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Takeaway: New Commandant of Marine Corps deemphasizing amphibious operations in favor of greater naval force integration

General David Berger, the new Commandant of the Marine Corps, (the 38th CMC in the Corps' 244 year history) has issued bold new planning guidance for his four year term that will dramatically shift the Corps towards greater integration with the Navy with a particular focus on naval operations in the western Pacific against China.  

Since 9/11 the Marine Corps has evolved into a separate combined arms force of ~190,000 that has operated largely independently of the Navy in Iraq, Afghanistan and in special operations globally.  Based on the National Defense Strategy which focuses on China and Russia, the new guidance will reverse the evolution of the past two decades and refocus the Corps on maritime campaign operations in the Pacific led by the Navy The guidance deemphasizes large-scale, opposed amphibious assaults a la the WWII island campaign and instead advocates Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations which would support fleet operations through long range fires and air operations from temporary bases on islets in the western Pacific. 

The guidance will impact existing shipbuilding, aircraft procurement and weapons procurement plans.  As manifestation of the seriousness of the change, the Commandant has said that he is willing to trade force structure, i.e., reduce the size of the Corps, if that is what it takes to get additional modernization dollars. 

Impacts:

  • Shipbuilding  
    • The guidance directs the Corps to abandon its long held metric of 38 amphibious ships with sufficient lift to support two Marine Expeditionary Brigades (~50,000 Marines) when talking to the Navy about naval support ("Blue In Support of Green").   The Navy has not met this goal for more than 30 years and has no current plans to do so prior to 2033 but the existence of the tagline has helped justify annual Congressional adds of $500M to $2B for increased amphibious shipping. 
    • L-class amphibious ships (LHA/Ds, LPDs, and LSDs) are built exclusively by HII at its Ingalls shipyards in Pascagoula, MS.  E-class ships (militarized commercial cargo and logistics ships) come out of GD's NASSCO shipyard in San Diego.
    • While the Marines are not walking away from amphibious operations, the dropping of the metric has clearly created trade space for the Navy as it finalizes its Force Structure Assessment that will determine ship mix development over the next 30 years.  The Navy's current plan is 15-20% underfunded and likely to get worse.  The new plan should become public in September. 
  • Aircraft Procurement
    • F-35.  The Marines have already received over 90 of their planned buy of 420 aircraft to replace all of the Corps' combat aircraft.  The current plan is to buy 353 F-35B STOVL aircraft and 67 F-35 carrier aircraft which would be sufficient to provide four USMC squadrons for Navy carrier air wings. 
    • Coincidental with the new guidance, the Marines are now looking at reducing their F-35B buy to 275 and increasing their F-35Cs to 145 (9 squadrons). The carrier aircraft's longer range and larger weapons bay are valuable in any China scenario and the increased compatibility with the Navy is apparent.  Given the Marines are still planning to buy the same total quantity (so far) and are only changing the mix, the main impact is a negative one for Rolls Royce (RR.L) which manufactures the F-35B's unique lift fan. 
    • CH-53K.  The largest helicopter in the Western world is now an important linch pin in the Corps' new strategy and is now its #1 aviation priority.  Given the Chinese threat, mobility among expeditionary advance bases and ships is critical ("shoot and scoot").  Despite its current $107M flyaway cost, the Corps must be able to lift its sensors and logistics if it is going to be effective in the vast areas of the Pacific. Expect the Corps to fight hard to spend ~$2.3B annually for ~19 aircraft per year for the next several years (plan is for 194 aircraft).  
  • Weapons Procurement
    • Long Range Fires.   One of the intentions of Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations is to help the Navy control sea lines of communication using land based precision fires with ranges out to 350 miles and beyond.  Expect the Corps to expand experiments mounting RTN's Naval Strike Missile on JLTV.  Similarly LMT  is being funded to fire an Anti-Ship Missile from a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) found in Marine artillery batteries.  The Army's #1 modernization priority is Long Range Precision Fires and the Corps will clearly want to piggyback on their work on the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile, sensors, control and hardware.  
    • Directed energy and EW.   The recent "shoot-down" of two Iranian drones in the Arabian Gulf was accomplished by Marine ground EW capabilities mounted on a ground vehicle sitting on the deck of the amphibious ship, USS Boxer. This is the embodiment of General Berger's vision of Marine fires supporting the naval force and is an indication of where the Corps is headed in future weapons orientation.  The need to be able to "stand in", i.e., operate in a contested environment for an extended period, requires large magazines of ammunition in a small space = directed energy weapons.