WASHINGTON — The U.S. Marine Corps will update its concept for amphibious operations, even as it waits to see how many ships its U.S. Navy partner will provide for those operations.

Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger directed the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab to develop by the end of the year a Concept for 21st Century Amphibious Operations, as part of an ongoing campaign of learning to inform the Force Design 2030 modernization effort.

Maj. Gen. Benjamin Watson, who commands the lab, said during a May 10 media roundtable much of the early work in Force Design centered around a new formation called the Marine Littoral Regiment, which would send out small units to dispersed positions around island chains and shorelines to operate as stand-in forces. Amphibious operations remain important to the Navy-Marine team, he said, but were largely left out of the Force Design discussion.

The next eight months of work will allow the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, the Naval Warfare Development Center and other organizations to consider future amphibious operations “from crisis response, in many cases at the lower end of the spectrum of conflict, all the way up to what is still a joint force requirement for forcible entry.”

Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, the deputy commandant for combat development and integration, said at the same roundtable at the Modern Day Marine 2022 convention the amphibious ready group and Marine expeditionary unit, or ARG/MEU, today still largely looks like the ARG/MEU of the 1980s.

“Things have dramatically changed; certainly the character of warfare has changed” since then, he said.

The lower end of amphibious operations — such as responding to a disaster and providing humanitarian assistance — hasn’t changed much.

“But as you progress up that escalation ramp, the divergence is significant. It used to be, when we got in the Marine Corps, we said, 25 nautical miles over the horizon, you’re safe. Not applicable today anymore, so it’s got to change,” Heckl said.

Berger, in remarks May 10 at Modern Day Marine, previewed what he thought the ARG/MEU of 2030 could bring to the fight, in addition to the range of missions it already conducts today, including disaster response, raids, embassy evacuations, tactical recovery of aircraft, amphibious assaults and more.

“That Navy-Marine Corps team employing unmanned underwater vessels from the ARG/MEU, dozens of unmanned undersea vessels. You can use them as sensors, perhaps for anti-submarine warfare; you can do counter-reconnaissance with that, and locate mines,” the commandant said.

“They could be weapons themselves,” he added. “We could also employ uncrewed surface vessels from the well deck, both for [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] and for fires. You can do it for logistics.”

The question mark, though, is the future of the size of the amphibious ship fleet.

The Marine Corps has repeatedly said it requires at least 31 ships: 10 large amphibious assault ships that can carry fixed-wing vertical-takeoff jets and 21 smaller amphibious transport docks and dock landing ships that can carry surface connectors and helicopters.

Berger told Defense News in a May 5 roundtable at the Pentagon the actual number needed to meet operational requirements is at least 31 and growing.

“To do what we need to do in everyday campaigning, to respond to a crisis, to fight war — all that added up together equals the results of this study” the Navy and Marine Corps just wrapped up, Berger said. “You will not be surprised at the outcome: it’s not less” than 31.

Berger and other leaders have in the past said it would take upwards of 50 amphibious ships to meet all these needs, if the Marine Corps were to fill all the combatant commanders’ requests for amphibious forces.

The Marines have made clear they require at least 31 traditional amphibious ships and at least 35 light amphibious warships to operate in the 2030s with an acceptable level of risk in accordance with their new concepts.

Still, the Navy’s long-range shipbuilding plan calls for 10 amphibs to be retired in the next four years alone, leading the force to dip to 25. The amphib fleet would only rise to 43 or 48 amphibs — the service hasn’t disclosed the mix of traditional larger amphibs and the new small LAW — under two Navy options based on a Navy topline that only grows with inflation. A third option in the shipbuilding plan that includes modest growth in spending and industry capacity caps out at 60 total amphibs, still short of the Marines’ requirement.

Reps. Joe Courtney and Rob Wittman, the Democratic chairman and Republican ranking member of the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee respectively, released legislative language May 10 that would require the Navy to maintain at least 31 traditional amphibs in the battle force.

Watson addressed the effect of the ship count on the Warfighting Lab’s work on the updated concept, telling Defense News “the composition and the capacity of the future amphibious fleet does affect how we employ that amphibious force of the future.”

Berger, in the May 5 roundtable, said “we’re biased because that’s our fighting platform, but my view is there is no other class of ships that has the flexibility, the agility, can tackle the widest range of mission sets, no other class of ships other than amphibious warfare ships. They are not nice to have, they are essential for what the nation needs us to do.”

Living within the budget

Heckl, during in a May 6 roundtable, said the Marine Corps saw some disappointments in the fiscal 2023 budget submission for amphibious ships, the new Light Amphibious Warship program that will help the new Marine Littoral Regiment move around and other ships that could serve as LAW surrogates in the near-term until the LAW’s delayed fielding date.

The budget request would cancel the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock program just 15 ships into a planned 22-ship program, despite the production line being mature and there being great demand for the ships from the Marines and from the global combatant commanders. The FY23 budget further delayed the start of the light amphib program, to a FY25 start, for budgetary reasons.

And it proposed decommissioning 24 ships, 16 of them before the end of their planned service life. Included in the list of ships facing early retirement are four Whidbey Island-class dock landing ships as well as two Montford Point-class expeditionary transport docks (ESDs) that Heckl said the Marines were eyeing as a surrogate platform for the delayed light amphib.

Marine Corps leaders have told Defense News about a plan to use other platforms — some as small as ship-to-shore landing craft and some as large as the expeditionary staging base that’s an iteration of the ESD design — to work through experimentation and training ahead of the light amphib reaching the fleet.

While the expeditionary sea bases are in high demand, the expeditionary transport docks — which do not have the large flight deck across the top of the ship but do ballast into the water to allow surface connectors to come and go while at sea — have not been used much in recent years and would have been a good vessel of opportunity for the Marines.

Heckl told reporters last week the Marines are interested in anything that can get Marines to sea and contribute to warfighting, but he acknowledged the Department of the Navy must consider a larger portfolio “and unfortunately it all ends up coming back to being about the money.”

Maj. Gen. Eric Austin, who leads the Capabilities Development Directorate under Heckl, said in the roundtable last week “LAW is a very real requirement. It’s going to be late to need based on where we are in resourcing it, but we’re looking at a combination of platforms that will be that bridging solution.”

In addition to using other Navy vessels, like the expeditionary sea base and the expeditionary fast transport ships, Austin and Heckl said the Marine Corps has one civilian stern landing vessel — the original inspiration for the light amphib — on contract with Louisiana-based Hornbeck Offshore Services. That vessel will deliver to the Marines in San Diego this summer and will be immediately sent to the 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment in Hawaii for experimentation.

The generals said they could put another stern landing vessel on contract, and the service is also in talks with other makers of similar vessels, including Australia-based Sea Transport Solutions.

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.

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