US Marine Corps Updates Needs for Drones and Ships for Amphibious Warfare

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Marine Corps is considering which unmanned systems and diversion technology will benefit the force during amphibious operations in the coming decades and what mix of ships would best serve future missions.

The update comes as the agency and the Pentagon grapple with what future warfare may demand of American forces.

In his annual update on 5 June — part of the ongoing work of the House Force Design 2030 Modernization Sale — the agency has two parallel efforts: a concept for 21st-century amphibious operations that the corps is studying with the Navy; and an ARG/MEU Next concept, which refers to the pairing of ships and embarked forces of amphibious ready groups/Naval mission units.

The 21st Century Amphibious Operations concept will “articulate the future role of amphibious operations in support of maritime campaigns and describe new methods of operation that incorporate flexible platforms to complement traditional amphibious ships,” according to the Force Design update.

Examples given include long-range, unmanned systems that can penetrate the enemy’s weapons engagement zone, manned-unmanned fleets, and other “disruptive technologies.”

This idea looks to the 2040s and looks at how the Marines could conduct amphibious operations.

A new aspect of amphibious operations could involve military vessels serving as motherships to unmanned systems operating in various areas of warfare.

Col. Daniel Wittnam, director of the agency’s Integration Division, told Defense News in a recent interview that the commandant of the Marine Corps is interested in putting anything unmanned or autonomous on amphibious ships for experimentation.

“The mothership concept is another opportunity for the Marine Corps to demonstrate flexibility and be able to demonstrate resiliency by looking at manned and unmanned teaming and different platforms to use new and emerging technologies with our ARG/MEU teams,” Wittnam said.

He said the agency already had funding to deploy the Shield AI-built V-BAT unmanned aerial vehicle on amphibious ships, and that the first long-range unmanned surface vessel prototype would be flown in the coming months from Virginia to California to begin a user evaluation, which will include operations with a Marine expeditionary unit at sea.

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This conceptual study will focus on how amphibious forces will fight, not how many ships the Corps needs to buy and maintain for the Navy.

However, although the agency is taking a longer-term view of this part of its portfolio, there is currently significant uncertainty surrounding these activities.

The Marine Corps, Navy and Office of the Secretary of Defense have different views on the role of amphibious operations in today’s joint force, and thus how much money they should spend on maintaining existing ships and building replacements.

Congress has attempted to partially resolve the dispute by legislating a minimum fleet of 31 ships, but the current long-term shipbuilding plan falls short of that mandate. In addition, the Pentagon has shown no sign of support for additional shipbuilding spending that would be needed to maintain a 31-ship fleet.

Despite multiple studies over the past few years on the size of the amphibious fleet needed, another study is nearing completion and will look at ship design, acquisition and construction processes, looking at opportunities to reduce fleet costs.

The Marine Corps pushed back against that idea, with Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, the deputy commandant for combat deployment and integration, telling Defense News this year that draft plans from the Pentagon would reduce the ships’ capability in a way that the service considers unacceptable.

The study is currently owed to the Pentagon’s Office of Cost Estimates and Program Evaluation. It’s unclear what will happen when the office receives input from the Marine Corps and Navy, as leadership has said only that the study will inform the 2025 budget process.

“I’m very pessimistic,” Heckl said during the recent interview about his near-term outlook for amphibious fleet size and readiness. “Until amphibians really become a priority, this will always be a struggle – to procure and then maintain. The fact that these boats have been ridden hard and wet just shows how useful they are: They are in constant demand.”

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He recommended that the Ministry of Defense review the way the ships are financed. Currently, only the Navy can purchase these ships in its shipbuilding account, and only the Navy can maintain them in its operations and maintenance account, even though the Marines are the primary beneficiaries of the ships.

Fleet combinations

As a hedge against the projected shortage of amphibious ships, the Marine Force Planning update also addresses the composition of the ARG/MEU team.

As part of the ARG/MEU Next effort, the Corps is considering different ship configurations – including existing Navy expeditionary ships and possible “lower-cost alternative alternatives” to amphibious complements – that could keep Marines afloat throughout the people.

In the future, the Navy and Marine Corps could use a larger number of smaller and cheaper ships to “complicate our adversaries’ ability to find and target our maritime expeditionary forces,” according to the Force Design briefing paper.

Wittnam said earlier in his career there were typically three ARG/MEU teams at sea. But today, it’s hard to keep two—or even one—at sea.

Marines need new ideas to address mobility, or their ability to move independently of joint forces, which Wittnam called a top concern for Force Design’s next year of experimentation.

Despite Heckl’s concerns about the current ARG/MEU team and the ability to augment the fleet in the coming years, the general said the Marines “will do what we’ve always done, what we frankly do very, very well: We” will fight for every penny we can get with Congress and we don’t care who gets hurt along the way because we’re doing it to get what our nation needs.”

Megan Eckstein is the naval war reporter at Defense News. Covers military news since 2009, focusing on US Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs, and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest reporting stories from a ship. Megan is a graduate of the University of Maryland.

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