Marine Corps Force Design is driving fundamental change. Is it good?

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By 2030, the Marine Corps will have fewer infantry within its ranks capable of closing in on and destroying the nation’s enemies, fewer aircraft to protect them from above, and no tanks at their side. Instead, following a fundamental transformation announced by the Corps in March 2020, the service says it will become leaner, more agile and “combat-credible” after investing in high-tech sensors, long-range missiles, unmanned aircraft, and reorganizing its infantry “grunts” into small teams capable of operating in austere locations while avoiding guided missiles.

This ongoing transformation is called Force Design 2030, and it is the Corps’ “last effort to adapt, stay relevant and outsmart” adversaries, according to officials. The adaptation means the Corps will return to its naval roots after decades of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and focus on “strategic competition with China and Russia,” according to a report prepared for members of Congress.

“Based on a ten-year, threat-informed time horizon, we are designing a force for naval expeditionary warfare in actively contested spaces,” says Navy Commander General David Berger, the principal chief of the Navy overseeing the initiative. “It will be specifically designed to facilitate sea denial and assured access in support of fleet and joint operations.”

First commissioned as an infantry officer in 1981, the 62-year-old led the Marines in Haiti, Iraq and Afghanistan before being named commander in 2019. Days after taking over as the Corps’ senior officer, Berger issued his commanding officer’s planning directives and made it clear that he was getting things done. Convinced that major change was needed after years of participation in naval and global war games, Berger said the service could not “afford to retain policies, doctrine, organizations or development strategies from obsolete force” and, like its predecessor, argued that the service was not properly organized or equipped to support the Navy.

“We must divest of legacy capabilities that do not meet our future needs, regardless of their past operational effectiveness,” Berger wrote.

Marine Corps Commandant General David Berger. (United States Marine Corps)

But not everyone agrees. In fact, a group of more than two dozen retired generals — including all living former commanders, according to Politico — are alarmed at Berger’s overhaul in hopes of further scrutiny by Congress. They question Berger’s assumptions, want further study of his plan, and believe the Corps is heading in the wrong direction.

It’s not a “group of old people who don’t know what they’re talking about,” retired Lt. Gen. Paul K. Van Riper told Politico. “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.”

Van Riper is one of four retired Navy generals who will discuss these changes at Task & Purpose this week. In a four-part series, these retired officers with decades of combat experience will lay out their views, challenge the Corps’ findings, and publicly ask the question many have been asking for years: Force Design 2030 is- she a good thing?

Retired General Anthony Zinni will set the stage by describing the Corps’ role among the military services and around the world. Zinni, a Vietnam veteran who has served 39 years in the Corps, will illustrate the current threat environment, explain Marine Corps responsibilities and raise “fundamental questions” regarding the operational character of the service in the future.

Read: What is the role of the Marine Corps in today’s global security environment? by General Anthony Zinni

Retired Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper will highlight changes to the Navy’s ground forces while saying Berger’s plan to redesign the force will only end up shattering it. “Neither history nor the American people will deem the Corps’ actions so wise,” writes Van Riper, a 41-year-old Marine Corps veteran who received two Silver Stars for his combat heroism in the Vietnam War.

Retired General Terry Dake, a former deputy commander who flew helicopters in Vietnam and logged 6,000 flight hours in military aircraft, will argue that the reorganization will undermine the Corps’ aviation capabilities. “With this degradation, it is not just the Marines who will suffer, but the Nation itself in matters of conflict and deterrence,” he wrote.

Finally, Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold, the former director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will critique talent management policies that underpin force design, saying Berger’s plan overlooks what makes the unique service and “threatens to change the ethos of the service.”

Yet regardless of who wins this debate, perhaps everyone involved can agree with Berger on one thing: “We can’t…be wrong.

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