WASHINGTON — The U.S. Marine Corps is in a vulnerable position as it prepares for fiscal 2023, having made enough progress on its Force Design 2030 effort that it shed a significant amount of outdated capabilities but is lacking replacements.
“We’re in that middle ground where we’re rapidly changing,” Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger said Dec. 14 during an online event hosted by the Center for a New American Security.
“I think this is the deciding point where, in the [Pentagon] and in Congress, are they willing to back an organization … that is willing to accept risk, willing to move at speed, willing to discard legacy things, learn as fast as we can — are they going to support and enable that to occur or not? Because if they don’t, then you’re in a bad place because you’ve already gotten rid of, you’ve already divested of, you shed the things you don’t think you need for the future. But the other things are coming, and if you’re left in a lurch there, that’s not a good place to be,” he added.
The general said he hopes the Department of the Navy, the Defense Department and Congress will support his plans in the next one or two budget cycles. He noted that the state of naval integration is “outstanding” at the tactical level, but at the Pentagon level, the Corps and the Navy need to make doctrinal and resource changes to enable tighter collaboration as a combined maritime force.
Amphibious lift is chief among these issues, he said.
At the Reagan National Defense Forum earlier this month, Berger said he’d go as far as sacrificing manpower to get the light amphibious warships, or LAW, he needs to support the Corps’ future operating concepts. But the Navy, who would pay for these in its shipbuilding budget, isn’t convinced about LAW. The service did, however, raise the idea of diverting money from traditional amphibious ships to pay for the new LAW program, he told reporters at the California event.
“It’s really hard to put a value on something you don’t have yet. That’s really hard because that’s risky,” he said at the online event. “Rightfully so, I think some folks would say, ‘I’m not sure that [LAW] is going to do what we need it to do.’ And my point is: If we don’t do that, then you’ll have the stand-in force that’s forward without an organic ability to move around. They need it. We’ll figure out how many, we’ll figure out exactly what it ought to look like — but what we can’t do is the normal sort of a thing where it will take us three or four years to assess what our requirement is. We can’t move like that anymore.”
Berger envisions the Marine Corps being spread out inside a potential enemy’s operating area as well as living and operating in the area, always watching the enemy’s movements as a deterrence, and prepared to intervene at early signs of aggression.
But to do that, small and dispersed groups of Marines need their own LAWs or aircraft to get around rather than depending on a static island or port, and having to wait until the Navy is free to give them a ride.
Berger said lift capabilities are among his top concerns for the upcoming FY23 budget cycle, and perhaps with good reason: LAW was supposed to move from research and development into acquisition in FY22, but the project was bumped from the budget — not because of development delays but simply as a budgetary decision, Defense News reported following the release of the FY22 budget in May.
Berger also said FY23 would bring some new capabilities to the service, showing the fruits of the early divest-to-invest strategy under Force Design 2030, in which the Corps shed capabilities like tanks, bridging companies, artillery and more, and instead used that money to pay for mobile anti-ship missiles, unmanned vehicles, sensors and electronic warfare tools for a scouting/counter-scouting competition, and more.
Asked what new capabilities the Marine Corps would field in 2023, Berger highlighted the NMESIS, or Navy/Marine Corps Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System: a ground-based anti-ship missile paired with an unmanned version of the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle. He described a fleet of these unmanned trucks, called ROGUE Fires vehicles, and perhaps a manned JLTV in the mix to act as quarterback. They’d move around a battlespace, tied in with radars and other sensors, and be able to hold any land- or sea-based targets at risk for significant distances.
The NMESIS already conducted a few high-profile demonstrations, and the Corps will begin receiving the system in 2023.
Berger also said that year will see deliveries of more F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and more Ground/Air Task-Oriented Radars, and that he’d later field LAW “as fast as we can procure them.”
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs, and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.