USMC commandant nixes prospect of zero-based budget review

Gen. David Berger, commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, said it's unlikely the service will adopt a programmatic review like the Army’s "night court" process.

Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David H. Berger addresses Marines and Sailors during a town hall visit at Marine Corps Base Camp Foster, Okinawa, Japan, Aug. 22, 2019.  Photo by Lance Cpl. Hannah Hall

Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David H. Berger at Marine Corps Base Camp Foster, Okinawa, Japan, Aug. 22, 2019. (Photo credit: Lance Cpl. Hannah Hall/USMC)

The Marines Corps isn't likely to take up the Army's zero-based budgeting process it calls "night court," Commandant Gen. David Berger said at an Oct. 3 event.

Speaking at The Heritage Foundation, Berger said the Marines would not go "program by program" like the Army did during its fiscal year 2019 budget review process to enhance modernization efforts. Instead, he said, the Marines' approach is to start with warfighting construct and work backwards.

"They were going program by program by program," Berger said. "Our approach was for one year -- from last summer until this summer -- with the Navy work[ing] hard on a warfighting construct for the future ... and from that [determining] what force you need to execute that -- as opposed to every night come in and defend your program."

The Army shaved around $30 billion from its budget for 2020 under then-secretary Mark Esper. And even before his appointment to defense secretary, there was speculation that Esper would conduct zero-based budget audits across the department looking for cost savings. Esper announced in August that DOD was in the midst of reviewing its Fourth Estate agencies. Defense News also reported that review would span across the DOD enterprise.

Berger said the Marines would perhaps use the Army's methodology to scrutinize different programs "but in a different way -- not from A to Z."

However, modernization efforts need clear dedication and resources. When asked about the Marines Corps' investment in unmanned systems, Berger said the military branch had experience, but the needle doesn't move in terms of force structure unless there's a clear directive.

"Now the additive part of unmanned is how can you make your force look bigger and operate bigger with unmanned and manned teaming. How can my wingman, and two of them, be unmanned and how does that enable me to accomplish a mission in a better way," he said.

Unmanned systems can help with maneuvering vessels from ship to shore, evaluating sites and ultimately providing endurance for the manned force, he said. But "unless you artificially demand a rate of investment it won't happen ... everything is built to manned" when it comes to resourcing.

To get there, Berger said there has to be an explicit goal, such as having a 50% unmanned force. "You may not achieve that, but you need a driver," he said. As for the Marines Corps new force design, it's in development and not ready for release, according to Berger.