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

The update comes as the service and the Pentagon grapple with what future warfare might require of American forces.

In its annual update on June 5 — part of the Corps’ ongoing Force Design 2030 modernization push — the service laid out two parallel efforts: a 21st Century Amphibious Operations concept the Corps is studying with the Navy; and an ARG/MEU Next concept, which refers to the amphibious ready group/Marine expeditionary unit pairing of ships and embarked forces.

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

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

This concept looks into the 2040s and considers how Marines might conduct amphibious operations.

One new facet of amphibious operations could involve military vessels serving as motherships to unmanned systems that operate in several domains of warfare.

Col. Daniel Wittnam, the director of the service’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 onto amphibious ships for experimentation.

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

He said the service already had funding to deploy the Shield AI-made V-BAT unmanned aerial vehicle on amphibious ships, and that the first Long-Range Unmanned Surface Vessel prototype would in the coming months move from Virginia to California to begin a user evaluation, which will include operations with a Marine expeditionary unit at sea.

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

Still, even as the service takes a longer-term look at this piece of its portfolio, there is significant uncertainty hanging over its head about these operations today.

The Marine Corps, the Navy and the Office of the Secretary of Defense have differing views on the role of amphibious operations in today’s joint force, and therefore how much money to spend on upkeeping existing ships and building replacements.

Congress attempted to partly settle the dispute by putting a 31-ship-fleet minimum into law, but the current long-range shipbuilding plan of record falls short of that mandate. Furthermore, the Pentagon has shown no sign of support for additional shipbuilding spending that would be needed to sustain a 31-ship fleet.

Despite multiple studies in recent years on the required size of the amphibious fleet, yet another study is nearing its conclusion and will look at ships’ design, acquisition and construction processes, eyeing opportunities to decrease the cost of the fleet.

The Marine Corps has pushed back on this idea, with Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, the deputy commandant for combat development and integration, telling Defense News this year that rough drawings from the Pentagon would reduce the capability of the ships in a way the service finds unacceptable.

The study is due to the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office imminently. It is unclear what will happen once the office receives the Marine Corps’ and the Navy’s input, as leadership has only said the study will inform the fiscal 2025 budget process.

“I’m very pessimistic,” Heckl said during the recent interview about his near-term outlook on the amphibious fleet’s size and readiness. “Until amphibs genuinely become a priority, this will always be a struggle — to procure and then maintain. The fact that these vessels have been ridden hard and put away wet simply exemplifies how useable they are: They are in constant demand.”

He recommended the Defense Department reconsider how ships are funded. Currently, only the Navy can buy those vessels in its shipbuilding account, and only the Navy can maintain them within its operations and maintenance account, even though Marines are the primary beneficiaries of the ships.

Fleet combinations

As something of a hedge against the projected shortfall of amphibious ships, the Marines’ Force Design update also references a look at the ARG/MEU team’s composition.

As part of the ARG/MEU Next effort, the Corps is eyeing different ship configurations — including existing Navy expeditionary ships and potential “lower cost alternatives” to supplement amphibs — that could keep Marines afloat around the globe.

In the future, the Navy and Marine Corps could use a greater number of smaller and less expensive ships to “complicate the ability of our adversaries to find and target our sea-based expeditionary forces,” according to the Force Design update document.

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

Marines need new ideas to address mobility, or their ability to move around independently of joint force assets, which Wittnam called a top concern heading into the next year of Force Design experimentation.

Despite Heckl’s concerns about today’s ARG/MEU team and the ability to strengthen the fleet in the coming years, the general did say Marines “are going to do what we’ve always done, what quite frankly we do really, really well: We’re going to fight for every damn penny we can get with Congress, and we don’t care who gets hurt along the way because we’re doing it to have what our nation needs.”

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.

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