have advanced sensing capability forward. We don’t have it yet. … We’re experimenting with all that now. (1, 8:50)
‘We don’t have it yet.’ Um … okay, if you don’t have the sensing capability why are you remaking the Corps as if you do? This seems eerily similar to concurrency where you build as you design. You’re rebuilding the Marines around a capability that doesn’t yet exist and is only now in the early stages of development. We’ve seen the disasters of the F-35, LCS, Zumwalt, and Ford concurrency debacles and now you want to add the entire Marine Corps to that list?
Just to confirm, for anyone who still thinks the Marines will conduct amphibious landings,
The big amphibious landing … that’s not where we’re headed. (1, 9:17)
This kind of leads into another problem. I don’t think the Commandant is truly focused on combat. I think he’s more focused on peacetime activities and monitoring. He says as much:
We’re going to organize, train, and equip to compete in the maritime gray zone and help contribute towards this scouting, counter-scouting competition ... all of this in the framework of deterrence and, potentially, de-escalation. (1, 9:20)
The game is about deterrence and competition. (1, 22:50)
He seems to be viewing all of this as a peacetime, gray zone, deterrent exercise more than a high end war effort. This is troubling in the extreme if he’s remaking the Marine Corps from a combat organization to a peacetime, deterrent organization. Of course, he acknowledges in his comments that if the gray zone transitions to war, the Marines at the EABOs will have to fight but that appears not to be the EABO focus and main purpose. Very troubling.
If EABOs are a peacetime construct, this raises the question of where these bases will be located. The US owns almost no territory in or around the first island chain and very few countries (likely none) will allow the US to establish such bases on their territory. Further, if such bases can be established during peacetime, they’ll hardly be secret. Their locations will be pinpointed and in the first several minutes of a war, will be targeted with a handful of cruise missiles and cease to exist. No matter how you twist this concept and look at it, it makes no sense.
Discussing his idea of the Marines being involved in ASW, Berger acknowledges that other Marines and observers may think the idea is questionable but he says:
I think that’s close-minded. (1, 11:00)
I think this reveals Berger’s ‘smartest man in the room’ syndrome: only he can see the brilliance of his ideas. The rest of us are not capable of grasping the glory of the concept.
I am pushing folks to think wider, to elevate, to think in a non-conventional, non-traditional way. I’m not asking them to go into science fiction but this is reasonable. Move beyond the traditional comfort level in your intellectual boundaries. (1, 11:05)
Again, this is showing his belief that he, and he alone, can see the future. Now, to be fair, this is the characteristic of true visionaries. They ARE the only ones who can see the future and grasp the new revelations. Da Vinci, Einstein, and others could see what no one else could. Of course, for every Einstein, there have been thousands of others who claimed to be able to see what others could not but were proven to be completely wrong. Is Berger one of those very, very few who CORRECTLY see what others do not or is he just another misguided, incorrect failure? Only time will tell but the problem is that if he is wrong, he will have destroyed the Marine Corps in his pursuit of his vision.
Berger believes that the problem is that outside observers don’t have the imagination to think of the uses that he’s come up with.
… public conversations about what EABO could bring to the Navy-Marine team are less imaginative than the ones actually happening behind closed doors.” … I’d ask folks to stretch out their brains for us and think of EABO much wider than that.
I seriously doubt there's anything he can think of - THAT MAKES SENSE - behind closed doors that I can't think of. I'm sure there are lots of things he can think of that are every bit as idiotic as his hidden bases idea and that would never occur to me … BECAUSE THEY'RE STUPID.
Regarding Marines and ASW, Berger said,
Although some would think, immediately, what kind of weapon system are we talking about, my first thought is how do you paint a picture … Is there a way where Marine units could complement, could add to that undersea picture? (1, 18:57)
All right, now this has some validity, at least conceptually. Literally, throwing torpedoes into the water from shore, as was postulated in some articles, is ridiculous but providing an ASW ‘coastwatcher’ capability would be quite useful. Of course, this ignores all those pesky bits of reality like how you set up and operate a sonar array without being detected and how you operate a sonar analysis station in the jungle, using Marines, and so on but, at least, the underlying goal is valid. Anything that can extend the undersea picture is quite useful.
Though not related to ASW, the Commandant touched on the light carrier concept. He sounded ambivalent and only mildly interested. He seemed to have no particular interest in it and gave no indication that it was important to the Marines.
… we’ll have to sort through going forward is this whole notion of a light carrier and what that might mean and I don’t know where that one will go … (1, 30:52)
That being the case, that it is not a Marine interest, this means that it is a Navy interest, only, which changes the various views of how a light carrier would be used. Those who are interested in the light carrier concept should now be asking what the Navy would gain from such a concept because, clearly, notions of Marine aviation using a light carrier to support ground forces is not a concern or interest of the Commandant’s.
Further reinforcing the impression that the Commandant had little interest in a light carrier, he was asked about possible upcoming experiments or exercises involving a light carrier and his answer, boiled down, was that there were no plans to do so.
The Commandant was asked about manning and his reply was that he sees budgets as holding or declining and he has chosen to reduce manning to pay for modernization. In his mind, the end result is,
It will be a better Marine Corps, just a little bit smaller. (1, 34:30)
This is the oft repeated and never realized rationalization for manpower cuts to enable more shiny new toys. Berger has bought into the same flawed reasoning as everyone else. Taken to its logical conclusion, the best possible Marine Corps would have only a single member surrounded by a Star Wars death star.
Asked about professional education (1, 40:00), Berger was strongly in favor of it and firmly believes that it is mandatory for a competent force and that educational efforts over the last couple decades have vastly improved the force. If that’s the case, why is the Corps at its lowest point in decades as far as capability, readiness, operational and tactical expertise, etc.? Shouldn’t it be at a peak? This suggests that professional education offers little or no direct warfighting benefit.
Finally, and to return to the EABO/ASW concept, hey, Commandant, why don’t you try your concept? Have the US military look for you while you clandestinely establish a base on some island off the Carolinas or Florida and see whether you can do it without being seen. Then, do your listening for submarines and see if you can detect any. And, just for fun, simulate a cruise missile attack on your base and see if you can survive it. I’m betting that this kind of exercise would give you all the answers you need to evaluate your concept and I’m pretty sure what that evaluation would be.
I think this podcast offered some good insight into the Commandant’s thinking. It all boils down to this: if the Commandant is a true visionary and is right, then he is in the midst of accomplishing an amazing transformation of the Corps. However, if he’s wrong, the Marines are finished as a useful fighting force and will be decades recovering from this disaster. I know which of those options I believe is happening but I’ll leave it to you to draw your own conclusion.
(1)USNI News website, “CMC Berger Outlines How Marines Could Fight Submarines in the Future”, Megan Eckstein, 8-Dec-2020, Proceedings Podcast Episode 198 – “Commandant on Marines Fighting Subs”, 7-Dec-2020,