Undeterred by Critics, the Marines' Transformation Forges Ahead with an Eye on Ukraine

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Gen. David Berger speaks to members of the media in Norway.
The Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. David H. Berger, speaks with members of the press during Exercise Cold Response 2022, Bardufoss Air Station, Norway.

Despite difficult choices, the Marine Corps is forging ahead with plans to alter how the force looks and fights, even as a chorus of critics bemoans the new strategy that heralds major changes for a branch steeped in tradition. 

The service unveiled its annual force plan update Monday; it pushes continued shedding of some of the Corps' size and bulk, aiming to better prepare Marines for amphibious landings on islands as a counter to the growing naval and military might of China.

Speaking to reporters May 5, Gen. David Berger, commandant of the Marine Corps, did not back away from the idea that Marine "infantry is going to continue to locate close with and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver -- that's not going to change." Instead, what is changing is "the range of options for how they do that." 

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To fund this evolution, which Berger noted is being done internally "with no extra money," the Corps has decided to ditch all its tanks, as well as sizable portions of its aircraft, artillery and other heavy assets.

But that plan has encountered no shortage of critics who have been lining up in recent months to label Berger's plan a mistake. Some, like former commandant Gen. Charles Krulak, called the plan "well-intended, but … wrong." Others, like former Secretary of the Navy Jim Webb, have described the plan as "radical." It's worth noting that Webb, as a young Marine officer, also wrote an article in 1979 entitled "Women Can't Fight."

Others have suggested the changes will make Marines vulnerable in urban environments, but Berger believes "the nation needs us to be amphibious, needs us to be expeditionary, needs us to be naval."

Berger insisted that he's unfazed by the articles, especially those from former Marines. "I take the person and the emotion out of it completely," he said. Instead, the commandant says that he is willing to hear out anyone who says "we have evidence that shows otherwise." 

"I was brought up in critical thinking," he added. "Having a couple of battalions of tanks is not the thing that helps the nation going forward."

Amidst the criticism, Berger, as well as many of his top leaders, have gone out of their way to note that the fundamental culture of the Marine Corps will remain unchanged, even while what makes up the average Marine continues to change dramatically.

And while the internal back-and-forth carries on, the branch's top leaders say that the conflict in Ukraine is offering foreshadowing of the successes the Marine Corps could enjoy if it carries through on its transformation plan.

Though Berger is quick to point out that it's still early to make definitive conclusions about the conflict, he says the successes he's seeing in Europe seem to mirror many of the choices being made in the halls of Quantico and Washington, D.C.

Berger noted that he's seen "smaller, more distributed units ... overmatch the large bulky formations that have huge logistical requirements to sustain them." 

When considering the Ukrainian strike on and eventual sinking of the Russian cruiser "Moskva," Berger was even more direct.

"This is the direction the Marine Corps is going as a part of what the nation needs us to do in sea control and sea denial," he said. "It does serve as an example of the vulnerability of ships, writ large, to missiles."

The Ukrainians have claimed that they struck the ship with two Neptune missiles and caused "serious damage." Russian state media said that the ship later sank while under tow in a storm.

"We're generally on the right path if we can field mobile expeditionary anti-ship missiles in a way that causes an adversary to adjust how they're operating," Berger said.

One key aspect is a plan to shape the Corps into an older, more talent-driven force and get away from the old idea of the fresh-out-of-high-school recruit. That plan, first announced last November, emphasized a move away from an "industrial age approach to personnel." Berger explained that the move is driven by a recognition that today's recruits can handle "a multitude of tasks and skill sets" compared to their brethren 50 years ago.

As part of that conversation, the Corps is rethinking how often Marines move from station to station -- a concept known as homesteading. This is another departure from the more traditional military model of new orders every three years.

Berger explained that this effort is about "trying to find a greater balance on how do you maintain a team together long enough to master their skills and what appropriate time do you begin to rebuild that organization." 

Perhaps the most notable, and risible, idea that emerged out of these changes is bringing Marines in laterally -- not at a low enlisted or officer rank but something matching a person's education and experience -- without going through boot camp first.

Berger, lightheartedly, explained that the rumor came out of a hypothetical question he posed to a forum. "That got translated into 'Oh my God, we're gonna have a fat, 38-year-old ... long hair and ring in the nose," he said. 

"That was never part of the equation."

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin. 

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