In 1998, I was twenty-seven and a White House Fellow assigned to work for the US Secretary of Defense. With no military background, and not much life experience, I was not exactly a critical figure at the Pentagon. I tried to make myself useful and mostly failed.
One day, a man came up to me and gave me a wry smile. He had lots of metal stars glinting on his shoulders and a chest full of medals. He said something like, “Hi, I am Chuck. I read a memo you wrote and I think you got some good ideas but you need to learn something about the military.”
You see, in a moment of terrible judgement, I had somehow come to the view that what the Secretary of Defense needed was a memo from me identifying issues in the Pentagon that only an uninformed outsider like me could unpack. So I had gone and interviewed as many senior people in the building as I could find and asked them what was not working well and how to improve things. Then I put together an opus of a note and happily sent it off to Secretary and a bunch of other senior people across the Clinton Administration. And the result? About what you might expect. If the Pentagon had a Siberia, I was banished to it.
So when this man, who turned out to be the Commandant of the Marine Corps, offered a life-line, I grabbed it with both hands. For a year I followed him around, from Parris Island and basic training to Okinawa and jungle warfare training. I got to see young recruits go through the Crucible and become Marines. I spent hundreds of hours talking to some of the most impressive women and men I could imagine. I watched as General Krulak took on both the big battles and the small ones, from standing up to the White House and telling Congress the military budget was insufficient, at the likely expense of his job, to doggedly fighting procurement resistance to get water-proof boots for his Marines.
Time and time again, I found myself shaking my head in amazement at the ethos of the Marine Corps. For someone who grew up in the 1980’s and 1990’s, during a period that seemed to idealize the pursuit of wealth, it was a revelation: Here were tens of thousands of young men and women who embodied the ideal of selflessness. The first to fight when their nation needed help, anywhere in the globe, at whatever the cost. A band of warriors and intellectuals who above all else, committed to follow a moral compass carved in granite to ‘do the right thing, in the right way, for the right reasons.” I was blown away. And I came to feel, as I suspect many Americans do, that the Corps will always have our nation’s back.
Yet, in 2023, almost two-hundred and fifty years after the Second Continental Congress established what became the United States Marine Corps, we are witnessing today what may be the fundamental undermining of this bedrock force.
In 1871, Prussian Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke the Elder observed that ‘…no plan survives first contact with the enemy.’ This widely repeated comment has been proven true time and time again. We plan and plan, but reality doesn’t respond as we expect. And so we have learned, whether in the military or business, to diversify our bets.
Today, the United States Marine Corps is essentially putting all its eggs in one basket. Its current Commandant, as spelled out in Force Design 2030, has decided that the future is a fight with China and that the Corps needs an entirely different arsenal and structure to be ready—in essence, small, super high-tech anti-ship hypersonic missile detachments throughout the First Island Chain, a group of islands in the western Pacific.
In order to pay for what is extensive new and emerging technology, the Commandant has effectively held a yard sale. In the last three years, the Marine Corps has divested 21% of its infantry, 100% of its tanks, 100% of its bridging and mine clearing capability, 67% of its cannon artillery, 29% of its fixed wing aircraft (fighter/attack) and 29% of its rotary wing assets (heavy lift, V-22, and attack helicopters), 100% of its military police units (rear area security during time of war), and a significant amount of its logistics capability.
Wait, you might be thinking, isn’t it a good idea to try to think ‘outside the box’ and modernize old technologies? And isn’t a conflict with China our most likely peer-to-peer fight that we should prepare for?
Even if the answer to these questions is yes, the strategy may still be wrong.
First, because it will likely undermine the Corps’ ability to counter threats from other dangers around the world. We need to look no further than the Ukraine and the urban battles taking place against Russia to see the need for tanks, cannon artillery and aircraft support in modern combat. Moreover, there is a reasonable case to be made that it is Russia, not China, which is the near-term ‘peer’ threat we face.
Second, because the new strategy won’t be ready until at least 2030 (if not later), a problematic interval given rising tensions in Europe and the Pacific. Seven years is a long gap for our nation to be without a ready global emergency force.
Third, because the proposed strategy effectively amounts to betting the Corps on one threat, a risky plan that history tells us almost certainly won’t survive first contact with the enemy, one that in any event is already preparing to counter our fixed missile emplacements on its nearby islands.
Every former living commandant of the US Marine Corps has stepped forward to protest this plan. Add to that group multiple Marine combatant commanders and assistant commandants who have similarly spoken out. And now even active-duty Marine leaders are writing in protest, likely sacrificing their career as a result. This is unprecedented in a group as tight-knit as the Corps.
Peter Drucker once famously said that culture eats strategy for breakfast. The culture of the Corps demands that each Marine think critically and speak up when something is not right. This is now happening, and it should be both applauded and heeded.