SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — The Marine Corps’ top general on Saturday doubled down on his willingness to sacrifice manpower for new systems needed to deter or defeat China, amid growing worries the defense budget may not include enough funding to protect programs like the light amphibious warship.
“We will become smaller if we have to,” Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger said in a roundtable with reporters at the Reagan National Defense Forum. “We have to provide the Marines what they need to operate in that environment. And if that [means] less Marines, I’m willing to do that. I don’t want to do that. … I’d rather have a smaller Marine Corps that can deal with that, than a big Marine Corps that doesn’t have that capability.”
At the Reagan forum, Berger discussed the Corps’ concept for using stand-in forces, particularly against the “pacing threat” of China. But to make that happen, he said, the Marines won’t just need equipment such as weapons and radios — they’ll also need ways to get around.
But that’s where budget matters start to get tricky.
Navy and Marine leaders have been pushing to start building several dozen light amphibious warships, though that program slipped earlier this year from a fiscal 2022 start to fiscal 2023.
Berger said he needs these light amphibs, capable of moving 75 to 125 Marines and light gear in shallow draft, “as fast as possible.”
But he said top Navy leadership could make it an “either-or” choice, requiring tradeoffs between this new capability and more traditional platforms like amphibious assault ships.
Berger said he has other options — though he didn’t detail what Plan B might be — if top Navy and Pentagon leaders can’t find a way to make the light amphibious concept work. He said he’s confident they can find a way forward — and that he understands those leaders’ own tough budgetary pressures.
“They’ll sort it out,” Berger said. “But I also acknowledge they have big bills — they have to recap the nuclear triad — they have big bills they have to pay that we can’t kick down the road anymore.”
Even as questions remain about the Navy and the Pentagon’s commitment to fund LAW in a timely manner, so too do questions remain about their willingness to buy traditional amphibious ships. Congress in its fiscal 2021 defense policy and spending bills gave the Navy permission to buy four amphibious ships in a block buy meant to provide stability for industry and a better price for the military. The Navy let that authority lapse, irritating several lawmakers who wanted to see these ships — which they say the Navy and Marines will inevitably need down the road, especially if tensions continue to rise with China — purchased now as part of a fleet buildup.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., asked about this standoff in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday on the nomination of Adm. Christopher Grady to serve as the next vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Grady, who until recently served as the commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, said “amphibious warships and the renaissance that’s underway in the amphibious warfare now is growing and palpable, and the naval integration between what the commandant and the [chief of naval operations] are trying to do has a lot of momentum right now going forward.”
Still, acknowledging the capability the traditional amphibious warships provide to the naval services, he didn’t commit to any future support for buying these ships or a timeline for when discussions between the Navy and Marine Corps, and the greater joint force, might yield some resolution.
Berger said during the forum that Marines are looking at ways to use traditional amphib ships as “motherships” to launch unmanned air or sea systems from their decks. He said it’s never been done before, but he hopes that will happen in about two years.
“They’re like the magic Swiss Army knife now, unmanned or manned,” Berger said. “Why would you not try to use it every way you can? Just expand our toolkit.”
Berger said the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory is working on figuring out what it would take to turn big amphibs into unmanned vehicle motherships. But it will take some time for the Corps to get its aerial systems to a point where they can take off from ships, he said.
“We’re talking about an unmanned system that you could take off vertically, off of an amphib ship, recover it — there’s nothing like that right now,” Berger said. “Part of it is not having the right systems. They weren’t built for that.”
Unmanned submersibles pose similar challenges, Berger said.
“We have them now that do certain tasks, but they were never envisioned to come out of the well deck of an amphib,” Berger said. “Everything from the training of the crew, the fusion of the network systems that would be required [would have to be changed]. Because if you’re going to have things swimming around underwater, but are talking back to the ship, the ship wasn’t built for that.”
Despite the budgetary and logistical challenges, Berger said he’s optimistic about finding a way to make his ideas happen.
“We have some thinking to do,” Berger said. “But it’s all possible.”
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter at Defense News. He previously reported for Military.com, covering the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare. Before that, he covered U.S. Air Force leadership, personnel and operations for Air Force Times.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs, and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.