How two dozen retired generals are trying to prevent a Marine overhaul
The group of retired generals includes former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joe Dunford and former Homeland Security chief and White House chief of staff John Kelly.
“This is not a fragmented effort, this is a collective of 30 generals…including six or seven of the most experienced and credible Marines I’ve ever worked with,” said Frank Hoffman, eminent researcher at the National Defense University. and a retired naval officer. Yet he also noted that Berger’s efforts have already been blessed by Congress and senior Pentagon brass, so they are unlikely to stop there now.
The Marine Corps’ two-year plan represents a fundamental shift in how the Corps equips its troops and goes to war. The Corps’ approximately 400 tanks have already been transferred to the army, helicopter wings put into storage, and infantry units are reconfigured to become smaller and more agile.
The changes are part of a broader overhaul of how the military is funded and structured to deal with China and Russia, which are challenging post-Cold War U.S. military dominance. It’s no surprise that the Corps in particular, with its mystique of courage and self-reliance, struggles to cope with such rapid and deeply rooted change.
A spokesperson for Berger declined to comment on specifics of the retired general’s criticism and instead pointed to statements Berger has made in Congress and in public about why the modernization push is needed.
Several of the generals met with Berger on March 3 to express their concerns but left unhappy that they had been heard, Paul Van Riper, a retired lieutenant general who led Marine Corps Combat Development Command, told POLITICO.
This frustration led to a Opinion piece from March 26 in the Wall Street Journal by former Secretary of the Navy and Vietnam Navy veteran Jim Webb, who said talks with Berger were “unsuccessful” and said “the gloves are now off.” Similar parts by retired Navy officers and other donors appeared in other mediahoping to stir up both the military public and members of Congress.
Berger’s proposed changes “do not meet … the requirements and do not meet the needs of the combatant commander,” Anthony Zinni, a retired general and former head of US Central Command, told POLITICO. “We think the cuts are far too drastic and really, dramatically diminish the ability of the Marine Corps as a combined arms team and move it away from its traditional role.”
Webb, in his Wall Street Journal op-ed, first revealed the group’s existence. Members are meeting daily virtually or in person to plan their way forward and are stepping up their outreach to members of Congress.
At stake is arguably the most ambitious modernization effort of any armed service. He takes to heart the 2018 national defense strategy, which said the armed forces must train and equip themselves to meet the challenge from China. The argument for Berger’s new strategy is that for the Corps to change its mission, and in the absence of a massive infusion of new funding, tough decisions had to be made. Getting rid of hundreds of tanks and amphibious vehicles saved around $3 billion, all of which was funneled back into new precision missiles and upgrades for infantry units.
Berger and his supporters said equipment such as tanks and artillery tubes are not suitable for this fight in the Pacific. On the contrary, modern threats require the United States to have long-range precision rockets, small, prowling armed drones, and mobile ship-killing missiles that Marines can use to protect American and allied ships.
But the ground war against Russia has upended Washington’s strategic calculations and given new impetus to the retired generals’ mission. One of the most outspoken members of the group, Vietnamese veterinarian Bing West, written in a recent article that urban battles taking place in Ukraine and similar battles in Vietnam like Hue City and Fallujah in Iraq prove the need for tanks and heavy armor in modern combat. Without them, Marines “today are less capable than two decades ago.”
In one Marine Corps Times EditorialVan Riper lamented that “the Corps will have more space experts, cyber-warriors, influencers, missiles and others with unique skills” than “Marines ready to close in and to destroy the enemy”.
According to some, these arguments ignore the changes in technologies that China and Russia can bring to the modern battlefield, even if Russia is struggling to use them in Ukraine.
But some experts agree with Berger’s planned changes as a way to evolve the Marine Corps into a force capable of rivaling China.
Berger’s efforts are the result of “many years of examining the changing threat environment and the impact of technology,” said Dakota Wood, senior research fellow for defense programs at the Heritage Foundation. “The maneuvers are more difficult because things can be spotted, the supply lines are going to be a lot harder to maintain and so when you’re up against this kind of new battlefield wouldn’t you want the force to be less intensive logistically and more manageable?”
The plan at the heart of the fight, dubbed “Forcing Design 2030” and released in March 2020, won praise from many members of Congress and other service leaders also looking to modernize their training.
The Marines have already mothballed hundreds of Abrams tanks, warehousing several squadrons of helicopters, and are rapidly exchanging cannons for artillery rockets. The revamp also transforms the Corps’ legendary infantry units into smaller, more technology-dependent units. Retired generals say the moves breach the Corps’ traditional strengths as a tough little battering ram called upon to do everything from assaulting beaches to fighting in the mountains of Afghanistan.
The retired generals say they have seen no evidence the leaders conducted adequate analysis before dumping their tanks, and want Congress to hit the pause button on Berger’s plan.
“Why are you doing this before you have a full understanding of what you want to do?” Van Riper told POLITICO.
“Normally what would have happened in the past, there would have been a concept, there would have been war games, there would have been on-the-ground assessments before these kinds of drastic measures were taken,” he said. said Van Riper.
In a sign of how seriously Berger appears to take the generals’ criticisms, the Marine Corps has drafted an unpublished rebuttal of the critics that addresses some of their front points. Changes to the Corps will not detract from its ability to deploy anywhere in the world, the draft says, and leaders continue to plan for multiple contingencies.
Specifically, “nowhere in the pages of our [Force Design 2030] …have we said tanks are irrelevant – despite what is happening in Ukraine today,” reads the draft, obtained by POLITICO. It also states that the recommendations made by then-Secretary of Defense Mattis as part of his Close Combat Lethality Task Force “have all been accepted and resulted in major lethality improvements for our small units”.
Van Riper said the retiree group is well aware of the evolving threats.
It’s not “a bunch of old guys who don’t know what they’re talking about,” he said. “We recognize that the Marine Corps needs to make changes…what we want to see is that those changes are based on careful study and analysis, not just projections of what might be needed.”
A Marine Corps spokesperson noted that the Corps had been actively testing these ideas for years, long before Berger took office, primarily through the “Global” series of classified war games at the Naval War College. of Rhode Island. The games are held in conjunction with Navy Pacific Fleet and the Army.
The latest iteration, Global 14, took place in November and was overseen by Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro, Berger and Admiral John Aquilino, the commander of US Indo-Pacific Command. Retired generals could not be briefed on the full extent of the games as they no longer have the required security clearances.
Berger’s plan “challenges the culture of the Corps because it appears to be shifting its function from offense to defense and trading manpower against technology,” Hoffman said. “Both are antithetical to the Marine Corps’ sense of identity.”
Hoffman added that despite some claims that the changes had not been given enough thought, all had been previously approved by the Pentagon. “It went through the requirements-based system, it went through the joint staff, through [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] and through Congress twice, so it’s not like the Pentagon or Congress neglected oversight. I’m pretty sure Berger was nominated and confirmed because he had a reputation for foresight and vision.
Berger’s plan is not only supported by Congress. It has also been well received by defense contractors and lobbyists as money continues to pour in for various new projects. Major defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon Technologies manufacture anti-ship missiles, precision-guided rockets and floating munitions that the plan describes as areas for investment. Having these factions on board and the fact that many areas of restructuring are already underway makes the generals’ effort a time-consuming one.
Asked directly about the Marine Corps’ plans, European Command chief Gen. Tod Wolters told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday that the revamped Corps “greatly improves our options…a brown water force that can fire, move and communicating and being very expeditionary is invaluable to 21st century security.
The Marines are working on some of their new concepts at the Cold Response war games taking place in Norway, Wolters said, adding, “The Marines are doing a fantastic job of leading from the front and showing us how to do it right. .”
Proponents of the changes note that they are not from Berger. In June 2017, his predecessor, General Robert Neller, told Congress that the Marine Corps “is currently unorganized, trained, and equipped to meet an even adversary in 2025.”
Neller pointed to the use of electronic warfare, precision weapons and cyberattacks that would confront Marines in future battlefields against China and Russia, adding, “I fear we are moving too slowly and be afraid of change”.