Corps Committed to National Defense Strategy While Continuing to Fill Traditional Missions, Including Counter-Insurgency, Commandant Tells Defense Forum

WASHINGTON — Although the Marine Corps is responding to the National Defense Strategy’s focus on preparing for the return to great power competition, “we still have to operate across the full range of military operations,” the Marines’ top officer said March 13.

While the potential risk from a major regional fight against a peer competitor is high, it’s hard to say what is the probability of that occurring, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert B. Neller said.

“How much of your force do you focus on that? How much of your force do you focus on the day-to-day capacity” for missions such as humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, crisis response, Neller asked rhetorically.

In addition to explaining the major changes in training the Corps is making to prepare for a possible high-end conflict against a great power rival, Neller noted that the counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism fights the Marines have been waging for 18 years “is still going to go on.” The “physical caliphate” created by the ISIS extremist in Iraq and Syria may be about to be eliminated, “but ISIS is not going to go away.”

“Ninety percent of what we do will not be against peer competitors, it will be against somebody else,” Neller told the audience at the McAleese/Credit Suisse defense forum.

Working from that conclusion, Neller made a strong argument for the amphibious force, which he said was “the capability that allows you to do 80 to 90 percent of everything you do day to day,” to get where needed, to do exercises with allies and friends, to establish strong presence and to go ashore if needed without worrying about sovereignty issues.

With a strong amphibious fleet “you can operate across nearly 90 percent of the range of military operations,” up to a high-end conflict. “At the end of the day, it gives the nation one of two forcible entry capabilities,” he said. The other being an Army airborne assault.

“I think the value it brings to the nation is incredibly important.”

The question then is how many amphibious ships are needed, what capabilities they have, and that debate is going on, Neller added.

Asked his reaction to the fact that the Navy’s requested fiscal 2020 shipbuilding budget, which would buy 12 ships, does not contain any amphibs and there are only three in the five-year budget plan that seeks 51 ships, Neller said: “We know we have to compete against other capabilities.”

He said the Marines would have liked to have the first amphibious transport dock (LPD) Flight II, which will replace the aged and low-capability dock landing ships, moved forward. The LPD is planned for fiscal 2021. Neller said he would “make my case as best I can” to the House Armed Services Seapower and

Projection Forces subcommittee chairman, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), and the subcommittee’s ranking member, U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.).

The budget plan also delays the next amphibious assault ship, LHA-9, until 2024, despite concerns from the amphibious shipbuilding industry that the delay would make it difficult to maintain skilled workers and suppliers.

Asked in a separate session with reporters about the low priority for amphibs, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John M. Richardson said the shipbuilding budget reflected “warfighting priorities.” And he said the LHA-9 “is good where it is.”

Neller described in considerable detail what the Marines are doing to prepare for a potential high-end fight, including developing capabilities to engage in information warfare, offensive and defensive cyber, training to operate in an information-denied environment and conducting intense force-on-force exercises. The Corps also is seeking better long-range, precision-fire weapons, air and missile defenses and the capability to help the Navy fight for sea control against a peer adversary.

He also said he did not ask for an increase in personnel because “I want to be able to train the Marines I have” and did not want to grow the force during a time of rising budgets and then “have people who don’t have the gear they need” if funding was cut.