General David H. BergerPosted on October 12, 2022
Commandant of the Marine Corps
Focusing on the Future of the Marine Corps
By Col Mary H. Reinwald, USMC (Ret)
The last few years have seen some significant changes in the Marine Corps, which has resulted in a Corps that is a bit different from the one that fought in Afghanistan and Iraq and significantly different from that which fought in Vietnam. A renewed emphasis on the Pacific, the growing cyber domain, and, of course, the somewhat controversial Force Design 2030 have been critical influences on the Marine Corps’ new direction, established by General David H. Berger, the 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps (CMC).
The Corps of the Future
Gen Berger wasted no time in addressing the Corps of the future when he became Commandant in July 2019. “When I was privileged to take over as CMC, the next day, I published my planning guidance,” Gen Berger said in a recent interview with Leatherneck. Noting that his predecessor, Gen Robert B. Neller, had told Congress that the Corps wasn’t built for the future, Berger said simply, “I agree.”
When discussing the Corps of the future, he is clear in his messaging. “We have to be ready to adapt. As we move forward, we have to learn. We have to move faster than the adversary.” And the adversary often is China. “China is the pacing challenge … The rate at which China is modernizing, the strength of their economy … the advantages we enjoyed are eroding,” he said. “It’s on China because we have to stay in front of them capability wise … If we’re going to deter them, that’s the bar.”
In March 2020, Gen Berger’s vision was solidified with the publication of Force Design 2030, the plan to set the course for the future Marine Corps. “We cannot go slow, and we can’t get it wrong,” he said at a Marine Corps Association (MCA) dinner a few months later. “We have to go through a lot of change in the next … three to four years. It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to require us, I think, to modify a lot of our existing ideas of how we fight, how we organize.”
The general was more specific in the actual Force Design 2030 document: “The 2018 National Defense Strategy redirected the Marine Corps’ mission focus from countering violent extremists in the Middle East to great power/peer-level competition, with special emphasis on the Indo-Pacific. Such a profound shift in missions, from inland to littoral, and from non-state actor to peer competitor, necessarily requires substantial adjustments in how we organize, train, and equip our Corps. A return to our historic role in the maritime littoral will also demand greater integration with the Navy and a reaffirmation of that strategic partnership. As a consequence, we must transform our traditional models for organizing, training, and equipping the force to meet new desired ends, and do so in full partnership with the Navy.”
In a July 2022 interview with the Washington Post, Gen Berger provided more specifics saying, “We need a better mix of loitering munitions, rocket artillery, missiles and other systems, manned and unmanned.”
Two updates in April 2021 and May 2022 have further refined the direction of Force Design as it seems to be making the Corps lighter and more agile. Major General Ben Watson, the previous commander of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, described the goal of Force Design as developing “a balanced portfolio of capabilities so that when we are trying to close kill chains against a modern, multi-domain adversary, we’ve got a complete tool kit.”
The Commandant has won over some crucial constituencies with his plan. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his predecessor, Mark T. Esper, have been “fully supportive,” according to the Commandant, “and, in fact, urge us to go faster.” Congress is also supportive. In a letter dated May 27, members of the Senate and House Committees on Defense expressed their support for Force Design 2030 stating in part, “Congress should fully support this effort and commend the Marine Corps for making difficult investment and divestment decisions of what to do and, more importantly, what not to do, in order to ensure U.S. advantage in strategic competition.”
Gen Berger was the guest of honor at the Marine Corps Association’s annual meeting, Sept. 15 in Arlington, Va.
Discussion and Debate
Much has been made in various media outlets of retired general officers disagreeing with Force Design in outside forums. In an op-ed in the Washington Post on April 22, three retired four-star generals, Gen Charles “Chuck” Krulak, the 32nd Commandant of the Marine Corps; Gen Anthony Zinni, former Commander in Chief, U.S. Central Command; and Gen John “Jack” Sheehan, Supreme Allied Commander for NATO wrote, “It [Force Design] will make the Marines less capable of countering threats from unsettled and dangerous corners of the world.”
The Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen David H. Berger, and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, SgtMaj Troy Black, present Superior Achiever Awards to outstanding recruiters in San Antonio, Texas, Oct. 20, 2021.
Gen Berger made it clear at the annual meeting of the MCA in September that he is a strong proponent of discussion and debate and freely admits that he welcomes opposing opinions. Quoting the Marine Corps Gazette’s mission statement of “the free exchange of ideas, professional debate and discussion of issues of greatest importance to the Corps,” the Commandant said he believes that mission is as relevant today as when Gen Lejeune established the Gazette more than 100 years ago. “For me personally as Commandant, [the Gazette] over the past three years is where I go to for fresh thinking and it has been a trigger for my own curiosity,” he said. “Issues that are discussed in the pages of the Gazette have helped me shape my priorities as CMC … As important as it is for me to define the priorities of the Marine Corps, also a place for me to refine. This debate has helped me make adjustments.”
And while the disagreements have, on occasion, devolved into personal attacks, Gen Berger continues to welcome the discussion. “Think about the significance of our culture and the way that it tolerates, especially in the Marine Corps, debate. We don’t just tolerate it, we encourage it. And we like it. That’s how the best ideas get to the top.” The debate on Force Design is similar to the debate about Maneuver Warfare 40 years ago, according to Gen Berger. “In the 1980s, the debate on maneuver warfare; we vigorously ripped that apart and then put it back together. That was a true debate … For every advocate there was an opponent.”
He was quick to mention that he would be disappointed if everyone agreed with him on every topic. Noting that he reads opposing views in the Gazette, he said, “I don’t always agree with what everyone writes, but it makes me think.”
Gen Berger was the guest speaker at the MCA’s West Coast Dinner in 2015 while he was serving as the Commanding General, I MEF.
“I’m very proud that the Marine Corps has debate … Debate is healthy, it makes us stronger,” he added.
He also recognizes the contribution younger Marines can bring to debates and discussions of the challenges facing the Corps. “You can always count on a captain or a staff sergeant or a major to bring you what you don’t want to hear, but you have to think about it,” he said with a chuckle at the MCA annual meeting. He noted that Marines are especially good at keeping their leaders straight. “They help me think through things two, three, four levels down, and that is invaluable to our senior leaders today.”
The MCA’s annual meeting on Sept. 15 provided an opportunity for the Commandant to reunite with retired senior officials including SES Bryan Wood, LtGen Robert Ruark and LtGen David “Smoke” Beydler.
A native of Woodbine, Md., the future commandant attended Tulane University on a Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) scholarship. He was initially a Navy option midshipman destined for commissioning as an ensign, but thanks to the example set by the unit’s Assistant Marine Officer Instructor in his early days with the NROTC unit, Midshipman Berger changed his mind and realized that he wanted to be a Marine. Two of his sons have followed in his footsteps. One son is an infantry officer currently assigned to recruiting duty while the other is a veteran Marine noncommissioned officer who also served in the infantry. Both sons saw combat in Afghanistan. It is no surprise that when asked what his best day in the Corps was, the Commandant was quick to respond. “I have two. One was at Parris Island when my son became a Marine and the other was at Quantico when I commissioned my other son.”
Few officers have ever been as experienced and well-prepared to assume the role of the Corps’ senior leader as Gen Berger. A veteran of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom where he commanded Regimental Combat Team 8 in Fallujah, Iraq and 1st Marine Division (Forward) in Afghanistan respectively, he has proven himself in combat. In addition, his Recon Company participated in Operation Desert Shield, and he commanded 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines during its deployment to Haiti in support of Operation Secure Tomorrow. He also led I Marine Expeditionary Force and Marine Forces Pacific as a three star.
Marines from 3/8, commanded by Col David Berger, patrol the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, during Operation Secure Tomorrow April 14, 2004.
His staff assignments have also played a significant role in his development and knowledge of the threats facing our nation. As a field grade officer, Gen Berger served as a policy planner in the J-5 and later assumed the duties as Chief of Staff for Kosovo Force Headquarters. His assignments as Director of Operations in Plans, Policies and Operations at Headquarters Marine Corps and as the Deputy Commandant for Combat Development and Integration ensured that the future commandant understood and was well-prepared for the complexities of manning, training and equipping the Corps.
Gen Berger is also quick to acknowledge those who have helped him along the way. When asked who his mentors have been, the Commandant quickly answered, “My father. He was both a cheerleader and mentor.” He also listed LtGen Emil “Buck” Bedard, former Deputy Commandant for Plans, Policies and Operations, and Admiral Scott Swift, who commanded U.S. Pacific Fleet when Gen Berger commanded Marine Forces Pacific. Two other retired Marine generals who were his classmates at the School of Advanced Warfighting when all three were majors, Lieutenant Generals Vince Stewart and Michael Dana, are two mentors and confidants in the Commandant’s inner circle. “You need friends who will honestly tell you what they think.”
Gen Joe Dunford, the 36th Commandant and 19th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is another of the Gen Berger’s mentors, which will come as no surprise to the Marine Corps community. Gen Berger said that Gen Dunford gave him especially good advice when he assumed the duties of Commandant, reminding him that his duties as a joint chief and advisor to the president were equally important to leading the service.
MajGen Berger, left, the commanding general of Task Force Leatherneck, walks with LtCol David P. Bradney, commanding officer of 1/7, at FOB Shamsher, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, Aug. 9, 2012. (Photo by LCpl Jason Morrison, USMC)
The Corps of the Future
Gen Berger’s reserved often quiet demeanor can be a bit misleading. His passion for the Corps and more importantly, his Marines, however, is unmistakable and especially evident when asked what keeps him up at night. His answer was all about Marines. “What did you fail to do? What did you mean to do but didn’t get done?”
“It’s always about the people,” Gen Berger added.
In November 2021 Gen Berger released Talent Management 2030, his strategic guidance which called for a fundamental change to the current personnel system. “We are a people-centric organization. That is at the core, the center of the Marine Corps.” Talent Management 2030 describes his thoughts even more clearly. “Transitioning to a talent management system will enable us to better harness and develop the unique skills and strengths of our Marines, improve the performance of our units in competition and combat, and ensure that we remain ‘most ready when the Nation is least ready.’ ” His prioritization on Talent Management is based on supporting individual Marines. His goals include empowering lower headquarters to make decisions on their Marines’ futures to include giving commanding officers reenlistment authorities. All with the goal of “giving them [Marines] the ability to make decisions sooner in their careers.”
CJCS Gen Joseph F. Dunford promoted the new CMC, Gen David H. Berger, at the Home of the Commandants, Washington D.C., July 11, 2019.
The previous Deputy Commandant for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, LtGen David Ottignon, discussed the Commandant’s Talent Management initiatives at a recent MCA luncheon. “It is a rebalance between the Marine and the Marine Corps.” He echoed the Commandant’s intentions further. “We do need to think about how we are transparent with Marines as we find those talented individuals, manage that talent and deliver to the organization.”
And much of the Talent Management guidance starts with recruiting. Recent years have seen increased challenges in finding young men and women to join the Corps as the numbers of Americans qualified to enlist continues to trend downward. The COVID-19 pandemic alone drastically changed the way our recruiting force interacted with potential future Marines as high schools were closed and personal interactions were severely limited. With the shrinking number of qualified potential applicants and an increasingly challenging job market, the Commandant said he believes recruiters will continue to accomplish the mission while maintaining the Corps’ current qualifications. When asked if he would lower the standards to help fill the ranks, Gen Berger was blunt. “No.”
He also knows that the focus can’t simply be on recruiting. “We have to retain Marines that we have spent so much on recruiting and training,” he said. “If we lose them after we got have got them highly trained … they’ll be watching from the bleachers.”
MajGen Berger, second from right, CG, TF Leatherneck, stands watch with Marines from “Fox” Co, 2/7 at FOB Now Zad, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, Nov. 22, 2012.
As Gen Berger completes his 41st year of service, knowing his days in uniform are limited, he has an enhanced appreciation for those who have gone before him. At the recent Marine Corps Association annual meeting he paid tribute to three of the Corps’ icons. “It was a tough summer in one respect for Marines. We lost three giants. Woody Williams, SgtMaj Canley and Butch Neal. Three giants in our history … They are a big part of our Marine Corps story. When you think about the lives of those three, they are a good reminder how much we owe our veterans,” he said.
“Once a Marine, always a Marine is not just a bumper sticker,” Gen Berger said. “We don’t take them [veterans] for granted. I have even more come to value their service, the contributions, the coaching, the teaching, the mentoring of our Marine veterans.” He has often mentioned his appreciation for veteran Marines and their contributions to the Corps.
“The veterans—I need you. The Marine Corps needs you. We need your involvement. Not from the bleachers—be in the scrum. Right in the chaotic mess of where the Marine Corps needs to go. I need you to stay involved. I value your opinions.”
The Marine Corps of the future hasn’t turned its back on the Corps of the past; rather it has evolved to meet modern challenges by standing on the shoulders of those who served before. Honoring the Marine Corps’ past while ensuring its future success is especially important to the Commandant, and as his first three years have shown, he is committed to the task.
Gen Berger, far right, CMC, salutes as the American flag is folded during the West Virginia State Memorial Service for Medal of Honor recipient CWO-4 Hershel “Woody” Williams in Charleston, W.Va., July 3.