Marine Boss’s Audacious Plan To Transform The Corps By Giving Up Big Amphibious Ships

Last month General David Berger, the 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps (CMC), released two documents, titled 38th Commandant’s Intent and 38th Commandant’s Planning Guidance, respectively. While there was nothing unusual about the process, the vast majority of newly confirmed CMCs in recent history have released similar documents or messages, the content was nothing short of astonishing. CMC Berger’s intent and guidance, if implemented, will change the way the Marine Corps is organized and the way it operates.

Bergers’s vision will also have a significant impact in terms of how the Marine Corps buys weapons, what weapons it buys, and how the Navy supports the Marine Corps with amphibious assault ship procurement, force structure, and operations. Finally, it will inevitably spark a renewed debate about overlapping roles and missions between the Marine Corps and the Army. Taken together, General Berger’s documents are the most visionary, disruptive, and transformational guidance issued by any of the service chiefs since the end of the Cold War.

General David Berger., DoD

Starting Off With Same Stuff, Different Day

The Planning Guidance document starts with a robust, but routine declaration of the traditional role of the Marine Corps as the most flexible and responsive military force in the US arsenal.

“The Marine Corps will be trained and equipped as a naval expeditionary force in readiness and prepared to operate inside actively contested maritime spaces in support of fleet operations. In crisis prevention and crisis response, the Fleet Marine Force—acting as an extension of the Fleet—will be first on the scene, first to help, first to contain a brewing crisis, and first to fight if required to do so.”

General Berger’s vision of the Marine Corps as an afloat emergency response force is largely consistent with how the Navy and Marine Corps have operated together since WWII. Marines stationed on Navy amphibious assault ships, known as the “Gator Navy,” conducting rotational deployments and serving as a ready force to quickly respond in a crisis. 

In the recent past, the analogy of the Marines “kicking down the door” in order to secure a foothold in contested terrain until the Army can establish a heavier and more permanent presence with greater numbers has been used. That posture is consistent with what General Berger is advocating here.

Marines aboard the dock landing ship USS Ashland brief for an amphibious operation that will be part of exercise Talisman Sabre., USMC

Organizing Around The MAGTF And MEU

The primary organization the Marine Corps uses to accomplish missions across the range of military operations is the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF). The most common iteration of the MAGTF is the Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) stationed afloat on board the ships of a Navy Amphibious Ready Group (ARG). 

The MEU includes a Ground Combat Element (GCE), which includes an infantry battalion reinforced with armor, artillery, and combat engineers. There is also an Aviation Combat Element (ACE) that includes rotary and tilt-wing aircraft, and fixed-wing jets—AV-8B Harriers or F-35B Lightning IIs. Lastly, there is a Combat Logistics Element (CLE) that provides a range of vital support functions for expeditionary missions. 

At any given time there is at least one MEU, and usually two, rotationally deployed at sea, plus another MEU forward deployed in Japan on a heightened state of readiness, always deployable on a short timeline. The MEU is also the smallest standard MAGTF configuration. One step up from the MEU is the Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) and the largest standard type of MAGTF is the Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF). 

As an example of how the MEU functions as a force in readiness during rotational deployments, in August of 2001, the Peleliu Amphibious Ready Group (ARG), consisting of USS Peleliu (LHA-5), USS Dubuque (LPD-8) and USS Comstock (LSD-45) embarked the 15th MEU and departed the West Coast. Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, elements of the 15th MEU combined with the 26th MEU to airlift Marines from those and other Navy ships located in the Northern Arabian Sea and flew them 400 miles north to a point about 100 miles southwest of Kandahar, Afghanistan.

There they established Forward Operating Base Rhino, also known as Camp Rhino, the first U.S. land base established in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. That is a textbook example of how the MEU construct is supposed to function in practice. The 15th MEU started a normal peacetime rotational deployment, which rapidly turned into an actual combat operation which was largely executed with personnel and equipment organic to the MEU. 

In any case, General Berger’s opening statement about the Marines functioning as a sea-based expeditionary force in readiness is essentially the same doctrinal verbiage we have heard for several decades, with a few tweaks. Slightly different than previous CMCs in delivery, perhaps, but in terms of substance, it is purely a case of same stuff, different day. But shortly after this introduction, the Commandant’s planning guidance got very interesting.


Challenging The Longest Held Assumption About USMC And USN Force Structure

Based on numerous studies and assessments, the Marine Corps has long maintained that it has a requirement to retain two Marine Expeditionary Brigade Assault Echelons (MEB AE) worth of forcible-entry capability. In order to support that requirement, the Navy needs to maintain 34 amphibious warfare ships, or 17 ships per MEB. 

When forward presence requirements in Japan are added to the requirement to support two MEB AEs, the Navy force structure required to support all this is 38 amphibious assault ships. This is the first assumption challenged by General Berger’s guidance, which states:

“We will no longer use a ‘2.0 MEB requirement’ as the foundation for our arguments regarding amphibious shipbuilding, to determine the requisite capacity of vehicles or other capabilities, or as pertains to the Maritime Prepositioning Force. We will no longer reference the 38-ship requirement memo from 2009, or the 2016 Force Structure Assessment, as the basis for our arguments and force structure justifications.”

It is hard to overstate how dramatic that statement is. General Berger is essentially saying that the foundational assumptions upon which the Marine Corps is organized and what it needs from the Navy in terms of amphibious assault ship support will no longer guide future planning and procurement. 

The MEU and amphibious assault ships are not going away overnight, but they are no longer going to be used as the primary basis for planning force structure across the Marine Corps. The vast majority of Marine Corps procurement programs since the end of the Vietnam War have taken place with the intent for that equipment to work within an operational construct centered on MEU deployments onboard amphibious assault ships. 

General Berger is removing that planning and procurement constraint. 


The Reality Of Amphibious Assault Ships And Long Range Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles

You might wonder why General Berger is rejecting the long-held basis for Marine Corps MAGTF and Navy amphibious assault ship force structure. The most obvious reason is that he is simply responding to the reality of modern Anti Ship Cruise Missiles (ASCM). Up until relatively recently, in order to sink a modern warship, you needed to bring something really big to the fight—another warship, a submarine, a warplane, or a big minefield.

In terms of the ASCM threat, the first time modern warships were systematically targeted by ASCMs was in 1982 during the Falklands War, when Argentinian naval aircraft, using air-launched Exocet ASCMs, sank two Royal Navy ships and damaged a third. At the time, ASCM technology was extremely expensive, rudimentary, and somewhat limited in terms of proliferation. As a result, the ASCM threat was vague and not fully understood. 

To be clear, from the mid-1970s on, the Red Fleet of the Soviet Union had a massive ASCM capability, but that capability was almost exclusively sea-based. Soviet cruise missile submarines and surface combatants would have had to put to sea and transit a significant distance from their home ports in order to effectively target U.S. Navy ships. That particular ASCM threat was well understood and could be detected and mitigated. 

In any case, the fact that a modern NATO member Navy suffered heavy losses due to ASCMs employed by a less capable adversary was a wakeup call for the U.S. Navy. The threat from ASCMs was no longer confined to just near-peer competitors like the Soviet Union. The Navy, which was on the cusp of deploying the Aegis anti-air and anti-missile combat system onboard the Ticonderoga class cruisers, would have to be prepared to defend against ASCMs from multiple potential adversaries. 

The lead ship in the class, USS Ticonderoga (CG-47) was commissioned just seven months after the Falklands War ended. There were only four of them in service by May 1987, when a heavily modified Iraqi Dassault Falcon 50 business jet fired two Exocets at the Oliver Hazard Perry class frigate USS Stark in the Persian Gulf during the Tanker War sideshow to the Iran-Iraq War. The missiles killed 37 U.S. Navy sailors, injured 21 more, and left the frigate severely damaged.

So, since the 1980s, the Navy has operated under the assumption that in any hostile, opposed scenario, the big, slow, vulnerable amphibious assault ships would be escorted by Ticonderoga class cruisers, or the follow-on class of ships, the Arleigh Burke class destroyers. Those escorts were assumed to have a robust capability to defeat inbound ASCMs targeted at the amphibious assault ships. While the assumption that the Ticonderogas and Arleigh Burkes could defend amphibious assault ships against the ASCM threat was reasonable in the past, there are two recent developments that invalidate that assumption. 

USS Bonhomme Richard fires a Sea Sparrow missile. , USN

First, some of the Ticonderoga class cruisers and Arleigh Burke class destroyers have been modified with the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System (ABMDS) capability. Ships that are tasked with ABMDS missions are tied to a specific geographic area in order to perform that mission, thus making them unavailable to escort amphibious assault ships. The demand signal for the Navy to provide ABMDS coverage is significant, and ship deployments are a zero-sum game. No matter how capable a Ticonderoga or Arleigh Burke is, it can only be in one place at a time. 

Beyond that, while it is possible for a single Aegis-equipped ship to perform both ABMDS missions and provide defense against ASCMs, it takes some amount of time and crew proficiency to switch between ABMDS and ASCM modes. Only a small handful of ships with the lastest Aegis upgrades can perform both simultaneously. This leads us to the second factor, which is the threat to amphibious assault ships from ASCMs has gotten much more capable, prevalent, and dispersed.

Today China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran are all mass producing ASCMs that are technologically advanced, reliable, relatively cheap, and mobile. As an example of this, 30 years ago, Iranian ASCM capability was static and highly detectable. Today, Iranian-supported Houthi rebels are driving ASCMs around in trucks in Yemen, targeting shipping in the Red Sea. 

The Houthis are far from the only non-state actors using ASCMs. During the 2006 Lebanon War, Lebanese militant group Hezbollah attacked and damaged an Israeli Sa’ar 5 class corvette using an ASCM. Point being, amphibious assault ship operations are potentially threatened not only by state actors, but by less predictable and potentially more hostile non-state actors.   

In short, the threat from ASCMs has evolved faster than the organic self-defense capabilities amphibious assault ships are equipped with. The kinetic self-defense capabilities that amphibious ships currently have included the Phalanx Close In Weapons System (CIWS), a radar directed Vulcan cannon capable of firing approximately 100 rounds of 20mm ammunition per second; the RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM), a lightweight and short-range missile; and the RIM-162 Evolved SeaSparrow Missile (ESSM), a larger, medium-range missile, which, when it comes to amphibious ships, are only found on LHAs and LHDs. Additionally, when it comes to non-kinetic defenses, the Mk 53 Nulka missile decoy system is deployed, as is the AN/SLQ-32 Electronic Warfare Suite

While all of these defensive systems are capable, they are nearing the maximum technological limits of their efficacy and may not be able to provide adequate protection against advanced ASCM threats, especially at very high volumes. At the same time, the ABMDS ships that are supposed to protect the amphibious assault ships are being increasingly tasked with other missions in other locations. 

Yes, there are some promising technologies, such as laser and microwave anti-missile systems, which might eventually provide amphibious assault ships with greater self-defense capabilities, but these are still unproven. Right now, General Berger has reached the reasonable conclusion that the Navy cannot adequately protect amphibious assault ships full of Marines and their equipment, so he is directing the Navy and Marine Corps to find a better way to keep Marines deployed near potential crisis zones. 

Russia’s Bal coastal defense system is designed to keep enemy amphibious fleets at bay. , Russian MoD

Anti Access Area Denial Weapons Are Even More Problematic

The proliferation and dispersion of ASCMs are in and of themselves very difficult problems to deal with. The recent emergence of even more complex Anti Access Area Denial (A2AD) weapons is an even more difficult challenge to handle. While A2AD describes a capability or characteristic rather than a specific weapon system, of which anti-ship cruise missiles are a part, in this context it primarily refers to Anti Ship Ballistic Missiles (ASBM) which have been tested and deployed by China and Russia. Additionally, hypersonic missiles are in development and will probably reach initial capability in the near future. 

Regarding the dual-threat of ASBMs and hypersonic missiles, the Navy will continue procuring advanced versions of the Arleigh Burke class destroyers for the foreseeable future. Those ships have a robust and validated ability to defend against ASCM, as well as the ability to perform the ABMDS mission, and with continued upgrades, could provide an effective defense against ASBMs. But the capabilities of existing ASCMs and ASBMs, when merged with the potential of hypersonic missiles, threaten to present an overlapping field of combined capabilities that will simply overwhelm the defensive capabilities of even the most advanced Burkes.  

The amphibious dock landing ship USS John P. Murtha (LPD 26) and the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Momsen (DDG 92) transit in the eastern Pacific Ocean. , USN

General Berger explicitly acknowledged the high cost and vulnerability of amphibious assault ships when he wrote that the Navy and Marine Corps could not continue on the current path of “heavily investing in expensive and exquisite capabilities that regional aggressors have optimized their forces to target…”

The first ASBM to reach operational capability was the Chinese Dong Feng 21D (DF-21D), which has since been supplemented by the more reliable, more accurate, and longer-range Dong Feng-26 (DF-26). Combined with China’s burgeoning fleet of space-based sensors and unmanned aircraft these weapons are capable of detecting and engaging amphibious assault ships out to 1,000 nautical miles and beyond from their launch positions, which could include China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea

The Chinese ASBMs were originally capable of only being ground-launched from mobile land-based Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL) systems. The capability to launch from aircraft, and even potentially ships and submarines, is in development. Accordingly, not only is the ASBM threat itself significant, based on the diverse and dispersed launch platforms, these ASBM will be virtually impervious to preemptive strike. In addition to the current operational ASBM, both China and Russia are developing hypersonic weapons that will be even more difficult to defend against than ASBMs.

It is also more than simply a case of amphibious assault ships and escort ships not being able to protect themselves against long-range ASCMs and ASBMs. New developments in Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) submarine technology adds another layer of complexity. Amphibious assault ships have to get relatively close to their objective to launch their smaller beach landing craft. Between ASCMs, ASBMs, submarines, and modern surveillance capabilities, the weapon engagement zone that amphibious assault ships would have to transit in order to be in a position to launch their smaller landing craft is being pushed out hundreds of nautical miles and beyond. That is simply too big of a vulnerability to accept.  

China’s DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile. , AP

The Organizing Construct Is No Longer A Limiting Factor Either

General Berger’s guidance not only removed the amphibious assault force structure paradigm as a planning requirement, it also removed the MAGTF as the go-to organizational construct. Up until now, the MAGTF was the organizational element that all Marine Corps operational planning was based on. If the Marines are going to do a mission, the first thing they do is plan to execute that mission using a MAGTF table of organization. That is no longer going to be the default organization. 

“Likewise, we are not defined by any particular organizing construct – the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) cannot be our only solution for all crises,” Berger wrote. Like amphibious assault ships, the MAGTF will not be disappearing anytime soon either, but the Marine Corps force planners will no longer operate on the assumption that the MAGTF is the only

option available to them. 

General Berger goes on to observe that “the current force is not organized, trained, or equipped to support the naval force.” In other words, the current construct consists of the Navy transporting Marines on deployment and into battle. Berger sees the proliferation of ASCM and ASBM weapons as being significant enough that the Marines are going to have to start thinking about how to fight at sea in cooperation with the Navy, instead of merely fighting from the sea towards land. 

As an example of this, the Marines have been testing the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) onboard amphibious assault ships not merely as cargo to transport from one spot to another, but as an auxiliary weapons system that can be launched from onboard the ship. As this following picture shows, Marines aboard USS Wasp (LHD-1) recently demonstrated their ability to strap a Light Armored Vehicle (LAV) to the deck and use its 25mm gun as an auxiliary weapon system for the ship, too. 

It is reasonable to expect that in the new deployment model, the Marines will also validate their ability to operate from austere and dispersed locations using HIMARS, LAVs, drones, and other relatively light and mobile systems. Places like remote islands and inland airstrips will increasingly become areas where Marines will need to seize and hold so that other forces can stage from those locales. 

Marine Pfc. Matthew Bell aims an FGM-147 Javelin as part of a simulated small boat attack on amphibious transport dock ship USS Arlington (LPD 24) during the Carrier Strike Group FOUR (CSG 4) Amphibious Ready Group, Marine Expeditionary Unit exercise (ARGMEUEX)., USN

What Is Driving This Fundamental Change?

We started this article by observing that this guidance from General Berger was the most disruptive and transformational guidance issued by any service chief since the end of the Cold War. This leads to the question, what is driving this effort to radically transform the way the Marine Corps and Navy operate and fight together? In short, General Berger sees the future threats as being even more dispersed and capable then they are today, and in response is initiating a massive, fundamental reorganization and modernization of the Marine Corps. He is willing to trade force structure and legacy assets in order to free up the budget required to do so. 

He writes:

“Force design is my number one priority. If provided the opportunity to secure additional modernization dollars in exchange for force structure, I am prepared to do so…however, doing so will not be easy. It will require divesting of legacy capabilities that cannot be economically adapted to meet the demands of the future, while also taking calculated risks in some areas.”

Every service has its sacred cows. The ability to conduct an amphibious assault from sea to land is the fundamental capability that has defined the Marine Corps since before World War II. General Berger is willing to give up a significant part of that ability in order to transform the Marine Corps to perform the missions he sees as more likely and relevant in the future. In short, General Berger sees the Marine Corps as being currently manned, trained, and equipped to execute an amphibious assault mission that he believes will either be irrelevant or impossible to execute in the near future.

Giant amphibious assault ships that are packed with Marines and their gear and vehicles have long been the cornerstone of the USMC’s strategy. This could change in a major way under thew CMC., USMC

So What Replaces Amphibious Assault? What’s The New Defining Capability?

To be clear, the Marine Corps is not giving up operating from the sea towards land. What General Berger is directing, however, is that the Marine Corps conduct these operations in a much different manner. 

Broadly speaking, if the intent and guidance is implemented, what will happen is that the Marine Corps will shift from putting a single relatively large organization, like a MEU, on a few big expensive amphibious assault ships, to dispersing a larger number of smaller units on more numerous, less expensive ships, and even potentially existing supply and logistics vessels. Clearly, the Gator Navy will continue to support Marines for the foreseeable future, it will just look different, and probably smaller overall. 

As General Berger writes:

“It would be illogical to continue to concentrate our forces on a few large ships… We need to change this calculus with a new fleet design of smaller, more lethal, and more risk-worthy platforms…. Naval forces will persist forward with many smaller, low signature, affordable platforms that can economically host a dense array of lethal and non-lethal payloads.”

As reported by National Defense Magazine, Lieutenant General Eric Smith, head of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, recently said that unmanned systems will play a central role in the new operating model.

“We’re interested in all platforms — surface, subsurface and aviation… [We want] unmanned systems that are truly numerous because there is a quality in quantity in this particular regard,” he explained. “We’re looking for things that can do reconnaissance, that can do a radio relay, we’re looking for some lethal payloads.” 

This is the first information we have seen from the Marine Corps that gives more detail to General Berger’s guidance. Much more numerous, smaller ships, equipped with numerous, small unmanned systems that operate in the air, on the ocean surface, and beneath the surface. These drones will be capable of gathering information, serving as communication relays, and have an offensive capability. 

The first iteration of this capability will be a vertical takeoff drone equipped with radar with other variants and capabilities sure to follow. Currently, the Marine Corps’ MUX initiative seems to directly cover these capabilities. 

Overall, we have heard a lot about distributed combat operations. This is what it will look like, with smaller contingents of Marines operating onboard a variety of ships, and operating drones and other agile systems that can be ported around with ease from those platforms.

Concept art showing a hypothetical MUX solution from Bell aboard a San Antonio class LPD. , Bell

How Do The Expeditionary Transfer Dock and Expeditionary Sea Base Fit In?

The Navy is currently procuring both the Expeditionary Transfer Dock (ESD) and Expeditionary Sea Base (ESB) ship classes. Both types are designed to provide mobile sea bases that in turn provide logistics and operational support to rotationally deployed forces. The ESD essentially functions as a seagoing pier to facilitate cargo transfers at sea if a port is unavailable. While a seagoing vessel cannot replicate the full capability of a port, the ESD provides enough functionality to logistically sustain combat operations in a low threat environment. 

The ESB has a greater operational focus, capable of persistently hosting helicopters and personnel and functioning as a “mother ship” for smaller vessels. Together, the ESD and ESB platforms will provide mobile, expeditionary support for the new Marine deployment model. 

The Expeditionary Sea Base USS Lewis B. Puller. , USN

As an example of this, in 2017, the Navy forward-deployed USS Lewis B. Puller (ESB-3) to the Middle East. Puller is the Navy’s first purpose-built ESB. Given that the ESD and ESB are both almost twice as big as the biggest amphibious assault ships currently in the Navy inventory and lack any self-defense capabilities against ASCM or ASBM weapons, it is reasonable to conclude that these specific platforms will be given significant, dedicated external protection by the Navy in terms of surface combatants standing guard duty nearby. 

While using an extremely large, slow, hard to maneuver, and impossible to hide ships like the ESD and ESB may seem to be exactly the opposite of what General Berger is looking for, taken in context, these support ships are compatible with this statement:

“The focal point of the future integrated naval force will shift from traditional power projection to meet the new challenges associated with maintaining persistent naval forward presence to enable sea control and denial operations.” 

These huge vessels offer persistence like no other and do so at a fraction of the procurement cost of an amphibious assault ship. They are super flexible and can help enable other assets brought into their area of presence for a more finite period of time. 

This is also entirely consistent with what a lot of strategists have been advocating in terms of distributed warfare doctrine. Dispersing combat elements makes those forces more defensible, survivable, and lethal. The Navy is already working on the so-called Adaptive Deck Launcher (ADL) that will give smaller ships and possibly supply ships the same missile launch capability as high-end surface combatants. Of course, the smaller, cheaper, more numerous ships that would operate in the distributed warfare doctrine model would not have as many missiles as a Navy surface combatant, but could potentially use the ESD or ESB as a storage hub for reloading missiles at sea. 

In all, the concept of sea bases and smaller and more numerous forward-deployed ships offers more options, flexibility, and force resiliency than the more rigid doctrine of placing the majority of the Marine Corps’ resources only into a traditional ‘Gator Navy’ concept of operations and the procurement strategy that supports it. It also can keep potential enemies off-balance both tactically and strategically as switching up procurement priorities and having more lethal ships in more places presents far more challenging problems to solve and a good dose of the unknown compared to the current construct. 

USNS Montford Point (T-ESD 1) and vehicle cargo ship USNS Bob Hope (T-AKR 300) are moored alongside each other during vehicle transfer operations. Notice the LCAC in one of the docking lanes aboard the Expeditionary Transfer Dock. , USN

Does This Redefine The Relationship Between The Army and Marine Corps?  

The Army and the Marine Corps exist in a constant state of low-grade tension regarding roles and missions. It is beyond dispute that the two services have overlapping areas of expertise and operations. For example, while the Army does not have the advanced amphibious assault ships that the Marine Corps has access to through the Navy, it does have a significant beach landing and logistics force. Interestingly enough, the Army recently decided it would sell off much of its fleet of logistics ships. 

Although those plans remain in flux, with the sale of the USAV SSGT Robert T. Kuroda, one of the US Army’s most capable ships, being announced and then canceled shortly thereafter, the fact remains that the Army and Marine Corps have significant overlap in roles, responsibilities, and capabilities. To be clear, the Army’s fleet of ships is still obviously intended to operate in a low-risk environment, and not remotely comparable in size, range, or combat capability of the Navy’s fleet of amphibious assault ships that the Marine Corps uses.  

As an example of this redundancy, over the last 18 years since 9/11, the Marine Corps has conducted a lot of long-duration combat operations on land, far from the sea. What General Berger is proposing is that the Marine Corps return to a more maritime-centric focus, rotationally deployed at sea, working in closer cooperation with the Navy. 

While the Marine Corps is not giving up entirely on the amphibious assault mission, General Berger is clearly saying that the current fleet of amphibious assault ships is simultaneously too expensive to risk in many opposed landing scenarios and is also increasingly incapable of defending against modern ASCM and ASBM missiles. 

Accordingly, the Marine Corps will start looking to operate off of more numerous, less expensive, less detectable ships. This focus seems to move the Marine Corps away from its current overlap with the Army in terms of conducting long-term land-based operations. If that’s the case, this seems to be a move that will actually decrease tension between the Army and Marine Corps in terms of roles and missions.

Marines forcing entry into a structure in Fallujah, Iraq., USMC

Will This Actually Happen?

General Berger should be commended for being proactive and taking the institutional risk of admitting the current force structure and operational norms of his service are both too costly and inadequate to deal with future threats. With that said, his is just one voice in determining the strategy, policy, and force structure. The single most important strategy and policy guidance is not a document, it’s the budget. 

Every year Congress passes a National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). As one of my former superiors in the Pentagon observed while we were laboring on the since canceled Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), “All this strategic guidance is just words on paper. Nobody really cares. You want to know what the strategy and policy is? The budget. The budget is the strategy. The budget is the policy. Everything else is just talk.”

He had a point. I am not willing to say the NDAA makes all other strategy and policy documents irrelevant, but of all the strategy and policy documents out there, the NDAA is the most relevant. 

All of our force structure in terms of personnel is a direct result of previous NDAAs. Every weapon system we have today and can use, or every alternative capability we want, need, and don’t have, is a result of those NDAAs. Which brings us back to General Berger’s intent and planning guidance has the potential to have a massive impact on future NDAAs.

An F-35B Lightning II aircraft assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 265 (Reinforced) lands on the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1) as it transits the Coral Sea. , USN

How Will This Affect The Shipbuilding Budget And Program?

If General Berger’s intent and guidance gets traction and results in significant and fundamental changes that will show up in future NDAAs, the Navy will buy fewer large amphibious assault ships and more numerous, cheaper, smaller, more agile vessels, as well as sea bases. The newest of the sea bases, the USNS Hershel “Woody” Williams (T-ESB-4) was launched last year. The fifth ship in the combined class of ESD/ESB ships, the USNS Miguel Keith (T-ESB-5), was recently launched and will soon be deployable. In fact, Berger’s vision is already becoming a reality, considering the Navy just ordered two more of these ships and a third as an executable option. 

In terms of the Navy’s larger shipbuilding budget and program, the U.S. industrial base is on the ragged margins of viability. At less than 300 commissioned warships, the Navy is the smallest it has been since well before World War II. Given the decrepit state of the Navy’s shipyards, even if the industrial base could provide enough new ships to meet the Navy’s ambitious goal of growing to 355 ships over the next 15 years, it is unlikely that the Navy could conduct the required maintenance to keep those ships operational. 

This leads us to the uncomfortable, but necessary discussion on how much longer the Navy will continue to buy big amphibious assault ships, or at least at what rate, now that General Berger is saying they are too expensive and too vulnerable to put in harms way under some very real combat scenarios. Given the fairly limited shipbuilding industrial base, it seems likely that the NDAA will continue to procure amphibious assault ships for the foreseeable future as the Navy starts to buy the smaller ships that will supplement the amphibious assault ship fleet. While the new guidance does not appear to envision completely replacing the amphibious assault ship fleet, the NDAA is the epitome of a zero-sum game. If the NDAA redirects budget dollars to buy smaller ships and drones, inevitably there will be less money left over for amphibious assault ship procurement.

In essence, the NDAA will probably continue to mandate procurement of amphibious assault ships in the immediate future in order to preserve the ability of the industrial base to produce whatever comes next. Once that is decided, if indeed the CMC gets his way, some major shifts in the shipbuilding plan could very well be realized. 

USS Arlington (LPD-24) under construction., Huntington Ingalls

The New Strategy Of Distributed Lethality Is Coming Into Focus

What General Berger has proposed is a partial rejection of the status quo and a challenge to embrace a fundamental shift in Marine Corps doctrine. The legacy approach, which is currently centered on the MAGTF as the primary organizational construct and the Navy’s fleet of amphibious assault ships as the primary vehicle on which Marines conduct rotational deployments and maintain a forward presence, will be replaced with the new guidance. That is a welcome development and he gives a good deal of specific direction on what he wants to see happen, i.e., Marines deployed on smaller, cheaper, more numerous ships equipped with distributed firepower, etc. When combined with Lieutenant General Smith’s comments about unmanned systems functioning across the full spectrum of combat operations, a new overlying strategy of distributed lethality is coming into focus.

While General Berger’s intent is clear, none of this has actually happened yet, and the process of shifting from the current model of MEU deployments aboard amphibious assault ships to the new model will be complicated. 

For example, is the new approach of basing Marines on smaller, more numerous ships equipped with distributed sensors and weapons intended to supplement the amphibious assault ship capability, or eventually replace it? Putting Marines on more numerous, smaller ships seems to be a play to reduce the risk of any single ship being damaged or sunk by enemy action, but will those vessels have enough firepower and defensive capabilities of their own to operate in an opposed environment?  

If detection capabilities combined with ASCM and ASBM weapons are pushing the engagement zone out to 1,000 nautical miles and beyond, will further advances in detection and targeting capabilities make the new class of as yet unidentified and undesigned smaller ships equally vulnerable? To be clear, this is not a criticism of General Berger’s intent or guidance, it is just an acknowledgment that he has started a necessary process, but the eventual outcome of that process is still not clear.

Marines stand watch aboard a U.S. Navy ship., USMC

Congratulations Are In Order

The nature of warfare is constantly changing, and the way strategy and policy are developed and implemented through the NDAA has to change to keep pace. Regardless of how this process actually turns out, General Berger and the Marine Corps deserve congratulations for starting this conversation about fundamentally reassessing the future of the force and how to respond to modern and rapidly evolving threats. 

Here’s hoping the other services follow suit. 

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