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Stop the Presses: This Top Marine Wants to Shrink the Corps

Gen. Berger sees the writing on the wall, and wants to do more with less. But his battle with the Blob is just beginning.
marine berger

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has triggered alarm and dislocation throughout American society. From fat cat bankers on Wall Street down to the humble dishwashers in restaurants, all walks of life have been affected. Lost in these headlines, however, is another alarm bell that’s ringing within the national security state.

This week, Marine Commandant General David H. Berger released his vision for the Marine Corps over the next 10 years. Shockingly, the general stated that “we need to contract the size of the Marine Corps to get quality.” Contract? In the Trump era of Make the Military Yuge Again, who in their right mind would be suggesting a reduction in the size of the military? 

Maybe, just maybe, today is the opportunity to do it.

Military budgets have only increased during the Trump administration. Riding high on pork and taxpayer largesse, one would assume that America’s military leaders would be careful to not rock the boat. But Berger seems to be taking a different approach.

Shortly after his ascension to the Corps’ top post in 2019, Berger released a detailed but well written and easily digestible planning guidance document. The general’s primary focus: force design. After numerous war games and studies conducted last year, his intent has now been distilled into quantifiable policy actions for transformation, which were formally released this month. His plans are bold, ambitious, reasoned, and, given the current climate of the Blob, brave. If he gains traction, his vision has the potential to return the Corps to a lean, mean warfighting machine. 

What is the method behind the madness? Simply put, force design is scope and scale. Each service is given a scope of missions they are responsible for achieving if called upon by the president and Congress. Scope is missions; scale is numbers: how many tanks, Marines, sailors, ships, planes, and helicopters, etc., each service will have on paper in order to fulfill said missions. Before 9/11, these missions were fairly straightforward. Each service trucked along orderly in peacetime, guided by bright yellow highway lanes painted between their mission sets.

The last 20 years have eroded these lines, because any bureaucracy by definition is always striving to make itself responsible for more, not less. With this added responsibility comes more funding, and hence ensures the survival of the organization. Trillions of dollars were in play, and volunteering to deploy translated to years of deployments to the desert and Afghanistan. Growth soon followed this “demand.” In 1999, active duty Marines numbered 172,000, then grew to a peak of 202,000 in 2009. An increase in troops also translated into an increase in their toys. As just one example, two new Helicopter Medium Light Attack (HMLA) Squadrons were created during this time to ease the strain of nonstop deployments. 

This resulted in a service like the Marine Corps, whose roots are at sea, playing second fiddle to the Army. And that was in addition to fulfilling the traditional role of force projection aboard Navy ships in the form of Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEUs), which didn’t slow down one bit during the war on terrorism. 

General Berger’s intent is clear: the Marine Corps will return to its roots as a Fleet Marine Force (FMF) and focus on becoming integrated with the Navy. Berger’s argument is that the Navy and Marine Corps began parting ways after the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, which created “separate Navy and Marine Corps components with joint forces.” This was a departure from the original intent of the FMF as established in 1933. The last 20 years only exacerbated this departure. General Berger’s vision is to lead the Marine Corps back to familiar pastures, while at the same time acknowledging the changing nature of warfare and fiscal reality. 

To the shock of many Navy and Marine leaders, the commandant’s guidance jettisons amphibious force structure goals in place since 2009, which operate under the assumption of a two Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) requirement and 38 amphibious ships. The guidance implies a new FMF design structure, all the way down to amphibious warfighting doctrine and joint force interoperability.

Why is General Berger taking this approach? The first reason is stated in his guidance: “Visions of a massed naval armada nine nautical miles offshore in the South China Sea” are “impractical and unreasonable.” The Pacific island storming campaigns of World War II are a relic of history. Amphibious operations are still relevant; sending a 15,000 MEB and dozens of Navy ships against small Chinese islands aren’t. That’s not to say China isn’t on the radar. It is, in a central way. As General Berger stated in an interview quoted by the Wall Street Journal, “China, in terms of military capability, is the pacing threat.”

The second reason is that force design correlates well with readiness. As General Berger stated at a Center for a New American Security event last week, “we have to get smaller to get better.” It isn’t a secret that the military has been plagued by a readiness crisis over the last several years. From ships to planes and everything in between, the story sounds similar: the services fail to meet the basic criteria of mission preparedness.

How can reducing the size of the force help the Corps “get better?” An analogy helps illuminate the problem. Imagine a large swimming pool. The water is money and resources, the level of the water is readiness, and the volume of the pool represents the scale of the military. Assume that the water available is generally fixed, like the military budget. If the pool is large, the level will be low; if the pool is small, the level will be high. This is the dilemma the military finds itself in. As General Berger’s predecessor General Neller lamented in 2018, “we’ve got too many airplanes.” The solution is to reduce the size of the military itself, spend the same, and raise readiness. 

As reported by the Wall Street Journal, the general is as serious as a judge about slimming down. The 10-year plan calls for Marine tank companies to be mothballed, seven to zero. Infantry battalions will shrink from 24 to 21, bridging companies from three to zero, and cannon batteries from 21 down to five. All rotary wing aviation squadrons, light attack, heavy lift, and tilt-rotor, will shrink by several squadrons. Fighter squadrons will hold constant at 18, unmanned aerial vehicle squadrons will double from three to six, and missile/rocket batteries will triple from seven to 21. Finally, the general foresees even more reductions in active duty personnel, which currently stand at 186,000 Marines and could go as low as 170,000. Again, in 1999, the Corps was 172,000 strong. 

Speaking of the next decade, the final reason that General Berger is likely, but not openly, campaigning for reform: fiscal reality. The political landscape in the United States is in the process of realignment. The bases of the major political parties might seem miles apart, but they do agree on one major theme, and that is populism. Both left- and right-wing insurgents are clamoring for the state to take a more active role in the affairs of the nation, which will require government spending. 

Financially, something has to give. The country faces trillions in unfunded liabilities, $23 trillion in debt to service, an aging workforce beginning to draw benefits, and endless wars and empire to fund. This was all before an unpleasant crisis called COVID-19 initiated calls for stimulus, bailouts, and Federal Reserve pumping and purchases, which will cascade into untold havoc for months if not years to come.

If democracy holds, it would be a safe bet to assume the people will vote for entitlements and social spending over present defense budgets. The commandant likely sees the writing on the wall and is striking first, putting the Marine Corps in a position to do more with less and still achieve readiness and relevancy. He’ll have less water for his smaller pool, but will still be capable of filling it to the correct level. 

What obstacles will the commandant encounter in his quest for change? The military establishment, for one. Trump’s election spurred calls for the long sought after 350 ship Navy, and recently some Marine leaders have theorized about a 35,000-ship force whose ranks include smaller autonomous ships and drones. Ultimately, the military must salute smartly and carry out orders. The real threat to General Berger’s plans will surely be the Congress and their crony defense contractors’ insatiable appetite for pork.

Drawing down the size of the Marine Corps would require Congress to be the bearer of bad news to its constituents whose employment depends on defense spending. “Sorry citizens, the Marine Corps doesn’t want X many tanks, Y many helicopters, etc.” This won’t go over well with either political party. Take, for example, the unsuccessful battle waged by former Army chief of staff Ray Odierno to reduce the defense budget’s funding allocation for tanks. Testifying in 2012, Odierno stated, “we don’t need the tanks. Our tank fleet is two and a half years old on average now. We’re in good shape and these are additional tanks that we don’t need.” Guess who won? Congress. $183 million was included for the tanks in the final bill in 2012. In 2015, it was the same story: $120 million for tanks. Battles waged, battles lost.

General Berger will have a fight on his hands very soon, but the simple fact that the commandant wants to make his service responsible for less is extraordinary and worthy of praise. As stated in his guidance, “everything starts and ends with the individual Marine.” Yet you don’t hear from the individual Marine much in the news, just “security experts,” think tanks, Congress, and the brass. But what the average Marine yearns for every day is simply the opportunity to train hard and achieve proficiency. Best of luck to the commandant: this former Marine is rooting for him.

Jeff Groom is a former Marine officer. He is the author of American Cobra Pilot: A Marine Remembers a Dog and Pony Show (2018). Follow him on Twitter @BigsbyGroom.