The Case for Change

Force Design

The 38th Commandant, Gen David H. Berger, personally weighs in on the discussion of Force Design 2030. Here is the rationale behind his argument for sweeping changes in Marine Corps Forces.

  1. As much as I appreciate Secretary Webb’s exceptional service to our nation, I think he is very wrong on this one: see his Op Ed article from the May 7th National Interest here:
    Secretary Webb is concerned that the Commandant is dramatically altering the entire force structure of the Corps. I’m not sure how cutting 14% of the infantry battalions, 1/3 of the increasingly obsolete AAVs, and 7 tanks companies represents massive alteration of the force structure. While the cut in gun batteries is huge, they are replaced with rocket batteries. Unfortunately, while gun batteries can sustain high rates of fire, they are badly outranged by Russian and Chinese systems. Same thing happened to the battleship. From the mounted knight to the pikeman to the musketeer to the battleship lack of range has led to obsolescence. So, we are dumping systems that are becoming obsolete and adding weapons which contribute to both the MAGTF and the Joint fight.
    His use of history is also odd. In WWI, the Marine Corps did not stand up two hardened regiments. It stood up two rookie regiments that were hardened by combat that included massive unnecessary casualties. The Corps had failed to understand the kind of fight it was in and used obsolete tactics. They learned the hard way. Had they studied the previous 3 years of the war and wargamed it, they could have adopted much more appropriate tactics.
    In contrast, the Corps’ shift to amphibious operations between wars was a result of studying the likely enemy, developing a plan to fight him, and then experimenting until they got it right. It was highly successful and sounds a lot like what the Commandant is proposing today. Over the decade of the 1930s, the Corps did see a truly dramatic shift in structure, organization, tactics, and training. Good thing we didn’t cling to our WWI historic tactics.
    The Korea example is even stranger. The Corps had been reduced to 75,000 Marines yet managed to embark a brigade in 7 days and a division in 30 days. I am unclear on how a future Marine Corps of over 170K can’t do the same.
    It took us well over a year to deploy two divisions to Vietnam. We did not reach peak strength until 1968-69. Are we saying that a future Corps couldn’t expand to do the same when given 2-3 years? Of course, the real challenge may be that we will not have a draft driven enlistment pool. Obviously not something CMC controls.
    If you look at our actual commitments since the end of the draft, the proposed organization has more than enough Marines to meet any one except the two divisions and a brigade for Desert Storm. We should be able to field two divisions from our 27 regular and reserve infantry battalions — and borrow the two tank battalions from the Army/Army Reserve/National Guard.
    We do not know where we will fight. But it is important to be relevant to the most dangerous conflicts we face.
    If you are interested, a longer version of these comments is also available at War on the Rocks.

  2. The section on acceptance of a fait accompli is an incomplete assessment of what is driving the Chinese achievement of central position in the maritime environment. NOT one wargame over the last three years have we played the pre-cursor events to traditional armed conflict in a “competition” phase. We have yet to come up with a comprehensive case for the kind of military contribution we need to make that is not a technologically improved re-enactment of the previous 70 years. The PRC has some very real capabilities that we need to neutralize as credible deterrents to our lethal capabilities. Yet, it is clear the tools and techniques of the established model of military force have not stopped the dilemma we face today and what is driving this force design. We have to expand our tool set and be capable of projecting force above and below the threshold of traditional armed conflict if we want to restore a position of trust and remain a security guarantor in the SCS and lager Indo-Pacific region.
    The Chinese, through actions below the threshold of traditional armed conflict, and via an entire non-military (yet proxy) force are seizing and annexing territory. They have accomplished decisive aims based on a robust strategy of erosion vice attrition. It is forcing a fait accompli largely because the Chinese way it was achieved is incompatible with the means we are developing to respond. It is not merely a problem high escalation over seemingly small stakes. But are they small stakes?
    On that annexed territory a military installation will appear on an illegally reclaimed feature. That base will introduce the threat of traditional military force to ensure the retention of territory that was actually seized via force of fishing boat and construction crew vice force of arms. We have a case where there is clear military necessity to prevent this outcome but we as a nation, and a Marine Corps, specifically lack any proportional force to stop it, if we are merely thinking in terms of traditional force of arms. We have yet to tackle this phase of the problem in any wargame in order to discover what needs to be considered in a broader definition of “force”. Instead, we just wargame the lethal exchange phase of the fight. We never once stop or prevent what got us, or our allies and partners, into this jam in the first place. For the PRC this is simply wash, rinse, repeat while we imagine a fight in the SCS they are not offering, yet they are seizing territory all the same.
    Why would China commit to an escalation of force with traditional assets and offer us targets for our preferred weapons if they can keep up this process of non-lethal means, lawfare, and information subterfuge? ASEAN claimants in the region have stipulated numerous times that they do not want to get into a donny brook with China and worse, they don’t want us leading them into one as a condition of partnership. They are not clamoring for missile defense and fighters because, frankly, that is not what is trying to take away their territory and poach their fishing grounds. We keep amplifying the “Harlem Globetrotters Effect”. We whistle Sweet Georgia Brown, show off our cool stuff, do no real integration and when we leave, our partners are still not better basketball players capable of stopping China from running up the score. The Japanese are the only treaty ally that need or want lethal capabilities. The Philippines has pretty much been compromised in the near term. Vietnam, a partner with an MOU, has steadfastly refused to buy lethal means and the largest excess defense article transfer they have accepted are Hamilton class cutters.
    That brings up our real problem. We are not helping our allies and partners resist PRC coercion in the ways that impact them daily. We are not finding ways with the full contribution of naval forces to help our allies and partners detect these fishing boat swarms, pre-empt their effect, stop construction crews and oil rigs from making illegal territorial claims, etc. In short we are providing a whole lot of something that is not stopping Chinese territorial expansion.
    We already have an idea what we want to do at the high end of conflict. We don’t have a clue how to apply our means below the threshold of traditional armed conflict when it is clear the Chinese are succeeding in that realm. We are just preparing for a war that the Chinese have successfully avoided thus far. If they do choose to start one, we have not denied them a single one of their shaping actions by having a comprehensive set of solutions above and below the threshold of conflict. I’m not so sanguine that improved lethal capacity is going to be a decisive deterrent compared to PRC’s circumvention of that model on a daily basis.
    I think many of these force design efforts are spot on and not compromising in the way the Mr. Webb asserts. However, I don’t buy the argument that focusing solely on traditional armed conflict and promoting that view to our allies and partners is an effective contribution of the full range of means possible within the military instrument of power to prevent Chinese expansion. Nor do I buy the argument that Title X constrains us only to those options. It is entirely possible to be a dual function force above and below the threshold of armed conflict in order to stop the territorial and military expansion of China by blunting the means they applying to the problem at every level. We don’t have to accept the fait accompli if we expand our means. We can only discover what means are available if we play the full spectrum of competition and war as conflict and objectively appreciate that fact that not arresting China’s erosive strategy is as good as losing an attritive war. The meaning of that failure should be clear as it impacts our role as security guarantor, meaningful partner, and our economic fortunes.