Momentous Changes in the U.S. Marine Corps Deserve Debate D eference 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 thatasubordinate 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. The unique and irreplaceable mission of the Marine Corps is to provide a homogeneous, all-encompassing “force in readiness” that can go anywhere and fight anyone on any level short of nuclear war. The corps has fought many political battles to preserve that mission but never from within—until now.
Among other decisions, Gen. Berger’s “Force Structure 2030” plan includes these provisions: • Elimination of three infantry battalions from the current 24,a14% reduction in frontline combat strength. • Reduction of each remaining battalion by 200 Marines, taking an additional 4,200 infantry Marines from the frontline combat capabilities. • Elimination of two reserve-component infantry battalions of the present eight, a 25% reduction of combat strength. • Elimination of 16 cannon artillery battalions, a 76% reduction, to be replaced by 14 rocket artillery battalions, for use in “successful naval campaigns.” • Elimination of all the tanks in the Marine Corps, even from the reserves. • Elimination of three of the current 17 medium tilt-rotor squadrons, three of the eight heavy-lift helicopter squadrons, and “at least” two of the seven light attack helicopter squadrons, which were termed “unsuitable for maritime challenges.” After several unsuccessful attempts by retired senior officers to engage inaquiet 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. Few of our most serious members of Congress would have simply nodded and funded a program with almost irreversible long-term consequences. Gen. Berger’s announcement came during the Covid restrictions, when much of Congress had gone remote, and serious examination and oversight was extremely difficult. Added to that was the chaos that existed in the Pentagon during the 2020 campaign year and the inevitable postelection turbulence. New ideas, even if they are bad ideas, haveaway of gaining media attention.
Predictably, some commentators have dismissed the concerns of the Marine Corps retired community as coming from a bunch of graybeards whose minds are still focused on yesterday’s wars. Such comments do no justice to the long tradition of combat innovation that has always marked the Marine Corps, from amphibious doctrine to helicopter usage to the techniques of close-air support. If Gen. Berger’s new ideas were well thought out and tested, we would be seeing 90% of retired generals enthusiastically supporting them instead of expressing concern.
I think CMC should have preceded these major changes with a lot of discussion- war games, simulation, etc. When you change the force structure this rapidly you are sure to get concerns, which we are seeing. He should have shown that this will work and done a better job explaining it.
I do think the recent Ukraine war has shown that technology has made tanks equivalent to world war II battleships. The Ukrainians have given the Russian tanks a great kicking - imagine what the Marine Corps would do with our better training, missiles, and air support.
It seems to me that technology is killing mechanized ground forces and restoring infantry - with of course air power.
I think as insurance in case this is wrong we should keep our two existing Reserve tank Battalions, and mothball our active duty tanks, in case we find they are needed in some future war. Cheap insurance.
The artillery is basically being traded for rocket forces. I am not deep enough in the technology to know if this is a solid idea, but surely missiles can be more accurate.
In my own air control communication field, we have quietly had major changes with little discussion, mostly driven by technology improvements
We got rid of our four medium range air defense HAWK missile Battalions, figuring that our own aircraft and Navy air defense were better with less logistics needed on the ground. We got rid of Air Support Radar Teams that did tremendous work in Vietnam, because aircraft became so much better at hitting targets without the major ground support units.
I don't know about the trade off of traditional rifle battalions for littoral units. And I also know that we often get to fight in places and in ways that we did not anticipate - Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. We can train all day for island hopping missions in Asia, and get to fight in eastern Europe.
Be Be Be Prepared, the motto of the Boy Scouts, and the Marines.
So in short I think CMC may be making the right moves, but should have made the case to the Marine Corps, active and retired, before making the massive changes. Now he will have to make the case going forward.
And tragic, but interesting that we have a current life fire test of the tank / missile competition.
All the discussion about missiles and drones in the Ukraine Russian War reminds me of my missile shooting days.
Once in a while I would hear about the guys I went through Boot Camp and Infantry Training. Most of them went to Vietnam and were in Infantry Units. I am sure some were killed or wounded but you lose track of people pretty quickly. Later on at a Boot Camp Platoon 50 year reunion I found out that five of the eighty or so boot camp mates were killed. https://platoon350.blogspot.com/.
The runway was next to our Battalion. The jet fighters made incredible noise each time they took off or landed.Flying those very high performance aircraft was a dangerous job. An F-4 taking off from the run way turned upside down and the pilots ejected straight into the runway.
I also had a nest of black widows under my desk in Yuma. I would periodically burn them out or beat them out with a broom. But they liked me - they always came back and they never bit me.
We also saw lots of scorpions and the occasional rattlesnake. I killed a number of rattlesnakes until my friend Mike Nielsen impressed on me their value to the natural ecosystem. Now I leave them alone. Ditto the black widows.
My First Sergeant saw me hitchhiking, gave me office hours, a thorough Marine Ass Chewing, and 30 days of mess duty.This last 30 days brought the total days of Mess duty I served up to 100 days, more than any other Marine or serviceman that I ever met - I believe I have the record. Mess duty was typically 16 to 18 straight hours a day and as many as 31 straight days without a day off, cleaning the galleys, scrubbing pots, etc. I served on Mess duty at Parris Island SC, Camp Lejeune NC, San Diego CA, 29 Palms CA, and Yuma AZ.
One half of MWCS-48 was mobilized for the war, and some of us went to Norway or North Carolina, but only Bob Dart went to the Gulf. He needs to write his story down. Here is what we remember of the brief, written almost thirty years afterwards, so we don't want to be tested on these memories.
The young Marine Captain told us they were mobilized and arrived in the Gulf. They had the old M-60A1 Tanks, not the more modern M-60A3 Tanks. The Marine Corps received loaner M-1 tanks from the US Army. The M-1 was new and very much more powerful.
Before the war the British publication Janes Fighting Ships said that the Marine M-60's coold not stand up to the more modern and lethal T-72 tanks used by Iraq. They said the Marine M-60 tanks would be badly defeated by the Iraqi tanks.
The Captain told us that the active duty command put them on the front line and told them to try to get through the first minefield. "You will probably get blown up", they were told, "and if you do, the active duty Tank Battalion with will come through and save the day."
But in the attack the Marine Reserve Tanks only lost the tread on one tank, so drove on to the second minefield, and took no losses in the second minefield. The Captain said the Iraqi minefield was ineptly constructed and that the wind had blown the sand away so they could avoid the mines. And the minefield was not covered by fire.
The Ground Commander told them to keep going. It would have been time consuming and complex for the active duty Marine tanks to pass past the M-60's. The Captain's story was that his Reserve Company led the fight all the way up to the road that led to Kuwait, then turned east towards Kuwait. He told us they met retreating tanks and vehicles and sometimes killed them with shots 100 yards away. I believe he claimed 35 tanks and 60 soft skinned vehicles. Something like that.
I asked him now many of his troops had been tankers on active duty? Only four, he said, one of who was the Captain.
I asked the old grizzled Gunny Sgt what he had done on active duty. "Do I have to tell you, Sir" he said. "Yes," I laughed, surprised that he was shy about what he did on active duty.
"I was a cook. In the Navy", he said.
Pretty impressive for the Marine Reserve to train an outstanding tank company from a bunch of different MOS Marines.
Excellent brief. This is the way I remember it, although my sea stories sometimes get exaggerated.
I can't believe that they have not written it up. Can't find it anywhere. It was a great story.
There is a great story written by a Reserve Tank outfit that fought very well with M-1 Tanks. They had very little time to transition from the M-60's to the M-1's but obviously did it very well.
Sgt Major Tomaeno had a great story about tanks. He mobilized with 2/24, the Chicago Marine Infantry Battalion. His son was mobilized with him and they were soon in Iraq for the war.
Sgt Major Tomaeno saw a Marine on an Iraqi tank, and yelled "Get off of that tank. You don't know what you are doing. You will get hurt."
The Marine replied, "Son, I do know what I am doing. I am trying to get this running so we can use it."
Sgt Major Tomaeno noted that there were few Marines in Iraq that could call him son. But the grizzled old Warrant Officer was one of them.
The Warrant Officer said, "The last time I was on one of these tanks was in Korea. But this is the last time. After this I am going to retire."