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Transcript: The Path Forward: Gen. David H. Berger

MR. IGNATIUS: Welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m David Ignatius, a columnist at The Post. Our guest today is General David Berger, the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps. General Berger is a leader in thinking about modernizing our military, and specifically the Marine Corps. He’s also a perfect person to ask about the strictly military aspects of the war in Ukraine that we’re all following day by day, hour by hour. General Berger, welcome to Washington Post Live. Thanks for coming.

GEN. BERGER: David, thank you for having me on this afternoon.

MR. IGNATIUS: So, sir, I want to begin by asking you a bit about the war in Ukraine, which as I said, we're all following with such interest. From a military perspective, as the commandant of our Marine Corps, give us your sense of why the Russian invasion force has seemed to have difficulty over these first three weeks of war. What do you specifically observe as problems for their force?

GEN. BERGER: Great question. A couple thoughts. First, I think during a conflict, it's difficult to draw all of the deeper lessons learned. So some, of course, will come over time and with deeper analysis. But while the conflict is going on, a couple thoughts, perhaps. One is that analysis, computer modeling helps in some regards. But I would say if you ran the computer model on the Russian military versus the Ukraine military, it would--it would give you a certain answer that said it probably wouldn't last all that long. But that's obviously not what's happening. And the reason I start there, sir, is models, computer models can’t, of course, factor in the human element. So before--you know, before someone were to talk about the Russian forces and how they are doing, I think you have to begin with the Ukrainian forces and how well they are doing, and beginning with the information competition, the information space, which I would say Ukraine is winning.

They're also using the what we would call in military terms the strength of the defense, the inherent strength of the defense over the offense. Not a new concept. Since World War I proven very difficult to break through a defense in depth, especially if that defense in depth is well-prepared, well-trained. And that can be whether it's land or foreign, a naval environment. Either way--in other words, at sea, either way, a defense in depth is very difficult for any force to penetrate. But I would begin first of all with Ukraine and how well their forces are doing. I think they're proving to be very disciplined, very well-trained, very well-led, and now very inspired.

MR. IGNATIUS: One of the things that people have noted is that the Russians don't appear to be using ground infantry effectively to accompany their armored forces. Typically, you'd expect ground infantry to be moving with tanks and armored vehicles as they approach to an objective like Kiev, but that doesn't seem to be happening. And I'm wondering whether that strikes you as a--as a soldier, as a Marine, as a weakness in the--in the Russian offensive.

GEN. BERGER: I don't know if I'd call it--I would characterize it as a weakness because we don't really know all the reasons why. But your point, David, is spot on. Most would, in the military framework and our terminology, we would--we would call it fighting combined arms. Probably another way to describe it is using maneuver to bolster your fires or using fires to set up your forces for maneuver. But in both cases, one without the other, as you accurately highlight, very, very ineffective.

One other possibility in there--I'm sure there are several--is that the picture that Ukrainian forces are painting in front of the Russian element is causing them confusion--in other words, their effectiveness of stripping away the reconnaissance for the Russian forces, which is what Marines are very, very good at, is--it could be part of the equation. Said another way, if you're a Russian tactical commander right now on the ground, I'm not sure they have a good picture of what's in front of them. And I think Ukraine is doing a fantastic job of denying that. And this is the sort of we would call it a scouting/counter scouting role that the Marine Corps would play forward also. They're doing it very effectively.

MR. IGNATIUS: One other thing, General Berger, that I've heard military analysts discuss is the seeming problem in taking initiative at what we would think of as the NCO level. Everybody's seen the aerial pictures of the long, 40-mile-long convoy that's appeared stuck. And some people have noted that it takes initiative, say from a sergeant, to say I’ve got to get out of this line, we're stuck here, and to move off the road and into a place where there's more shelter, maneuvering room, but that it comes down to that NCO level decision making. Do you think that's a factor in what we're seeing?

GEN. BERGER: It very well could be. We've known for a very long time in the U.S. military that one of our strengths, which is difficult to understand, if you're--if you don't have a military background--is the way that we train and the way that we empower junior leaders to take initiative, as you pointed out, in lieu of detailed instructions from your boss, from your higher commander. We are trained, told to not wait for those detailed instructions but to use your training and your judgment and your initiative. And that's how you generate tempo. That's how you generate momentum. We don't--you know, you would have to be inside the Russian leader’s head to understand the real answers to your question, but it's entirely possible that they have a top-down very, what we would call hierarchical sort of structure where junior leaders are not allowed, not permitted to make those kind of calls independently of instructions from above. Very different from the way that a Marine leader would operate.

MR. IGNATIUS: A couple of more--a couple more practical questions, General Berger, and then we’ll move on to the other broader subjects. I want to ask you about, again, a strength of the U.S. military over many decades has been our ability with logistics, to move people, to supply forces in combat. Logistics seems, from what we can tell, to have been a problem for the Russian invaders. Their tank columns move forward but they run out of fuel. They have other supply issues. This is not the most glamorous aspect of warfare, but talk a little bit about what you’re seeing in terms of logistics and supply.

GEN. BERGER: Logistics is an area where, to your point, it’s not necessarily as fascinating, interesting to talk about as weapon systems or maneuver or intelligence, but in the end, as many others have already said, professionals, professional military people, they talk logistics. I don’t know if it’s hubris on the part of the Russian planners and leaders or just an assumption that the operation would not take very long and therefore no need to stack up logistics on the other side of the border. But in any event, your point is spot on.

There is--there is what we would call a culmination point where any military unit can go no further without resupply and you have to stop. And if you haven’t planned for that in advance, you lose all momentum. And the last part I would say is you’re seeing in Ukraine if the adversary, if the other side is very good at maneuvering and if they take individual initiative and they can get at your backside, at your logistics trains, and Ukraine is doing that very, very effective, sort of the soft underbelly at the tactical level to pinch your backside, and that really causes Russian leaders, tactical leaders more problems, because the convoy, the resupply that they were planning now has to fight its way to get to you from Russia.

So, logistics absolutely has to be planned. We are very good at it globally, and the U.S. military plans in depth. And to your point, you have to also make decisions beyond planning in execution, that you have to be able to--you have to be agile enough to adapt to the situation, because it’s not going to turn out exactly how you had planned it. This is the inherent flexibility of the Marine structure, which is aviation and ground and logistics team all built into one from day one. But you have--to your point, in some cases, in many cases it boils down to logistics.

MR. IGNATIUS: Let me ask you a final question about what we're seeing in Ukraine, General Berger, and that's one of special interest I'm sure to you, and that's the performance of Russia's amphibious forces operating from the Black Sea into the Ukrainian coast. There have been some amphibious operations, not overwhelming. But what's your sense of how those amphibious forces are performing?

GEN. BERGER: Perhaps a couple--a couple of thoughts there. One, no other operation that I know of is more complicated, more complex, takes more preparation, practice, rehearsal than a--than an amphibious operation, which is why not all forces can do them. It takes, again, a tremendous amount of practice and the right equipment, the right training to get you there. So why has--why didn't the Russian amphibious forces do an amphibious landing earlier? Perhaps they weren’t prepared. Perhaps the Ukrainian forces had time to set a defense along the coastline that caused them, the Russian forces, to be concerned and delay. I don't know. But to me, it highlights that the littoral area--in other words, the area between land and sea--always a tough spot for anybody to operate. It is the unique amphibious role for us to play and the Navy together as a team.

Defense is always going to be difficult to overcome if you don't have the mobility like we have where we can go ashore by vessels. We can go ashore by aircraft. We have multiple means to move from ship to shore and back again. If you don't have all those means, and you don't have the competence, the skill sets that you need, it can be pretty intimidating to try to do forcible entry, sort of amphibious assault from the sea. We'll see, you know, when we study this afterwards why they didn't go earlier and why they're--why they're held back as long as they are. But to me, it just highlights why we have to train on the--on the U.S. Marine Corps and Navy side to such a high degree. It is a very complicated operation.

MR. IGNATIUS: I’m really grateful to get that assessment of some of the military details from a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Let me turn now, General Berger, to some other broader issues facing you as Marine commandant, starting with China, which as our senior leadership says is our pacing threat, a potential challenge in the future. Let me ask first, if you were a Chinese PLA, Chinese military commander, looking at the war in Ukraine, what lessons would you draw about future conflicts that might involve China? In particular, I’m curious whether you think the Chinese leadership would be reassessing the difficulty of taking Taiwan by military force in the future.

GEN. BERGER: I would--without giving them--without making, you know, somebody 10 feet tall, I would say absolutely we should assume they're studying it. We are too. We're a learning organization. And we should assume that the PLA and leaders are studying what's happening in Ukraine. I think it definitely should give them pause about any degree of confidence that an assault, an invasion of another country, of another piece of land, and especially if it's across a body of water, is not going to be easy, and it's not going to be quick. So, I would think they're learning.

And again, comparing Ukraine, as you--as you highlighted where there--everything is on land, you can go across roads to get to--from Russia to Ukraine, from Belarus to Ukraine, you cannot do that getting to Taiwan. So everything from logistics to the sustainment, as you pointed out.

Then there's the--then there’s the aspect of all the allies and partners that the United States has that should not be underestimated, their ability to rally quickly. Some perhaps thought that NATO would take a while to respond. Should not--should not have underestimated that alliance and the U.S.’s commitment to it. Same I would say in our alliance with countries in the Indo-Pacific. So time, logistics, the--just the sheer difficulty of doing an amphibious operation, and I would think they're definitely trying to draw lessons learned, yeah.

MR. IGNATIUS: You've been doing a lot of thinking, General Berger, with your staff in the Marine Corps about the Indo-Pacific theater. And I've come up with some new ideas about how the Marines might operate in the--in the South China Sea. You've got a concept that you call "stand in forces" as opposed to traditional expeditionary forces that stand off and then come into the battlespace when needed. You're talking now about stand in forces that are closer. Maybe for our viewers who are less familiar with these issues, you could just summarize some of the thinking that you've been doing about this theater, how the Marines might operate in these inner island chains, if we ever got in a situation, heaven forbid, of military conflict with China.

GEN. BERGER: I would start with the concepts that the Marine Corps is working on, is developing, are applicable around the globe. So, they're not specific, not unique to one specific or to one region or one particular potential adversary there. They have to be applicable around the world because the Marine Corps is the Crisis Response Force for the country anywhere for the--for the U.S. anywhere on the globe.

Stand in forces is a response to not just China's but the changing character of war over the past, I would say, eight to 10 years specifically, where precision long-range weapon systems that are very accurate have been proliferated. And that has led to a defensive posture on the part of some nations like China that believes that they can deter, that they can control everything within the range of their long-range precision weapons, missiles largely, but not exclusively.

So, our approach is, if the U.S. needed to operate inside that regime, it's not an either standoff or get inside. It's actually both. It's yes to both. I think the U.S. military has to be able to operate in great depth. And the Marine Corps’ traditional, unique role is upfront and standing in. And the value of what we call standing in is a couple things. You're there, side by side, shoulder by shoulder, with the--with the partners, with the allies that the U.S. has. You're not leaving them. You're not going back to the rear. You're staying right there, side by side with them.

Now second, I think, very clear to us over the past few years the value of painting a complete picture of what's in front of you tactically. That requires everything from satellites to a force forward to get as clear a picture of what the other side is doing. And day to day before a conflict wherever it could break out--in other words, long before the shooting starts--you want to be up there, want to be next to the allies, next to the partners, but also to paint a clearer picture of what the other side is doing so that everything that they--every move that they make you can make public if you choose to, to perhaps deter them from taking another step. So, it's not an either standoff or stand in. It's a--it's the whole depth of operation, and the Marine Corps’ unique role is to stand in and be ready to go on the offense if we need to.

MR. IGNATIUS: I want to ask you, General Berger, about a critique that a retired combat Marine named Bing West, who writes often about military issues, wrote in the National Review this past month, writing about what he described as your anti-ship strategy operating in the event of conflict with China in the inner island chain. And he said that he was concerned that the strategy might be flawed because the Chinese in his words have pivoted toward Taiwan, that the Ukraine conflict shows that aggressors can pick the battlespace where they want to fight. And finally, he argued that to pay for your strategy--and we'll talk in a minute about your changes in the Marine Corps--you've had to give up tanks, artillery and air and have less the combined force clout than Bing West thought was appropriate. How would you respond to that kind of criticism of the strategic approach you've taken?

GEN. BERGER: I have a tremendous amount of respect for Bing West. Most of us have read his writings for many years and talked with him because he thinks on operational to strategic, all the way down to the tactical level. So, the debate, the discussion of warfare in general is a healthy one.

To your specific question, I would flip that on its head and say part of what you're seeing in Ukraine and Russia, using his example, actually validates the direction that the Marine Corps is going. It confirms the need to have a force in close to paint a clearer picture and be lethal and be mobile in the face of a threat. I think is no anti-ship strategy for the Marine Corps. The approach is to distribute naval and Marine Corps forces widely, to be able to operate from ship or from shore for the purposes of controlling key parts, just like you would on land, where there might be a road intersection that you want to control. Well, at sea, in the maritime environment, there are the equivalent of road intersections that the U.S. needs to hold open, needs to make sure are open and free. Well, that takes a force that's very comfortable in that maritime amphibious environment, which is us.

To do that, you have to--if you want to control an intersection, you know, on land or you want to control the equivalent of that--a strait, perhaps, at sea--then you need forces that are capable of doing that. And the Navy and Marine Corps team is uniquely suited to.

There were three parts to your question, David. I think I missed one of them.

MR. IGNATIUS: I think you--I think you responded to the Bing West critique.

I want to with the time that we have remaining talk to you about modernization of the Marine Corps. When you became a commandant, you issued a commandant’s guidance back in 2019, I think, which had some pretty revolutionary ideas. You said there are a number of things the Marine Corps traditionally has done that we're just not going to do, they're not going to be part of the future combat environment where we're going to fight. And you and I have talked a good deal about your efforts to make those changes happen, in fact. For our viewers who may not have followed that in detail, just list two or three of the fundamental ways that you think the Marine Corps is different now as a force than it was when you first issued that commandant’s guidance.

GEN. BERGER: One of the strengths of the Marine Corps is its ability to adapt quickly and not after the fact but in front of it. And that history goes back to World War II and earlier. So there's nothing unique that I’ve started. It was a turn that the service was making before I ever became commandant. I would begin perhaps by saying, first of all, today, this afternoon, we're very capable of any mission that the secretary were--of Defense were to send us to. We are a crisis response force. We can handle the task now.

But my job as--a service chief’s job is to make sure that you're also prepared two and five and 10 years into the future. So, some things we will continue to do, but we will do it in a different way. I think amphibious landings, amphibious assault, forcible entry, those things which Marines are known for, for 70 years, we'll continue to do, but we'll do them in a very different way. And why? Because the character of war is changing. We need to change with it. Instead of tank-on-tank formations, I would say, if you looked at Armenia and Azerbaijan, or Lebanon, or even right now in Ukraine, pretty clear that top-down sort of missile attacks on the top side of heavy armor, makes it pretty vulnerable. So, for us, tanks are--they did tremendous work for us for many years, in many different scenarios. Going forward, they are heavy or too difficult to logistically support, and in some cases, vulnerable to attack from top from a proliferation of very inexpensive missiles. So, in some cases, we've let go of things that were very successful in the past in order to move towards things that we are going to need in the future.

But the aviation ground logistics team that I mentioned before, that's the heart. That's the strength of the Marine Corps, having it all organic. We are enabler kind of for the joint force. We’re the first ones on the scene to figure it out, to sort it out. We need the mobility to do that, which means we need amphibious ships, which is critical for the nation to have. Right now, you would--you need to have the ability even today in Ukraine, especially I would say today to have a crisis response force from the sea. That means we need to have the number of amphibious ships that's necessary to go global in the Pacific or in the Mediterranean. And for the U.S., that's 31 amphibious ships that we have to have in order to do what the nation needs us to do.

MR. IGNATIUS: So, General Berger, it's been a pleasure to have you with us. A lot of people talk the talk about modernizing the military. You've actually walked the walk with the Marine Corps, and we're grateful that you joined us on Washington Post Live. Thank you very much.

GEN. BERGER: David, thank you for having me on this afternoon. Thanks.

MR. IGNATIUS: So, we hope you’ll join us for other Washington Post Live programming. Go to to see what we’ve got coming up and to register for the programs that interests you. Thank you so much for joining me and General David Berger today.

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