CAVASSHIPS Podcast [May 21, ’22] Episode 49…Criticizing the Commandant


Welcome to the CavasShips Podcast with Christopher P. Cavas and Chris Servello…a weekly podcast looking at naval and maritime events and issues of the day – in the US, across the seas and around the world. This Week…a group of 30 Marine Corps generals, including every living former commandant, is openly challenging the plan of the current commandant to transform the Corps into a lighter, faster and more responsive combat force. One prominent former Marine, who served the Corps as an artillery commander, has risen to defend General David Berger. In a few minutes we’ll hear from former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work some of his thoughts on not only the efficacy of the plan, dubbed Force Design 2030, but also on the propriety of such an open debate.

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This Week’s Naval Round Up:

The US has quietly amassed a significant amount of naval power in the far east in conjunction with President Biden’s visit to South Korea and Japan. The Japan-based carrier USS RONALD REAGAN, having completed its winter overhaul, left its base at Yokosuka May 20 to begin a regional deployment. The carrier ABRAHAM LINCOLN is also reportedly operating close to Japanese waters. Additionally, the new assault ship USS TRIPOLI reportedly was operating near Japan’s inland sea by May 20. The TRIPOLI left San Diego May 2 for her first deployment, an independent cruise to the western Pacific. The deployments seem to be in response to increasingly aggressive Chinese behavior at sea and concerns that North Korea is preparing a ballistic missile demonstration.

In war news, there isn’t a whole lot new to report. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said May 20 there were, quote, “No changes in the maritime posture in the Black Sea,” and added that the Russian naval blockade of Ukraine’s ports is continuing.

A major NATO exercise, dubbed “Vigilance Activity Neptune Shield 2022,” is taking place in the European waters of the Baltic, Adriatic and Mediterranean Seas. Among the US forces taking part are the carrier HARRY S TRUMAN strike group in the Mediterranean and the KEARSARGE amphibious ready group with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit in the Baltic Sea. The exercises are running from May 17 through the 31st.

The US Navy’s top two leaders visited the aircraft carrier GEORGE WASHINGTON May 17 to show their concern after a number of recent suicides among the ship’s crew. There are also issues with housing and morale and the overall welfare of the GW’s sailors. The carrier has been undergoing a major mid-life overhaul at Newport News Shipbuilding since 2017. The overhaul, first scheduled to have been completed in August 2021, now is forecast to continue into 2023. Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday promised a number of measures to try and improve conditions for the crew. “We want to ensure no one else feels as if their only option is to take their own life,” Del Toro told the sailors.

A revised inactivation list for fiscal 2022 was released by the US Navy on May 17, updating the list issued in summer 2021. The new list incorporates changes made by Congress restricting the numbers of cruisers and littoral combat ships the Navy can decommission this current year, which runs through the end of September. Two cruisers, SAN JACINTO and LAKE CHAMPLAIN, originally scheduled to decommission this year, are off the list, but five others remain. Congress also forbade the inactivation this year of the littoral combat ships FORT WORTH, DETROIT and LITTLE ROCK. While they won’t officially leave service now, the Navy’s fiscal 2023 request asks to decommission all five of those ships plus many more. Congress has yet to act on the current fiscal defense budget request.

In new ship news, Navy Secretary Del Toro announced that a new Arleigh Burke-class destroyer will be named for TELESFORO TRINIDAD, the only Filipino awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism while serving in the US Navy. TRINIDAD saved several sailors during a boiler accident aboard the armored cruiser SAN DIEGO in 1915.

And on May 21, the new littoral combat ship MINNEAPOLIS-SAINT PAUL is to be commissioned in ceremonies in Duluth, Minnesota – the first-ever Navy commissioning held in Duluth and a very rare visit by a Navy ship to the westernmost of the great lakes.

And that’s a look at some of this week’s naval news.

Servello Squawk:

I’m really torn about this week’s discussion topic. Im a fan of the big picture changes General Berger is pushing. Smaller, more lethal, disaggregated forces onboard Navy ships sounds like a problem that will drive the Chinese crazy for years to come.

I also like that he is willing to admit the plan isn’t completely baked and is actively seeking and responding to input from the Fleet Marine Force.

Its not surprising that the retired General officer community is skeptical…Berger is pushing a very different way of thinking about naval forces and Marine fighting doctrine. Questioning his assumptions and predicted outcomes seems fair and needed.

What is odd…and maybe even worrisome is the tone that has been taken by the Marine grey beard crowd. It feels mean spirited, condescending and unhelpful.

Any public squabble among Marines feels weird because we just aren’t used to seeing it. But Instead of challenging the strategy and tactics Berger is pushing forward, the retired critique seems like a challenge to the Commandant himself. It feels like they are questioning his ability to think and lead.

Debate and dissent are good things…they force clarity, rework and even change…but it can go too far. When that debate takes away from the credibility of the leader, when it takes away from their bandwidth to lead and when it becomes unproductive to the larger context of the problem being solved …others should step in.

I agree with Sec Work. Its time for Secdef Austin to publicly support the Commandant, thank the grey beards for the interest in the United States Marine Corps and end the public debate.

We need our Marines focused on deterring and defeating our adversaries…not on what a retired General said what to whom in what news outlet. Letting this continue will only stifle creativity and further distract the Marine Corps.

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