WEB EXCLUSIVE: Marine Corps Commandant Says Logistics, Industrial Base Are Major Concerns (Updated)

By Sean Carberry

WASHINGTON, D.C. — For all the controversy in recent months about whether the Marine Corps will have the amphibious ships and capabilities it needs, the bigger worries for the service’s outgoing commandant are whether the service and Joint Force can manage contested logistics, and whether the defense industrial base can deliver weapons and systems on time.

The U.S. military and the Marine Corps long excelled at logistics, but adversaries have taken note and focused on disrupting logistics, Gen. David Berger told reporters during a roundtable June 28 at the Modern Day Marine conference.

“How do we make sure that we can sustain that force, that we can have the mobility for that force globally when it's being contested?” he said.

The logistics chain runs from the front lines all the way back to manufacturers of individual components of weapons, he said. And the industrial base part of the equation is particularly worrying, for everything from logistics to the entire modernization effort and fielding of new systems on time.

“I worry that it's become, if not fragile, to the point where any hiccup in any part of that throws off a big production line kind of effort,” he said. “And that equates to we didn't get what we needed in the right time, whether that's ships or airplanes or weapon systems or whatever.

“So, I worry about the redundancy and resiliency of our industrial base, because that could impact programs, equipment that's due to arrive now and in the next year.”

Berger pointed to the example of Spirit AeroSystems. As Reuters has reported, its machinists union of 6,000 workers went on strike June 24, and the company is in the process of negotiating a settlement. The company is the only manufacturer for some parts for military aircraft, including the Marine Corps’ new CH-53K King Stallion helicopter.

“So, if they go on strike for six or 12 months, and we're counting on those aircraft, you see where that backs up,” he said.

In addition to the risk of supply chain hiccups delaying the fielding of new systems, the approach of integrating technology into platforms as they are being produced is also a concern, Berger said. “There's a risk in that. It's a goodness, but it's also a risk.

“If we're fielding the F-35 over 20 years, and along the way new stuff is getting injected in here, what if the new stuff doesn't work out, or on the same timeline we thought it would? And what if other parts, other components are dependent on that to happen?”

And another concern is maintaining the old systems until the new ones arrive. “Inventory is one thing, but the maintenance, the availability of things is a whole nother,” he said.

“I worry about sustaining the maintenance part,” he continued. “And amphibious ships are a great example of that. Inventory isn't the whole story. It's how much is going through the shipyards and getting out and on time and on schedule. And all that's a big concern.”

Berger added another concern to the mix, the need for the Defense Department to ensure the services are coordinating on force design and modernization efforts.

When the Marine Corps began its Force Design 2030 campaign to reorganize and reequip the force away from decades of counterterrorism to peer conflict in the Indo-Pacific, it was moving out on its own — the other services did not have force design plans, just modernization priorities.

“We could see what they had publicly said, but they didn't have an equivalent of a holistic force design as we thought we would need to do,” he said. “So, the best we could do is forecast based on their known things where they would be.”

And not all the assumptions, such as the availability of amphibious ships for example, have come true. That could create difficulty down the road unless the Defense Department comes up with a top-down force design that ensures individual service efforts converge, he said.

“So first, I think we would benefit from thinking about perhaps joint design,” he said. “We have the concept now … we have that joint warfighting concept. Awesome. I think we have a pretty good idea of where the world might be.”

And the next logical step would be to stitch the ’ plans together into a “coherent whole,” he said. “But it's more than just pulling it together, it's actually telling some, ‘You will do more of this and less of that.’ That's part of force design, right? The hard decisions about what you will not do.”

An example is the department’s joint all-domain command and control initiative, the effort to connect all sensors and shooters to facilitate quick action on targets. The Army, Navy and Air Force each has a program to develop JADC2 capabilities.

“We looked at it a couple years ago and decided we should not have our own Project Convergence, Project Overmatch, because then you're back in the business of four different project something-or-others and how you're going to pull that together,” he said.

The decision was to join in on the Army and Navy projects because they were already doing experiments, he said.

“I don't think adding another project something-or-other would have been the right call in retrospect,” he added. “But you should be confident that none of that is happening without Marines and our equipment and our concepts embedded inside of” Convergence and Overmatch, he said.

“But that's a very difficult problem to solve, because the five services, they've already made investments in command-and-control systems that are big, and they want to make sure they're not told you have to get rid of all that and buy this new thing. Like, that's not going to work,” he said. “This is not an easy challenge. All doable, though, it's all doable.”

Berger said that during his tenure he focused heavily on the organizational and equipment elements of Force Design 2030 so those would be settled before the next commandant, presumably Gen. Eric Smith if he is confirmed, takes command.

“In the real world, the things that take the longest are equipment,” Berger said.

“So, I knew from the beginning, although people are always number one — they will remain centerpiece — initially, you have to address the equipment issues, because they're [the ones] that take the longest term, the longest to get rid of, the longest to bring what you need on,” he said.

One of the highest profile equipment challenges will be amphibious ships. The Marine Corps has determined it needs no fewer than 31 amphibs, and Congress agrees. The service currently has 31, but the Navy's 2024 budget request would reduce the fleet to 29 by delivering one amphibious transport dock and retiring three dock landing ships. Berger noted that the secretary of the Navy has to manage a complicated budget.

“It's not that he's anti-Marine Corps; he's got a pot of money, he has to build submarines and aircraft carriers and everything else,” Berger said. “That doesn't mean we're not on the same sheet. But we only have one ship priority, he has probably a dozen.”

The Marine Corps continues to emphasize its needs and push for block buys of amphibs to get the best price, he said.

“I don't see that is a big friction point,” he added. But it’s too early to tell where the budget is headed, and the debt ceiling deal that capped topline spending solved one piece of the puzzle while leaving many questions unanswered.

“We know what that [topline] is … but if it's held here, now we're going to see what the administration and Congress [are] willing to trade off underneath of that, to get what they think they have to have,” he said.

“The next commandant will have to articulate why these priorities are most important for the nation [and] what it does for the Joint Force,” he continued. “But each of the other services [are] competing also. You feel like you're competing for the same pot of money sometimes.”

In addition to all of that, the next commandant will need to ensure the Marine Corps has the right mix of personnel and skill sets to address the threat posed by China, he said.

“We're going to need people, leaders at the lower tactical levels, [who] have more experience, more repetitions, more maturity, judgment, etc.,” he said. “Because they will be making decisions on their own at speed but have to integrate … everything from space to cyber to the normal weapon systems, all of that tied together. That's going to take more than a bring in and then send home every four years type of Marine Corps.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Marine Corps is seeking 21 Landing Ship Mediums as part of the 31-ship amphibious fleet. The LSMs are separate from the 31 amphibious ships. 

Topics: Marine Corps News

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