WASHINGTON — The U.S. Marine Corps’ next budget will likely emphasize systems for secure data transfer, organic mobility and logistics, its No. 2 officer said, reflecting remaining challenges two and a half years into the service’s modernization effort.
Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Eric Smith said the service has, since the spring 2020 release of Force Design 2030, made the most progress on long-range precision fires. It had demonstrated its use of the Naval Strike Missile and the Tomahawk anti-ship missile from atop a Joint Light Tactical Vehicle.
It also tested organic precision fires — or loitering munitions — in a larger vehicle-mounted and a lighter infantry-operated form factor, hitting moving targets 89 kilometers (55 miles) away. And it began procuring the MQ-9A drone to serve as an airborne surveillance and communications tool, he said Sept. 7 at the Defense News Conference.
“The part that is the most challenging is the transport layer,” he said, referring to the ability to share information across different units and platforms.
The Corps has seen success using its Ground/Air Task-Oriented Radar to coordinate these long-range fires in demonstrations at exercises such as this year’s Rim of the Pacific, but it will require continued investment.
Asked about spending priorities in the fiscal 2024 budget request set for release this spring, Smith said the service will focus on transporting data in a secure manner, as well as organic mobility and logistics, while sustaining the force.
On organic mobility, the Marines have spent recent years significantly investing in the aviation portfolio, much of which is applicable to the kinds of small-unit operations Smith described in the discussion. The CH-53K heavy-lift helicopter, the KC-130J transport and refueling plane, and the MV-22 tiltrotor will help Marines move around a theater without relying on the Navy or other armed services.
Making China ‘uncomfortable’
But an important aspect of organic mobility is the light amphibious warship, something the Corps wanted to start buying in FY22. But the effort was delayed over a tight Navy shipbuilding budget.
Smith said the Marines require up to 35 of the vessels so Marines in the Pacific can move with little notice to strategic locations “before the action begins, in order to conduct sea denial as part of distributed maritime operations.”
He said a key feature of the ships will be their ability to beach themselves — more akin to a landing craft than a ship — to make them harder for the enemy to target. If the Marines arrive on a ship that needs a deep port, an adversary can focus its surveillance on the limited number of deep-water ports in a region; if the Marines can beach themselves along any shoreline, finding them becomes immensely more difficult, he explained.
For the time being, the 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment will begin experimenting with a stern landing vessel the service is leasing. Smith said he will watch that experimentation in the hope it answers several remaining questions ahead of the light amphibious warship’s procurement and fielding.
“How is the loadout? What is your ability to move from point A to point B? What is your ability to hide yourself, electromagnetically and physically? How quickly can you onload and offload? What will you do to connect with fuel? … What did your supply chain look like? And can you use that vessel to both support you for organic mobility, and can it be used for periods of time to support the joint force logistically?” he wondered.
Smith spoke about the importance of getting this capability to the fleet as soon as possible, therefore enabling the 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment and others of the type that stand up in the coming years to fully leverage their capabilities in the Pacific.
Because the Marines hope to remain unpredictable to an adversary, “delay for us is risk … for the combatant commanders.”
But Smith did say the Corps is moving in a direction that makes China uncomfortable, which makes him believe the service should double down on its modernization efforts.
“Every time we build a force and produce elements of that force that have organic mobility, that have low signatures, that have lethality, and you combine those things, the [People’s Republic of China] and other adversaries don’t like that. They don’t like it at all, because there’s a force that’s out there that’s organic and mobile — KC-130s, CH-53Ks, MV-22s, light amphibious warships and traditional L-class ships — and has long-range fires ... and it has the ability to thicken the kill web, to sense and make sense using that MQ-9 drone, for example,” he said.
“Nobody likes that, if you’re an adversary, because you can’t see it as well as you can see other things, you can’t maneuver around it because it has organic mobility to sustain forces living in the First Island Chain, in the case of China. Those are things that I know adversaries don’t like, and if you don’t like it as an adversary, we should do more of it and do it faster. And that’s what Force Design is all about: If it makes the PRC uncomfortable, we’re going to change their behavior.”
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.