David Ignatius

Washington Post Writers Group

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is buzzing about a potentially revolutionary order by the new Marine Corps commandant that bluntly answers the essential question for would-be military reformers: What should we discard from the legacy arsenal to make room for what we need to fight the wars of the future?

“We cannot afford to retain outdated policies, doctrine, organizations or force development strategies,” wrote Gen. David Berger in his “Commandant’s Planning Guidance” issued July 16, less than a week after he took over. “What served us well yesterday may not today,” when a technologically advanced China is America’s most potent future adversary.

Talk is cheap when it comes to reforming the military, but Berger backs his call for change with specific recommendations that gore many of the Marine Corps’ sacred cows. He says he’s ready to give up some existing forces to pay for modernization — a sentiment that’s rare indeed in a Pentagon that treasures its aircraft carriers, fighter jets and other legacy weapons.

“Berger looks reality in the face and says we’ve got to make changes,” says Chris Brose, former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “He doesn’t hedge, he doesn’t fudge. He makes choices. He’s thrown down the gauntlet for the other services.”

Brose and his late boss, Sen. John McCain, played an important role in prodding Berger’s reforms in a series of pointed questions to the Marine Corps in last year’s Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act. The queries shook the Corps’ leaders, and “that discomfort … led to some very creative thinking,” said Ryan Evans in an interview with Brose this week on a podcast for the military blog “War on the Rocks.”

What shapes Berger’s guidance is a recognition that the Marine Corps’ traditional ethos doesn’t fit very well in a world where the biggest potential threat will be China — which will have precision weapons that can savage the Marines’ signature, large-scale amphibious-assault operations.

Berger’s first iconoclastic recommendation is that the Corps should integrate more closely with the Navy, breaking from a recent “tendency to view their operational responsibilities as separate and distinct.” Marines shouldn’t be “passive passengers en route to the amphibious objective area,” he wrote,” but instead “contribute to the fight alongside our Navy shipmates from the moment we embark.”

To concentrate on China as a potential adversary, Berger ordered that the Third Marine’s Expeditionary Force, or III MEF, be devoted to “fight-tonight” operations in the Indo-Pacific Command and that the First Marine’s Expeditionary Force (I MEF) “also be focused” on the India-Pacific theater, rather than on Central Command in the Middle East. “We will increasingly accept risk with I MEF’s habitual relationship with Centcom,” he wrote.

Perhaps Berger’s boldest recommendation was that the Marine Corps move away from its insistence on having 38 ships available for amphibious assault. Given China’s precision-strike capabilities, he wrote, “it would be illogical to continue to concentrate our forces on a few large ships. ... We need to change this calculus with a new fleet design of smaller, more lethal, and more risk-worthy platforms.”

Berger’s barbed comments touched on nearly every aspect of how the Corps operates. “Our installation infrastructure is untenable,” he wrote, and some of the existing 19,000 buildings should be “considered for demolition.” As for the Marines’ manpower system, it “was designed in the industrial era to produce mass, not quality.”

For Marines, war is personal — intense physical combat. But Berger proposed a culture shift to “reduce exposure of Marines wherever possible,” along with vulnerable platforms. He specified: “This means a significant increase in unmanned systems.” Berger evidently had support from his predecessor, Gen. Robert Neller.

Describing future forces, Berger wrote something that every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff should discuss in their next meeting in the “tank” at the Pentagon: “We must continue to seek the affordable and plentiful at the expense of the exquisite and few. ... The Marine Corps can no longer accept the inefficiencies inherent in antiquated legacy systems.”

This rethink is the heart of the matter when it comes to reforming the military. The military systems we have now are wildly expensive, but increasingly unsuited to the adversaries of the future. America won’t get the military it needs without radical change.

Some Marines are already grumbling about Berger’s disruptive guidance, and their complaints will be amplified by the contractors that build the existing armada of exquisite amphibious-assault ships, and the members of Congress in districts where jobs might be lost.

Berger courageously has set the mark for real reform. Now we need similar creative thinking from the Army, Navy and Air Force

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This column appears courtesy of the Washington Post.

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