Marine Corps' No. 2 Officer Tapped by Biden to Lead the Service

Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Eric Smith testifies
Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Eric Smith testifies before the House Armed Services Committee on Readiness for the Marine Corps’ fiscal year 2024 budget request, Washington, D.C., April 19, 2023. (Eric Dietrich/U.S. Air Force)

President Joe Biden has nominated the Marine Corps' current assistant commandant, Gen. Eric Smith, to lead the service after the retirement of Gen. David Berger, according to the records of the Senate.

If confirmed, Smith will take over the task of transforming and reshaping the Corps -- an effort broadly known as Force Design 2030 -- into an older, more mature island-hopping force aimed at countering China in the Pacific.

The nod also comes amid a larger shake-up in the military leadership overall with several other senior officials set to retire. Gen. Charles "CQ" Brown Jr., the current chief of staff of the Air Force, has been named to take over for Gen. Mark Milley as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, leaving the leadership of the Air Force and Space Force unfilled for the moment.

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Gen. James McConville, the Army's top officer, is also set to retire and be replaced with Gen. Randy George.

Although Smith began his career of more than 30 years in the Corps as an infantry officer, in recent years he's held jobs that put him at the heart of the massive revamping and rethinking of the storied branch of the military.

Before taking on the No. 2 job, Smith served as deputy commandant for combat development and integration -- a position that meant he had a heavy role in designing and writing the policies and strategies that are finally being put into use.

Broadly, the plan has seen the Corps shed much of the equipment that it used to fight battles such as Fallujah -- including all of the service's tanks and much of its artillery -- and instead pivot to new technology like drones, anti-ship missiles and high-tech training. The Marines have also strived to push the image of the Corps as a maritime service with a focus on amphibious operations.

The effort has included the introduction of policies aimed at improving the quality of life for Marines and getting away from the "recruit and replace" model that it has operated under for decades.

Smith has been at the heart of many of these changes and touted their success to both reporters as well as those inside the Corps. He's also been a vocal defender of the plans he's had a hand in creating from critics that have included his former peers.

After a spate of editorials were written criticizing the changes in 2022 as a weakening of the Corps, Smith fired back, telling a ballroom full of people at an annual military convention outside of Washington, D.C., that the "ethos, war-fighting spirit, offensive nature, Marine air-ground task force, combined arms -- that doesn't change."

"Anybody that thinks that's changed, you should go to Parris Island, or to MCRD [Marine Corps Recruit Depot] San Diego, or to Quantico," he added.

Amy McGrath, a retired Marine pilot and onetime political candidate in Kentucky, called the selection of Smith "an excellent choice" in a Tweet.

"To me, this also shows that [Biden] is on board with the reshaping of the Corps that has been initiated by the current [commandant]," she tweeted.

Smith deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan in 2011 where he commanded a regiment of Marines in the deadly Helmand province.

Officials who know Smith have also described him as having a deep caring and fondness for the average Marine. One service official said he was "a Marine's Marine."

In past conversations with reporters, Smith has spoken strongly about his drive to lessen the burden of service for young troops.

"Marines are going to be required to do very, very, very hard things on the modern battlefield, and that will always be paramount," Smith said in March.

"Where we can lessen that burden on a Marine who's willing to fight and, if necessary, give their life for the Constitution, we should lessen that burden."

That drive did land Smith, then the commander of 1st Marine Division, in hot water in 2018 amid a push to rid the unit of hazing. An appeals court judge ended up removing Smith, then a major general, as the oversight authority in the case of one Marine facing hazing charges after emails surfaced that, in the eyes of the court, showed that Smith had become too personally invested in the case.

Smith's nomination will now need to be considered by the Senate, where it will likely be held up, along with every other military promotion, by Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala.

Tuberville has been delaying Senate confirmations of promotions for all one-star generals and admirals and above over his objection to the Pentagon's decision to cover travel and leave for service members seeking abortions and other reproductive health care.

While current and former military officials have come out and publicly said the political move by Tuberville is hurting military readiness and service members' families, there is no indication that the hold will lift anytime soon.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

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