In 1949, as atomic weapons were transforming warfare, the Defense Department was rocked by the “Revolt of the Admirals,” when the Navy leadership publicly protested Defense Secretary Louis Johnson’s decision to assign the strategic bombing mission to the Air Force. The analogy is inexact, but today, as information technology transforms warfare, the Marine Corps has been facing what might be dubbed the “Revolt of the Generals.” In this case, it is retired, not active-duty, general officers who are in revolt, and they are protesting not against senior civilians but against one of their own: Gen. David H. Berger, commandant of the Marine Corps.
Three years ago, Berger launched a radical revamp called Force Design 2030 to prepare the Corps for high-tech warfare against China and other potential adversaries. He has gotten rid of all the Marines’ tanks and more than half of their artillery batteries, while reducing the number of infantry and helicopter units. He is investing in rocket artillery, drones, loitering munitions, electronic warfare, tactical missiles, a new amphibious assault ship and other cutting-edge capabilities. The centerpiece of his reforms is the creation of littoral combat regiments — the first one has just been stood up — that, in the event of war, are supposed to move around Pacific islands, performing reconnaissance missions and firing missiles at Chinese ships and aircraft.
More than two dozen retired Marine generals — including revered figures such as former commandant Charles Krulak and former Central Command chief Anthony Zinni — have launched a public lobbying campaign to stop this transformation, which they argue is too focused on China at the expense of other threats such as insurgents. A trio of retired four-stars, including Krulak and Zinni, argued in a Post op-ed: “It will make the Marines less capable of countering threats from unsettled and dangerous corners of the world.”
If Berger is perturbed by this unprecedented opposition from the retired generals, he did not show it during a recent Zoom interview from his spacious Pentagon office. “There should be that kind of family discussion about what direction we’re taking,” the mild-mannered commandant told me. “I look at that as a positive thing.”
He insisted that “divesting platforms,” despite all the opposition, was “not a very difficult decision for us.” He said that his decisions have been driven in part by war games that show the Chinese military having considerable success with asymmetric capabilities such as carrier-killer missiles, cyberweapons and diesel submarines. The Marine makeover is designed to “change the adversary’s calculus” and throw the Chinese “off their game.” He envisions littoral combat units that will be “constantly moving,” making them “difficult to detect and target,” and that will “have a lethal capability and their own [intelligence] collection capability.”
“You have to make trade-offs,” he insisted. Although he said that heavy armor is still necessary for the “joint force” — the Army will still deploy lots of tanks — it is “less of a needed capability” for the Corps. “Looking into the future,” he said, “we need a better mix of loitering munitions, rocket artillery, missiles and other systems, manned and unmanned.”
Berger sees confirmation from the war in Ukraine for what he is trying to accomplish. “Sometimes large, bulky, hard-to-maneuver forces are in disadvantage against small, distributed forces,” he pointed out. “Ukrainian forces are doing a remarkable job of using different pieces of collection and closing kill chains quickly with long-range precision fires, and that’s an approach we would take as well.”
More recently, of course, Russia has been using a brute-force approach by simply raining down artillery to slowly advance in eastern Ukraine. Some might see this as a cautionary sign that the age of industrial warfare isn’t quite finished. But Berger sees it differently: “My read on it is that Russia is attacking the people in the cities. They’re not attacking the Ukrainian military. ... You can’t reach any conclusion on future warfare when they’re not attacking the enemy. They’re rubbling cities.”
Berger’s arguments have not convinced his critics, but he has won over the constituencies that count. Both Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his predecessor, Mark T. Esper, have been “fully supportive,” he said, “and, in fact, urge us to go faster.” Congress is also supportive. Indeed, eight House and Senate members of both parties, all Marine veterans, strongly endorsed the redesign, writing in the Wall Street Journal: “We don’t have time for incremental change. China is rapidly modernizing.”
I tend to agree. Given the rapid changes sweeping warfare — as sensors, drones and precision-guided munitions become ubiquitous — the U.S. armed forces don’t have the luxury of standing still. But Berger is running a risk that, by focusing so heavily on China, the Marine Corps could be ill-prepared for a future counterinsurgency conflict such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Berger’s redesign appears to have survived the “Revolt of the Generals” and is so far advanced that it will be hard for a successor to reverse. Now, all that remains to be seen is how the new Marine Corps will fare in an actual conflict, given that wars seldom unfold as expected.