Give Marines the Sea-Going Tools They Need to Pack a Punch


By Mackenzie Eaglen

When war broke out in Gaza and shortly thereafter Houthi fighters threatened shipping in the Red Sea, US Marine forces of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) were quickly routed to the area to reinforce allies. Since their deployment in October, this unit now faces an indefinite extension since the Navy does not have enough amphibious warships ready to replace them.

“Wars are a come-as-you-are game,” one Marine leader recently stated. But a lack of ready and available amphibs mean the US Marine Corps may no longer be “a crisis response force.”

It is problem only worsening with time. This amphib shortage is the “single biggest existential threat” to the Marine Corps, according to its modernization chief, Lt. Gen Karsten Heckl.

Heckl outlined the arc of the challenge, including the overuse of amphibious ships during the war on terror; the backseat maintenance took as a result of high operational tempo for the wars; and a lack of new construction. “We have the MEUs trained and ready to go, but we don’t have the amphibious ships,” Heckl told recently told reporters.

A ship shortfall has led to significant gaps in availability of Marines worldwide, which means fewer options for combatant commanders trying to keep the peace in three theaters across the globe simultaneously.

This lack of ready amphibs has led to outright absence, degrading the US military’s ability to deter aggression and bolster allies. Gen. Heckl emphasized that the “sporadic nature” of Marine expeditionary unit deployments has meant the nation loses “a lot.”

Last winter, Marines were stuck on-base and forced to skip a training exercise in Japan, due to a lack of available ships. After last February’s devastating earthquake in Turkey, the Marine commandant Gen. David Berger said he could not send help to a key NATO ally.

In theater were the Marines, the equipment, and the proper training for units. What was missing was an amphibious ship ready for rapid response nearby.

The result, according to Gen. Berger, was that the combatant commander “didn’t have a sea-based option. That’s how we reinforce embassies, that’s how we evacuate them… I feel like I let down the combatant commander.”

The too-few-ships burden is borne disproportionately by other Marine units in the meantime, especially given that “there is simply no immediate fix.”

With no ships ready to replace deployed Marines, the Pentagon has announced extended deployments. These extensions have consequences that ripple through the force for years. Extending an Amphibious Ready Group has “a lot of ramifications, both material-wise and [for] manpower,” according to Gen. Heckl. It means that particular ship is now staying underway longer than had been planned, which will delay a scheduled maintenance availability and further hinder readiness.

Additionally, “maintaining good faith and trust” with Marines who may be involuntarily extended in service is lost or frayed as a result.

Other units are forced to go to sea in “non-traditional ways.” Such methods include moving command elements by land and air, relying on external aviation assets to get to and around the theater, or using different ships like the expeditionary sea base and expeditionary fast transport.

Still, Heckl has made it clear that these alternatives are no replacement for a “Marine Expeditionary Unit, properly armed and trained,” which is a “serious power-projection capability for the joint force and the combatant commander.”

For the past two fiscal years, the Defense Department has halted further acquisition of Flight II San Antonio-class amphibious warships—even though the requirement of 31 amphibs is codified in law. Despite this statute, Navy shipbuilding plans continue to indicate that the amphib fleet is set to keep shrinking well into the future.

This uncertainty towards amphib procurement has the shipbuilding industrial base languishing as it awaits orders. This continued decade-long ambiguity makes it “difficult for companies to make business decisions with an eye to the future.”

Worse, “inconsistent demand from the Pentagon” and unpredictable build schedules (known as construction centers) have contributed to the scarcity of shipbuilding suppliers and vendors, which is “a serious vulnerability throughout the supply chain,” according to the Amphibious Warship Industrial Base Coalition chair.

After the Marines sent the “halted” LPD-33 amphibious warship to the top of their FY 2024 Unfunded Priority List, authorizers in Congress made sure of its inclusion in this year’s defense policy bill. To send a signal to industry and equip the Marines for the challenges at hand, Congressional appropriators must follow their authorizing counterparts and provide $1 billion in incremental funding for advance procurement and construction of LPD-33.

Marine commanders have repeatedly stressed that the 31 amphib requirement is not just a recommendation but the bare minimum to complete their missions. Marine leaders like Gen. Heckl have emphasized that the force may need upwards of 35 amphibs to meet actually meet its goals laid out in the Force Design 2030 transformation effort. If the Marines don’t have ships, combatant commanders will lose their crisis response force they’ve come to rely on—and options continue to contract. For the Marines to pack their punch, they need the tools to show up on scene quickly and deter, fight, and win.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she works on defense strategy, defense budgets, and military readiness. Before joining AEI, Ms. Eaglen worked on defense issues in the House of Representatives, in the US Senate, and at the Pentagon in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and on the Joint Staff.  A prolific thinker and writer on defense-related issues, Ms. Eaglen is regularly published in the popular press and testified before Congress.

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