SEA-AIR-SPACE NEWS: Marine Corps Sees Progress Transitioning to Sea-Based Ops
Sea Transport Solutions conceptNATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Marine Corps leaders are refining the capabilities it needs for distributed operations in all domains — including lighter ships to more dependable communications.
Since 2020, the service has been undertaking a transformation effort known as Force Design 2030 as a way to ready the service for the possibility of conflict in the Indo-Pacific region. The strategy’s ambitious plan included divestments from legacy systems and investments in new technology.
An important part of the transformation is the Marine Corps’ pivot away from how it operated in the Middle East in the post-9/11 wars and a return to distributed, sea-based operations, said Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, deputy commandant for combat development and integration.
“Our heads were buried in the sands in the Middle East for all the right reasons … but we kind of lost a sense of who we were. Our stuff grew in both size and weight, and we were a little less concerned about being shipboard compatible and certainly expeditionary,” he said April 5 during a panel at the Navy League’s annual Sea-Air-Space conference in National Harbor, Maryland.
To get back on the waters, one of Commandant Gen. David Berger’s top procurement priorities for fiscal year 2023 is the light amphibious warship, also known as the LAW.
The new class of warship would be smaller and allow for greater flexibility during maritime operations. With a target per-unit procurement cost of $100 million to $150 million, the Marine Corps plans to acquire a fleet of 30 to 50 warships, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Brig. Gen. David Odom, the director of expeditionary warfare, N95, said the Marine Corps is pressing to keep the development of LAW moving.
“We know the sense of urgency out there to bring that forward,” he said during another panel discussion April 5. He added that LAWS will contribute to the Corps’ Force Design 2030 transformation and future distributed maritime operations “to give that organic mobility, maneuverability, beachability and sustainability to our Marine littoral regiment.”
However, some critics still say the vessel’s design may not survive Marine Corps operations, adding to production costs down the road. Assistant Commandant Gen. Eric Smith acknowledged these criticisms, but maintained the LAW is a requirement for the Marine Corps and Navy to act as an expeditionary and forward force.
The LAW also provides capabilities that may be more effective than if they were performed by Marine Corps’ large and medium amphibious ships, Smith said.
“If you don’t have those ships that are preloaded with small units [and] that are beachable … then an L-class can do that,” he said. “But it’s not very effective against a pear adversary with hypersonics.”
The Navy has been conducting a study of the Marine Corps’ amphibious fleet requirements over the last six months, Odom said. Once completed, the study will help inform both future structure and budgets of the service’s fleet in the future.
Odom also highlighted the Marine Corps’ integration with sea and air operations aboard the USS Tripoli, a big-deck amphibious assault ship. This week, the service is working with its F-35 joint strike fighter aircraft to prepare the ship for deployment later this year, he said.
“We’re trying to work across our LHD and LHA fleet to enable joint strike fighter capability and F-35 operations to give that capability forward to our combatant commanders,” Odom said.
Additionally, as the Corps continues to operate in more distributed environments, the service and industry are looking to improve communications between units. Jamie Barnett, vice president of global communications solutions at Viasat, said the Marine Corps needs to leverage technologies available in the commercial sector to increase connectivity.
“You’ve got dispersed forces — they’ve got to have some level of connectivity,” he said. “Even though they probably need to have low signature, you need to be able to have that connectivity throughout those things. Otherwise, they become isolated and even more disadvantaged and at risk.”
As Marine Corps continues to hone in on the capabilities and platforms it wants for future operations, Smith acknowledged that it will likely have some disagreements with the Navy in regards to funding and development priorities.
For example, the Navy is requesting to end production of the San Antonio-class amphibious warship with the LPD-32 in its 2023 budget proposal while the Corps is seeking advanced procurement funding for one more, the LPD-33.
Despite the differences, Smith said both sea services believe in the importance of a strong amphibious force for the future.
“We will disagree on some dollars and on some prioritization. We do not disagree on the concept of a robust, forward deployed, expeditionary crisis response force that can respond at the high end and the low end,” Smith said.