Streetwise Professor

April 24, 2022

The Dangers of “Reforming” the USMC: Tread Very Carefully

Filed under: History,Military — cpirrong @ 7:20 pm

I have often written of my admiration for the United States Marine Corps–all the while acknowledging that I would not be good fit for the Marines 😛 In particular I admire its culture. It is a true warrior culture that often seems strange to outsiders, who often include even those in other branches of the military. This culture, forged in combat for almost two-and-a-half centuries has allowed the Marines to prevail in virtually every kind of battle (sniping from topmasts; counterinsurgency in Central America, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq; urban warfare; amphibious assault; and even armored drives in the desert) in virtually every possible climate (except Arctic, though the Marines train for that too). This flexibility and adaptability has distinguished the USMC, and perhaps reflects its often precarious status within the US military: it has had to adapt to survive, especially in the battle for defense dollars.

The organization and doctrine of the USMC is also very distinctive and worthy of admiration. The USMC has always been built round the rifleman: “every Marine a rifleman.” As such, its doctrine is based on fire and maneuver, with artillery, armor, and most crucially organic air power (fixed and rotary wing) having the mission of assisting the grunts at the pointy end take and hold ground. As a result, they have been amazingly successful in doing so.

The current Commandant of the USMC, David H. Berger, is pushing a major reorganization and reorientation of the Corps that would radically change it. The motivation for Berger’s revolution is that the US must reorient to confront China. Berger believes that the USMC can best advance that objective by operating in the littorals to direct fires at Chinese naval targets and to provide reconnaissance and screening for the USN and USAF.

To accomplish this mission, Berger believes that armor is irrelevant, and that conventional artillery will play a much diminished role in the Marine’s future. He also believes that the days of amphibious assault are over.

Based on these precepts, Berger would massively overhaul the force. All armor–all–would be eliminated, on the theory that if the Marines need it, they can call on the Army. (Hmmm.) The number of artillery battalions would be slashed. The number of infantry battalions would also be reduced, and the sizes of these battalions would be reduced as well. The Marines would operate many fewer aircraft.

What would be increased under Berger’s plan? Missiles capable of striking enemy ships and land targets from littorals, and anti-aircraft missiles.

Berger would also transform manpower policies, in particular by bringing in specialists in areas such as cyber and giving them rank and assignments based on civilian experience and expertise.

I must admit deep reservations about this vision. I do commend the refocus on fighting China, in the littorals in particular. I also understand that military conservatism can be extremely destructive. Living off past glories and perpetuating past practices risks becoming like the Prussian army that remained wedded to old ways, only to be crushed by Napoleon at Jena.

But I deem the proposal to be extremely risky, and likely ill-advised.

Most importantly, it is a reorganization built on a particular theory of what war will be fought in the future, and how it will be fought. Militaries have always been poor at forecasting the future. Moreover, creating a force that can do one thing gives an enemy the incentive to do something other than what the force is designed to do, which renders it all but ineffective. (Think of the Maginot Line. There are many other examples.)

War is uncertain, and the future of warfare is uncertain–and one’s enemies have incentives to attempt surprises that add to the uncertainty.

In the face of considerable uncertainty, optionality is extremely valuable. The ability to adapt is extremely valuable. A force designed to do one thing offers very little optionality, and is of little utility outside that one thing. Which gives an enemy a reason to do something else.

The Marines have demonstrated the benefits of that optionality for their entire history, and in particularly during the last 35 years. In that time, they have succeeded in armored warfare in the desert, urban warfare in extremely hostile environments, guerrilla warfare in jungles and the Hindu Kush. All because of the adaptability of fire and maneuver to different combat situations, the diverse organic weapons of the USMC, and the peerless training and esprit of Marines of all ranks.

Yes, fighting China in the littorals may be the most likely future conflict. But planning based on the most likely outcome is almost always faulty logic, especially considering that the enemy gets a vote and can avoid fighting the way you are oriented to fight.

Berger’s plans would largely eliminate that optionality. This would deprive the national command authority of the ability to respond flexibly to the predictably unpredictable types of conflicts that will occur in the future–or will not occur, because the US does not have the capability to fight them.

I am also deeply skeptical that modern weaponry has rendered fire and maneuver obsolete. If anything, the Russian experience in Ukraine demonstrates that the inability to execute fire and maneuver is a recipe for military disaster.

The re-engineering of Marine culture is particularly worrisome. It is really the USMC’s secret sauce. It is the product of centuries of evolution and experience. It is an intangible that has led to tangible results from the shores of Iwo Jima to the sands of Tripoli to the Halls of Montezuma and pretty much everywhere else that Marine boots have trod and Marines have bled.

All in all, Berger’s proposal has a very McNamara feel to it. McNamara had some insights and offered some constructive criticism and made some constructive changes, but for the most part his influence was baleful.

Ironically, Berger’s proposal has unleashed a barrage of fire and much maneuvering from myriad critics, including notably every living USMC commandant. The opposition position is well-summarized in a James Webb op-ed, Webb being a USNA grad, Vietnam combat Marine, and ex-SecDef and Senator. A series of essays in Task and Purpose also offers extremely trenchant criticism of Berger’s plan. I found General Van Riper’s essay particularly persuasive, as was the one on Berger’s “talent management” plan, which emphasizes the risk it poses to the Marines’ unique culture.

Of course, military forces have to adapt as technologies and threats change. Optimizing these adaptations is difficult because of the huge uncertainties involved. But it is precisely those uncertainties which make plans based on a narrow conception of future threats and technologies particularly ill-advised. The fire-and-maneuver-based USMC has demonstrated amazing flexibility and adaptability in his storied history. A prudent course would be to determine how to adapt such a force to incorporate a new mission without crippling its ability to execute old ones. Unfortunately, that is not the course that General Berger is setting, and that leaves me very uneasy indeed.

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  1. After the Moskva people will perhaps reconsider the wisdom of letting their fleets anywhere near a “littoral”.

    If it ain’t a submarine it’s just a target.

    Maybe submarine-borne marine groups should be the future.

    Comment by dearieme — April 25, 2022 @ 8:38 am

  2. Any review needs to take a long, hard look at what is unfolding in Ukraine, not only in relation to the prospects for littoral combat given the (now) likely prevalence of all manner of anti-ship weaponry etc, but also – and perhaps more importantly – in warfighting in general in the absence of air supremacy. The asymmetries have altered radically over the past 6 weeks, the infrantyman coming back to the fore armed with man-portable weapons, loitering munitions, and COTS drones. I’ll wager this conflict will upend many long-held tactical & strategic dogmas.

    Comment by David Mercer — April 26, 2022 @ 2:51 am

  3. @deari: I’d contend that submarines may soon be just as vulnerable as surface vessels in littoral zones. After the sinking of the Moskva I did some digging to find out if there was such a thing as a loitering sub-surface weapon i.e. something like Switchblade which could be deployed in the general area of operations of an enemy ship or submarine, which would then mooch around and attack anything which matched a particular sonar profile etc. Turns out there are ‘sort of’ things like this e.g. the US’s Captor mine, which incorporates a Mk46 torpedo (soon to be replaced with Hammerhead – similar concept). Unsurprisingly, the Chinese also appear to be developing something similar.

    Comment by David Mercer — April 26, 2022 @ 3:04 am

  4. There’s a comedy movie in this. The real Marine and the soft-skill Marine land in a bad situation and the soft Marine doesn’t know how to fight.

    Comment by Michael van der Riet — April 26, 2022 @ 6:31 am

  5. @ DM: Captor has been around a long time. Technically a mine, it’s actually a torpedo in a can at the bottom of the sea. It can be set to launch itself at, oh, the sixth VLCC departing some oil port. You have no idea if it’s there until it does so. How many Captors does it take to close an oil port? None. Just the suspicion of one.

    Generally re USMC: what is perhaps most impressive about the Marines is that in WW2, they always got everyone else’s discarded or rejected equipment, yet used it to the uttermost. USMC Buffaloes were flown so aggressively in defence of Midway that the IJN thought they were facing Wildcats. When the USN rejected the Corsair because they couldn’t work them on aircraft carriers, they went to the USMC, who used them with verve because they were a bloody good fighter aircraft (with a bouncy undercarriage – which the RN solved to enable naval use). Considering how much of their kit was hand-me-downs, it’s an impressive story.

    Comment by Green as Grass — April 26, 2022 @ 6:51 am

  6. On a wider point, I wonder at what point the Russian army becomes constructively incapable of further action?

    A few years ago I was reading about Alamein and the western desert campaign. Something that enraged Churchill was why his generals had 600,000 men on rations in the theatre but no strength to launch attacks. What he never properly grasped – or wanted to hear – was that in a rifle division of 12,000 men or so, only about a quarter are riflemen. The rest are the support weapons – artillery, anti-tank, AA – and the transport and rear echelon. If a rifle division loses 1,000 of its 12,000 men, they are almost always lost from the rifle battalions. So the division has just lost 1/3 of its effectives, and is unfit for further action for a long, long time. By 1944 this got so bad for the British army in NWE that depleted divisions were disbanded, and the personnel sent to replace casualties in the others.

    Russia must already be at or past this point. They invaded with 140,000 to 200,000 men, and have by various accounts lost 20,000 killed, 30,000 killed, perhaps as many as 60,000 losses overall. Even deducting the lowest admitted loss level from the higher initial number, that still looks perilously close to non-operational to me. 200,000 men can’t lose 20,000 and remain effective in 2022 any more than 12,000 could lose 1,000 in 1942.

    Comment by Green as Grass — April 26, 2022 @ 7:08 am

  7. @GasG: this Uke chap rather agrees with you about troop exhaustion.

    As for mines: well, I have repeatedly argued there can be no military need for China to storm beaches in Taiwan, just mine the harbours.

    Other than that this comment thread seems to be arguing that peace should flourish because defensive weapons have become so good versus tanks, subs, surface ships, and, presumably, aircraft.

    Except, I suppose, ballistic missiles with MIRVs will always get through.

    Thank God I never had to go to war. Judging by my father’s reluctance to discuss it it’s a nasty business.

    Comment by dearieme — April 26, 2022 @ 8:57 am

  8. @Green as Grass. I think they are arguably past that point. Perhaps they were past it on Day 1.

    Similar story re US Army in ETO. The attrition riflemen was relentless, and the US was always desperate to scrape up replacements. Due to the inability to replace combat infantry in existing divisions, the US shelved plans to create many, many new divisions. Everyone drafted who was slotted for infantry (which, alas, usually were those who scored low on mental and physical aptitude tests) was scraped up and fed into the replacement pipeline. This led to its own problems, as Russell Weigley’s Eisenhower’s Lieutenants discusses in detail.

    This is why Eisenhower awarded a Bronze Star medal to everyone with a Combat Infantry Badge in ETO. They were the ones who went through the meat grinder.

    We know that the human material in Russian infantry units was poor to start with. The casualties among those who invaded Ukraine have likely gutted the units involved (as you note), and they are really scraping the bottom of the barrel to get replacements. It’s a real cluster.

    Your analysis is spot on.

    Comment by cpirrong — April 26, 2022 @ 11:45 am

  9. @Green: As I said, sort of and soon to be replaced. Personally I reckon there’s some mileage in having a weapon which loiters just below the surface and which can cruise around looking for a target to attack, rather than wait on the seabed for a ship to pass like Captor. Maybe stick a warhead in those long endurance gliders the USN use, along the lines of what the Israelis have done with Harop (albeit for aerial use)?

    On a related note, I do like the look of the Navy’s new XLUUV – very neat bit of kit, definitely the way to go.

    Re the Russian military, I’m probably going to regret saying this but I’m getting the sense that their much-vaunted Donbas offensive may have already started and is encountering the same old problems. Regardless of meatware, they’re losing kit at an unsustainable rate, and this will only increase once the Ukes get the knack of using all that western arty.

    @Riet: Don’t be so harsh – the current generation may have just the skills required, esp those tech-savvy drone operators and battle-hardened Call of Duty/PUBG gamers. I bet they watch those Stugla operators and think “I could do that!”.

    Comment by David Mercer — April 27, 2022 @ 2:45 am

  10. So I wonder where this ends? Russia has been defeated, but is still sitting on Ukrainian territory. A stalemate will take a continuing toll of the Russian occupiers, which Vladolf will be unable to make good. So he has to negotiate, maybe demanding a face-saving plebiscite in the occupied areas as to which country they want to belong to. Trouble is, no Putin-conducted plebiscite is going to be honest; and if there is an honest – perhaps UN-run – plebiscite in which Russian rule is rejected, who in Ukraine would then trust him to keep his word and withdraw? He would just treat the whole thing as an opportunity to rearm, refit and then resume.

    The Russians were handily defeated by the Finns in the first “round” of the Winter War in 1940 (also in 1808, actually, but that’s another story). They then came back in overwhelming strength and ground out a win. I can imagine Putin thinking he could us a strategic pause to do something similar, except that unlike in 1940 Russia doesn’t have many other formations left to deploy.

    Comment by Green as Grass — April 27, 2022 @ 2:55 am

  11. @ David

    The challenge with placing some sort of loitering torpedo in contested waters would presumably be that it would have to be powered on all the time in order to loiter, limiting its endurance. Then it has to either sink, self-destroy, or you have to find a way to recover it.

    There was a Cold War era weapon that worked a little bit like that. You launched a missile that went out to about 70 miles’ range, or something, where it then shed its wings and motor, dropped into the sea, and became a homing torpedo with another twenty miles’ range. I suppose the idea was that you fired your missile speculatively in the general direction of an enemy. It then became instead a torpedo, out of range of the target’s anti-missile defences, and went looking for things to blow up.

    AIUI, the technical challenge with air-dropped torpedoes has always been making them and their electronics robust enough to still work after hitting the water, without being too heavy to lift in the first place. I am sure it is technically possible to build instead some sort of high-altitude loitering stealth drone that would parachute a smallish torpedo into the water from 60,000 feet, which then attacks ships in the usual way. If there’s a prototype of anything of the kind in existence, I would not be too surprised to hear of it getting a live test in the Black Sea.

    Comment by Green as Grass — April 27, 2022 @ 3:16 am

  12. The gliders I referred to can operate for months at a time, being powered by the simple-but-effective method of intermittently varying their buoyancy (i.e. they ‘fly’ up and down through the water depending on whether they’re negatively or positively buoyant). I believe this is achieved by pumping water in and out of a buoyancy chamber, so not much energy needed, and very quiet. For terminal attack some additional, once-only propulsion would be required e.g. a store of compressed gas to power a prop.

    If anyone from DARPA is reading this I do have a sketch and some outline notes…

    Comment by David Mercer — April 27, 2022 @ 5:48 am

  13. …of course the glider could simply be armed with a conventional torpedo or two, a kind of underwater Predator.

    Comment by David Mercer — April 27, 2022 @ 5:52 am

  14. For the first time in weeks, the team at the Institute for the Study of War has reported some improvement in Russian operations and tactics, albeit only on the front to the southeast of Iziyum. As they have been generally pro-Ukraine, I take this somewhat seriously. The great unknown is the degree of attrition in Ukrainian forces.

    Comment by SRP — April 27, 2022 @ 11:13 am

  15. Time – let alone his generals – is not on Vlad’s side.
    The West can restock the Ukes faster than the Red Army can recruit, train and rearm. In case of a stalemate it will take years for Russia – possibly still under significant rather than Potemkin sanctions – to be ready to have another go. By that time Putain will be in his late seventies and maybe even as ga-ga as Biden.
    So I reckon it’s going to be a general call up, and a lot of young meat sent to the front, even some tactical nukes.
    Strangely our governments have not advised us to stock up on Iodine. (They’ve panicked about nearly everything else.) I’ve ordered some, not because I think a nuclear exchange is likely, but because it’s a non zero possibility and Iodine is cheap. (Until there’s not enough to go round.)

    Comment by philip — April 27, 2022 @ 6:19 pm

  16. philip:
    as someone who lived thru Chernobyl, I second the iodine advice, w/ addition: iodine salt.
    the cheapest way to deliver and absorb.
    another tip: wild mushrooms, sadly, equals taboo.
    [btw, did someone mention already the case of idiocy, sending those young Russian recruits to dig up trenches in Chernobyl forest and subsequent avalanche of radiation sickness?]

    Comment by Т — April 29, 2022 @ 1:11 pm

  17. Don’t worry, The US Coup is almost over.

    Comment by JayWalk — May 1, 2022 @ 4:55 pm

  18. @SRP. Some movement, but very little, and the Ukrainians seem to be executing a flexible defense. Falling back and then counterattacking when the Russians pause.

    Re Iziyum. Ironically, by pushing south from there the Russians expose their (right) flank to the Ukrainians and risk getting cut off. The Ukrainians are already counterattacking heavily south of Kharkiv threatening the roads leading to Iziyum. I would not be surprised if the Ukrainians are not allowing some progress south from Iziyum to give them an opportunity to cut off and destroy the spearhead with a flank attack.

    Today a Ukrainian artillery strike hit a command HQ near Iziyum, wounding the Russian chief of staff Gerasimov and allegedly killing a major general and perhaps other general officers. This must be really messing with Russian heads. Especially heads on top of shoulders with epaulets.

    They can’t command from the rear because of woeful communications. They can’t command from the front because they could get obliterated at any moment.

    Comment by cpirrong — May 1, 2022 @ 6:36 pm

  19. “The UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) has offered a new sense of the scale of Russian losses during the invasion of Ukraine.

    It is likely that more than a quarter of the Russian battalion tactical groups sent to the conflict have been rendered “combat ineffective”, the MoD estimated in its daily update, though it did not elaborate more on this.

    More than 120 such units had been committed to the Ukraine invasion, the MoD said in a tweet. This was around two-thirds of Russia’s entire ground combat strength.

    Most battalion tactical groups are thought to have 700-800 personnel, according to British security think tank RUSI.

    Some of Russia’s most elite units – including the VDV Airborne Forces – have suffered the “highest levels of attrition”, the MoD added.

    “It will probably take Russia years to reconstitute these forces,” its tweet said.”

    Comment by Green As Grass — May 2, 2022 @ 4:40 am

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