For the Marines, a new commandant sees a new Corps, in a new era of warfare

For the Marines, a new commandant sees a new Corps, in a new era of warfare
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The Marine Corps’ new commandant, Gen. David Berger, is breaking china, figuratively, so as to enable the Marines to break China, literally, should a conflict erupt in East Asia. 

As the only service whose forces are mandated by law — three divisions and three air wings —  the Marines have relied on their traditional hold over Congress to cling to their classic approach to amphibious assault, which has gone unchanged since the 1951 landing at Inchon.

In reality, over the years, and especially during the Vietnam War and the two Gulf wars, the Marines have functioned as a classic land force, hardly differing from the Army. Moreover, beginning in the 1980s, Marines pre-stocked equipment in Norway, in order to confront the Soviets in their northern theater, and the Marines continue to train in Norway; their most recent exercise, in March, called for joint cold-weather operations with Norwegian forces. 

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No wonder that, over time, there have been calls at a minimum to drop the Marine amphibious mission — and no longer acquire ships to support it — or, maximally, to subsume the Corps into the Army.

Enter Gen. Berger, with an entirely different vision for Marine missions in the 21st century that he has outlined in both his detailed “Commandant’s Planning Guidance” and his more compact “Commandant’s Intent.” 

To begin with, he is refocusing the Corps on its classic role as a true naval expeditionary force, meaning that its primary focus will be on operating in tandem with the U.S. Navy. He recognizes that, ever since the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols legislation mandated joint operations across the four military services, the Marines have loosened their bonds with the Navy. Yet, Berger feels that the re-emergence of powerful potential adversaries mandates that the Marines once again act, in his words, as “the extension of the fleet.” 

Consistent with that vision, Berger’s plan is to emphasize the Marines’ role in the Indo-Pacific theater and to develop forces that could effectively confront an increasingly capable Chinese military. To that end, Berger has made it clear that the Marines cannot simply rely on being transported in large amphibious ships, as has been the case for more than a half-century. Instead, he anticipates acquiring a larger number of smaller ships that would complicate Chinese targeting algorithms.

Berger also envisages the Marines operating from what he terms “Expeditionary Advance Bases.” The Marines would establish these bases essentially under the noses of Chinese weapons ranges. The expeditionary bases would thereby facilitate operations, especially naval operations, closer to Chinese territory while complementing those with drones (the Marines have operated drones since the early 1980s) and longer-range missile systems that both they and the other services plan to acquire. Moreover, unlike fixed bases, which especially in the Pacific are increasingly vulnerable to Chinese long-range strikes, expeditionary bases would enable American forces to operate without long, vulnerable supply chains.

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As with all new concepts, Expeditionary Advance Base operations requires considerable analysis and development. To that end, and more generally, Berger proposes to ramp up the Marines’ war-gaming capability, quintupling its war-gaming staff over the next five years. In doing so, he is harking back to what many consider to be the halcyon days of war-gaming — namely, the 1930s, when the Navy and Marines developed and refined the amphibious assault mission.

Needless to say, many of Berger’s ideas are likely to be anathema to traditionalists. In particular, old Marine hands will have difficulty coming to grips with a Marine Corps that does not solely operate from large amphibious ships. Others may wonder why Berger openly states that he will “increasingly accept risk” with respect to Marine operations in the Middle East. And Berger acknowledges that he will need to reconcile his vision of a renewed Navy-Marine Corps bond with the culture that has developed since Goldwater-Nichols became law. 

But he is rightly convinced that, just as the National Defense Strategy has recognized that future conflicts are more likely to reflect “great power” competition rather than the Middle East operations that have marked the past two decades, so too must the Marine Corps undergo a major transformation if its mission and capabilities are to remain relevant in the decades to come.

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.