The View From Olympus: The Commandant’s Planning Guidance, Part II

The new Marine Corps Commandant, General David H. Berger, has issued his Planning Guidance, which gives his commander’s intent for the next four years.  As I wrote in my last column, it is a positive, even exciting, document that offers hope the Marine Corps can reshape itself to do what its doctrine of maneuver warfare requires.  That said, it also raises questions in several important respects.

It is most questionable in its grand strategic assumptions.  Here, the Commandant has no choice because his Guidance must be in harmony with the National Defense Strategy.  Unfortunately, the NDS is shaped by the need to justify our enormous defense budget, not by real grand strategic considerations.  As a result, it reflects an obsolete paradigm in which our threats are other nations, principally China and Russia. In reality, our greatest threat is spreading state disintegration and the Fourth Generation war it breeds.  The Commandant’s acceptance of the obsolete paradigm of the NDS is clear. He writes:

I will continue to advocate for the continued forward deployment of our forces globally to compete against the malign activities of China, Russia, Iran, and their proxies–with a prioritized focus on China’s One Belt One Road initiative and Chinese malign activities in the East and South China Seas.

In fact, one of the advantages of naval forces is their rapid strategic mobility, which means you do not have to keep them forward in what may be provocative positions.  Nor do nuclear powers fight each other conventionally, because the chance of escalation is too great. The whole Russia/China “threat” is a sham.

The damage a false grand strategic orientation can do is evident in the Commandant’s discussion of Power Projection and Force Development.  He writes,

Although our future force will be applied to problems and conflicts globally, we cannot afford to build multiple forces optimized for a specific competency. . . We will build one force–optimized for naval expeditionary warfare in contested spaces, purpose-built to facilitate sea denial and assured access in support of the fleets.

What this means is that the entire Marine Corps will be designed for a highly unlikely form of conflict, which in turn means it will have little capability against Fourth Generation opponents, who are the future of war.  It is somewhat like a state military in 1600 deciding that the future of war lies with armored knights on horseback.

This is compounded when the Commandant states that “Force design is my number one priority.”  Earlier, he gives five “Priority Focus Areas”: Force Design, Warfighting, Education and Training, Core Values, and Command and Leadership.  Having five foci means there is no clear Schwerpunkt.  From what I have observed of Marine Corps Commandants over almost 50 years, a Commandant can only achieve one big thing.  If the Marine Corps is to do maneuver warfare, General Berger’s Shwerpunkt needs to be fixing the personnel system.  What he says on that subject in his Guidance is right on target, but will anything happen if his Shwerpunkt is Force Design, and that within an invalid strategic framework?  Again, the origin of all this is beyond the Commandant’s control in that it delivers from a defective National Defense Strategy.  But he, and the Marine Corps, may be left holding the bag.

There is another problem in the Guidance that is not the Commandant’s fault but faces him and the Marine Corps with a difficult bureaucratic/political problem.  Correctly, he argues that “enemy long-range precision fires threaten maneuver by traditional large-signature naval platforms.” He writes,

The ability to project and maneuver from strategic distances will likely be detected and contested from the point of embarkation during a major contingency.  Our naval expeditionary forces must possess a variety of deployment options, including L-class and E-class ships, but also increasingly look to other available options such as unmanned platforms, stern landing vessels, other ocean-going connectors, and smaller more lethal and more risk-worthy platforms.  We must continue to seek the affordable and plentiful at the expense of the exquisite and few when conceiving the future amphibious portion of the fleet.

The Commandant is right in all of this.  From the time I arrived in Washington in 1973 as U.S. Senate staff I worked to move the U.S. Navy away from a handful of large, vulnerable platforms, especially the carriers, to smaller ships in larger numbers.  (In formal testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, when asked how long he thought our carriers would last in a war with the Soviet Union, Admiral Hyman G. Rickover said, “About two days.”) Unfortunately, as General Berger will soon find if he has not already, that is anathema to the Navy.  It has fought and blocked every effort to move in that direction, with every type of ship in the fleet. I also recall from my days on Capitol Hill the then-CNO, Admiral Holloway, telling the House Armed Services Committee “The U.S. Navy has no place for little ships.” I have seen no evidence the Navy’s position has changed.

This brings us back to the central question about the Commandant’s Planning Guidance: will any of this happen?  As a whole, general Berger’s Guidance is a major step forward, exciting in its promises to fix long-neglected problems, motivating to Marines and others who want to see the Corps move beyond the Second Generation of war, holding great hope for the Marine Corps’ future.  But as von Seekt said, “Das Wesentliches is die Tat”–the important thing is action. General Berger’s call for widespread reforms will meet massive bureaucratic resistance within the Marine Corps and more beyond. What is his strategy for overcoming that resistance? On his answer to that question hangs everything else.

Interested in what Fourth Generation war in America might look like? Read Thomas Hobbes’ new future history, Victoria.