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- The Marine Corps is under fire from retired officers who say that outgoing commandant Gen. David Berger’s radical restructuring plan will undercut both national security and the service’s fundamental character.
- Berger’s plan calls for smaller, lighter and more technologically-adept units he says will better assist the U.S. in a fight with China.
- “Their ‘debate’ is indeed a cultural issue, not a war fighting issue,” Brian Kerg, a fellow at the Marine Corps University’s Kulak Center, wrote in a social media statement.
The U.S. Marine Corps is facing fire from high-ranking retired officers as the outgoing commandant passes on responsibility to implement his radical changes to new leadership, according to experts and a review of arguments by current and retired Marines.
A secretive group of retired Marine Corps generals, including two previous commandants, renewed a years-long assault against what they characterized in multiple articles as dangerous narrow-mindedness underlying Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger’s plan to revamp the force, of which the latest update was released on Monday. As Berger is slated to depart by the end of this year and be replaced with his second-in-command, the service will face new struggles amid new leadership and political pressures, where the stakes could mean failure in a conflict with China, according to an expert and the retired officers.
“There is an intellectual civil war going on in the Marine Corps,” Mark Cancian, a retired Marine Corps Reserve colonel and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
In 2020, Berger unveiled a new vision for the Marine Corps, Force Design 2030 (FD30), hinging in part on assumptions China would pose the greatest threat to the U.S. in the coming decade and the Indo-Pacific would serve as the major theater of conflict.
Opponents said the plan risks national security by limiting the force’s ability to address different kinds of threats worldwide, violating protocol and undermining the Marine Corps ethos.
Aware of the mounting information campaign against FD30, Berger shaped the 2023 update to address some of those concerns.
“The first two pages of the update seek to refute the generals’ criticisms, portraying FD 2030 as global, combined arms, force in readiness,” Cancian told the DCNF.
In December, retired generals, part of a mostly anonymous group that goes by “Chowder II” in reference to the 1946 Chowder Society that saved the Marine Corps from extinction, published a series of articles in the National Interest detailing their opposition to FD2030. It’s unclear exactly how many members Chowder II has, but they include former commandants Gen. James Amos and Gen. Charles Krulak.
“The retired generals want a more traditional design that applies globally and uses combined arms, whereas FD 2030 is targeted at the Western Pacific and China and centers around missile units,” Cancian explained.
Berger ditched all of the service’s tanks — its “maneuver” element — and slashed the number of infantry Marines and artillery units to fund experimentation and investment in island-defending “Stand-in Forces” and “Expeditionary Advanced Based Operations,“ accordingto a CSIS analysis. That means it will be less suited to conduct simultaneous infantry, artillery, armor and close air support operations, a foundational component of the force’s mission and structure as required by law, Krulak and former Marine and commander of U.S. Central Command Gen. Anthony Zinni argued.
The war in Ukraine, with its heavy reliance on ground-based maneuver warfare, underscores the risks inherent in Berger’s strategy, which prioritizes light and highly mobile amphibious units, according to Cancian.
However, under FD30, the Corps will be returning to its maritime roots and following guidance from the military commander in chief, proponents argue. Berger is responding to the positioning of China as the major strategic challenge for the U.S. military in President Trump’s 2018 National Defense Strategy and Biden’s 2022 version, they say.
“These officers are, in essence, urging the commandant to ignore strategic guidance from the president and the secretary of defense,” former under secretary of defense and Marine Corps artillery officer Robert Work wrote in a May response to Chowder II’s articles, adding that it is high time for the retired officers to let up on their campaign to tank FD30.
“We’re not waiting for 2030 or 2027 or 2025. Your Marines are ready to handle any crisis today,” the promotional video for the 2023 FD30 update states.
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The 2023 update does not implement major changes, instead announcing that the Marine Corps has completed the “divest” stage and is ready to double down on “investing.” It calls for experimenting toward a fleet of kamikaze attack drones and, notably, scaling the number of infantry units up to 811 from an initial goal of 735.
“The infantry has traditionally been the center of the Marine Corps, so the structure of the infantry battalions is very important,” Cancian told the DCNF.
The update mentions redesigned reconnaissance units, hypersonic rocket boosters and a “Long-Range Attack Munition” capable of traveling distances across the Pacific, according to Breaking Defense. It also acknowledges that acquiring 35 of a certain type of warship in the specified time frame is infeasible given Berger’s objective to remain within budget, while making an argument for 31 amphibious warships.
“The original FD 2030 argued that large amphibious ships were too expensive and too vulnerable, so [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] and the Navy proposed cutting them to 24-27. The Marine Corps has been working with Congress ever since to justify higher numbers,” Cancian said.
High jump @USMC Marines jump from a KC-130J Super Hercules during parachute drills over Okinawa, Japan. The training sustains operational readiness while ensuring Marines are prepared to rapidly insert into austere environments through multiple methods. pic.twitter.com/n0IbNrofsm
— Department of Defense 🇺🇸 (@DeptofDefense) June 2, 2023
‘Only Part Of The Problem’
Congress appears to be largely in favor of the Marine Corps’ reorganization.
Congressional appropriators lauded Berger’s gutsy modernization moves, taking on significant risk associated with shedding certain capabilities, in a May 15 letter. They especially appreciated that Berger planned the transition without seeking or expecting additional budgetary support, with savings to the tune of $15.8 billion against the Department of Defense’s topline budget.
Berger “made difficult investment and divestment decisions that were a departure from institutional and doctrinal norms,” the bipartisan group of lawmakers wrote, nodding to the opposition including Chowder II. “However, we should commend the Marine Corps on its willingness to make difficult decisions for the Nation’s strategic advantage and security.”
President Joe Biden has not commented on FD30. For now, the Pentagon appears on board with the rapid changes the Corps is undergoing, according to Cancian.
“The concept has received strong support from the secretary of the Navy and, to a lesser extent, from the Defense Secretary and Chairman,” he said.
Biden tapped Marine Corps Assistant Commandant Gen. Eric Smith to succeed Berger on May 31. Smith has been at the forefront of advocating for FD30 against detractors and implementing its proposals, according to Breaking Defense.
“This also shows that [President Biden] is on board with the reshaping of the Corps,” former Senate candidate and Marine Lt. Col. Amy McGrath said in a social media statement.
In addition, Sgt. Maj. Carlos Ruiz will in August replace Sgt. Maj. Troy Black, who has served as the principal enlisted adviser to the commandant, responsible for issues of morale and discipline among the ranks since 2019, according to a press release.
The new sergeant major will have to address challenges arising from FD30-related mandates.
“The Marine Corps is also flirting with the idea of bringing in specialists without all the military skills the Marine Corps has been known for. To the extent this happens, the new sgt. major will have to deal with pushback from the senior enlisted Marines,” Cancian said.
The Marine Corps, with an authorized size of 177,000 troops, feels pressure to uphold its reputation as the anytime, anywhere rapid response force. Although the Marine Corps struggled less with recruiting than the remaining military branches, bringing on 28,608 active-duty enlisted personnel and 1,592 active-duty officers in fiscal year 2022 just above goals, it foresees difficult recruiting challenges, according to Marine Corps Times.
“FD 2030 is only part of the problem,” Marine Rob Barrow wrote on a forum for discussion about the service, saying the force has also caved to political pressures such as opening the service to women and allowing transgender Marines to serve in their claimed gender.
“What would Chowder II would say if asked their stance on these issues? May reveal that their ‘debate’ is indeed a cultural issue, not a war fighting issue,” Brian Kerg, a fellow at the Marine Corps University’s Kulak Center, wrote in a social media statement.
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