Changes in force organization in the US Marine Corps deserve debate

Homage to senior commanders is an ingrained tradition in elite military organizations, and nowhere is that tradition honored more than in the US Marine Corps. But what happens when a policy coming from the top of the chain of command is undertested or intrinsically flawed? Where is it written that a subordinate or former commander can put aside the deference and demand a second look?

For more than two years, many of the Marine Corps’ top former leaders have grappled with this dilemma as they quietly debated a series of fundamental changes ordered, and in some cases already implemented, by General David Berger, the current commander. There are serious questions among Marines about the wisdom and long-term risk of dramatically reducing force structure, weapon systems, and manpower in units that would sustain casualties in most combat scenarios. And it’s unclear to almost anyone experienced in military planning what formal review and coordination was required before General Berger unilaterally announced a policy that would alter so many of the Marine Corps’ time-honored contributions.

The Marine Corps’ unique and irreplaceable mission is to provide a homogeneous, all-encompassing “force on standby” that can go anywhere and fight anyone at any level except nuclear war. The Corps has fought many political battles to maintain this mission, but never from within—until now.

Among other decisions, General Berger’s “Force Structure 2030” plan includes these provisions:

• Elimination of three infantry battalions from the current 24, a 14 percent reduction in frontline combat strength.

• Reduction of 200 marines from each remaining battalion, removing an additional 4,200 infantry marines from front line combat capabilities.

• Elimination of two reserve infantry battalions from the current eight, a 25 percent reduction in combat strength.

• Elimination of 16 cannon artillery battalions, a 76% reduction, replaced with 14 rocket artillery battalions for use in “successful naval campaigns”.

• Elimination of all Marine Corps tanks, even from reserves.

• Elimination of three of the current 17 medium tiltrotor squadrons, three of the eight heavy lift helicopter squadrons, and “at least” two of the seven light attack helicopter squadrons that were labeled “unfit for naval challenges.”

After several unsuccessful attempts by senior retired officers to engage in calm dialogue with General Berger, the gloves are now off. 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 Navy generals signed a private letter of concern to General Berger, and many others expressed support for the letter. A daily task force composed of 17 retired generals was formed to brief national leaders on concerns. One well-respected three-star retired general estimated to me that “over 90 percent of retired general officers would have been very concerned about running the Corps over the last two and a half years.”

There is not much time to stop the potential damage to our national security. Questions should be asked. The law does not give the commander of the Marine Corps carte blanche to make significant changes in troop structure. Title 10 provides that the commander shall perform his duties “subject to the authority, direction and control of the Secretary of the Navy” and that the Navy Secretary “have the necessary authority to direct all affairs of the Department of the Navy, including . . . Organization” 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 reorganization of this magnitude should have required extensive consideration and debate in Pentagon offices such as the Defense Resources Board, then formal approval by the Secretary of Defense before it was sent to the White House for further review, and then extensive hearings for oversight in Congress.

Few of our most serious members of Congress would have simply nodded and funded a program with almost irreversible long-term consequences. General Berger’s announcement came during Covid restrictions, when much of Congress was remote and serious scrutiny and oversight was extremely difficult. Add to that the chaos that reigned at the Pentagon during the 2020 campaign year and the inevitable post-election turmoil.

New ideas, even if they’re bad, have a way of getting media attention. Predictably, some commentators have dismissed the concerns of the retired Marine Corps community as stemming from a bunch of greybeards whose minds are still on yesterday’s wars. Such comments do not do justice to the long tradition of combat innovation that has characterized the Marine Corps throughout, from amphibious doctrine to the use of helicopters to close air support techniques.

If General Berger’s new ideas were well thought out and tested, we would see 90% of retired generals enthusiastically support them rather than expressing concern. But the realities of brutal combat and the many global challenges the Marine Corps faces every day argue strongly against a doctrinal experiment that could look good in a Quantico computer wargame.

Twenty-two four-star generals deserve to be heard. Let’s hope they will do it for the good of the country.

Mr. Webb was a Marine Infantry Officer in Vietnam, Secretary of the Navy (1987-88) and US Senator from Virginia (2007-13). He is a Distinguished Fellow at Notre Dame’s International Security Center.

Review & Outlook: Joe Biden and NATO are still too cautious when it comes to dismissing Russia’s war with Ukraine. Images: AP/Kirillovka. Ukr via Storyful Composite: Mark Kelly

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