A Marine Reserve colonel who serves in the Senate hit the Corps' incoming commandant with more than 80 questions on cold-weather training and posturing, including several about establishing new military bases in Alaska.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, an Alaska Republican who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has asked Gen. David Berger to explore what could be a significant Marine Corps buildup in Alaska. Considerations include creating a Marine Corps base in Port MacKenzie outside Anchorage; a mountain-warfare training center in Palmer along the Matanuska River; and an amphibious training base in Adak, Alaska's southernmost town on the Aleutian Islands.
That's according to documents obtained by Military.com through a Freedom of Information Act request after the senator placed a hold on Berger's nomination to become commandant. In his responses, Berger committed to exploring a unit deployment program that could involve rotating battalions through Alaska.
The Marine Corps doesn't have much presence in the state now, but that would change with what Berger described. There are roughly 1,000 Marines in a battalion, including three rifle companies, along with a weapons company and a headquarters element.
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But, Berger added, any plans to send Marines to Alaska would be part of a wider force management program review and would be contingent on available funding.
"Before forming an opinion on adding a new Marine Corps base anywhere -- including Alaska -- I would need a much deeper understanding of such factors as overall equipment allocation and distribution plans; infrastructure assessments and [military construction] estimates; access to appropriate training venues; available funding; Navy supportability (amphibious ship and surface connectors); and sustainability from an installations perspective," Berger wrote.
The senator's dozens of questions for Berger centered around the Marine Corps' ability to fight in cold weather. Aside from the new bases, Sullivan asked Berger to explain whether the service's cold-weather gear is interoperable with allies' equipment, whether the Corps has enough Marines trained in cold-weather operations, and whether the National Defense Strategy has created the need for better training in that area.
Officials in Sullivan's office did not respond to requests for comment about whether Berger's responses on basing more Marines in Alaska or the service's overall Arctic strategy played a role in the senator's decision to delay the general's nomination. Email traffic between Sullivan's office and Marine officials offered little clarity on the senator's decision, which he told reporters was "between me and Gen. Berger."
When Sullivan OK'd the committee to move forward with the nomination, a one-line email was sent to the director of the Marine Corps' Senate Liaison office on June 4 simply stating, "Please be advised that Sen. Sullivan has removed his hold on Gen. Berger."
Berger told Military.com this week that the hold was "not personal," and that Sullivan was doing his job to ensure his Senate committee confirmed the best-qualified nominee to lead the Marine Corps.
"He has been very consistent on the strategic nature of the Arctic and where that will play in global security in the years ahead," Berger said in an interview at the Pentagon. "Because it has not been a factor for the last 40 years, and he's trying to make sure that senior leaders are focused on it."
Sullivan has served in the Marine Corps since 1993, deploying to Afghanistan as a Reserve officer in 2013. He served as commanding officer of 6th Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company until 2015, when he was told he'd need to give up command since it was found to be incompatible with his congressional service.
The colonel has been pushing for more military presence in Alaska. In June, he said the Coast Guard's new heavy icebreaker should spend time in U.S. waters in and around Alaska. He has also pushed for several other provisions and amendments in the 2020 defense authorization legislation that directly impact his state.
Berger was scheduled to visit Sullivan's state in April, according to Must Read Alaska. Less than four months later, Sullivan announced that more Marines are likely headed to the state for cold-weather training.
Acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper, while serving as Army secretary, also visited the state with Sullivan.