Gen. Berger’s radical plan to reshape the Marines needs work — but quickly

Associated Press/Alex Brandon
In this Dec. 3, 2019 file photo, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger testifies during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill.

About two years ago, Gen. David Berger, who had been confirmed as Marine Corps Commandant a year earlier, unveiled a comprehensive 21st century vision for the Corps. Postulating that China likely would emerge as America’s primary threat, as suggested in the 2018 National Security Strategy, Berger argued that the Corps required a major overhaul. 

In a series of detailed papers, the first of which he issued shortly after taking charge, Berger proposed that the Corps develop small units of Marines — he called them “stand-in forces” — whose purpose, in the words of Assistant Commandant Eric Smith, would be to “disrupt an adversary’s plans at every point on the competition continuum.” For example, these units could penetrate the island chain close to China and seize islands or close choke points critical to China’s supply chain; collect targeting data that other American or allied forces could employ for strike operations; and/or, as Smith put it, “herd adversaries into areas where U.S. naval and joint forces can bring more weapons to bear.”

Berger’s concept is radical in several ways. To begin with, it appears to hark back to the Marines’ island-hopping role in World War II, a mission that has been in abeyance since the Corps’ role from Vietnam to Iraq has not differed significantly from that of the U.S. Army. Indeed, many historical precedents that Berger cites in his most recent paper, “A Concept for Stand-In Forces,” specifically focus on the Pacific War.

Yet, even more controversial have been his proposals not only to reorganize the Marines, but to eliminate numerous longstanding units while doing so. In particular, Berger suggests eliminating three of the 24 infantry battalions; reducing the remaining battalions by 200 Marines each; transferring 400 tanks to the Army; and retiring three of 17 medium-tilt rotor squadrons, three of eight heavy-lift helicopter squadrons, and two of the Crops’ seven light-attack helicopter squadrons. For a conservative institution such as the Marine Corps — and particularly for its retired senior leaders — all this has proved too much.

Opposition to Berger’s plans emerged virtually with their introduction and simmered until breaking into the open a few months ago. A critical “private” letter that retired Gen. Anthony Zinni appears to have coordinated, and that somehow was widely circulated and publicized in defense journals, garnered the signatures of 22 senior retired Marine officers. These included four-star generals, among them former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joe Dunford and former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.

The generals are concerned that Berger did not vet his ideas sufficiently with retired Marine leaders and others. Former Navy Secretary Jim Webb, a retired Marine, articulated similar arguments in a Wall Street Journal column, in which he called Berger’s plans “insufficiently tested” and “intrinsically flawed.” Webb argued Berger did not present his ideas for consideration to the Pentagon’s leadership, including those in charge of allocating Department of Defense resources among its various claimants.

Berger’s willingness to challenge long-treasured concepts that are unlikely to prove adequate to the demands of a conflict with such a peer as China, and which also might require modification in a NATO conflict with Russia, is certainly praiseworthy. The Marines have operated primarily as a counter-insurgency force for two decades; a mission against China or Russia demands very different organizational structures and operational concepts. Berger rightly asserts that his plans reflect a strategy that is one of the few carry-overs from the Trump administration into that of Joe Biden.

Moreover, there is no way that Berger could have finalized his force structure changes without approval from the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Neither the cuts nor the required resources could have been included in the Fiscal Year 2022 and 2023 budgets without approval from, at a minimum, Comptroller Mike McCord, Deputy Secretary Kath Hicks, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and the Office of Management and Budget. Finally, had Berger not moved quickly to issue his radical plan early in his tenure, had he instead allowed it to be “staffed,” it might never have seen the light of day. 

Yet, Webb and the retired generals also make important points. Whether or not Berger consulted with them or others sufficiently, there remain numerous questions regarding the conditions that would be necessary for “stand-in forces” to operate effectively in hostile environments.

Logistical support probably ranks highest among the challenges that the current Marine leadership must resolve if Berger’s concept is to be effective. Berger and Smith acknowledge that they lack specifics regarding how to enable small, forward-based units to operate over extended periods, even if they are initially self-supporting. Nor have they fully explained how these units could remain sufficiently mobile to avoid targeting by enemy long-range fires. Indeed, perhaps because Berger’s concept is so innovative, and yet not fully formed, younger Marine officers have jumped at the opportunity to suggest out-of-the-box solutions, such as submarines or even seaplanes for long-distance logistics support, or mules to provide tactical mobility for the forward-deployed units.

Berger also needs to flesh out the Marines’ role in Europe in light of not only Russian President Vladimir Putin’s current aggression in Ukraine but also of threats such as that made by former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to place nuclear missiles in Kaliningrad if Sweden and Finland join NATO. (Lithuanian officials are convinced that such systems are already in place in Russia’s Baltic enclave.) Given the Marines’ role in northern Norway since the late 1970s, they could have an equally important mission deterring Russian aggression in the Baltic region. Marines, for example, could conduct exercises on the strategic Swedish island of Bornholm, and perhaps on Finland’s Åland islands — whether or not the two states join NATO.

Berger’s challenge will be to expand upon and flesh out his futuristic concepts before his term as Commandant expires. It is not at all clear that his successor necessarily would adopt his ideas. The Army’s experience during the Reagan years indicates the extent to which innovative concepts can die on the vine. Gen. Shy Meyer, the Army chief during the late 1970s and early 1980s, was as innovative as Berger; he presciently focused on the need for the Army to prepare itself for the kind of wars it eventually fought in the Persian Gulf. Once Meyer retired, however, his successor, John Wickham, took a different approach, essentially restoring the Army to its pre-Meyer status.

Fortunately for the Army, two decades passed before it was called upon to play a major role in Operation Iraqi Freedom. By then it had restructured itself to meet the challenge at hand. Unlike the Army of the 1980s, however, Berger’s Marine Corps may not find that it has the luxury of two decades to reinvent itself. Neither Putin nor China’s Xi Jinping is likely to wait until it does.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags China David Berger NATO Russia stand-in forces Unconventional warfare US Marine Corps

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