- The US Marine Corps, like the other military branches, is preparing for a future conflict against an adversary with similar capabilities.
- That kind of conflict is rare, but it would bring with it a level of casualties that the US public has not had to face in decades, the Marine Corps’ top general said this week.
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The US public is not used to the heavy casualties that are likely in a future conflict between similarly powerful forces, the Marine Corps’ top general said this week.
The Corps, like other military branches, is reorienting to face a rival with comparable capabilities — namely Russia or China — in an era of renewed great-power competition.
Such a fight would mean heavy combat losses, which has its own deterrent effect, Gen. David Berger, commandant of the Marine Corps, said at a Defense One event Thursday.
“We’re not resigned to high casualties, but we should not think that in a great power competition it’s going to be clean,” Berger said in response to a question comparing a future conflict in Asia to World War II.
In a scenario where both adversaries are “pretty strong,” neither would look for “head-on-head” conflict but rather seek out the other’s weaknesses, Berger said.
History suggests a direct clash between nuclear powers is unlikely. The US, Russia, and China have fought numerous proxy conflicts, but the only nuclear-armed states to go to war with each other are India and Pakistan, who share a disputed border and antipathy dating to their traumatic founding.
But there is still a risk, Berger said. "Great power competition, as does counterinsurgency, comes with casualties if it comes to a scrap."
Berger is just the most recent senior officer to make such a warning.
In his first major strategic document, published this month, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. said the US has had "a historically-anomalous period of dominance" in the air since the first Gulf War.
Brown cautioned that future airmen "must be prepared" for "combat attrition rates ... more akin to the World War II era."
Air losses in World War II were heavy. Between 1942 and 1945, more than 26,000 members of the Eighth Air Force were killed over Europe. About 7,000 US troops have been killed in the post-September 11 wars in the Middle East. (Direct deaths of combatants and civilians in those wars are close to 800,000.)
"We haven't had that kind of high number of casualties in a long while," Berger said Thursday. "The public is not sensitized to that today, on either side. Hence ... neither side wants that kind of a conventional force-on-force fight ... that doesn't work to your advantage."
Berger has pursued a force redesign to make the Marines lighter, more mobile, and better suited to operate in small units on islands across the Pacific.
That has meant a number of dramatic changes, like getting rid of "big, heavy things" like tanks and artillery, cutting aviation units, and reducing overall force size.
"We have to distribute the forces, first of all, to give the adversary a lot of looks from a lot of different directions in every single domain," Berger said Thursday. By presenting "a lot of different looks," he added, "you make it very difficult for them to focus their strengths."
That distribution can mitigate casualties, but Berger emphasized the overarching operational goal: deterrence.
"It's a distributed way of fighting and maneuvering so that you can put the enemy in a dilemma, and he says 'OK, it's not worth it today.'"
Berger has noted the logistical challenges of a dispersed conflict, which the service hasn't faced decades. Similarly, medical care will be a greater challenge over those distances, he said Thursday.
The Corps has the "mechanics" needed to deal with combat casualties, but Marines also have to "sensitize ourselves," Berger said, citing the impracticality of the "golden hour," the period between wounding and reaching appropriate medical care that became the norm in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"That's not reasonable when you're fighting a distributed fight, so that means we have to have a medical capability more forward than we did before," Berger said.
Wounded troops were often able to reach level-three trauma care in that "golden hour," but a distributed fight means that could take "four hours or four days," Berger added. "We have to deliver medical capabilities [and] logistics far forward in a different way than we needed to in Afghanistan or Iraq."
Unmanned vessels and other methods are being developed or have been proposed to resolve new logistical and medical challenges — for the latter, researchers have even looked at changing how the body works.
A peer adversary will target that "logistical backside" or any other "soft spot," Berger said. "They will try to put pressure on us in any weak spot that they see. We're going to do the same."