On March 9, 1862, the Union warship Monitor met its Confederate counterpart, Virginia. After a four-hour exchange of fire, the two fought to a draw. It was the first battle of ironclads. In one day, every wooden ship of the line of every naval power became immediately obsolete.
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. If the battle of the ironclads settled once and for all the wood-versus-iron debate, Japanese carrier-based aircraft settled the battleship-versus-carrier debate by sinking the cream of America’s battleship fleet in a single morning.
On April 14, 2022, the Ukrainians sank the Russian cruiser Moskva with a pair of Neptune anti-ship missiles. And that success posed an urgent question to the world’s major militaries: Has another age of warfare just begun? After 20 years spent fighting the post-9/11 wars, the United States military’s attention is again focused on a peer-level adversary. The Pentagon hasn’t been thinking this way since the Cold War, and it is attempting a profound transformation. Today, fierce debate attends this transformation, and nowhere more acutely than in the Marine Corps.
In March 2020, the Marine commandant, General David Berger, published “Force Design 2030.” This controversial paper announced a significant restructuring based on the belief that “the Marine Corps is not organized, trained, equipped or postured to meet the demands of the rapidly evolving future operating environment.” That “future operating environment” is an imagined war with China in the South Pacific—but in many ways, that hypothetical conflict resembles the real war in Ukraine.
The military we have—an army built around tanks, a navy built around ships, and an air force built around planes, all of which are technologically advanced and astronomically expensive—is platform-centric. So far, in Ukraine, the signature land weapon hasn’t been a tank, but an anti-tank missile: the Javelin. The signature air weapon hasn’t been an aircraft, but an anti-air missile: the Stinger. And as the sinking of the Moskva showed, the signature maritime weapon hasn’t been a ship, but an anti-ship missile: the Neptune.
Berger believes a new age of war is upon us. In “Force Design 2030,” he puts the following sentence in bold: “We must acknowledge the impacts of proliferated precision long-range fires, mines, and other smart weapons, and seek innovative ways to overcome these threat capabilities.” The weapons General Berger refers to include the same family of anti-platform weapons Ukrainians are using to incinerate Russian tanks, shoot down Russian helicopters, and sink Russian warships. The successes against a platform-centric Russian Goliath by an anti-platform-centric Ukrainian David have elicited cheers in the West, but what we are witnessing in Ukraine may well be a prelude to the besting of our own American Goliath.
Like its Russian counterpart, the American military has long been built around platforms. To pivot away from a platform-centric view of warfare is both a cultural challenge—what does it mean to be a fighter pilot without a jet, a tanker without a tank, or a sailor without a ship?—and a resource challenge. It asks the U.S. military, as well as the U.S. defense industry, to divest itself of legacy capabilities like, for example, a $13 billion Ford-class aircraft carrier, in order to invest in new, potentially less profitable technologies like, say, $6,000 Switchblade drones that can kill tanks.
Divestment is central to Berger’s strategic vision. Several months ago, he announced that the Marine Corps would reduce its size. Several of its infantry battalions, aircraft squadrons, artillery batteries, and every last one of its tanks would go. According to Berger, the Marine Corps is “operating under the assumption that we will not receive additional resources” and “must divest certain existing capabilities to free resources for essential new capabilities.”
As divest to invest has become the new Marine Corps catchphrase, a bevy of retired generals have spoken out publicly against Berger, in an unprecedented display of disunity among senior commanders. One of the dissenters is a former commandant, retired General Charles Krulak. “You’re divesting yourself of huge capability to buy capability that’s still on the drawing boards,” Krulak told me. “We’re being painted as a bunch of old farts who want the Marine Corps to remain as it was and don’t understand the impact of technology on warfare. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
To discount Krulak’s views would be a mistake. His tenure as commandant ushered in significant innovations for the Corps. He laid the intellectual groundwork that allowed the Corps to fight in the post-9/11 world. He also acquired the V-22 for the Marine Corps, a first-of-its-kind tilt-rotor aircraft that is both a plane and a helicopter. Berger’s strategic vision is also first-of-its-kind; in the event of a war with China, it imagines a 21st-century island-hopping campaign in which bands of 60 to 70 highly trained, lethally equipped Marines would infiltrate onto islands in the South Pacific to target the Chinese navy with advanced missile systems and other long-range weapons. The war at sea, in Berger’s vision, would be decided by a slew of Moskva-like engagements.
Berger’s critics don’t buy it. “The assumption that Marines can get on contested islands without being detected and conduct resupply missions is unrealistic,” Krulak said. “Plus, you’re underestimating the capability of the Chinese. The belief that these forces will shoot and scoot counts on Marines moving faster than a Chinese missile flies. You’re going to lose Marines and be unable to evacuate our wounded and dead. The Navy won’t sail in to get our wounded.”
Admiral James Stavridis, who spent much of his 40-plus-year Navy career in the South China Sea, is a believer in Berger’s vision. “The Army of tomorrow will look like the Marine Corps of today,” Stavridis told me. “What General Berger is doing is critical.” A truism among Marines is that the Corps must be at its most ready when America is at its least. In the 1930s, the Marine Corps pioneered the amphibious doctrine that would pave the way not only for the island-hopping campaigns in the Pacific, but also the amphibious landings that allowed the Army to liberate Europe. Innovation, according to Stavridis, remains a core Marine mission.
The debate in the Marine Corps is more profound than the internecine politics of one service branch; it’s a debate about which form of warfare will dominate in the next decades of the 21st century, a platform-centric one or an anti-platform-centric one. Historical precedent abounds for these types of debates. Before the First World War, in the opening years of the 20th century, many militaries adhered to the cult of the offense, a then-stale belief that well-trained, determined troops would always carry the day over a defending force. In the Napoleonic Wars 100 years before, this had often proved true. But up against the 20th century’s breech-loading rifles and machine guns, the offense had become the weaker form of warfare. Tragically, it took the Marne, the Somme, and countless other bayonet charges into the teeth of chattering machine guns for the generals of that era to accept that their understanding of warfare was dated.
Representative Seth Moulton, a former Marine and Iraq War veteran who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, believes that today’s dissenting generals are failing to comprehend how much technology is changing the battlefield and how quickly the services must adapt. “When you look at what weapons are on top of the Ukrainians’ wish list,” Moulton told me, “it isn’t towed howitzers. Top of their list are armed drones, anti-tank missiles, and anti-ship missiles.”
But what if Berger is wrong? What if his “divest to invest” strategy winds up overinvesting the Marine Corps in a highly specific vision of warfare that never comes to pass? According to Moulton, much of this comes down to the role the Marine Corps has traditionally played as an incubator for new ideas as the smallest, most nimble of the services. “Our country can afford to have the Marine Corps overinvested in a new type of warfare that never comes to pass,” Moulton explained. “What our country cannot afford is to have the Marine Corps underinvested in a new type of warfare that does come to pass.”
Events in Ukraine seem to validate Berger’s anti-platform-centric view of warfare, in much the same way that World War I validated those who had argued that defense had become stronger than offense. Of course, no form of warfare maintains primacy forever. Krulak made this point as we finished our conversation. “We need to be careful we don’t learn the wrong lessons from Ukraine. You have a great measure. The next thing you know they come up with a countermeasure. So you come up with a counter-countermeasure.”
One of the most famous countermeasures developed after the end of the First World War was France’s Maginot Line, a physical shrine to the primacy of defense. What the French failed to account for was that in two short decades, certain developments—more advanced tanks, aircraft, and combined-arms doctrine—had once again swung the balance, allowing offense to reassume its role as the dominant form of warfare. The result was a German blitzkrieg in June 1940 that simply maneuvered around the Maginot Line.
The wager that Berger and the Marine Corps are making is that anti-platform systems won’t be an American Maginot Line, but the best way to save a generation of Americans from their own Somme or Moskva.