Senate FY 2023 Appropriations Bill Adds $4B to Navy Shipbuilding, Money for New Amphibs

The Senate Appropriations Committee included advanced procurement dollars for two new amphibious warships as part of a $32 billion shipbuilding budget, according to the defense subcommittee’s Fiscal Year 2023 appropriations bill released on Thursday. The FY 2023 bill shipbuilding and conversion portion appropriates $250 million in advanced procurement for a new San Antonio-class (LPD-17) amphibious […]

The future USS Fort Lauderdale (LPD 28) departed Huntington Ingalls Shipyard to conduct Acceptance Trials in the Gulf of Mexico. US Navy Photo

The Senate Appropriations Committee included advanced procurement dollars for two new amphibious warships as part of a $32 billion shipbuilding budget, according to the defense subcommittee’s Fiscal Year 2023 appropriations bill released on Thursday.

The FY 2023 bill shipbuilding and conversion portion appropriates $250 million in advanced procurement for a new San Antonio-class (LPD-17) amphibious transport dock and $289 million more than the Navy’s initial $1.08 billion requested funds for the next America-class big-deck amphibious warship, LHA-10, according to the bill’s explanatory statement.

The advanced procurement for what would be LPD-33 extends the San Antonio line beyond where the Navy sought to end the class at LPD-32. In his unfunded request to Congress for the Marine Corps budget, Commandant Gen. David Berger asked for the advanced procurement for LPD-33 as his number one priority.

In line with the Senate and House authorization bills released, the bill puts $6.9 billion toward the purchase of three Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers (DDG-51), $4.5 billion for two Virginia-class nuclear attack boats (SSN-774), $1.13 billion for a Constellation-class frigate (FFG-62) and $1.6 billion for a San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock. The bill also added $645 million for two ambulance variants of the Spearhead-class Expeditionary Fast Transport ship and funds for three additional Ship-to-Shore Connectors over the Navy’s request for one, for a total of $264 million.

The committee also directed the Secretary of the Navy to submit a report on Fiscal Year 2024 domestic shipbuilder suppliers, “identifying critical components that are available from only one or a few suppliers in the United States; and, providing recommendations to expand productive capacity in the United States,” reads the explanatory language with the bill.

The committee’s bill also appropriates $1.96 billion for 16 carrier-capable F-35C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters for the Navy and Marines – three more than the Navy requested. The bill added funds for 18 F-35Bs for the Marine Corps – three more than the Marines requested. The bill also added five V-22s for $619 million and no money for additional F/A-18E/F Super Hornets. The Navy did not ask for any Super Hornets in the budget request because the service wants to end the line.

The topline for the total bill was $792.1 billion – a$32 billion increase in the topline as part of the FY 2023 request.

Marines Pitching Service as Western Pacific Recon Asset for Combined Joint Force

MARINE CORPS BASE HAWAII — As the Marine Corps reshapes its force for a future conflict in the Western Pacific, the service is refining how to meet the reconnaissance mission for the wider U.S. military. The Marine Corps is a year away from the initial operational capability milestone for the Stand-in Forces concept, meaning Marines […]

Marine Corps Cpl. Alexander Tran, intelligence specialist with 1st Battalion, 12th Marines, 3rd Marine Division, launches a RQ-20B Puma at Pōhakuloa Training Area, Hawaii, July 20, 2022. US Marine Corps Photo

MARINE CORPS BASE HAWAII — As the Marine Corps reshapes its force for a future conflict in the Western Pacific, the service is refining how to meet the reconnaissance mission for the wider U.S. military.

The Marine Corps is a year away from the initial operational capability milestone for the Stand-in Forces concept, meaning Marines would have the capabilities needed to deploy for missions in the region.

In a recent interview with USNI News, Col. Stephen Fiscus, the assistant chief of staff for force development at Marine Corps Forces Pacific, described the vision for SIF as having nearly all of the service’s force laydown in the Indo-Pacific acting as the reconnaissance arm for the combined joint force.

“To be inside and to be able to understand and report on what the enemy is doing, basically to be able to … the wonky way of describing it is the ability to gain and maintain custody of high-value targets and hold them at risk, with our own resources or joint force resources,” Fiscus said.

“[Special Operations Forces] has the capability to do that, but certainly the Marine Corps has the capability to do that at much greater scale, and with much greater persistence. SOF can’t do it at scale and at the capacity that we can,” he added.

The Marines argue that because they’re already operating in places like Okinawa, Japan, part of the first island chain that is in the range of Chinese weapons, they are in the position to perform the reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance missions in a potential conflict.

“As part of the Stand-in Force, what that really means to the [Marine Littoral Regiment] is, we look at it to deter malign behavior, to operate inside the enemy’s weapons engagement zone, to support sea control and sea denial operations and then ultimately … to set the conditions for joint force and combined follow-on actions as part of that Stand-in Force,” Col. Timothy Brady, the commanding officer of the recently re-designated 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment, told USNI News.

While the new 3rd MLR is a piece of the Stand-In Force, the concept would employ most of the Okinawa-based III Marine Expeditionary Force and the Marine Expeditionary Units embarked on the Navy’s amphibious ships and operating in the Pacific.

“The Stand-in Force … pretty much requires almost all of III MEF, elements of I MEF, and the transiting MEUs in order to make it fully capable. It requires almost all of the [U.S. Indo-Pacific Command]-assigned force. And the infrastructure from Marine Corps Installations Pacific that enables that is pretty key to that as well. So it requires all of it. So to focus on just, on one entity is kind of missing the totality. The whole MAGTF, or Marine Air-Ground Task Force concept, is applicable to the Stand-in-Force,” Fiscus said.

The ability to see and realize information, Fiscus said, is the cornerstone of delivering the type of lethality the Marine Corps is historically known for bringing to conflict.

Landing Craft, Air Cushion 76 assigned to Assault Craft Unit 5, prepares to land on Marine Corps Base Hawaii, during Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2022, July 11, 2022. US Marine Corps Photo

“It’s understanding what your target is, where it is, and the effect that it’s going to have on the network that you’re influencing. You can translate that directly from what we were doing in counter-insurgency operations with the effect on an insurgent network, all the way down to a peer and pacing threat,” he said.

“And what’s going to happen when you take this asset out? It’s fairly easy to be lethal, to pull a trigger – whether that trigger is the 566 from a rifle or all the way up to using a Naval Strike Missile or a [Tomahawk Land Attack Missile], or some other huge asset and you’re targeting a capital asset. The need is to understand what you’re doing and understand immediately what’s going to happen. And that’s what Stand-in Forces bring, is they bring that whole package to the naval expeditionary force that really closes a pretty significant gap,” Fiscus continued.

3rd MLR Experimentation

U.S. Marines with 3d Marine Littoral Regiment, 3d Marine Division, post security during a field training exercise at Marine Corps Training Area Bellows, Hawaii, May 30, 2022. US Marine Corps Photo

After converting the 3rd Marine Regiment into the 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment in March, Brady says they now have the relevant units in place to do full-scale experimentation.

The MLR consists of a Littoral Combat Team, a Littoral Logistics Battalion, and a Littoral Anti-Air Battalion. In June, the Marine Corps converted 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines into the 3rd MLR’s Littoral Combat Team and also re-designated Combat Logistics Battalion 3 into the Littoral Logistics Battalion that is now under the 3rd MLR, Brady said. That means the 3rd MLR now has all three units operating under the new construct.

“This provides us the opportunity – as we continue to train and experiment moving forward – with all of the primary capabilities now being organic to the MLR, to be able to develop our concepts of employment for our future Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations,” Brady said.
“Because it will take portions of all those different units to provide the capabilities necessary to be able to do the sea control and sea denial operations, to be able to provide the long-range precision fires, to be able to provide the air direction, air control early warning activities, to be able to provide the sensors necessary to the joint force,” he continued. “It will take an aspect of each one of those battalions to be able to actually produce the capability for it in the battlespace. So for the very first time, we have all of those capabilities as part of this unit and that’s what we’re looking forward to training in the future with.”

The Hawaiian islands, where the 3rd MLR is based, are uniquely suited to experiment with the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations concept – which would see Marines quickly moving between islands and shorelines to set up ad-hoc bases and fire anti-ship missiles – because they are similar to the first island chain, Brady said.

“To EABO in and of itself – to be able to seize and secure key maritime terrain – is not anything new to the Marine Corps. But the purpose of EABO is a paradigm shift. The purpose now is once we do seize and secure that maritime terrain is to look outward, right, to be able to support the naval expeditionary campaign and the larger naval campaign with that battlespace awareness … along with those long-range precision fires,” Brady said.

During the biennial Rim of the Pacific 2022 exercise, the Marine Corps is employing the EABO concept in two different scenarios: to enable an amphibious landing and to enable the transit of a carrier strike group.

“So specifically to RIMPAC, having an amphibious task force as well as a carrier strike group operating in the notional operating environment, we are supporting their maritime maneuver. And ultimately the MLR helps the joint and combined force achieve multi-domain integrated naval power to be able to impose asymmetric threats on the enemy,” Brady said.

Digital Interoperability

A Marine Corps AH-1 Super Cobra participates in a sink exercise (SINKEX) during Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2022, from Marine Corps Base Hawaii on July 22, 2022. US Marine Corps Photo

Brady described a layered approach to how his unit is working toward operating with the joint force and ultimately allies and partners, also known as the combined force, which the Marines have the chance to work with at RIMPAC.

But working across the various platforms means they need what the Marines have defined as digital interoperability, or a way for all of the systems from the different U.S. services and other nations’ forces to communicate with each other.

“As we build those kill webs, that digital interoperability, you know the communications and the [command and control] systems, and we’re actually applying all those sensors and eventually the long-range precision fires, is we’re doing that internally to that Stand-in Force, the MAGTF, right, the Marine Corps,” Brady said.

“At the next level we’re really doing that across the joint force and looking at how to do that better. And then what RIMPAC provides us the opportunity to do is to do that with the combined force, right, the allies and partners, because to close those kill webs requires a lot of digital interoperability across multiple different systems, to be able to do it at speed and to be able to do it with all those nations that will be together inside the first island chain,” he continued.

In the type of conflict environment the services are preparing for in the Indo-Pacific, forces need multiple avenues to share information.

“If one type of way form is shut down and we can’t use it, there needs to be other pathways that we can take advantage of to move that information along, again, to generate that tempo for the commander so he can make a timely and accurate decision,” said Maj. Adrian Solis, a fires expert at MARFORPAC.

Future Capabilities

A Marine with 1st Battalion, 12th Marines, 3rd Marine Division, triages a victim during a simulated mass casualty evacuation training event at Pōhakuloa Training Area, Hawaii, July 22, 2022. US Marine Corps Photo

While Fiscus said the Marine Corps has what it needs to communicate with various assets across the joint force to share targeting information and execute missions under the Stand-in Forces concept, he said the Marines need more of the platforms they’re currently experimenting with – like the MQ-9A Reaper used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

“A lot of our platforms right now, we have one or two of them. And we have a plan to get more, but we have one or two of them. So we’re fairly finite,” he said.

The service also wants to make some of their capabilities and assets lighter so Marines can move quickly and carry what they need on their backs while moving around islands and shorelines.

“Making them small, deployable forward and getting them out to where [Brady] can access them and tactical commanders can fuse all of those systems is a big part of the experimentation in the systems that we’re doing. We have answers that say yes, we can do that. We can see them. We can put them together,” Fiscus said.

“Doing it sustainably and in austere environments and amidst allies and partners – because remember, we’re standing in, chances are we’re standing in next to somebody. All of the allies and partners that we’re sailing with that he’s working with right now, they by nature of where they’re located are standing in too. So we anticipate being with them on their terrain,” he added.

With IOC a year away, Brady and Fiscus said they’re focused on getting more capabilities to experiment with, like the stern landing vessel the Marine Corps wants to use while the service continues developing the Light Amphibious Warship. LAW is meant to have a beachable capability to shuttle Marines directly to islands and shorelines without needing to pull into a pier and a leased stern landing vessel will allow the Marine Corps to experiment with the capability in the interim.

I MEF in southern California will start the experimentation with the stern landing vessel, and then it will head to Hawaii. Fiscus said the 3rd MLR should have the platform within a year.

The service also now has a platoon of several dozen Marines who will do research and development work in Norfolk, Va., on the service’s future Long Range Unmanned Surface Vehicle, or LRUSV, Brady said.

“The Long-Range Unmanned Surface Vessel … that’s something that will provide additional reach and availability of weapons and systems well out into the maritime domain,” Brady said. “All of those things are coming in the next couple of years that will further enable us to provide additional capabilities to the joint and combined force.”

Metal Shark is on contract to build several LRUSV prototypes for the Marine Corps through an other transaction authority agreement, the company announced in January 2021.

While the Marine Corps first envisioned the LRUSV to function as an ISR platform and a way to bring more fires to the fight, Fiscus said the service wants to experiment and see what else the platform could do. 

“Its principal mechanism right now, as it was conceived, was the ability to sense and bring additional firepower, organic precision firepower to the totality of the package. But that doesn’t limit it from what it’s possibilities could be once we understand – you know, right now we’re still in that concept phase. But the initial concept the way it was scratched out was for an additional surface ISR and organic precision fires platform,” he said.

While IOC is about a year away and will mean the Marines are ready to deploy under the SIF concept, Fiscus said achieving full operational capability will require the Marine Corps to remain deployed for longer and sustain the force’s operations.

“By achieving IOC of the Stand-in Force, the totality of the Stand-in Force, you will have a deployable and sustainable capability for that to go forward, supported by the full MAGTF. That includes the full sense and make sense. So we will have our Group 5 [unmanned aerial system] – the MQ-9A – up with the ability to connect the whole package and do it. IOC means we have the capability and it’s deployable,” Fiscus said.

The 3rd MLR “be forward doing it, supporting operations, activities, investments – OAIs – but you’ll see the totality of the value proposition fieldable and presentable in its full depth. It may only be for finite periods of time because … the difference between IOC and FOC is depth and sustainability and how long that presence can be forward and impactful.”

Report to Congress on the Light Amphibious Warship

The following is the July 20, 2022, Congressional Research Service report Navy Light Amphibious Warship (LAW) Program: Background and Issues for Congress. From the report The Navy’s Light Amphibious Warship (LAW) program envisions procuring a class of up to 35 new amphibious ships to support the Marine Corps, particularly in implementing a new Marine Corps […]

The following is the July 20, 2022, Congressional Research Service report Navy Light Amphibious Warship (LAW) Program: Background and Issues for Congress.

From the report

The Navy’s Light Amphibious Warship (LAW) program envisions procuring a class of up to 35 new amphibious ships to support the Marine Corps, particularly in implementing a new Marine Corps operational concept called Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO). The Navy had previously envisioned procuring the first LAW in FY2023, but the Navy’s FY2023 budget submission defers the procurement of the first LAW to FY2025. The Navy’s proposed FY2023 budget requests $12.2 million in research and development funding for the program.

The EABO concept was developed with an eye toward potential conflict scenarios with China in the Western Pacific. Under the concept, the Marine Corps envisions, among other things, having reinforced-platoon-sized Marine Corps units maneuver around the theater, moving from island to island, to fire anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) and perform other missions so as to contribute, alongside Navy and other U.S. military forces, to U.S. operations to counter and deny sea control to Chinese forces. The LAW ships would be instrumental to these operations, with LAWs embarking, transporting, landing, and subsequently reembarking these small Marine Corps units.

LAWs would be much smaller and individually much less expensive to procure and operate than the Navy’s current amphibious ships. Under the Navy’s FY2023 budget submission, the first LAW would be procured in FY2025 at a cost of $247.0 million, the second LAW would be procured in FY2026 at a cost of $203.0 million, and the third and fourth LAWs would be procured in FY2027 at a combined cost of $290.0 million (i.e., an average cost of $145.0 million each). The first LAW would cost substantially more than subsequent ships in the program because the procurement cost of the first LAW would include much or all of the detailed design/nonrecurring engineering (DD/NRE) costs for the class. (It is a traditional Navy budgeting practice to include much of all of the DD/NRE costs for a class of ship in the procurement cost of the lead ship in the class.)

The LAW as outlined by the Navy could be built by any of several U.S. shipyards. The Navy’s baseline preference is to have a single shipyard build all the ships, but the Navy is open to having them built in multiple yards to the same design if doing so could permit the program to be implemented more quickly and/or less expensively. The Navy’s FY2023 budget submission states that the contract for the construction of the first LAW would be awarded in December 2024, and that the ship would be delivered in July 2028.

The LAW program poses a number of potential oversight matters for Congress. The issue for Congress is whether to approve, reject, or modify the Navy’s annual funding requests and envisioned acquisition strategy for the program. Congress’s decisions regarding the program could affect Navy and Marine Corps capabilities and funding requirements and the U.S. shipbuilding industrial base.

Download the document here.

New Navy Fleet Study Calls for 373 Ship Battle Force, Details are Classified

THE PENTAGON – The Navy quietly slipped a new, classified assessment on the number of ships the service needs to meet its missions around the world to Congress earlier this month. The report calls for a battle force of 373 ships – 75 more than in the current fleet. Dubbed the Battle Force Ship Assessment […]

Arleigh-Burke class guided-missile destroyer USS Jason Dunham (DDG-109), left, conducts a replenishment-at-sea with Supply-class fast combat support ship USNS Supply (T-AOE-6), in the Ionian Sea on May 6, 2022. US Navy Photo

THE PENTAGON – The Navy quietly slipped a new, classified assessment on the number of ships the service needs to meet its missions around the world to Congress earlier this month. The report calls for a battle force of 373 ships – 75 more than in the current fleet.

Dubbed the Battle Force Ship Assessment and Requirement, the Fiscal Year 2021 defense authorization bill called for the Navy to generate the report and deliver it directly to Congress.

“The Navy’s Battle Force Ship Assessment and Requirement (BFSAR) report determined that a battle force of 373 ships is required to meet future campaigning and warfighting demands. The report is classified and was submitted to Congress,” reads a statement from the service provided to USNI News.

Outside of the fleet total, the service did not provide an unclassified summary of the force structure. In prior years, the FSA has included an unclassified summary of the the required quantities for each type of battleforce ship in the fleet.

The new report is the latest in a long string of force structure reviews since 2016 as the service and big Pentagon have wrestled with the composition of the future fleet.

The requirement in the bill was designed to have the report bypass the Office of the Secretary of Defense and go directly to Congress, several legislative sources have told USNI News. OSD took a more active role in crafting the Navy’s force structure under former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and senior leadership has continued to be involved in the force structure process.

In February, the Navy rolled out a long-range shipbuilding plan that laid out three different versions of a battle force into 2052, depending on the number of resources the service is allocated. The first option would yield an inventory of 316 ships by FY 2052, the second would yield 327 ships by FY 2052 and the third would yield 367 ships.

Chief of Naval Operations Mike Gilday speaking on Jan. 11, 2022 from his office in the Pentagon. US Navy Photo

Those would be buttressed by emerging unmanned platforms that would extend the range of the Navy’s sensors and deepen magazines beyond its manned ships and submarines.

With those additions, the fleet could grow to 500 hulls or more, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said ahead of the long-range ship rollout in remarks during the WEST 2022 conference, co-hosted by AFCEA and the U.S. Naval Institute.

The most recent review follows the latest revision of the National Defense Strategy, which refines the Pentagon’s approach to countering China in the Pacific and Russia in Europe. Much of the detail of the updated NDS is classified, with the Office of the Secretary of Defense releasing a scant two-page summary of the overall goals.

The force structure will go through more tweaks before another revision is released later this year.

“The Navy is expected to complete a second BFSAR later this year, which will reflect new analytic work, changes to force design, and the impacts of the 2022 National Defense Strategy released in March on future Navy battle force structure,” reads the Navy statement.

HASC Seapower Mark Saves 5 Ships, Backs Marine Corps Call for 31 Amphibs

The House Armed Services Committee will prevent the Navy from retiring five ships from the fleet and supports the Marine Corps’ call for 31 amphibious warships, according to a summary of the seapower and projection forces subcommittee’s mark of the House’s defense policy bill. The measures in the mark, which reflect the consensus of the […]

USS Vicksburg (CG-69) getting repaired at BAE Systems Norfolk Ship Repair, Va., on April 8, 2022. Christopher P. Cavas Photo used with permission

The House Armed Services Committee will prevent the Navy from retiring five ships from the fleet and supports the Marine Corps’ call for 31 amphibious warships, according to a summary of the seapower and projection forces subcommittee’s mark of the House’s defense policy bill.

The measures in the mark, which reflect the consensus of the HASC, support a call from Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger to set a minimum level for U.S. amphibious forces and keeps four Whidbey Island-class dock landing ships (LSDs) in the fleet – USS Germantown (LSD-42), USS Gunston Hall (LSD-44), USS Tortuga (LSD-46) and USS Ashland (LSD-48).

“There’s strong support for the commandant of the Marine Corps assessment that he needs no fewer than 31 amphibious ships,” a committee staffer told reporters on Monday.
“Prohibiting retirement of the LSDs certainly gets after that plan for that program.”

The mark will require the Secretary of the Navy to consult with the Marine commandant over the size of the amphibious fleet.

In addition, the mark prevents the committee from losing guided-missile cruiser USS Vicksburg (CG-69). Vicksburg and the LSDs were part of 24 ships marked by the Navy for decommission over the next five years.

“The Navy’s provided testimony to the committee that they’re about 85 percent complete on the Vicksburg. We’re well on our way to making major investments into the Vicksburg and also it’s one of the younger cruisers proposed for retirement. The others [that] were proposed, were in accordance with their normal cycle,” a committee staffer told reporters on Monday.

A CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter, assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 263 (Rein.), flies over the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship USS Arlington (LPD-24) on May 3, 2022. US Navy Photo

Last month, Navy officials told Congress that the service has spent about $300 million per hull to modernize Vicksburg and Tortuga.

The pending legislation supports the Marines’ number one unfunded priority for an additional San Antonio-class (LPD-17) amphibious warship in the next fiscal year.

“[The mark] recommends to the full committee an additional $250 million in advanced procurement toward an LPD. That will be procured in fiscal year 2024,” a staffer said.

The mark is set to authorize a 15-ship multi-year Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer buy. USNI News reported the move last month.

The mark also “directs the maritime administrator to carry out a program to complete the design and construction and United States ship yards of up to 10 sealift vessels for use in the National Defense reserve fleet,” a staffer told USNI News.

Not contained in the subcommittee mark is the fate of the nine Freedom-class Littoral Combat Ships the Navy asked to decommission well ahead of their expected service lives.

The Navy said in its budget request that the cost of correcting a class-wide propulsion issue and the failure of an anti-submarine warfare mission package required the ships to leave the fleet.

“There’s a lot of member interest and that will be addressed at full committee,” a staffer said.

Meanwhile, the HASC strategic forces subcommittee wants to mandate the Defense Secretary give lawmakers “a comprehensive strategy to use asymmetric capabilities to defeat hypersonic missile threats,” according to text of the panel’s mark.

The mark also calls for an evaluation of Guam’s integrated air and missile defense. Within two months of the Fiscal Year 2023 defense policy bill becoming law, the Secretary of Defense must ink a contract “with a federally funded research and development center to conduct an independent assessment” of the capabilities needed to defend Guam.

The subcommittees will mark up their respective bills this week and the full committee is slated to take up the legislation later this month.

Marines Look Beyond LAVs as Recon Roles Expand

Marines are rethinking how the service does reconnaissance beyond its traditional light armored vehicles as part of the ongoing Force Design 2030 effort, officials said last week. With more unmanned systems on the market and the Pentagon continuing a shift toward potential operations in the Indo-Pacific, the Marine Corps in the next year plans to […]

Sgt. David Seeley, a squad leader with Battalion Landing Team 3/4, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), and a native of Dunwoody, Georgia, walks past a light armored vehicle (LAV) at Camp Hansen, Okinawa, Japan on Feb. 8, 2021. Marine Corps Photo

Marines are rethinking how the service does reconnaissance beyond its traditional light armored vehicles as part of the ongoing Force Design 2030 effort, officials said last week.

With more unmanned systems on the market and the Pentagon continuing a shift toward potential operations in the Indo-Pacific, the Marine Corps in the next year plans to experiment with ways to perform reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance in a sea environment, according to the service’s most recent Force Design 2030 update.

But the service says it cannot depend on ground vehicles alone to perform the reconnaissance mission.

“Our light armored reconnaissance (LAR) battalions must transition from their current ground vehicle-centric approach to an all-domain mobile reconnaissance approach. Sole reliance on armored ground vehicles for reconnaissance is too limiting, especially in complex littoral environments,” reads the Marine Corps’ latest Force Design update, released earlier this month. “Attributes such as reconnaissance, surveillance, targeting beyond the line of sight, littoral mobility, and equipment that integrates with special operations and joint forces are needed.”

A U.S. Marine LAV-25 light armored vehicle attached to Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), engages a target with an M242 25mm chain gun during exercise Alexander the Great 2019 in Volos, Greece, Jan. 8. Exercise Alexander the Great 2019 is combined training exercise between U.S. and Hellenic armed forces. US Marine Corps photo

During a roundtable with reporters last week, Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, the deputy commandant for combat development and integration, acknowledged that Marines will perform reconnaissance differently, depending on the region and operating environment.

“[Light armored reconnaissance] in the Indo-Pacific with III [Marine Expeditionary Unit] is most likely going to look different than light armored reconnaissance in II MEF,” Heckl said at the annual Modern Day Marine conference.

Heckl’s comments reflect how Marine Corps officials have recently described the service’s ongoing Force Design 2030 effort, which is aimed at preparing the Marines for conflict in the coming decade. The Marine Corps has said III MEF, based in Okinawa, Japan, will look different than I and II MEFs because III MEF is operating as the so-called “stand-in-force” in the range of Chinese weapons.

Marine Corps Systems Command, which is the service’s acquisition arm, has been working on the prototyping effort to replace the Light Armored Reconnaissance vehicle. That initiative includes evaluating a variant of BAE Systems’ Amphibious Combat Vehicle for the reconnaissance mission.

“My opinion is none of that works in the Indo-Pacific,” Heckl said of the vehicles. “I think LAR would look something more like a lot of unmanned in multiple domains.”

After several years of struggling to replace the aging LAVs, the Marine Corps embarked on a prototyping effort in 2020 that continued throughout last year.

“We are doing some demos and prototyping right now so we can get ahead and maintain decision space for the commandant as we flesh out what that recon capability’s going to be in the future,” Col. David Walsh, the acting program executive officer for land systems, told reporters. “We’ve now got a head start on if there’s a vehicle that needs to be fielded and bought to support that vision, we’ve now got a couple years head start. We’ve done some competitive prototyping and that vehicle won’t be 5 years out. It’ll be a couple years out from being fielded.”

U.S. Marines with Echo Company, Battalion Landing Team 2/6, 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, utilize a laser rangefinder during a transit through the Strait of Gibraltar aboard San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship USS Arlington (LPD-24), April 26, 2022. US Navy Photo

The Force Design 2030 initiative has included the Marine Corps shedding some of its heavier equipment, like tanks, and investing in capabilities like anti-ship missiles, which the Marines want to fire from expeditionary nodes that smaller units set up on islands and shorelines.

With a heavy focus on reconnaissance, the Marine Corps’ recent Force Design update said the reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance experimentation will influence how the service pursues ground vehicles in the future.

“Choices made in the maritime mobility discussion above will also affect the [Ground Combat Tactical Vehicle Strategy], as will its integration with our uncrewed systems roadmap. We must continually refine this strategy to ensure it is operationally suitable and logistically supportable,” the document reads.

As the Marine Corps assesses how it will operate in the Indo-Pacific, the service needs to figure out how it will perform the reconnaissance mission across a vast region that mostly includes water.

“What do our organizations already recognize? They recognize that in terms of where the commandant has pointed us, then our focus is on how we operate in and affect battlespace that includes more than land,” said Maj. Gen. Ben Watson, the commanding general of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab.
“So if we’re going to own battlespace that includes water space, but we can only operate in wheeled vehicles and by walking around, then we are probably incapable of controlling that battlespace and maximizing our influence within it. So we’ve got to diversify the means with which we get ground.”

In addition to the maritime domain, the Marines need a strategy that factors in cyber and other non-kinetic elements, Watson said. Heckl said the MEF Information Groups would likely play a key role in performing reconnaissance missions when it comes to cyber-warfare.

“The biggest eye-opener for me as a new MEF commander was this new thing called MEF information group and the stuff – the scope, scale, breadth of what they were doing was eyewatering,” Heckl said. “But they’re short, we’re dramatically short in all [Military Occupational Safety]’s. They are low-density, high-demand. But I think that kind of highlights for you how much the MEFs are going to have to play into whatever this thing ends up looking like.”

Marines prepare to recover an RQ-21A Blackjack unmanned aerial vehicle after a training flight during exercise Black Shadow at Fort Stewart, Georgia, Jan. 19, 2021. US Marine Corps Photo

Getting after this will also likely include manned-unmanned teaming, which is how the Navy and Marine Corps now describe their unmanned systems strategy. It would pair manned and unmanned platforms together to conduct various missions.

“So how do we leverage manned and unmanned teaming and the characteristics of unmanned systems to enhance the survivability and effectiveness of our more limited manned systems. Because that also speaks to the logistics challenge, right, demand reduction. Nothing consumes more than humans,” Watson said.
“They are problems that are actively being wrestled with and that we are trying to help shape as well as support from headquarters to get after what the commandant’s looking for.”

In its recent Force Design update, the Marine Corps said it will release “an updated and refined” strategy for ground vehicles that take into account how the Marines will get after the reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance mission.

The update also calls for the Marines to start shifting their light armored reconnaissance battalions “to mobile reconnaissance battalions,” beginning with the 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion.

The Marines have been told to use the work done by Task Force 61 Naval Amphibious Forces Europe/2nd Marine Division, recently created by U.S. 6th Fleet, as a springboard.

“Mobile reconnaissance battalions do not have to be mirror-imaged,” the update reads.  

Marines Look to EPFs, ESBs as Interim Solution for Light Amphibious Warship

WASHINGTON D.C. — With the Light Amphibious Warship delayed by several years, the Marine Corps is looking to ship classes already in the fleet as an interim solution to move Marines around the Indo-Pacific. The Marine Corps’ annual Force Design 2030 update, released on Monday, described plans to use the Expeditionary Fast Transport and Expeditionary […]

Expeditionary fast transport ship USNS Brunswick (T-EPF 6) departs Naval Base Guam, passing the MSC expeditionary fast transport ship USNS Fall River (T-EPF 4) and marking the start of Pacific Partnership 2019. Navy photo

WASHINGTON D.C. — With the Light Amphibious Warship delayed by several years, the Marine Corps is looking to ship classes already in the fleet as an interim solution to move Marines around the Indo-Pacific.

The Marine Corps’ annual Force Design 2030 update, released on Monday, described plans to use the Expeditionary Fast Transport and Expeditionary Transfer Dock as temporary solutions while the Marine Corps refine the requirements for the LAW program.

“While we await the delivery of [Medium, Landing Ship], which post-dates the planned operational readiness of our MLRs, we will explore a family of systems bridging plan—including, Expeditionary Transfer Dock (ESB), Expeditionary Fast Transport (T-EPF), Landing Craft Utility (LCU), and leased hulls—that can provide a basic level of mobility. Although not optimal, such vessels will provide both operational capability and a sound basis for live experimentation and refining detailed requirements for the LAW program,” the latest Force Design 2030 document reads.

The annual update from Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger details the service’s progress on its modernization overhaul, an effort to make the Marines lighter and able to operate with less of a footprint for distributed operations in a potential conflict with China.

Speaking Tuesday at the annual Modern Day Marine Conference, deputy commandant for combat development and integration Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl said the Marine Corps has already signed a contract to lease a commercial stern landing vessel so the recently converted 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment out of Hawaii can experiment with the LAW concept. The Marine Corps will receive that ship this year during the late summer or early fall timeframe and will send it straight to the 3rd MLR for “aggressive experimentation,” according to Heckl.

“As you know, the LAW is a few years out. So we’re taking [the] opportunity to do some experimentation and refine the prototyping so that we get what we need – what the Marines need,” he said during a panel at the conference.

The Marine Corps has the option to lease two more vessels, which could help the service as it develops LAW, Heckl said. The Marines have said they need to purchase the LAW quickly, but the procurement has been delayed in the last two budget cycles. The Fiscal Year 2023 proposal now shows the first LAW purchase in FY 2025.

A Landing Craft Air Cushion is launched from the Military Sealift Command mobile landing platform USNS Montford Point (MLP 1) during Pacific Horizon 2015. US Navy Photo

The Marine Corps envisions LAW as a shore-to-shore connector that can haul 75 Marines for $150 million or less per hull. Heckl said he believes ports and large runways will be among the first targets in a potential conflict in the Indo-Pacific, meaning the Marine Corps cannot rely on the ability to offload Marines and gear at a pier. This is where the LAW would come into play, as the ship would have beaching capability. Heckl said the Marine Corps needs 25 LAWs.

“We have five companies doing prototyping now, to figure out what it’s going to be,” he said of the LAW. “This is simply going to inform it and make it a better product. Now obviously having a gap is a risk and in the military world that’s usually bad. We don’t like that kind of risk, but I think there’s a lot of options out there,” like EPFs and ESBs, Heckl added.

The deputy commandant pointed to the Marine Corps using USNS City of Bismarck (T-EPF 9) last year for experimentation during the Koa Moana exercise in Palau.

“That’s a real capability I think we’ll want to keep around. A ship that can do 35 knots, carry a few hundred Marines and their gear with a flight deck … there’s a lot of options,” he said of the EPFs. “I think you’ll see when we get that contracted vessel out in Hawaii and we have the Marines in 3rd MLR and the III [Marine Expeditionary Force], we’re going to probably see great things,” he added.

As for the larger amphibious ships, Heckl again emphasized the Marine Corps’ 31-ship requirement – 10 big-deck LHAs and 21 LSDs or LPDs. As part of the next phase of the Force Design process, Berger called upon the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab to work on a “Concept for 21st Century Amphibious Operations” by January 1, 2023.

Asked about the concept on Tuesday during a roundtable with reporters, MCWL commanding general Brig. Gen. Benjamin Watson said the Marine Corps will work with the Naval Warfare Development Center on the effort because the concept is naval.

“We think it’s important that a lot of the early analytic work and a lot of the differences in Force Design have been focused on how do we operationalize this idea of a stand-in-force. But in doing that – just like the commandant addressed the fact that early we focused a lot on the Marine Littoral Regiment and perhaps not enough on putting that in the context of the MAGTF – we see the same thing with amphibious operations,” Watson said.

“Backing it out and taking a look at the range of 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, within which we believe the Marine Corps then still has a requirement for amphibious forcible entry … We really need to take a look more holistically at the range of amphibious operations in concert with the Navy,” he added.

The construction of the Amphibious Ready Group and the Marine Expeditionary Unit has not changed over the last four decades while the battlefield has changed “dramatically,” Heckl said.

Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class Michael Eberhart, assigned to the amphibious transport dock ship USS Somerset (LPD-25), watches the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island (LHD-8) maneuver past the Somerset in the Gulf of Oman on March 23, 2021. US Marine Corps Photo

“On the low end of the spectrum – range of military operations – it largely looks the same. But as you progress up that escalation ramp, the divergence is significant,” he said.
“It used to be that 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.”

The Marine Corps is also wrapping up an amphibious requirements study, but officials have been explicit in arguing the Navy needs 31 larger amphibious ships.

“That composition and the capacity of the future amphibious fleet does affect how we employ that amphibious force in the future,” Watson said.

As for the larger amphibious ships, Berger on Tuesday made a case for the various ways the Navy could use well decks on the amphibs to perform different missions.

“I think it’s much more versatile than we thought of in the past. As more and more uncrewed technology comes to maturity and the cost of production goes down, I think new capabilities are within reach,” Berger said. “Think for a minute. Marines aboard amphibious ships. That team – that Navy-Marine Corps team – employing unmanned underwater vessels from the ARG/MEU. Dozens of unmanned undersea vessels. You could use them as sensors, perhaps for anti-submarine warfare.”

Berger pointed to finding mines and performing counter-reconnaissance and ways to use the UUVs.

Amphibious Combat Vehicles (ACVs) with the 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion, 1st Marine Division return to the well deck of amphibious transport dock ship USS Anchorage (LPD-23) during waterborne training in the Pacific Ocean on Feb. 13, 2022. US Marine Corps Photo

“They can be weapons themselves. We could also employ uncrewed surface vessels from the well deck, both for [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] and for fires. You could do it for logistics,” he said. “Our initial experimentation with the Long Range Unmanned Surface Vessel – armed with loitering munitions, again all unmanned, largely autonomous – has demonstrated already the potency of that kind of capability. What if you operated decoys on the well deck? Electronic warfare capabilities from the well deck? Limited really only by your imagination is the well deck.”

Because what’s inside the well deck is hidden, Berger said an adversary will spend time trying to figure out what’s inside.

“It slows down their decision-making. That’s what we want. I think that’s applicable in the Mediterranean. I think it’s applicable in the Mideast. I think it’s applicable in the first island chain,” he said.

House Bill Backs Marines’ 31 Amphibious Ship Requirement, Over Navy’s 25 Ship Level

Two members in Congress have heard the Marines’ call for more amphibious warships and issued a House bill that would cement their level at 31, according to language reviewed by USNI News. Put forth by House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee chair Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) and ranking member Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), […]

The future USS Fort Lauderdale (LPD 28) departed Huntington Ingalls Shipyard to conduct Acceptance Trials in the Gulf of Mexico. US Navy Photo

Two members in Congress have heard the Marines’ call for more amphibious warships and issued a House bill that would cement their level at 31, according to language reviewed by USNI News.

Put forth by House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee chair Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) and ranking member Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), the bill pushes back against the Navy’s budget request that would end the San Antonio-class amphibious warship line and bring the total number of amphibs down to 25.

“The amphibious warfare ship force structure of the Navy must be maintained at 31, composed of 10 amphibious assault ships general-purpose and multi-purpose, and 21 amphibious transport dock types, in order to meet global commitments,” reads the bill.

The bill follows a letter Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger sent in response to an inquiry about amphibious ship requirements from Wittman and Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.). Berger outlined the service’s requirement for larger amphibious warships – known as L-class ships – and the proposed Light Amphibious Warship.

The debate over the number of amphibious ships follows the continued refinement of the Marines’ Force Design 2030, which has changed how the service would fight in the future on a distributed battlefield against a sophisticated adversary. The service is adding Marine Littoral Regiments that would hop from island to island, creating ad hoc sensor nodes and targeting maritime nodes with the smaller Light Amphibious Warships. But the Marine Corps has said it would also keep traditional Marine roles that require the larger ships.

“Since 2019, four Department of the Navy studies, including the ongoing Amphibious Force Requirement Study (AFRS) sponsored by the Secretary of the Navy, have examined amphibious ship force structure requirements. With slight variations, each found that an inventory of between 31 [to] 28 L-class ships and up to 35 LAW are necessary for naval forces to sustain consistent forward-deployed campaigning objectives and reliably react to unforeseen contingencies,” Berger wrote in the letter, which was reviewed by USNI News.
“However, combining these findings with readiness trends over the past 10 years and projected ship availability rates demonstrates the need for no less than 31 traditional L-class ships to ensure the warfighting readiness and responsiveness of amphibious naval forces.”

The latest long-range shipbuilding plan calls for dropping the total to 25 within the next five years. Additionally, the Navy is set to sundown the San Antonio-class amphibs, as outlined in the Fiscal Year 2023 budget submission.

“The funding profile in the President’s budget submission essentially cancels the LPD program following the procurement of LPD-32 in FY23, a program originally planned to procure through LPD-42,” Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, the deputy commandant for combat development and integration, told USNI News in April.

Following the introduction of the 2016 Force Structure Assessment from the Navy, Congress passed a law requiring the service achieve a 355-ship fleet.

Fewer Marines, More Sensors Part of Berger’s Latest Force Design Revision

THE PENTAGON – Reducing the Marines to 175,000 and adding more sensor capability to smaller units are part of a wide swath of adjustments the Marine Corps is pursuing in the latest iteration of its modernization drive. Released on Monday, the Force Design 2030 annual report is the Marines’ latest refinement of plans to orient […]

Marines with 1st Battalion, 2d Marine Regiment (1/2), 2d Marine Division, board a KC-130J Super Hercules at Yuma Proving Grounds, Arizona, April 22, 2022. US Marine Corps Photo

THE PENTAGON – Reducing the Marines to 175,000 and adding more sensor capability to smaller units are part of a wide swath of adjustments the Marine Corps is pursuing in the latest iteration of its modernization drive.

Released on Monday, the Force Design 2030 annual report is the Marines’ latest refinement of plans to orient the service to face complex threats in the maritime environment within the next decade.

“We’ve gained quite a bit of momentum on Force Design but the learning continues,” Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl told reporters last week in a roundtable ahead of Monday’s release.

The revision, in line with the latest budget submission, calls for shrinking the service down to 175,000 Marines with an emphasis on developing more mature Marines who stay in the service for longer.

“Over the past two years, we reduced our end-strength by approximately 7,000 Marines primarily through [divestments]. In the next year, we will continue our balanced approach and reduce the number of personnel in the service headquarters, supporting establishment, and component commands by 15 percent,” reads the revision signed by Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger.

At the same time, there is a parallel drive to keep Marines in for longer. The service only retains about 25 percent of the 38,000 Marines it recruits annually past their first term of service.

Marine Corps Gen. David Berger, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, speaks to Marines and Sailors assigned to the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), during a distinguished visit aboard Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD-2) on Feb. 20, 2022. US Marine Corps Photo

Berger and Deputy Commandant for Manpower & Reserve Affairs Lt. Gen. David Ottignon have been vocal about working to change the Marine Corps culture into one that retains its personnel, instead of the high turnover that has characterized the service.

By the summer, the service owes Berger a plan “to change the ‘recruit and replace’ paradigm, we will implement measures to professionalize our career retention force and further incentivize retaining our most talented Marines,” reads the design.

The plan looks to “achieve greater average time in service and thickening of the E-4 to E-7 ranks to support a more mature force, while not disadvantaging or disincentivizing the most talented Marines—who must be allowed to move as rapidly as their talents dictate.”

The service is weighing how it will develop the more mature force, either by incentivizing Marines to stay on active duty longer in an ‘invest and retain’ model, improving training and education or a combination of both, Maj. Gen. Eric Austin, director of the Capabilities Development Directorate, told reporters last week.


Download document here.

“When you say more mature forces, it’s probably somewhere between an older, more experienced Marine and a better trained Marine,” he said.

Some of that will come from how Marines are trained, Berger told reporters last week. The Marine Corps will still rely on physical aspects and endurance and perseverance already featured in training programs, but the service is also understanding that new Marines learn differently.

“We want to send him to a school for two weeks, and they’re like, ‘Give me half an hour on my own, I got it. If I got a question, I’ll let you know.’ They learn in a different way at a different speed,” Berger said.

Marine Corps AN/TPS-80 Ground/Air Task Oriented Radar system (G/ATOR), assigned to Marine Air Control Squadron 2, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW), scans for and tracks aircraft at Siauliai Air Base, Lithuania, April 26, 2022. Marine Corps Photo

In particular, the service wants to retain Marines who are trained in information and cyberwarfare, disciplines that are prized by civilian industry and where service members are heavily recruited for jobs after they’re trained by the military.

In particular, the Marines want to include signals intelligence and electronic warfare Marines in the infantry battalion, “which is obviously kind of a low-density, high-demand skill set. So that’s changing how we train and how many of those Marines we have to train,” Austin said.

A major investment for the service will include more sensors controlled by Marines instead of relying solely on joint tools for targeting awareness for the Marine Littoral Regiments, Marine Corps Warfighting Lab director Maj. Gen. Benjamin Watson told reporters.

“You got to be able to sense the target before you can engage and a complete reliance on non-organic capabilities, like somebody else to do that sensing for us and find the target, confirm it, etcetera as part of the kill-chain is a position we prefer not to be in. We’d prefer not to have that as our only option,” Watson said.
“If we have a missile that shoots 100 nautical miles and we want a sensor that’s organic to us that can find a target well beyond that … What we’re trying to do is develop a balanced portfolio of capabilities that when we try to close kill-chains against a modern, multi-domain adversary, we’ve got the complete tool kit.”

The idea is in line with the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) philosophy in which Marines support other Marines on the ground, in the air and in the logistics chain.

“Our [Marine Littoral Regiments] will possess an organic capability to sense the maritime battlespace in order to gain and maintain custody of targets as a reconnaissance/counter-reconnaissance task and to assure their ability to deliver maritime fires, even when the larger sensor network is degraded or compromised,” reads the revision.

The service’s Ground/Air Task Oriented Radar (G/ATOR) and the future sensor payloads on its emerging fleet of unmanned aerial and surface vehicles will be part of a larger targeting net that will work with the Navy Marine Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System (NMESIS), a converted Joint Light Tactical Vehicle chassis that carries a battery of Naval Strike Missiles and other netted weapons, the new document says.

As part of the ongoing Force Design testing, “with the Strategic Capabilities Office and the Navy, we also conducted a ground launch of a Tomahawk Land Attack Missile mounted on a remotely operated mobile launcher,” reads the report.

US Marine Corps Rouge Fires missile system.

The new revision comes as the service has drawn criticism from retired general officers who have argued that Berger cut too much heavier equipment too quickly in his modernization overhaul and that the Marine Corps is placing too much emphasis on countering China, and not enough on the service’s other missions, like crisis response.

In particular, Berger has been the subject of criticism from former Navy Secretary Jim Webb, who penned an opinion piece criticizing Berger’s decisions, like the Marine Corps shedding its M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks for a lighter force that focuses on anti-ship missiles.

“So I take criticism on my shoulders, not Gen.Heckl’s, but mine, for if it’s not balanced over the last three years, I need to recognize where to rebalance and to push information and to draw feedback from more proactively,” Berger said. “Part of the challenge, as it always has been, is at a certain limit in one or more of those audiences reach a classification barrier that’s a bit of a challenge.”

In its report, the Marines said the service placed too much emphasis on the radical changes that would create units like the MLR, crafted to hunt Chinese surface ships, rather than acknowledging the enduring Marine Corps mission based on larger amphibious ships and the Marine Expeditionary Units.

The service “does not have the luxury of focusing on a single threat, to the exclusion of all others, and basing our design on such a narrow point of view. We are building a force capable of executing our concepts, not a force exclusively tailored to them,” reads the report.

In comments to reporters, Heckl drew a distinction between the MLR and the larger MEU.

“The MEU and the MLR are designed to be complementary, but they’re organized differently and they operate differently. A MEU being a more robust organization that’s designed to operate persistently from amphibious platforms, and execute operations really across the range from humanitarian assistance, disaster relief up to amphibious raids or higher-end combat operations,” Heckl said.
“The Marine Littoral Regiment – although we believe it has applicability globally – it’s not designed to execute operations across that entire range. It’s tailor-made really, to operate as part of a force that stands in close to an adversary that minimizes its vulnerability by operating in small, low signature, highly mobile formations, but packs a big punch, particularly in maritime littoral combat.”

Sailors and Marines man the rails of the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD-3) as they depart Naval Station Norfolk, March 16, 2022. US Navy Photo

As the Marine Corps continues to refine the Force Design, a key unanswered question is how many amphibious ships the Navy needs to support the Marines’ mission. Berger and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday are split over how many large amphibious ships the Navy needs and how quickly the planned Light Amphibious Warship enters the fleet.

“This will require a mix of vessels that are complementary to, but different from amphibious warships. We must conduct a thorough analysis to understand and resource all aspects necessary to realize these capabilities, to include manpower and training, as we consider resourcing these as requirements,” reads the document.

The Navy is currently working with the Marine Corps on an amphibious lift requirement study due to Congress in the next several weeks.

Marines Committed to New Force Design, Despite Criticism From Retired Generals

The Marine Corps’ top requirements officer on Wednesday defended the service’s modernization overhaul against recent criticisms that the Marines are on the wrong path. Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, the deputy commandant for combat development and integration, acknowledged that the Marine Corps has not successfully communicated its Force Design 2030 efforts. “I clearly as the requirements […]

Marines board the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD-3) via landing craft, air cushion, March 21, 2022. US Navy Photo

The Marine Corps’ top requirements officer on Wednesday defended the service’s modernization overhaul against recent criticisms that the Marines are on the wrong path.

Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, the deputy commandant for combat development and integration, acknowledged that the Marine Corps has not successfully communicated its Force Design 2030 efforts.

“I clearly as the requirements officer of the Marine Corps did a poor job explaining this,” Heckl said.

Heckl, who also leads Marine Corps Combat Development Command, argued the need to counter China is what led to the overhaul of the force, pointing to the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which identified China as the main challenge for the U.S.

“We always, always build to the worst-case scenario, which in this case clearly is China, not just militarily,” but also their ability to influence and project economic power,” Heckl said speaking at a U.S. Naval Institute-CSIS Maritime Security Dialogue Wednesday.
“This is much worse than the 70-year Cold War with the Soviet Union.”

The remarks come as Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger’s modernization plan, an effort to reshape the service into a lighter, more mobile force for a potential future conflict against China, has received public criticism in recent months from retired officers.

Heckl noted the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) is still part of the Marine Corps and that the goal is to provide commanders more resources to operate in the threat environment.

“But the MAGTF still exists. As I said earlier, the stand-in force is the III Marine Expeditionary Force. They’re there, now. We are giving them tools – we’re going to give the commanding general of the III Marine Expeditionary Force more tools to deal with the pacing threat that would have application across theaters,” he said.

A key part of the Marine Corps’ vision for operating in the Indo-Pacific is setting up ad-hoc bases on islands and shorelines throughout the region where they could then fire weapons like anti-ship missiles as a way to create chaos during a conflict.

Heckl referenced a recent conversation he had with the chief of the Swedish Navy, who said there are thousands of islands and archipelagos off Norway, Sweden and Finland. “She wants us to come up and exercise,” Heckl said of Rear Adm. Ewa Skoog Haslum.

His remarks address one concern of retired officers, which is that the Marine Corps is too focused on the Indo-Pacific.

Marines with 1st Platoon, Charlie Company, 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion, 1st Marine Division and Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) soldiers with 2nd Amphibious Rapid Deployment Regiment receive a safety brief prior to executing amphibious operations during Exercise Iron Fist 2022 at the Del Mar Boat Basin, Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, Jan. 11, 2022. US Marine Corps Photo

“We have three Marine Expeditionary Forces around the globe that we’re going to make more capable through the modernization efforts of Force Design. It’s just that simple,” Heckl added.

The Marine Corps general compared the current criticisms of Force Design to “false allegations” about the MV-22 Osprey during its early days when the Marines experienced several crashes.

As for tanks, which the Marine Corps has already divested from its inventory, Heckl argued a conflict that would require tanks would be a joint fight, meaning the Army would participate. He acknowledged tanks could play a role in a conflict in Taiwan, but likely not in other parts of the Indo-Pacific.

The Amphibious Combat Vehicle, Heckl said, “is very survivable, very mobile,” and the 30-mm cannon variant could, like tanks, blow holes through walls in an urban warfare environment.

“We’re also fielding … long-range precision fires, right, that we can use to strike and in an urban environment could change the calculus a little bit,” he said.

Marine Corps 2nd Lt. Evan Blaskowski, an infantry officer with Kilo Company, 3d Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division (1st MARDIV), observes a target during Exercise Steel Knight 22 (SK-22) at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., Dec. 8, 2021. US Marine Corps Photo

A key concern among retired officers critical of the modernization overhaul is combined arms, which Heckl argued has “changed fundamentally” due to technology.

“In this case, combined arms is much more than towed cannon artillery, tanks and aviation. I will tell you it starts in the information environment, which is often where we don’t do so well, and then cyber, space,” he said.

“As a MEF commander, people would be like, ‘well we’re going to be this number of days left of bang.’ Stop saying bang. What is that? Again, old think. ‘Well, it’s Marines. It’s when I shoot stuff and kill things.’ No. Information environment. Cyberspace. Bang is happening now. So that is illustrative … of how dramatically it has changed. Combined arms – and now, with again, one of the primary drivers of force design was the proliferation of long-range precision weapons that can hold us at arms length.”

Part of the Marine Corps’ modernization efforts includes experimentation with the infantry battalions. When the service embarked on its Force Design work, Heckl said the average size of an infantry battalion was 896 Marines and the lowest number of Marines the service has assessed is 735.

“We think it’s probably going to be in there somewhere. We don’t know. That’s why the fleet right now – all three MEFS are involved in infantry battalion experimentation, right, IBX,” he said. “Each one has a dedicated battalion – that started when I was at 1 MEF – that is focusing on a specific aspect of force design. And then that’s being fed back from the fleets into headquarters Marine Corps to make the appropriate, iterative adjustment.”

Over the court of the next year, the Marine Corps will do more experimentation with the infantry battalions on both the East and West coasts. The Marine Corps is taking the chance to perform Force Design experimentation during all of its exercises.

Marines assigned to the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) board a landing craft, utility in the well deck of the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship USS Portland (LPD-27) on March 2, 2022. US Navy Photo

As for manpower, which Berger has cut in order to save money within the Marine Corps budget for the modernization initiatives, Heckl said the service is assessing the potential for a force of 175,000 Marines. The Marine Corps’ Fiscal Year 2023 budget request is seeking funds for 177,000 active-duty Marines. Heckl noted the service swelled to more than 202,000 Marines during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Right now we don’t know the end state. Remember, 2030 is a waypoint, it’s not a destination. But we’re looking at probably about [175,000]-ish. We’ll see,” he said. “But the only lever the commandant had in the course of his move to, within our topline not ask for [more] sources, was manpower. And again, rightfully so, based on how much we had grown.”

Size is another concern among those critical of Berger’s strategy.

“I think they have several concerns. One is that the Marine Corps’s getting smaller and will be challenged to meet its global commitments. One is that the structure is too focused on the western Pacific and the Marine Corps will not be able to participate effectively in operations in other areas,” Mark Cancian, a retired Marine Corps colonel who is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, previously told USNI News of the officers’ concerns.