If the Marine Corps is going to remain the most elite, well-trained force, it could be forced to spend less on people and more on badly needed upgrades to outdated training ranges and equipment, the service's new top general told Military.com this week.
Gen. David Berger, who became commandant of the Marine Corps on Thursday morning, said he's prepared to consider a smaller service if it means building a more capable force. It's something past commandants have considered, he said, when the force wasn't involved in major combat operations.
"Now, I don't know if we will need to, but the willingness to do that, I think, [would be] a reinforcement from me to leaders and to Marines that the No. 1 thing is quality," Berger said during an interview at the Pentagon. "... We owe this country a very capable, very lethal force that can do what no one else will do."
As Marines shift from nearly two decades of ground deployments back to more naval missions, Berger said they must take a hard look at what they need to be successful. This comes as China builds military hubs on tiny man-made islands in the Pacific, Russia ramps up its submarine activity, and Iran threatens American ships in the Middle East.
"If you were me, that leads you to ask, 'What is it that we don't have today, that we're not doing today, that can help the commander out there fight a naval force?'" he said. "To do sea control, to do sea denial -- what is it that we don't have today ... because our focus has been in another area."
Marines, he added, also need serious upgrades to their land ranges, which have remained largely unchanged for the last three or four decades.
"If the environment has changed and the threat has changed, we need to upgrade," Berger said. "We need to replicate the threats that we have to operate against."
Berger has been well positioned to spot the service's needs and make these changes. Before becoming commandant, he led Marine Corps Combat Development Command, which oversees all training, warfighting doctrine and equipment acquisition. About five years ago, he also led the combat center where every Marine unit prepares for upcoming deployments in Twentynine Palms, California.
Even if there are strong arguments to eyeing personnel cuts to pay for much-needed training and equipment upgrades, news of a smaller force coming three years after the Marine Corps wrapped up a sometimes-painful post-war drawdown is likely to cause some angst. That process shed tens of thousands of troops from the ranks and cut some experienced positions that leaders have acknowledged left some voids.
Berger's message to the force is that there's no need to panic.
"They should not be worried about driving toward an end-strength cut just for the sake of money," he said. "That's not the point. ... The focus is on what we produce for this country -- the lethal capabilities that no one else does.
"... Do your job, do it as well as you can do it," Berger added. "That's all that matters. The Marine Corps will do right by you."