ARLINGTON, Va. — The U.S. Marine Corps has overhauled the force faster than initially expected when it kicked off a major modernization effort three years ago — but despite this early progress, two top generals say the service wants more capability faster for deployed forces.
Former Commandant Gen. David Berger unveiled the Force Design 2030 modernization plan in the spring of 2020. Gen. Eric Smith, who now serves as the acting commandant after Berger’s July retirement, not only supported Force Design as the Corps’ requirements officer and then as assistant commandant, he told the Senate during his confirmation hearing to become the next commandant that he’d accelerate it, if the budget allows.
Speaking at the Defense News Conference in Arlington, Va., on Sept. 6, Smith said the Marines have largely developed or identified the tech they need for Force Design. Acceleration means getting these systems into the fields in greater quantities as soon as possible, he said.
Smith pointed to a number of weapons and platforms that are key to how the Marines want to operate in the Pacific — the NMESIS anti-ship missile system, the Ground/Air Task-Oriented Radar, the Common Aviation Command and Control System, the MQ-9A extended-range drone, the KC-130J transport plane, among them — and said these are already in use in the Pacific. He now wants to put more of them there on a faster timeline than previously planned.
As the military services finalize their fiscal 2025 budget requests to the Pentagon, Smith said he’s worried they’ll face a flat or declining budget. That could hinder the acceleration he thinks is necessary for the Corps.
Noting the importance of funding the individual Marines and their quality of life needs, followed by funding lethality and mobility for the force, Smith said his view on Force Design acceleration during a tough budget environment is to “stay focused on people, and then balance the rest of your budget across the priorities, which will likely cause a capacity slowdown in how fast I would like to build capacity.
“If you ask me, I want capacity right now,” he continued. “But again, this goes back to the conundrum of modernization and readiness today. And as an acting service chief and member of the joint chiefs, I have to balance those two. It’s not either/or; it’s just a constant tension.”
Still, the fact that these systems are developed and fielded at all, he acknowledged, has already happened “every bit as fast or faster than I thought” back in 2020 when Force Design kicked off.
Hard to find, hard to hit
Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, the deputy commandant for combat development and integration, also spoke at the conference and said that, in sum, the new systems that have been fielded have created “a force now that is small, lethal, agile, extremely well connected, low-signature.”
“We’re going to be really, really hard to find, and we’re going to be really, really hard to hit.” he said.
Asked about where he could help accelerate Force Design modernization, Heckl pointed to organic precision fires and loitering munitions as the main focus.
With loitering munitions, which have captured widespread attention in the war in Ukraine, “industry is clearly cutting the path for us.”
For precision fires, and particularly anti-ship missiles like the ones fired by the NMESIS system, “we continue to look at how we can advance our long-range ability to strike particularly maritime targets,” through improvements to the missiles’ range and the sensors and networks that enable long-range targeting.
Heckl also pointed to small unmanned aerial systems that would be used at the battalion level by the thousands, and said the Marine Corps could accelerate their fielding — “and we have funding” to go and do so.
One area important to future operations where the Marines are less in control of their destiny is amphibious warships, which the Marines rely on to get to and around the theater.
The U.S. Navy’s most recent two budget proposals, for FY23 and FY24, show the end of the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock program — something the Marines vehemently oppose, and something the Navy says it doesn’t like either, if it can find room in the budget to keep building these LPDs.
‘It costs what it costs.’
Smith declined to discuss this year’s Pentagon-led study on the future of amphibious ships, which the Pentagon has not yet discussed publicly.
“I think the biggest thing is the cost,” he said. “Nobody wants to pay more for anything than they have to. But in terms of amphibs, especially the LPD, the cost has been steady – in ‘22 year dollars, the cost has held steady at $1.72 billion. Well, that’s a lot of money. When you amortize that over 40 years, which is the life of the ship, that’s about $48 million a year, give or take. And that’s the cheapest insurance policy you’re going to have.”
Smith noted that the two Marine expeditionary units currently deployed aboard amphibious ready groups have shown the range of options they bring to combatant commanders: the 31st MEU in the Pacific wrapped up a major exercise with Australia and then diverted to Papua New Guinea for disaster relief following a volcanic explosion.
And the 26th MEU is disaggregated, with one ship in the High North operating with Norway and the other two in the Middle East to protect shipping lanes from Iranian aggression.
“So it is a $1.7 billion proposition for 40 years, but it’s also, you get what you pay for,” he said. “Floating airfield; floating hospital; floating power projection platform that requires no access, basing and overflight; it can stay at sea for months on end. And when you have to evacuate an embassy or you have to respond to a crisis or you have to deliver credible lethal capabilities, there’s nothing that will do that like an amphib. It costs what it costs.”
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.