Marine Force Design Has Been Debated
The service is taking a big risk but not without much discussion.
Writing in the WSJ, Jim Webb, a Marine war hero in Vietnam who later served as Ronald Reagan’s first Navy Secretary and later still as a Democratic Senator from Virginia and critic of the Iraq War, argues that “Momentous Changes in the U.S. Marine Corps’ Force Organization Deserve Debate.”
Deference to senior command is a hard-wired tradition in elite military organizations, and nowhere is that tradition more honored than in the U.S. Marine Corps. But what happens if a policy coming from the top of the chain of command is insufficiently tested or intrinsically flawed? Where is it written that a subordinate or former commander can set aside deference and demand a second look?
For more than two years many of the Marine Corps’ finest former leaders have struggled with this dilemma as they quietly discussed a series of fundamental changes ordered, and in some cases already implemented, by Gen. David Berger, the current commandant. Among Marines there are serious questions about the wisdom and long-term risk of dramatic reductions in force structure, weapon systems and manpower levels in units that would take steady casualties in most combat scenarios. And it is unclear to just about everyone with experience in military planning what formal review and coordination was required before Gen. Berger unilaterally announced a policy that would alter so many time-honored contributions of the Marine Corps.
After detailing the highlights of the policy, Webb continues,
After several unsuccessful attempts by retired senior officers to engage in a quiet dialogue with Gen. Berger, the gloves have now come off. The traditional deference has been replaced by a sense of duty to the Marine Corps and its vital role in our national security. Recently, 22 retired four-star Marine generals signed a nonpublic letter of concern to Gen. Berger, and many others have stated their support of the letter. A daily working group that includes 17 retired generals has been formed to communicate concerns to national leaders. One highly respected retired three-star general estimated to me that “the proportion of retired general officers who are gravely concerned about the direction of the Corps in the last two and a half years would be above 90 percent.”
There is not much time to stop the potential damage to our national security. Questions should be raised. The law does not give the commandant of the Marine Corps carte blanche to make significant changes in force structure. Title 10 provides that the commandant perform his duties “subject to the authority, direction, and control of the Secretary of the Navy,” and that the Navy secretary “has the authority necessary to conduct all affairs of the Department of the Navy including. . . . organizing,” but “subject to the authority, direction, and control of the Secretary of Defense.” And the president retains ultimate authority as commander in chief.
The risk involved in a restructuring of this scale should have required full consideration and debate in such Pentagon offices as the Defense Resources Board, then a formal approval by the defense secretary before being sent to the White House for further review, and then extensive oversight hearings in Congress.
I share some of Webb’s concerns about the radical force design shifts that began under the previous service chief, Robert Neller, and accelerated pursuant to Berger’s incoming Commandant’s Planning Guidance. But the notion they weren’t and haven’t been debated is laughable.
Indeed, Webb himself participated in the debate, including with a widely-discussed May 2020 op-ed in The National Interest. While he was given the respectful listen that he has earned, Berger himself pushed back thoughtfully, as did his Navy counterpart, Admiral Michael Gilday, and top-notch defense analysts including retired Marine Colonel and Obama Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work.
While building the Corps around the so-called “pacing threat,” a future fight with China, takes away capabilities that would be very helpful in a more-likely asymmetric fight, it’s in line with the national security strategies of three successive Presidents going back to the Obama administrations 2011 “pivot to Asia.” And Webb, who has much more intimate knowledge of DOD budget processes than me, knows damned well that Berger didn’t make these changes unilaterally: they were absolutely signed off on by the Secretary of the Navy, Secretary of Defense, and the United States Congress. (The Defense Resources Board ceased to exist in 2005; it’s now the Senior Level Review Group, which reports to the Deputy Secretary of Defense. I can’t imagine it didn’t buy off on these changes.)
While I’m often critical of Congressional fecklessness, including a reluctance to provide adequate oversight of our wars lest they face political blowback and the sheer wastefulness of operating on continuing resolution after continuing resolution, I know for a fact that the appropriate authorization and appropriations committees have pressed Berger very hard on these changes and signed off on them. I had an opportunity to take a group of students to the Hill earlier this month and got an excellent briefing on the process. Berger took a very big and unusual risk in telling Members that, to demonstrate good stewardship on public money, he would pay for the force modernization he required by steep cuts in legacy programs and painful cuts in personnel, including in his own Infantry community. This was a multi-year process that could well have backfired in his getting the cuts and not the replacement appropriations. Instead, he achieved buy-in.
Again, this is all a big risk. Berger has, for example, divested the Corps of every single tank, forcing reliance on the Army for that capability in a big joint fight that may never come. As a former boss, who came up as a tanker, noted at the time: When you need a tank, only a tank will do. Berger may well have placed his bets on the wrong horse. But one thing is for sure: he has thought it through after more than two years of debate. He’s certainly listened to the retired generals. He just thinks they’re wrong.