Streetwise Professor

April 11, 2020

A Cultural Revolution in the Corps?

Filed under: China,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 5:25 pm

The Marine Corps credo is that every Marine is a rifleman. This credo reflects, and is reflected in, the Corps’ history of and excellence at close combat. From Belleau Wood to Guadalcanal to Tarawa to New Georgia to Peleliu to the Marianas to Iwo Jima to Okinawa to Inchon/Seoul to Chosin to I Corps (in Vietnam) to Kuwait and to Iraq and Afghanistan, the Marines have closed aggressively with the enemy and killed them, often at very high cost to themselves. Aggressive close quarter combat has been the Marine way of war for more than a century, and they think (with reason) that they do it better than anybody, ever.

The new commandant of the Marine Corps, General David Berger, has announced a radical new vision that is diametrically opposed to this historical tradition. Rather than close and kill, General Berger aims to reshape the force in order to permit it to operate in enemy held regions, and attrite the enemy’s air and naval forces with fires, primarily anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles.

And for enemy number one, read “China.” Enemy number two? There is no enemy number two. This is all about China, and the South China Sea.

This would involve a dramatic change in Marine force structure. Fewer infantry battalions. Less tube artillery–but more missiles. No tanks. Zip. Zero. Nada.

Somewhat unaddressed in Berger’s vision document is how the “small Marine forces” that he envisions will “deploy” to islands “in close and confined seas in defiance of adversary long-range precision ‘stand-off capabilities.’” Presumably they will have to fight their way in–just like they did across the Pacific 1942-1945. How this is to be done remains very unclear, especially if close combat capability is reduced.

One of the most striking things about this document is the laser-like focus on China. In some respects, this is encouraging, because China is and will remain the primary threat to the US and US interests. And the Chinese anti-access/area denial plan of creating strategic depth by contesting a ring of island defenses (and indeed, even building the islands) bristling with missiles does require a major shift in US doctrine in response.

The document also demonstrates an admirable appreciation of the complementarity between air and naval forces, especially in the vast Pacific theater. Berger’s vision clearly entails close cooperation between the Navy and Marines to fight and dominate a powerful enemy in the western Pacific.

But one thing that history has demonstrated is that you often don’t get the war you plan for–in part because that’s not the war your enemy wants to fight precisely because that’s what you want him to do. Having a force specialized to execute a single operational concept provides little capability to fight other kinds of wars. And one thing that has helped the Marines survive the budget wars of the 20th and 21st centuries is its demonstrated flexibility in carrying out myriad different missions, from fighting furtive guerrillas in Central American jungles to digging out entrenched Japanese on Pacific islands to making hell-for-leather armor and infantry attacks across desert landscapes in the Middle East. Berger’s proposed force will not be able to perform such varied missions, or at least will have far less capability to do so. Is this a wise choice? Tough call.

One challenge Berger will face is in DC. I seriously doubt the appetite of the Pentagon, or especially the Congress, to embrace and fund such a dramatic transformation.

Another challenge will be from the Corps itself. This proposal is at odds with Marine tradition and self-image and culture. Closing with the enemy and killing him is what Marines do. More importantly, it’s what they believe they do better than anyone in the world, or anyone in history, for that matter. Remaking Marines from riflemen into missileers involves more than swapping out old weapons for new, or writing new operational manuals. It involves inculcating a whole new mindset. This is difficult to do in any organization, but is particularly difficult in one with such a deep commitment to and a well-justified pride in a traditional way of waging war.

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  1. I hope the General is removed or shifted sideways.
    Has he seriously considered what goes on in the country between where the missiles are launched and where the missiles land?
    Does he seriously believe, despite the evidence of two major European conflicts and Korea and Viet Nam, that armor has no place in the marines battle order?
    Sure he can call on the Army’s metal but, there will not be the tight bond that would be there with a Marine armored unit with whom the leathernecks had trained and knew.
    It is there, in the country between where the missiles are launched and where the missiles land, where he will need hard men to break things and kill people.

    Comment by Confused Old Misfit — April 11, 2020 @ 6:21 pm

  2. Perhaps another challenge is that missiles have had a number of false dawns as the primary system, followed by a return to tubes being a bigger part of the mix. It’s a very interesting doctrine and good to see some really different thinking.

    Comment by David Moore — April 11, 2020 @ 8:43 pm

  3. @Confused Old Misfit. Although I appreciate people who challenge tradition, I am also skeptical about them. Perhaps ambivalent is the best word.

    I lean towards your view on this. Part of the reason Marines have been old school, and have resisted trendy thinking for decades, is their hard experience that despite all the massive technological change that has taken place, war always seems to boil down to hard men with rifles killing the enemy at close quarters.

    With respect to armor specifically. Marine tanks proved essential at Guadalcanal (The Battle of the “Tenaru”), Tarawa, Iwo, Okinawa. And yes, intimate contact between infantry and armor is essential. They have to know one another to fight together effectively.

    Comment by cpirrong — April 12, 2020 @ 2:38 pm

  4. Matthew Ridgway’s argument with Eisenhower still rings true—wars are fought by men not by machines.

    Comment by The Pilot — April 15, 2020 @ 7:39 am

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