A Marine Called on the Commandant to Fix the Corps' Identity Crisis. Here's His Response

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U.S. Marines with Golf Company, Battalion Landing Team, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), conduct ship-to-shore movements to Harpers Ferry-class dock landing ship USS Oak Hill (LSD 51) during Amphibious Squadron (PHIBRON) MEU Integration Training (PMINT) in vicinity of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, July 11 2019. PMINT is part of the 26th MEU’s and PHIBRON 8’s pre-deployment training program, which enhances interoperability and familiarizes Marines and Sailors to life
U.S. Marines with Golf Company, Battalion Landing Team, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), conduct ship-to-shore movements to Harpers Ferry-class dock landing ship USS Oak Hill (LSD 51) during Amphibious Squadron (PHIBRON) MEU Integration Training (PMINT) in vicinity of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, July 11 2019. PMINT is part of the 26th MEU’s and PHIBRON 8’s pre-deployment training program, which enhances interoperability and familiarizes Marines and sailors to life on ship prior to deployment. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Nathan Reyes)

Just days into his term as commandant, Gen. David Berger has unveiled a bold new plan for the Marine Corps that could put an end to swirling debate that the service is trying to be everything to everyone.

The service can't afford to build tailor-trained units designed to fight specific missions, such as urban, desert or Arctic operations, Berger wrote in his planning guidance, which was released Tuesday.

Instead, he said, "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.

"That single purpose-built future force," Berger added, "will be applied against other challenges across the globe; however, we will not seek to hedge or balance our investments to account for those contingencies."

In other words, Marines will be able to operate in urban or cold-weather environments, but they'll be trained and equipped first and foremost as a naval expeditionary force. The commandant's vision follows several new global threats, including China's buildup of militarized islands in the South China Sea; Russia's naval plus-up in the Black Sea, Arctic and other locations; and Iran's recent aggression near a vital international shipping route.

Berger's announcement is also a big change from what one officer described earlier this year as the Marine Corps' attempt to prepare for a "dizzying array" of missions.

Maj. Leo Spaeder, an air-ground task force planner at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, said the service was at a crossroads of multiple personality disorder in a commentary he wrote for War on the Rocks titled, "Sir, Who Am I? An Open Letter to the Incoming Commandant of the Marine Corps."

"Urban/megacities, jungle, sea control, forcible entry operations, amphibious, expeditionary, naval, crisis responders," Spaeder wrote, referencing just some of the missions he'd heard the Marine Corps would pursue. "... I could go on, but it's starting to feel absurd."

Military.com asked Berger about that major's concerns during a recent interview at the Pentagon, and the commandant promised the Marine would get the direction he sought.

"There is an answer, and I'm ready to lay it out," Berger said. "But I have to have that discussion with senior leaders first. I know exactly what he's asking, and [my answer] will be very clear."

The coming decade, Berger writes in his guidance to the force, is going to be characterized by conflict, crisis and rapid change. The future operating environment will put "heavy demands" on the nation's sea services, he adds, and Marines need to be prepared for what's to come.

"Marines cannot be passive passengers en route to the amphibious objective area," Berger said. "As long-range precision stand-off weapons improve and diffuse along the world's littorals, Marines must contribute to the fight alongside our Navy shipmates from the moment we embark."

The fight alongside the Navy fleet will continue when Marines are ashore, he said. And Marines are going to need to study up on how they can best support that kind of fight.

While Marines should take pride in all they know about counterinsurgency operations, Berger said it's time to direct their attention elsewhere.

"As a service, we lack the requisite naval education to engage our fellow naval officers and peers constructively in discussions on naval concepts, naval programs, or naval warfare," he wrote. "... All our formal schools must and will change their programs of instruction to include a greater naval orientation."

The next four years will be a period of "substantive change," the commandant told Marines. But, he stressed, the service is not facing risk of irrelevance, as some have said, after nearly two decades of ground occupations.

"Let me be clear -- we are not experiencing an identity crisis," Berger wrote. "... We are a naval expeditionary force capable of deterring malign behavior and, when necessary, fighting inside our adversary's weapons-engagement-zone to facilitate sea denial in support of fleet operation and joint force horizontal escalation."

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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