The View From Olympus: The New Commandant’s Planning Guidance

The new Marine Corps Commandant, General David H. Berger, recently issued his Planning Guidance, a document which states his commander’s intent and sets the direction the Marine Corps will take over the next four years.  In this case, it is a remarkable statement which, if turned into effective action, could finally transform the Marine Corps into a military that can do maneuver warfare instead of just talk about it.

The Planning Guidance’s most important statements relate to personnel policy and to education and training.  They reflect Colonel John Boyd’s oft-stated belief that for winning wars, people are most important, ideas come second, and hardware is only third.  Not only does the Planning Guide call for major reforms, it does something highly unusual in the U.S. military: it includes some trenchant criticism of current practices.

Personnel Policies:

When General Al Gray was Commandant, he adopted maneuver warfare as Marine Corps doctrine.  Those of us who were involved in that effort knew that the next Commandant would have to make major changes in the personnel system if the Marine Corps were to actually do maneuver warfare.  But those changes never happened. Now, they may.  General Berger writes,

Our manpower system was designed in the industrial era to produce mass, not quality.  We assumed that the quantity of personnel was the most important element of the system, and that workers (Marines) are all essentially interchangeable. . . However, we have not adapted to the needs of the current battlefield. . .

The essence of all manpower systems is to encourage those you need and want to stay, and separate (those) who are not performing to standards.  Our current system lacks the authority and tools to accomplish that simple outcome in anything but a blunt way. . .

Additionally, the lack of incentives for self-improvement through education and personnel development discourages those inclined to learn, think, and innovate–as these tend to disrupt the current model, and may in fact make the individual less competitive for promotion. . .

While we hope (the current model) results in the retention of the most talented, our antiquated models may also retain poor performers. . .

Upward growth (i.e., promotion) and mobility must favor the most talented in our ranks while facilitating the identification of those with a special aptitude as instructors, educators, commanders, staff officers, mentors, or with special technical skills.

All this is a long overdue breath of fresh air.  But to make the Marine Corps personnel system compatible with the Corps’ maneuver warfare doctrine, in addition to looking at people as individuals rather than cogs in a machine, it must end the rule of up-or-out, eliminate the all-or-nothing retirement at twenty years, and greatly lengthen tours so units become and remain cohesive.  Instead of forcing officers to follow a cookie-cutter career progression if they want to be promoted, it must develop promotion and assignment authority to levels where Marines can be known as individuals. These are big changes, and the new Commandant appears to know that. He writes,

Modest improvement can be achieved with the tools already in hand, while dramatic improvement will likely take changes in budgets, law (DOPMA), policy, traditions, and mindset.

Education and Training:

General Berger’s intent includes equally dramatic, and needed, reforms in education and training.  He writes,

As noted by every Commandant since the 29th (General Gray). . . our Marines must be comfortable with chaos, comfortable with mission tactics. . . I am convinced that attempts to regiment every minute of every day to remove as much friction and potential chaos from the individual Marine while in home-station is counterproductive. . .

Many of our schools and training venues are firmly based in the “lecture, memorize facts, regurgitate facts on command” model of industrial age training and education.  For our schools, it is more about the process of presenting information, and for our students/trainees, it is about what to think and what to do instead of how to think, decide, and act. . . We have to enable them to think critically, recognize when change is needed and inculcate a bias for action without waiting to be told what to do. . .

In the context of training, wargaming needs to be used more broadly to fill what is arguably our greatest deficiency in the training and education of leaders: practice in decision-making against a thinking enemy.

All of this is music to the ears of anyone who has, for decades, watched Marine Corps education and training focus on rote teaching of staff processes and techniques in highly predictable situations where, if there is an enemy, he is a tethered goat.  Just one single reform, which is at least suggested here–free-play training as the norm, not the exception–would make worlds of difference in how well Marines are prepared for war.

In all of what the Commandant is calling for, the question is, can he actually make it happen?  The personnel and Training & Education bureaucracies will fight him tooth and nail, delaying until his Commandancy ends.  If he wants results, General Berger will need to reduce the size of those bureaucracies, until he can see who is doing (or not doing) what.  A useful technique I would recommend he employ is the “vertical stroke”. When something he has directed does not happen in a timely manner (this should only be used for inaction, not wrong action), he should identify everyone from the highest to the lowest in the relevant chain of command and relieve them all simultaneously.  A few of those would quickly get the bureaucracy’s attention.

In my next column, I will look at some of the more questionable elements in the new Commandant’s Guidance.

2 thoughts on “The View From Olympus: The New Commandant’s Planning Guidance”

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