The Marine commandant said Wednesday, in some of his most pointed public comments yet about his naysayers, he was surprised by “the lack of trust” in the Marine Corps by those who oppose his restructuring of the force.
Whenever someone proposes change within an organization, the general said, there won’t be consensus.
“What surprised me: the lack of trust,” Berger said.
It was a point he would reiterate multiple times.
The Marine Corps is preparing for stealthier, more distributed operations, especially those that might have to occur in a potential conflict with the Chinese military. The force has cut traditional equipment like tanks and some artillery in the process.
The changes have sparked concerns among a group of retired Marine leaders who have argued that Marines will be less ready to respond to a wide range of crises.
In an unusually public sign of dissent, these retired leaders have written dozens of op-eds, including some in Marine Corps Times, detailing concerns. They’ve tried to get Congress to intervene and prevent the changes.
Force Design has, however, largely garnered support in Congress, at the Pentagon and among think-tank experts.
Berger stressed Wednesday that a large number of Marines from across the force, at high and low ranks alike, have worked to develop and refine Force Design.
“I mean, it’s common sense — none of this is fabricated by one or two people,” Berger said. “It is driven by a gigantic machine of very experienced, very smart people.”
“I have an incredible amount of trust in that process and all those people,” he said.
Retired Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, one of the most outspoken members of the group of retirees opposing Force Design, told Marine Corps Times on Wednesday that he does lack trust in the way Berger went about making the changes.
Van Riper said he believes the commandant relied on a small group of people to come up with the core concepts instead of going through the standard combat development process.
“We do not trust General Berger because he circumvented that process with a small cabal of supposed ‘thinkers’ whose ideas were never subjected to the needed professional scrutiny,” he said of the group of retired Marines who oppose Force Design.
Marine leaders previously have denied that Force Design originated from the ideas of a small number of Berger’s allies.
Instead, they have said, the seeds of change were planted under previous commandant Gen. Robert Neller.
Berger previously has maintained that, as a sitting service chief, he has access to an abundance of classified information that bears out the Force Design initiative. But he has mostly stopped short of publicly criticizing his critics, even implicitly.
Berger now has less than a month left in his four-year term as commandant, which ends July 10.
On that date, Gen. Eric Smith, who is the assistant commandant, will take charge, either as the Senate-confirmed commandant or — if Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Alabama, continues to succeed in blocking military nominations — as the acting commandant.
Smith has expressed his commitment to continuing and even accelerating Force Design 2030 as commandant.
Van Riper was careful to note that he didn’t want his criticisms of the Force Design development process to reflect on Smith, whom he expressed hope would go about change differently.
Once Smith is the top Marine, Berger will no longer spend his mornings reading the large amounts of classified information he consumed during his term as commandant.
“Two weeks later, I’m at a degree of separation,” Berger said. “So I will absolutely trust that the sitting commandant has the benefit of everything I’ve had for four years, every day.”
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.