If the Marine Corps Isn’t Broken—and It Isn’t—Why Fix It?

Photo Illustration by Erin O'Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Erin O'Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty
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No doubt about it: Since the mid ’60s and Vietnam, we’ve witnessed a precipitous decline in the American people’s faith in their government institutions. The “credibility gap” between what the government does and what it claimed it does first surfaced when LBJ presided over the Vietnam War. It came roaring back into our politics when George W. Bush invaded Iraq on false pretenses. Then came Donald Trump, who said, and continues to say, whatever pleases him, regardless of its veracity. Long before Trump oozed on to the national political scene, Congress had all but ceased to function as a legislative body.

Not all government institutions have lost their luster. Think of the military services. Overwhelmingly, Americans respect their servicemembers. For many years, polls have been confirming that the United States Marines are the most admired and respected service, not only for what the Corps has accomplished on battlefields far and wide, which is considerable, but for the values of self-sacrifice, loyalty, and tenacity the Corps puts forward as the heart of its worldview. The Marine Corps’ reputation for getting it done, and done well, reached its apotheosis in the Pacific War, where it fought a long series of increasingly destructive island battles against the Japanese. The Marines have fought with great bravery and distinction in a great many places since then.

The smallest military service also has an impressive record of innovation, of reconfiguring itself to meet changing threats. The Marines invented close air support in Nicaragua in the 1930s, and pioneered the use of the helicopter in combat in Korea. Before World War II, the Corps literally wrote the book on fighting in brushfire conflicts—the justly lauded Small Wars Manual.

The fighting spirit of the Corps is embodied in the image of six Marine enlisted men raising the flag atop Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima. Fifteen years ago, I co-wrote a book on that hideous battle with a retired Marine officer, Fred Haynes, who had planned the assault on that mountain. I have been to Iwo, been to the top of that hill, and seen the image thousands of times, but I still get goosebumps when I see that photo.

Guadalcanal: WWII’s Fierce Tipping Point

The senior leadership of the Marine Corps is today pressing to radically reform “America’s force in readiness,” turning it from the only military organization on earth that has its own land, sea, and air forces, and the capability to fight anywhere, into a lighter, faster force, tailor-made to take on China in a naval campaign in the Indo-Pacific. The reforms put forward in Commandant David Berger’s Force Design 2030 are meant to permit the Corps to operate within range of China’s increasingly sophisticated suite of precision, hypersonic weapons systems—systems designed to keep the U.S. military out of the region entirely.

A growing body of critics is challenging Berger’s reforms, none more vigorously than a group of prominent retired Marines, including every living previous commandant, along with other acclaimed four-stars, such as Jim Mattis and Anthony Zinni.

Indeed, a battle over the future direction of the Marines has begun…

What is driving the proposed reforms?

The rising power of the People’s Republic of China’s armed forces, particularly its navy, coupled with Xi Jinping’s increasingly aggressive strategy of regional hegemony. The primary objective of this strategy, say most China watchers and international relations scholars, is to pinch the United States out of its current—and increasingly tenuous—position of military and political dominance in the Indo-Pacific. “Of greatest concern is the substantial investment Beijing has made in ‘anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities,’” writes Michelle Flournoy, a former high-ranking Pentagon official in the Obama administration, in the leading journal of international relations, Foreign Affairs. “Ranging from persistent precision strikes on U.S. logistics, forces, and bases to electronic, kinetic, and cyber attacks on digital connections and systems inside U.S. battle management networks, these capabilities are designed to prevent the United States from projecting military power into East Asia in order to defend its interests or allies. As a result, in the event that conflict starts, the United States can no longer expect to quickly achieve air, space, or maritime superiority; the U.S. military would need to fight to gain advantage, and then to keep it, in the face of continuous efforts to disrupt and degrade its battle management networks.”

Berger’s reforms propose that the Corps jettison all of its tanks (!) and most of its tube (conventional) artillery; and eliminate three infantry battalions—the heart of Marine combat power—from 27 to 24 in all. The plan calls for the Marines to dispense with a large number of helicopters and most of their land-based aircraft. With these forces in mothballs, there will be room and money for the Corps to develop a suite of new vehicular-mounted and infantry-borne precision weapons, as well as a new fleet of highly mobile, unmanned “loitering weapons,” especially attack drones, as well as hypersonic missile systems. Small units of Marines would operate in spartan bases on the myriad islands throughout this theater of operations.

A significant element of the reform package calls for the Marines to improve their capability to “see” the enemy, all the while retaining a low signature to diminish the chances of Chinese forces attacking them.

The critics find Berger’s vision problematic, to say the least. Jim Webb, the former U.S. senator from Virginia and highly decorated Marine Vietnam veteran, made the controversy public this past April with an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, in which he charged that the reforms were “insufficiently tested” and “intrinsically flawed.” The Corps’ identity and usefulness, says Webb, among others, rests in its service as the nation’s 911 force, ready to go anywhere it is needed, and “fight anyone on any level short of nuclear war.”

Not long after Webb published his piece, three prominent retired four-star generals—Chuck Krulak, Jack Sheehan, and Anthony Zinni—weighed in with their own essay in the Washington Post, objecting strenuously in principle to the ideas of reconfiguring the Marines to face off against any particular adversary. More often than not in American history, the next mission for the military hasn’t been the one the services, or the White House, expected. A nation with global responsibilities has to be ready to deploy forces in the least expected of places. “Threats to global security are both varied and broad, and they are not confined to China… North Korea, Iran, and non-state actors around the world have the potential to move tension and disagreement to conflict with little or no warning,” write the generals.

The critics are also skeptical of the way Force Design 2030 envisions using the Marines in a conflict with China. “Claims that these units could remain hidden from the enemy—all while moving, resupplying and communicating with headquarters—discount the technology we know China already has. As soon as hostilities commence, it stands to reason the enemy will retaliate against engaged units with overwhelming force. And its systems would be more numerous and lethal, with a longer range, than the weapons available to the small Marine outposts.”

Frank Hoffman, long time student of the Marine Corps and a Distinguished Research Fellow at the National Defense University, told Politico recently that Berger’s reforms have already been blessed by Congress and the Pentagon brass, “so putting a stop them now is unlikely.”


I wouldn’t bet on that. The critics are people who wield considerable political clout in Washington, and even more clout at Headquarters Marine Corps. General Berger’s term as commandant will be up in 2023, but the retired Marine critics aren’t going away, and being Marines, they aren’t about to surrender, at least any time soon. Besides, their criticisms are rooted in common sense. You don’t change the identity and purpose of a fighting organization that is as good at what it does as the Marine Corps without very careful and painstaking deliberation. And that doesn’t appear to have happened.

As a long time observer of the Corps myself, I think Berger’s reforms amount to an excessive response to the rise of Chinese naval power, and that they will likely be viewed as such by historians and military analysts in twenty or thirty years, when the dust settles.

At the very least, the critics are surely right that Force Design 2030 needs further debate and study. Stay tuned.

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