Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Force Design 2030: Futurism, Imbroglio, or Creative Friction?

We haven’t really discussed the imbroglio presently roiling USMC-world around General Berger, USMC and “USMC Force Design 2030.” Well, today we’re going to step in – second hand.

The document itself isn’t as interesting to me per se as the reaction to it.

Berger is trying to look at where we are today, what challenges the nation faces, what the USMC’s role in addressing those challenges are, what resources provided to do it, and has come up with a path he and his staff believes best addresses the challenges.

No plan or vision is perfect. There are always weaknesses and imperfections, but decisions do need to be made.

The old guard, or as Bob Work - Former Deputy Secretary of Defense and Under Secretary, and Col., USMC (Ret.) well known to readers here - calls them in the article we’ll discuss below calls them, the “grandparents,” is not all that happy with the proposals … nor are some people from age 20 on up … and that is the spectator sport we’ve been watching.

You can read Force Design 2030 at the link if you have not already, but if you want to get in to the discussion on today's post, over at 19fortyfive.com take a moment to read Work’s article USMC Force Design 2030: Threat or Opportunity

Be warned, it is a substantial article. It is not a short read, but take the time to read it all anyway.

Work is clearly on Berger’s side (and that's OK) and is a little snarky toward the grandparents – but his article is on balance fair.

I’m not fully aligned with Berger, nor am I with the grandparents. I think both sides have good arguments … and this hesitation on my part is a signal to me that what we have going on here is healthy and good for the Marines and the nation they serve.

Here’s why. There are a few foundation stones to how I look at changes in military postures, CONOPS, and structure.

1. Creative Friction: no one has the right answer. If someone says they do either they are a fool or they think you are one. On both sides of contentious issues, only by the two sides having a good back-and-forth can you get closer to the optimal solution or truth. They won’t get there – you never do – but you can get close. Well meaning people with good intentions – even when in stark opposition – can together create great things through their disagreements. On balance, that is what I see.

2. War is Not New: there is a seductive draw to either signaling or joining in with the idea that you or your group has a unique ability to see a change, a pivot, or dare I say – a transformation. Some advocates and critics of FD2030 are getting a bit over their skis thinking Berger is some prophet on one hand or a starry eyed fool on the other. Neither criticism is valid. In the commentary on FD2030, there is some hedging, self-reflection, and doubt concerning the way forward, but also an acknowledgment that forward one must go. I disagree on a few points here and there, but that is to be expected. I may hedge too much, they may not hedge enough … time will tell. Unlike the Age of Transformationalism we spent the better part of two decades discussing here – while there may be a little of that flavoring in FD2030, not enough to be of concern. I think they avoid that trap … though some of its advocates are a bit too enthusiastic … but people are people and that is to be expected.

3. The Future is Not as Clear as You Think it is: though there is some acknowledgement of uncertainty and our spotty track record on correctly identifying the next conflict, I do worry that FD2030 is too biased towards the expected (but perhaps not the actual) challenge west of Wake and may warp too much the outcome of FD2030. Much of the intellectual effort here was before the Russo-Ukrainian War of 2022, and while I appreciate the case for experimentation, exercises, wargaming, and modeling … there is one hell of a real war going on right now. It might be worth pausing a bit and have some clear-eyed review of the lessons coming out of it. This is especially true when it comes to armor. Regardless of all the T-72 turrets you see flying through the air, remember that Ukraine is taking all the tanks they can get hold of. Ditto tube artillery.

4. You are Wrong More Than You are Right: I think Work brings out the fact that here as well, self-awareness is in the thinking around FD2030. I don’t share his enthusiasm for it as written – though I’m closer to him than to the grandparents – but I do not get the impression Berger and his staff think they have everything perfect. There is humility here. That means there is flexibility. 

Those are my top-4, and I picked that number because Work picked his top-4 areas in FD2030 he wanted to touch on. I’ll pull those out in the below.

Let me grab a few pull quotes and we’ll dive in;

(Berger) is convinced the organization, training, equipment and posture of the service–its overall force design–is not keeping up with the evolving character of war and needs to be changed as a matter of some urgency.

After two decades in a rather bespoke series of low-boil imperial policing actions in Central and Southwest Asia that existed alongside what to some looked as a Cold War concept frozen in intellectual aspic, that is fair. As his job requires, Berger has to make sure the USMC is ready for what is coming, whatever that may be. He owns it;

I am convinced that the defining attributes of our current force design are no longer what the nation requires of the Marine Corps.

So he needed to take action. As Work outlines; 

He made it his top priority to bring the Marine Corps more into alignment with both the changing character of war and international security environment, and he announced a plan called Force Design 2030 to accomplish this aim.

I'm going to take an extended pull quote after this as I know many of you have not "read the syllabus" and may not be fully up to speed on the imbroglio ... so here's the issue;

But today, a group composed primarily of disaffected retired generals vehemently disagree with the General Berger’s overall vision of a future Marine Corps–so much so, that they are mounting a sweeping public relations campaign to stop him from getting it off the drawing board.[iii]  While the Commandant is in no way obligated to listen to their complaints, the thoughts and inputs of retired Marines, particularly general officers, have long been valued by serving Commandants (the same can be said of all service chiefs).  But this campaign takes “input” to an unsettling degree.  The retired generals have made their objections known to General Berger and are expecting him to heed their preferences to preserve the status quo.  Up to this point, Berger has not done so–or at least not enough for their liking. They therefore decided to “seek legislation that would halt the [Commandant’s] ongoing efforts until a more thorough requirements-based future is reviewed.”

There is a term for this approach: a shake down.  There is nothing remotely like this behavior in Marine Corps history. Those who wage the campaign feel their attempts to engage Commandant Berger have either been ignored or rebuffed.  Having failed to force a reversal of the Commandant’s direction that has been carefully designed and tested over the past two years, they feel the only way forward is to relentlessly and publicly denigrate his plans.  Toward this aim, they have published a spate of attacks in numerous fora.  They have gone so far as to engage a lobbying firm to help persuade Congress Berger is on the wrong path.  As a Marine veteran myself, I am stunned, saddened, and embarrassed these respected gentlemen would pursue such drastic, unseemly tactics.

That second paragraph is where Work shows his cards. That is fair, these are big boys playing serious games, they can take some elbows and clear words. I actually wish we had more of this on the Navy side ... but I'll try not to get distracted from the subject at hand.

As promised at the top of the post, Work boiled down the four top judgments from FD2030 that stood out.

Judgment 1: The future Marine Corps must be organized, trained, equipped and postured to conduct distributed operations.

Berger argued that the “character of war in the future will be much different than that of the recent past,”[xi] dominated by what he would later refer to as the “mature precision strike regime.”[xii] At its core, then, his force design effort was a deliberate reaction to the widespread development and fielding of deadly accurate guided munitions fire–directed and controlled by increasingly capable command, control, communications, computer and cyber intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance networks. 


Achieving this end state requires a force that can create the virtues of mass without the vulnerabilities of concentration, thanks to mobile and low-signature sensors and weapons.

That is a good reading, though I shake my head a bit at the transformationalist "character of war" comment. I'm sorry, but that is an exaggeration to make a point. Tools, methods, and procedures, yes - "character" no. That is a semantic critique - as is my curling up my nose every time "pacing" is used, but it isn't minor. Assuming you live in a unique time is a dangerous idea that can get you in all sorts of trouble. This isn't a unique time. Our species has seen this pattern countless times in our history.

Judgment 2: The Chinese anti-access/area denial threat in the Western Pacific is the “pacing threat” for a future naval expeditionary force in the precision strike regime and calls for a different set of amphibious capabilities.


the appearance of land based anti-access/area-denial networks in the Western Pacific and beyond made “closer naval integration an imperative.”[xxi]  Large-scale amphibious assaults in the Western Pacific would be far too vulnerable and risky to mount.  As a result, perhaps the biggest bombshell in Berger’s planning guidance was that the Marine Corps would no longer use the longstanding “requirement” (quotation marks in the original) to conduct a 2.0 Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) amphibious assault to help size and shape the force.  In truth, since 9-11, the Marine Corps had been sized and shaped primarily to service the wartime demands in the Central Command area of responsibility.  But the 2.0 MEB requirement provided the foundation for the size of the amphibious fleet (38 ships), the “requisite capacity” for vehicles and ship-to-shore connectors and the Maritime Prepositioning Force.

Partial non-concur here. Over the next 30-years, the challenge west of Wake vignette is not the only vignette we need to be able to respond to. In those cases, our amphibious fleet - as it proves over and over - provides capabilities unmatched by anything else. We cannot be focused on just one vignette more than any other. As you will see below, Berger isn't ... but the conversation needs to be careful here as the usual suspects are making that argument. 

Work mentioned the Korean War in his article. One of the problem we had was the the post-WWII Army was too stuck on the nuclear vignette and let other capabilities fade. That is the big lesson to take away that should inform our hedging - and I would offer that we need to lead with the hedge as nuance is being lost in the headline. 

The Commandant made clear that he did not think amphibious assaults were “irrelevant or an operational anachronism.”[xxiii]  However, the appearance of powerful anti-access-area-denial networks called for different types of amphibious capabilities in support of an integrated naval campaign in the Western Pacific.  Accordingly, Force Design 2030 called for III Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF), forward based in the Pacific, to be transformed into a new “fight tonight, stand in force capability to persist inside an adversary’s weapon system threat range, create a mutually contested space, and facilitate the larger naval campaign.”[xxiv]

I take that as a helpful hedge. We live in a big world with a diverse set of challenges that require an equally diverse set of tools to address them. Be careful, or some accountant will only give you a set of pliers and a roll of duct tape and expect you to carry on.

Judgment 3: Given expected budgets, pursuing any new force design would require the Marine Corps to divest some legacy programs and force structure to invest in needed future capabilities.

Another style note: I am not sure enough people realize how loaded, poisoned, and unhelpful the use of "legacy" and the construct of "invest/divest" has become. It is almost to the level of "do more with less" from the 1990s. Stop using it. You are unnecessarily weakening any argument you are making by using them.

It is relevant to understand that General Berger formulated Force Design 2030 just as the sequestration years were ending.  Demand for resources among the four services and within the Marine Corps itself was still intense. His philosophy was therefore to “seek the affordable and plentiful at the expense of the exquisite and few.”[xxvii]  

Good. Very good. For the stresses of the Terrible 20s, this mindset will serve everyone well.  

Beyond announcing the elimination of the 2.0 MEB amphibious “requirement,” the Commandant did not explicitly list capability divestments in his planning guidance, instead opting to provide general guidance for how future divestment decisions would be made.[xxix] In contrast, he was quite specific about the general investments he was confident 2030 Marine Corps would need.  These included ground-based long-range precision fires;  unmanned systems; command and control capabilities suitable for a degraded environment; air and missile defense; and emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence.[xxx]

Solid list. These have all been validated the last few months in Ukraine. 

Judgment 4: The urgent requirement to adopt Marine Corps force design for the future operating environment meant change must start immediately; “essential to charting our course in an era of strategic fluidity and rapid change will be the effective integration of professional wargaming in force design…”[xxxi]


“While others may wait for a clearer picture of the future operating environment, we will focus our efforts on driving change and influencing future operation environment outcomes” (emphasis mine).[xxxiii]

This is one of the better quotes. I would offer that no one has a clear picture, but you cannot wait or freeze in time as the world advances around you.

General Berger was fully aware he was navigating primarily by dead reckoning through a fog of uncertainty. To mitigate strategic risk, he therefore announced a major focus during his tenure as Commandant would be a “campaign of learning” involving his “direct, personal [and] regular engagement…to drive an integrated process of wargaming and experimentation” that will rapidly produce solutions for further development.”.[xxxv] 

That is the correct mindset. We are also at a great time to learn from Ukraine. As mentioned before, a pause is needed to digest the lessons of Ukraine, especially here. Don't tell me to stop repeating myself, I'll bring it up again a few times before we're done;

Among the document’s more consequential decisions, Berger announced the divestment of one of eight infantry regimental headquarters; the divestment of three of 24 active component infantry battalions, two of six reserve battalions, as well as the redesign of all remaining battalions; a dramatic restructuring of Marine Corps cannon and rocket artillery capabilities; the divestment of all organic tank units;


Berger believed he had sufficient evidence to conclude that despite their usefulness in past wars, tanks were “operationally unsuitable for our highest-priority challenges in the future.”[xlvii] Accordingly, all seven companies of active and reserve tanks would be divested. In addition, two of six companies of tracked assault amphibian vehicles and all three bridging companies needed to support sustained armor operations ashore would go. 

Well, we have new evidence this spring. People have been trying to write off expensive and bulky tanks for decades, but when actual war comes, no one wants to divest them or send them to other units. There is a reason for that which cannot be readily dismissed.

Time to return to the one thing that is better than anything else when testing concepts; reality;

(Berger) cautioned that while it was important to remember that “’answers’ are elusive when the task is preparation for an unknowable future,” the three developments he outlined demanded that he not wait for perfect answers before pursuing change in response.  Berger therefore said “the next great challenge” would be analyzing his initial force design decisions “through integrated Naval wargaming and analysis but most importantly in real-world, live experimentation,” and adjusting plans based on their findings.[lvi]

I keep repeating it because it is the 800-lb gorilla. Better than wargaming and experimentation - the actual war going on right now. We cannot pretend it isn't happening. 

Hidden in Work's article is something that really should be a stand-alone article. I'd love to hear him spend an hour on the topic. I know it would be torture to most, but I have been told I am a strange person, so maybe it is just me. As we don't have an hour, we will have to be happy with a two paragraph reality check on the POM cycle.

You've heard me talk about "process" before. This is reality ... and something everyone needs to remember. Work provides on of the most concise executive summaries I've read on it;

Let’s apply some facts to the first part of this premise. Each year, the Commandant of the Marines Corps, like all service chiefs, creates what is called a Program Objective Memorandum (POM). This describes how a service chief wants to allot current and future year funding for a force design that meets both service and defense planning guidance. If a Commandant wants to make significant changes to Marine Corps force structure, they need to prepare a POM that reflects the desired changes. Once developed, the Commandant then briefs and seeks approval of their plans from both the Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of Defense. If approved, the memorandum becomes a part of an overall defense program assembled by the Secretary of Defense.  The program is then sent to the Office of Management and Budget, to be incorporated in the President’s budget estimate submission to Congress. In essence, OMB’s delivery of the administration’s submission to Congress signals the President’s endorsement of anything included therein. Once delivered, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees unpack Department of Defense plans, study them, and decide whether to authorize and fund them. The former Commandants among the opponents know this process well. They followed it when they held the office.

Force Design 2030 was included in the Marine Corps’ Fiscal Year 2021 (FY 2021) Program Objective Memorandum.  It was approved by then-Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer and briefed directly to then-Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist at the Deputy’s Management Action Group (the organ that reviews service POMs for the Secretary of Defense). Per standard practice, it was then considered by the Director of Cost Analysis and Program Evaluation and endorsed. Based on supportive recommendations from both that director and the Deputy Secretary, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper approved Force Design 2030 and transferred approximately $500 million to the Marine Corps budget to help pay for aspects of it.[lxiii] It was incorporated into the overall defense program and president’s budget request, which was considered and approved by Congress. What Senator Webb described–a wily Commandant sneaking a force structure plan through the Department of Defense and by Congress–literally could never happen.

That will sober you up real fast, won't it?

At the end of this I hope you take a moment to ponder a couple of final thoughts:

1. Don't you wish we had this kind of argument going on right now in the Navy? 

2. 2014 is to 2022 what 2022 is to 2030. It isn't that far way. 

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