USMC chief says marines operating concepts a natural fit for Australia
14 Apr 2022|

A more agile and capable US Marine Corps will be well placed to work closely with the Australian Defence Force to protect sensitive areas such as maritime choke points in the region, says its commandant, General David Berger.

Berger is overseeing sweeping changes to the marines under the ‘Force Design 2030’ program to prepare the corps for a rapidly changing strategic environment. He is in Australia for talks with Australian commanders.

Speaking at ASPI on Thursday, he said that for almost 20 years the marines invested heavily for operations in the Middle East. ‘That’s what our country needed us to do. And we’re very good at that. And because the Marine Corps has all of the air and ground and logistics—the whole package— it’s a natural fit for that.’

But in the long term, the marines’ value to the US military joint force was as an expeditionary element that was forward all the time and which could gather information while preventing an adversary from doing the same. That presence could ‘open the door to places’, Berger said.

‘Some of it is back to our roots where we came from.’

The marines have had to adjust their structure and posture, how they train and manage their people, their warfighting concepts, what platforms they use and what capabilities and weapon systems they need wherever they operate to make sure they stay ahead of change happening around the world, Berger said.

‘As a service chief, we have two responsibilities to make sure we provide the forces today for a conflict, but also to make sure that five, 10 years from now we’re in the right spot. We have made the investments in the right places so that the future is in a good place.’

A likely challenge for the marines and for allies such as Australia would be to keep maritime choke points open to allow commerce to flow freely and they would need to develop the tools to do that.

‘You have to be able to monitor that, to engage an adversary who wants to close it down. So, we need things like anti-ship capabilities, the surveillance, the collection capabilities in the maritime domain that we don’t have right now. We need the ability to move laterally, both by air and on the surface at a tactical level, with greater frequency and in smaller numbers than we do right now.

‘But I would say, beyond a piece of hardware, the most important part is that human part of operating in an austere, expeditionary, maritime environment without any developed infrastructure, but getting a job done. And being able to transition quickly if there’s a crisis.’

Berger agreed with ASPI Executive Director Peter Jennings that similarities between the Marine Corps and the ADF meant the two could operate well together.

‘It’s easy for us to work alongside somebody who’s working to figure, to develop, to refine the tactical and operational concepts that bring together the different capabilities from silos into a whole. This is what we do every day as a marine corps. So it’s a natural fit for us to work alongside.’

Explaining the concept of the marines’ ‘expeditionary advanced base operations’, Berger said that involved the deployment of ‘stand-in’ forces where a stand-off approach—staying outside the range of an adversary’s intelligence-collection and weapon systems—was not enough.

‘The stand-in role for the US Marine Corps is to remain forward persistently, all the time with the partners that we have in the face of an adversary to collect against them. To prevent them from collecting against us and other friendly nations. To be in a posture basically, so that if something were to heat up, you’re in the right position already. You’re not fighting your way in.’

This posture would add to the stand-off capability of the entire force and increase its depth and breadth. ‘This is a sweet spot, a natural role for the Marine Corps moving forward. We are expeditionary, we’re amphibious. It builds on the competencies we already have.’

Australia’s expanding amphibious capability would work well with the US Marines, Berger said, so the stand-in force would be alongside an ally in a crisis, ready to help.

Facing a competitor intent on expanding and disrupting the region’s security framework, the marines had to be able to operate from advance bases they would set up, tear down and move on from. ‘You need to have that agility,’ Berger said.

Berger said he would not ask Australia to adjust its forces to fight with the US, but instead would listen to what the ADF wanted to do. ‘First step, where do they want to go?’

‘My purpose in spending all day today with the ADF is where are they going, and how can we be a partner?’ He said he’d received great advice from ADF chief Angus Campbell.

To drive the sort of changes he was bringing to the Marine Corps and to find and develop the ideas that would provide an edge over adversaries, Berger said personnel at all levels must be empowered to embrace risk. Once that began to produce results, Congress tended to support that process.

‘Two things I have going for me. One is really smart people around us that are willing to understand risk and take it. Second, I have a boss, bosses, in our Department of Defense who are taking the risk alongside of me. Third, I have Congress. Congress historically looks at the military as wasteful, slow to change, so they are not rewarding, but they’re acknowledging the move that the Marine Corps is making and the associated risk, and are giving us the resources to do it.

‘My payback to them is I’ve got to keep them informed, I’ve got to tell them the things we’ve learned in the past six months, year. “These things are not working; we’re going to shift over here.” But I have to keep them informed all the way, or they may think I’m going off the reservation somewhere.

‘My obligation to my boss and to Congress, keep them informed all the time. And be honest, be open. Tell them what’s not working. So far, it’s worked.’

Asked what lessons from the war in Ukraine might be relevant to the Indo-Pacific, Berger said that while he was cautious about drawing conclusions when a conflict was still underway, proper logistics planning was vital and that was relevant to the partnership between Australia and the US.

‘Logistics, logistics, logistics. That is the limiting factor. That’s the driving factor in how far and how fast you can go. It can’t be the last thing that you plan. Whoever’s handling logistics, they’d better be in the room from minute one.’

A second factor was the incredible, rapid progression of the power of information—from use of smartphones to the strategic release of information. He pointed to the power of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s tailored messaging to his people, to Russia and Russians, and to the wider world.

And while it was possible to compare the sizes and ranges of opposing forces, a more telling factor in warfare was human endeavour. Why did the Russian plan not go the way it was laid out on paper and what role did the human part play in that, from conscript to senior leader?

And the Ukrainians? ‘They’re defending their home turf. Their backs are against the wall. Their families are in the basement. I mean there’s a huge element there that goes beyond the six-month to two-year conscript from Russia that’s, “I don’t know why I’m down here. I don’t know what we’re doing here. I’m cold. I’m out of food.” The human element is incredible. We should never underestimate that. We have a lot to learn on the human factor.’

The Ukrainians knew it would be a huge mistake to take Russia on symmetrically force-on-force, head-to-head, so they wisely chose not to do that. ‘They’re operating as asymmetric as you can imagine—and it’s working.’

China would be watching closely and trying to figure out what in Europe applied in the Indo-Pacific. ‘I don’t know what lessons they will learn, but I would bet everything, every dollar that I have in my bag that they’re focused on learning … because they’ve been doing that for the last 15 years.’

In terms of deterring China from invading Taiwan, Berger said there was a lot to learn or relearn about deterrence.

‘I would say first you make it really difficult for them.’ Coalitions, networks, alliances, partnerships were a problem for Beijing. ‘We need to make that iron clad. We need to make that indivisible.’ The Taiwanese had to be provided with enough to make themselves defendable in terms of arms and other capabilities so that it became a very difficult problem for China to invade.

Berger said the sharing of information and intelligence between the US and Australia was the gold standard, and it was important to paint a clear picture of Beijing’s intentions and thinking.

On the marines’ rotational presence in Darwin, Berger said: ‘I think the limits of that will be as far as Australia wants to go, will allow us to go.’

Darwin allowed the marines to train at scale, alongside a partner at a high end. ‘You can use every tool in the toolkit and press things to the limits in terms of realism. It’s awesome.’

If the ADF thought bases in the Northern Territory were worth utilising for training or operating, the marines would be right there alongside it, Berger said. ‘This is expeditionary advanced based operations. How do you move in, set up shop quickly, defend it and then break it down 96 hours later? This is what we do.’