Backing the Corps: Ensuring the Future of the Amphibious Force
“Marines are trained to improvise, adapt, and overcome any obstacle in whatever situation they are needed.” You can find this quote or something nearly identical in any documentation outlining the role of the United States Marine Corps. It is undoubtedly difficult to argue with this statement because, simply, it is what they are trained to do. But what happens when the obstacle they are asked to overcome is internal? That is, a rigid defense enterprise that speaks constantly of the need to be adaptable while simultaneously living in apprehension of changing the status quo?
Gen. David H. Berger means to answer this question. Less than two weeks after assuming his role as the 38th commandant of the Marine Corps, Berger published a new Commandant’s Planning Guidance. In this 23-page document, he outlines his plan to solidify the Marine Corps’ place as the world’s premier naval expeditionary fighting force. It is a vision that seeks to morph the Corps into a force that will dominate the future fight.
While the audience for this strategic direction has traditionally been the marines, sailors, and civilians associated with the Corps itself, the commandant appears to also speak to the entire United States defense enterprise at large. His strategy will impact how the naval services interact with each other and will require real buy-in from the industrial base and Congress. This cannot be a one-foot-in-one-foot-out process. This approach is similar to the efforts of the other services, which have embraced the realities articulated in the 2018 National Defense Strategy: similar in the sense that all of the services are in the midst of modernization initiatives, but different in its scope and approach — seeking to take a larger step in addressing the changes that need to take place.
Simply put, I agree with the commandant; the measure of success as Congress provides resources for national defense is not in the number of platforms, but in the overwhelming capability the U.S. military brings to deter and, if necessary, to win decisively against any adversary.
The commandant’s top priority is force design, and he has said that the Marine Corps will no longer use as a benchmark the goal of two Marine Expeditionary Brigades requiring 38 amphibious ships, which has represented the resourcing standard for the Marine Corps for over a decade. Going forward, the yet-to-be published Force Structure Assessment will determine requirements, a fact that has sparked concerns in the defense industrial base and Congress. However, I believe it would be a mistake to summarize his force design efforts as opposing amphibious ships. Rather, it is a humble admission that legacy requirements fail to meet the needed capability of the current and future expeditionary force in an era of great-power competition. This force redesign is sure to be a sticking point with many in the rigid defense enterprise. However, that certain entities don’t want to change won’t change the fact that in a future conflict in an environment constrained by anti-access/area denial systems, the United States won’t be able to park an armada of amphibious assault ships off an adversary’s coast unchallenged.
Wholesale change to requirements is hard. It introduces uncertainty to an industry that prefers subtle and incremental adjustments to established programs — facts and figures. Even harder is the divestiture of legacy programs as it impacts not only the industrial base but the workforce and local economies that rely on their support. While it would be ideal to accept incremental changes, it is vital that policymakers recognize that the United States has been outpaced by its adversaries in the expeditionary warfare space. This can be seen through China’s stalwart focus on increasing its fleets of large landing ships, amphibious transport docks, and the development of a new large amphibious vessel that emphasizes aviation operations. It is the duty of policymakers and the rest of the defense enterprise to adapt and seek new capabilities as a national imperative; an adaptable fighting force is going to require an adaptable industrial base.
The defense industrial base should accept that certain divestments will be a reality in the near term. The current expeditionary capability presents unnecessary risk to mission and force, as it is outdated in a contested, anti-access environment. For example, the United States lacks an adequate ship-to-shore capability that allows the ship-to-shore connector to move troops rapidly within a contested battlespace — ship-to-shore to shore-to-ship. It may be time to develop a connector strategy that emphasizes aviation speed over surface mass. Another example of a capability industry should begin to develop is an “autonomous first wave” to make sure the first thing to take a round during joint forcible entry is a machine, as opposed to a servicemember. The defense enterprise owes it to marines and sailors to provide the resources they need to fight and win. The defense industry should accept this new reality and quickly transition to provide for the Navy and Marine Corps of the future. Looking to delay needed change will only serve to make the process more difficult. The new L-class and E-class ships, amphibious ships and expeditionary ships respectively, will be the tip of the spear, as will more capable ocean-going connectors, smaller multipurpose and autonomous surface platforms, ground-based long-range precision fires, and an enhanced network of command-and-control platforms that were specifically mentioned in the new guidance. The United States needs an industrial base ready to meet the need for these capabilities, and which will use its capacity to create and innovate to assist in developing the systems and solutions for future tactical and strategic challenges.
In Congress, supporting the commandant’s vision will require a similar acceptance of the need to divest legacy programs — a difficult, but necessary, task for all those who have these program interests within the boundaries they represent. Additionally, Congress ought to commit to a long-range investment strategy in the seafaring services that will take years to be fully implemented. Finally, Congress should be open to giving additional authorities and spending mechanisms to ensure that the U.S. military has the tools needed to regain and maintain a tactical and strategic advantage. By granting authorities such as allowing appropriated, privately contracted ship-maintenance funds to roll over into the next fiscal year, or incremental funding to expedite amphibious ship construction, Congress can provide the fiscal stability to allow the Navy and Marine Corps to transform. These changes should come with a tolerance for risk in rapid acquisitions to encourage new ideas and innovative thinking.
The bottom line is that U.S. modernization efforts must churn at a pace that exceeds near-peer adversaries’ ability to compete with the United States, ensuring that U.S. servicemembers never enter a fair fight. Gone are the days of accepting a 10-year acquisition cycle. The defense enterprise must be as adaptable as it asks marines to be, and must have the intestinal fortitude to take the risks associated with rapid acquisition. The commandant, in his first few weeks, has shown the courage to start down this path; the defense enterprise must now have the courage to follow. The Navy and Marine Corps team, the defense industrial base, and Congress all have a role to play, and cannot fail. The lives of marines and sailors may one day depend on it.
Congressman Rob Wittman represents the 1st District of Virginia. He serves as ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee’s Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee. He previously served two years as chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee as well as chairman of the Readiness Subcommittee.