Marine Corps Strategy Reflects Lean Times

By Sandra I. Erwin

Marines are coming to grips with the reality that they will not have the big-ticket hardware that they had hoped for. So they are adjusting their plans and strategies with the knowledge that they will have to live with existing equipment and lower-cost alternatives.   

The Marine Corps is determined to modernize its tactical aviation arm and acquire the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter. But other desired weapons will have to wait. Instead of a full fleet of amphibious warships, the Marine Corps in the coming years will have to make do with a mix of military and commercial vessels and landing craft. The Corps has traded off its prized amphibious tank for aless expensive wheeled troop carrier. Facing cutbacks in the size of the force, the Corps is adjusting Marines' training programs so it can transition more easily from high-end combat to other duties.

The next-generation weapons that Marines would need to assault heavily defended beaches are still out of reach. Marines instead will avoid enemy controlled areas where they would be vulnerable to precision-guided missile attacks and artillery fire.

The Marine Corps' vision of the future, calledExpeditionary Force 21, takes stock of the budget situation. The Marine Corps will design a force to "maintain relevance over the next 10 years in the context of a budget-informed and challenging future security environment," says the document.

The Pentagon's 2014 budget of $496 billion is $45 billion less than what military leaders sought last year. For Marine commanders, the most immediate impact of these cuts has been the availability of ships, says Lt. Gen. Kenneth J. Glueck Jr, commander of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command.

"Because of budget cuts, reduced maintenance and lack of availability, we cannot resource all the ships," Glueck says at a recent Stimson Center forum. Of 31 amphibious ships currently in the inventory, only 22 can be deployed on any given day, he says. Marines contend that, if they were to satisfy the requests of all U.S. regional commanders around the world, they would need 50 ships.

"The availability is extremely poor," says Glueck. "Ships are in bad condition."

Even if Congress gave the Navy a billion dollars today to fix the problem, it would take years to get the fleet back into shape. "It's taken about five years to dig us into this hole. And it will take five or more years to dig ourselves out of it," Glueck says.

To cope with the shortage, the plan is to become less dependent on amphibious assault ships and find lower-cost alternatives. "We will take warships and integrate them with black-bottom [commercial] ships," he says. The Marine Corps will deploy "sea bases" made up of a mix of high-end warships, small fast ships and "connectors" to transfer troops and cargo from one vessel to another.

The less sophisticated ships will suffice for lower-end missions such as embassy evacuations and humanitarian assistance, he says. "We're buying time for the amphibious fleet to get modernized so we have higher availability."

A sea base hypothetically would include LPD-17 and LHA-8 amphibious assault ships, and a blend of large and smaller cargo ships. Connectors would be a mix of existing landing craft utility and air-cushion vehicles, high-speed catamarans and a new "mobile landing platform" auxiliary ship that is now in production. By 2022, the Marine Corps hopes to have a next-generation ship-to-shore connector hovercraft and begin the design of a new "surface connector."

A significant adjustment that Marines are making to their ship-to-shore maneuver concept is in their ability to land ashore in a hostile area. The lack of a high-speed vehicle means Marines will not be sent ashore where they can expect a barrage of loitering munitions, guided rockets, artillery, missiles and mortars. "We will not go into the teeth of the enemy, but into the seams of the enemy, at night," says Glueck. "You don't want to go where it's the heaviest. You want to find the gaps, and that's where you'll conduct your operations." Helicopters would drop off vehicles inland. The MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, the CH-53K and UH-1Y helicopters would serve as the primary movers.

The current amphibious assault vehicle is slow and old. Marines were hoping to buy a high-speed expeditionary fighting vehicle for sea and land operations. But the program was terminated after the vehicle's soaring cost threatened to bankrupt the Marine Corps' modernization account.  

"The price was astronomical," Glueck says. The Marine Corps has opted instead to acquire a wheeled personnel carrier that would cost half the $12 million apiece price tag of the expeditionary fighting vehicle. Water-based operations are only 10 percent of the vehicle's mission, so the Corps decided to sacrifice high water speed for now.

"We still need high water speed," says Glueck. The Marine Corps is not giving up on eventually acquiring a high water speed vehicle to conduct amphibious operations from further than 25 nautical miles offshore, a white paper states. "High water speed — either as an independent amphibious vehicle or as a connector-based capability — is the single most significant improvement necessary to the rapid build-up of combat power ashore." 

The wheeled alternative, which will be selected from existing armored personnel carrier models, could be in the fleet as early as 2020. Current amphibious vehicles also will be upgraded so they can last until 2035.

The Corps has been pushing the concept of "sea basing" for the past 10 years. "The future is all about being forward deployed," Glueck says. "Getting basing rights [in foreign countries] is tough.

We've been kicked out of a lot of places."

As they prepare for the future, Marines believe they have to be "flexible," Glueck says. Marines have to be like “utility knives.”

The worst-case scenario would be a war against North Korea, he says. "When you do mission analysis, you look at the most likely and most dangerous threats,” he says. North Korea is “probably the most dangerous."

The Marine Corps is being reduced from a peak of 202,000 troops in 2011 to 175,000 over the next five years. A smaller force means everyone has to be ready for the "full spectrum" of warfare, from conventional combat to embassy security, disaster relief and training of foreign allies. "We provide a flexible and adaptable training package to our Marines," says Glueck. With a force of 175,000, one-third will be forward-stationed and prepared to respond to crises. Marines would spend six months deployed and 12 months back in the United States. "But if we have to fight [North] Korea, the entire Marine Corps would go and stay."

The Marines' preparations for the future, meanwhile, have drawn criticism from analysts and military experts who contend that the Corps is being unrealistic about the threats it will face.

Both the Marine Corps and the Army have shown a "lack of creative investment in ground mobility assets," says Frank Hoffman, senior research fellow at the National Defense University. Marines are betting their future on expensive systems like the F-35B and the amphibious combat vehicle and not investing enough in engineering assets, better fire support for urban combat, improved systems to deploy with smaller distributed ground forces, as well as more advanced defensive systems to counter rockets, artillery, mines and roadside bombs, he says at a Heritage Foundation panel.

A recent white paper titled, "Are the Marines Procuring Their Way to Irrelevance as a Sea-Based Threat?," challenges the Corps' spending priorities. The paper, published by Marine Corps Times, was written by retired Marine officers James G. Magee and Richard G. DuVall.

Marines are too dependent on the MV-22 Osprey aircraft, which can transport troops quickly but not fully armored, heavy weapon vehicles, the paper asserts. The CH-53E helicopter can move heavy cargo with sling loads but would take more than an hour to get from prepositioned sea bases to the shore. And surface lift by Marine amphibious assault vehicles is "out of the equation" because of their weight and limited range.

The Navy’s only long range, high speed, ship-to-shore connector, the air-cushioned landing craft, Magee and DuVall point out, will take more than three hours to arrive from ship to shore. The capabilities of current equipment, they argue, require the Marines to blindly adopt “hope” as a strategy. "Without Marine ground forces having the capability for long range helicopter lift into an enemy’s area of operations from a very distant sea base; providing firepower, armored mobility and mass, these Marines will find themselves irrelevant to decision makers and out of the fight."

Topics: Bomb and Warhead, Improvised Explosive Devices, Combat Vehicles, Expeditionary Warfare, Shipbuilding, Surface Ships

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