For several years, Washington has endured a contentious debate about the Marine Corps’ Force Design 2030. On the surface, the debate focuses on the Marines’ definition of its future roles and missions, obscuring a higher-order question. At its core, this debate is really an argument about how much anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) and amphibious lift capabilities the nation needs and can afford.1Force Design 2030 initiatives are informed by two operational concepts: Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations. See Andrew Feickert, “U.S. Marine Corps Force Design 2030 Initiative: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, June 30, 2023.
With its Force Design 2030, the Marine Corps clearly resets its warfighting priorities by unmistakably stating what it will do and, most importantly, what it will not do, which is the sine qua non of good strategy. Many defense analysts in Washington have rightly commended the Marines for such unambiguous planning and organizational integrity.2Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work concisely explained Force Design 2030. He wrote that it “envisions a Marine Corps operating in close support of the Navy’s new distributed maritime operations concept with smaller, distributed, and low-signature ‘stand-in forces.’ The idea is this: Properly executed, stand-in forces persisting close to China within contested spaces can gain and maintain a capability to rapidly strike targets while denying a coherent picture of the fleet to adversaries. Marine forces extend the fleet’s ability to sense and make sense of the environment while becoming an unavoidable obstacle to enemy actions. It does this as an inside force, disintegrating an adversary’s system from the inside out and providing opportunities for the fleet to exploit.” See Robert Work, “Marine Force Design: Changes Overdue Despite Critics’ Claims,” Texas National Security Review, The Strategist, Vol. 6, No. 3, Summer 2023. Indeed, the Marines’ efforts serve as an example to the other US military services on how to conduct force planning correctly with strategy in the lead.
The Marines wrote Force Design 2030 with an eye on sea-denial operations in the Indo-Pacific theater. The use of Marine Corps units to contribute to Navy sea-denial operations against an opposing navy by launching anti-ship cruise missiles represents an entirely new mission for the Marine Corps that does not take it back to its roots.4While the Marine Corps has its roots in the maritime domain, it has shallow ones for developing and conducting rocket and missile fires as compared to the Army. From the Corporal, Honest John, Pershing I and II, Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System, and Army’s Tactical Missile System artillery, to name but a few, the Army has a long legacy of the development and employment of land-based rocket and missile systems. The Marine Corps envisions reinforced platoon-sized units to “maneuver around the theater, moving from island to island, to fire anti-ship cruise missiles” to counter and deny sea control to Chinese forces. In addition, the Marines foresee their units “establishing and operating expeditionary advance base sites that can host and enable a variety of missions such as long-range anti-ship fires, forward arming and refueling of aircraft, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance of key maritime terrain, and air-defense and early warning.”5Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Medium Landing Ship (LSM) (Previously Light Amphibious Warship [LAW]) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, Updated August 7, 2023.
Implementing the Marines’ A2/AD capabilities requires as many as thirty-five new Navy amphibious ships to transport the new Marine units to land-based deterrence and warfighting positions, especially those located in the archipelagic and maritime nations of the Indo-Pacific theater.6Mallory Shelbourne, “Marine Corps Requirements Call for 9 Light Amphibious Ships per Regiment,” USNI News, February 14, 2023. According to this news article, Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, deputy commandant for combat development and integration, and Vice Adm. Scott Conn, deputy chief of naval operations for warfighting requirements and capabilities (OPNAV N9), “crafted requirement language that says the ultimate requirement is 35, but ‘the initial operational inventory will be 18.’” The Marines require nine amphibious ships, formally designated by the navy as Landing Ship Medium, for each of its three new Marine Littoral Regiments and eight spares for a total of thirty-five ships. Fielding these new Marine A2/AD and Navy amphibious lift capabilities has raised a number of issues. This commentary identifies ten key challenges, but, like Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports, it does not offer solutions. Resolving these issues with objective analysis will help support informed decision-making regarding the implementation of Force Design 2030.
Issue #1: Navy acquisition priorities
Setting priorities is the essence of good strategy and strategic planning. Since 2013, the Navy has consistently identified the Columbia (SSBN-826) class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) program as its number-one acquisition program. In January 2023, Admiral Michael Gilday, the chief of naval operations (CNO), announced the Navy’s next tier of acquisition priority as (1) the Next Generation Air Dominance Family of Systems (NGADS), (2) the future destroyer DDG(X), and (3) the future attack submarine SSN(X).7Sam LaGrone, “CNO Gilday: Next-Generation Air Dominance Will Come ahead of DDG(X) Destroyer,” USNI News, January 18, 2023. Only the Navy has a shipbuilding account; the Marines do not. Procurement of the thirty-five new Navy amphibious ships is a Marine top priority.8“The EABO [Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations] concept was developed with an eye toward potential conflict scenarios with China in the Western Pacific. Under the concept, the Marine Corps envisions, among other things, having reinforced-platoon-sized Marine Corps units maneuver around the theater, moving from island to island, to fire anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) and perform other missions so as to contribute, alongside Navy and other U.S. military forces, to U.S. operations to counter and deny sea control to Chinese forces. The LSMs would be instrumental to these operations, with LSMs embarking, transporting, landing, and subsequently reembarking these small Marine Corps units.” See O’Rourke, “Navy Medium Landing Ship.” If the Navy’s shipbuilding budget does not grow to accommodate the acquisition of these new ships, what must the Navy stop or reduce procuring to pay for this new class of amphibious ships?
Issue #2: Navy procurement costs for thirty-five new amphibious ships
These new amphibious ships will be around two to four hundred feet in length with a displacement of around four thousand tons and a crew of no more than forty sailors.9Ibid. The Marines are looking to buy these thirty-five ships at about $100 million to $130 million apiece starting in fiscal year (FY) 2022, with estimated total acquisition costs of between $3.5 billion and $4.5 billion.10Megan Eckstein, “Landing Ship Medium Requirements in Final Approvals with Navy, Marines,” Defense News, April 4, 2023. However, total acquisition costs may well be too optimistic.11The Navy has almost a perfect record of underestimating the acquisition costs of its ships. For example, the Littoral Combat Ship was “originally supposed to cost no more than $220 million dollars each, which had helped sell them to Congress in the first place. But the final price tag rose to about $500 million each.” See Joaquin Sapien, “The Inside Story of How the Navy Spent Billions on the ‘Little Crappy Ship,’” ProPublica, September 7, 2023. According to the CRS, under the Navy’s FY2024 budget submission, the average cost for each of the first six ships would approach $150 million. Given the analysis in two authoritative reports, the total acquisition costs may well be higher than the services’ estimates.12O’Rourke, “Navy Medium Landing Ship (LSM).”
- A November 2022 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report noted, “the Navy’s next-generation guided-missile destroyer (DDG(X)) could cost up to $3.4 billion a ship, while its next-generation SSN(X) attack submarine could cost up to $7.2 billion each.”13Sam LaGrone, “DDG(X) Destroyer Could Cost up to $3.4B a Hull, SSN(X) Attack Boat up to $7.2B, Says CBO Report,” USNI News, November 11, 2022. In addition, the average cost of each of the new Columbia-class submarines could be well over $8 billion each.14Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Columbia (SSBN-826) Class Ballistic Missile Submarine Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, March 31, 2023. The CBO report summarized that the Navy’s “total shipbuilding costs would average about $30 billion to $33 billion (in 2022 dollars) over the next 30 years, which is 14 percent to 18 percent more than the Navy [currently] estimates.”15Eric Labs, “An Analysis of the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2023 Shipbuilding Plan,” Congressional Budget Office, November 10, 2022.
- The second report, a June 2023 Government Accountability Office (GAO) document, warned that Defense Department “programs are by and large failing to deliver their promised capabilities on time and under budget, a problem that a government watchdog says helped drive taxpayer costs up by $37 billion over the past two years.”16Justin Katz, “Major Weapon System Costs Rose $37 Billion over Past Two Years: GAO,” Breaking Defense, June 9, 2023.
Given the Navy’s track record on acquisition costs and delivery times for its previous surface ships, is the range of acquisition costs from $3.5 billion to $4.55 billion for thirty-five new Navy amphibious ships credible?
Issue #3: Navy operations and maintenance costs for thirty-five new amphibious ships
Currently, the Navy is struggling to maintain its current fleet of around 299 crewed ships.17Joseph Trevithick, “Navy’s New 381-Hull Fleet Plan Recommits to Big Amphibious Warfare Ships,” The Drive, July 19, 2023.
- The Navy Times in June 2023 reported that the Navy fleet’s overall material condition declined slightly in FY2022, “‘resuming a slight but steady negative trend’ that has occurred since [FY]2017, according to the Navy’s annual Board of Inspection and Survey, or INSURV, report released by the Navy on Friday.”18Geoff Ziezulewicz, “Fleet’s Material Condition Keeps Getting Worse, New INSURV Report Says,” Navy Times, June 2, 2023.
- In July 2023, Bloomberg News reported, “Delays at naval shipyards mean that nearly 40% of US attack submarines are out of commission for repairs, about double the rate the Navy would like, according to new data released by the service.”19Anthony Capaccio, “Nearly 40% of U.S. Attack Submarines Are out of Commission for Repairs,” Bloomberg News, July 11, 2023.
- Military.com reported in July 2023 that it is not just submarines experiencing maintenance delays. The USS Boxer (LHD-4), a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship, has been in a maintenance status since June 2020.20In July 2023, KPBS San Diego commented, “Since entering a San Diego dry dock in June 2020 the amphibious assault ship Boxer has spent just seven days at sea and hasn’t left San Diego for 13 months.” See Andrew Dyer, “After Three Years and $200M in Upgrades, Why Can’t the USS Boxer Get to Sea?” KPBS Radio and Television Station, San Diego, CA, July 27, 2023; Konstantin Toropin, “After 2-Year Overhaul, Navy Confirms USS Boxer Can’t Get Underway,” Military.com, July 27, 2023.
While not publicly stated, a widely held opinion within the Navy is that the service with almost three hundred crewed ships has funding to maintain fully only around 265 ships.21The defense analyst Bryan Clark has written: “Within realistic peacetime budgets, the U.S. Navy cannot buy and sustain a force of more than about 280 ships given the current makeup of the fleet.” See Bryan Clark, “Adm. Franchetti, Biden’s Pick for CNO, Should Focus on the Short Game,” Navy Times, August 21, 2023. Underscoring this belief is the fact that 40 percent of the Navy’s attack submarines “are in maintenance and repair facilities at any given time. This puts the fleet at roughly 30 deployable boats at best, rather than the 40 to 45 expected at operating level.”22Seth Cropsey, “The Sorry State of America’s Submarine Fleet,” Wall Street Journal, September 29, 2023. Further evidence of insufficient operating and maintenance funding comes from a September 2023 GAO report, which says that “just 55% of the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter fleet was mission capable as of March 2023 … driven by factors like a lack of depot capacity, insufficient supply of spare parts and overreliance on contractors.”23Michael Marrow, “Only 55 Percent of F-35s Mission Capable, Putting Depot Work in Spotlight: GAO,” Breaking Defense, September 21, 2023. Indeed, CNO Gilday has implicitly substantiated this judgement when he clearly stated, “We can’t really afford to have a Navy bigger than the one that we can sustain.”24Loren Thompson, “The Navy Says It Can’t Afford to Fully Modernize. So What Should It Give Up?” Forbes, August 3, 2021.
If the Navy’s operations and maintenance (O&M) budget does not grow to fund the addition of thirty-five crewed ships, what must the Navy stop or reduce doing in terms of missions and functions to pay for the O&M costs of this new ship class?
Issue #4: Marine A2/AD capabilities
To strike Chinese and Russian A2/AD targets and surface ship targets, such as an amphibious assault force, Force Design 2030 calls for the Marines to use the Navy/Marine Corps Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System.25A2/AD targets primarily consist of networks of information systems that enable understanding of the battle space to include, for example, key nodes for command and control, targeting, and fusion and dissemination of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance data. For the Chinese military, these components provide the means for its theory of victory. This system uses the Naval Strike Missile (RGM-184A NSM Block 1) launched from an uncrewed variant of the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle for short-range targets. The Marines will also use this vehicle to mount a single Mk.41 vertical launch system cell to fire the BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missile against long-range targets.26Joseph Trevithick, “Navy Unveils Truck-Mounted SM-6 Missile Launcher in European Test,” The War Zone, September 14, 2022.
Separately, but with Marine and Navy coordination, the US Army is developing a robust weapon system to strike Chinese and Russian land-based A2/AD networks with its new Multi-Domain Task Forces. Major components of its system include missile artillery batteries for short-, mid-, and long-range precision fires. The mid-range system is labelled as the Strategic Mid-Range Fires System, or Typhon Weapon System. At present, a Typhon battery has four trailer-based launchers to fire either the RIM-174/SM-6 or BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles. The former missile has a demonstrated anti-ship capability and currently is the only real US military capability for intercepting incoming highly maneuverable hypersonic weapons. According to The War Zone, the door is “wide open to the possibility of future Army [Typhon] batteries being employed against a wide variety of targets in the future.”27Ibid.
The Navy is also developing a system that is identical to the Army’s Strategic Mid-Range Fires System. In September 2022, the Navy announced “it recently demonstrated a road-mobile ground-based launching system” for its multi-purpose SM-6 missiles and Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles.28Ibid. The Navy’s system, designated as the MK 70 Payload Delivery System, uses the combat-proven MK 41 Vertical Launching System (VLS) technology to provide mid-range precision fire capabilities. The launcher is housed within a forty-foot container equipped with four VLS strike-length missile cells, loaded onto a tractor trailer. Sometime in 2023, the Navy plans to demonstrate its ability to fire an AGM-88G Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile Extended Range from this ground-based launcher for suppression and destruction of enemy air defenses.29Joseph Trevithick, “Navy to Test Ground-Launched Version of New Radar-Busting Missile,” The War Zone, February 17, 2023.
Are Marine A2/AD capabilities as outlined in Force Design 2030 duplicative or complementary to Army capabilities? How much total US military capability to counter Chinese and Russian A2/AD capabilities is enough and affordable?
Issue #5: US Army landing craft capabilities
The Army is procuring a new class of landing craft, designated the Maneuver Support Vessel–Light (MSV-L), to replace its Vietnam War–era LCM-8 class. With a stern ramp and a beach ramp, this 117-foot-long (amphibious) ship is designed to carry a single Army main battle tank at a speed of twenty-one knots for a range of 360 nautical miles in high sea states, through the littorals in support of land-based operations.30Jen Judson, “US Army Seeks New Watercraft to Beef Up Indo-Pacific Capability,” Defense News, October 13, 2022. See also Ashley Roque, “With Indo-Pacific in Mind, Army Eyeing Heavy Support Ship Prototyping Competition,” Breaking Defense, March 1, 2023. “US Army plans to field two new watercraft variants to ferry troops and equipment around in the Indo-Pacific region are taking shape with a possible upcoming prototyping competition for a heavy vessel and a program ‘re-baseline’ of the service’s lighter vessel, according to service officials.”
To complement the MSV-L, the Army plans to build a four hundred–foot landing ship designated the Maneuver Support Vessel–Heavy (MSV-H) with a payload of around twelve main battle tanks, and a minimum design speed of eighteen knots. The Army’s MSV-L specifications roughly align with the Navy’s Landing Ship Medium (LSM). Brigadier General Samuel Peterson stated the “MSV-H program has been developed with Marine Corps and Navy partners in mind.”31“U.S. Army’s Next Heavy Landing Ship May Outclass Marine Corps’ LSM,” Maritime Executive, March 2, 2023.
Are the Navy’s new class of amphibious warships (the LSM) to transport the Marines’ A2/AD capabilities duplicative or complementary to US Army landing craft capabilities? Does the US military need both classes of amphibious ships or would one suffice? How much total US military capability to transport Marine and Army capabilities is enough and affordable?
Issue #6: Strategic assumption for unimpeded access
The employment of both Marine and Army land-based A2/AD weapon systems rests entirely upon the strategic assumption for unimpeded access to deterrence and warfighting geographical positions located on the sovereign territory of partner nations. Without sovereign territory access, Marine and Army A2/AD capabilities will become wasted assets. The United States cannot simply guarantee iron-clad, unconstrained entry into the archipelagic and maritime nations of the Indo-Pacific theater with the exception of treaty allies, such as Japan. However, the United States can obviously guarantee this access to NATO member nations in the European theater. This issue has not gone unnoticed:
- In July 2023, CRS recommended, “Congress might examine ongoing efforts to secure Army long-range precision fires unit basing in both Europe and the Indo-Pacific region.” CRS cited a May 2022 statement by the secretary of the Army that “the Army did not yet have basing agreements for long-range systems but ‘discussions were ongoing’ with a number of countries in the Indo-Pacific region.”32Andrew Feickert, “The U.S. Army’s Strategic Mid-range Fires (SMRF) System (Formerly Mid-range Capabilities [MRC] System),” Congressional Research Service, July 6, 2023.
- A May 2023 RAND study on ally and partner views about conflict with China concluded, “Several other regional countries—notably India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam—have very strong traditions of nonalignment and display no evidence of being willing to volunteer to join a war that does not directly involve them.” The study further noted, “The governments of many U.S. allies and partners have publicly stated that they are not interested in hosting American ground-launched long-range strike capabilities.”33Michael J. Mazarr, Derek Grossman, Jeffrey W. Hornung, Jennifer D. P. Moroney, Ashley L. Rhoades, and Andrew Stravers, “U.S. Major Combat Operations in the Indo-Pacific: Partner and Ally Views,” RAND Corporation, May 2023.
- An August 2023 RAND Commentary reported, “There is little question that New Zealand will continue to pursue an independent foreign policy, albeit perhaps a quietly Western-aligned one, when it comes to China. Washington should not become disillusioned with Wellington, but it should not hold high expectations about cooperation on China issues either.”34Derek Grossman, “New Zealand’s New Prime Minister Is Making Nice with China,” Nikkei Asia, August 9, 2023. Grossman is a RAND senior defense analyst.
- The Wall Street Journal in August 2023 reported, “Allies such as Japan and the Philippines, which control many of the most advantageous locations for these small teams, would need to consent to the U.S. using their territory in a conflict, which isn’t guaranteed.”35Mike Cherney, “U.S. Marines Switch Gears amid China Strife,” Wall Street Journal, August 3, 2023.
- Nikkei Asia published in August 2023, “While countries like Cambodia are acutely sensitive to being seen as subordinate to China, they seem resigned to playing that role. Few are caught up in the kind of ideological debates that prevail in Washington. The catchphrase that one hears throughout Southeast Asia to describe foreign policy is ’friends to all, enemies to none,’ which is another way of telling the U.S. the nations will sit out of any conflict. ‘We don’t see China from an ideological perspective,’ said one Indonesian official, ‘but as just another country.’”36Richard McGregor, “China’s Grip on Southeast Asia Tightens as U.S. Influence Wanes—from Vietnam to Indonesia, development aid and ‘Asian values’ drive Beijing’s dominance,” Nikkei Asia, August 16, 2023. McGregor is a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia. He also noted: “At the opening of a conference on Chinese politics in Hanoi late last year, the Vietnamese host was quick to reassure the delegates. ‘Talking about a country’s political system,’ she said, ‘is not the same as interfering in a country’s political system.’ Few countries know China as well as Vietnam and are as adept at handling it, with skills learned over hundreds of years of managing cross-border trade and skirmishes and, sometimes, war—on land and at sea. Yet the fact that the Vietnamese felt compelled to open a closed-door talkfest on Xi Jinping and his mastery over the Chinese Communist Party with a disclaimer underlines how southeastern nations are struggling with Beijing’s growing strength and assertiveness.”
- The Australian reported in August 2023, “Support for AUKUS [the trilateral security pact among Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States] will remain a key part of the Labor Party’s platform despite an internal dispute and a spirited debate on the floor of the national conference on Friday. After a delay to allow Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to speak, Defence Minister Richard Marles moved to include a ’statement of detail,’ offering specific reasons for Labor’s support of the historic trilateral pact inked by the previous Coalition government in a bid to quell internal unrest.”37Ellen Ransley and Courtney Gould, “AUKUS to Stay as ‘Difficult’ Debate Lays Bare Labor Party Unrest,” The Australian, August 18, 2023.
- A September 2023 RAND report commented that a US strategic assumption for unimpeded base access during a conflict “certainly does not hold true in the Indo-Pacific, where many countries would want to remain aloof from a U.S.-China conflict.”38Mazarr, “Defending without Dominance.”
While relations with key US allies and partners are, for the most part, moving in the right direction for assured access, US national interests will not always coincide with the allied and partner nations’ national interests. In September 2023, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated that Turkey would finally support Sweden’s NATO membership if the United States sold Turkey F-16 fighters.39Ben Hubbard, “Erdogan Says Turkey’s Parliament Will Ratify Sweden’s Entry into NATO if the U.S. Sells Turkey Fighter Jets,” New York Times, September 26, 2023. At almost the same time, Poland announced “it will stop providing [the newest] weapons [that Poland is buying] to Ukraine amid a growing dispute between the two countries over a temporary ban on Ukrainian grain imports.”40Mitchell McCluskey, Mariya Knight, and Jessie Yeung, “Poland Will Stop Providing Weapons to Ukraine as Dispute over Grain Imports Deepens,” CNN, September 21, 2023. As a reminder, “South Korea has prohibited its weapons from being sent to Ukraine, and Britain and the United States are trying to rebuild their own stockpiles as NATO urges its members to bolster depleted reserves as a safeguard.”41Lara Jakes, “E.U.’s Lack of Arms Hobbles Aid to Ukraine,” New York Times (International Edition), September 26, 2023. Wrong strategic assumptions about national interest or what a potential enemy will or will not do have huge consequences. Canadian historian and professor at the University of Oxford Dr. Margaret MacMillan warned military strategists and planners not to “draw conclusions about the actions and thinking of the other side which fit the scenarios they were developing.” She underscored her insight that prior to World War I (WWI), “[The] French chose to believe that the Germans would not use the reserves in the right wing, [and] the Germans hoped the invasion of Belgium would not bring Britain in against them.”42Margaret MacMillan, “Strategy, War Plans, and the First World War,” in The New Makers of Modern Strategy: From the Ancient World to the Digital Age, ed. Hal Brands (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2023), 493. (Dr. MacMillan is the author of the best-selling history book Paris 1919.)
Those WWI strategic assumptions proved fatally flawed. Likewise, are the Marines’ and Army’s strategic assumption for unimpeded access to ground-based deterrence and warfighting positions located on the sovereign territory of partner nations for its counter A2/AD capabilities guaranteed? Much strategic risk and emerging warfighting capabilities, as well as expenditure of capital, are resting on this single assumption about access. Is the potential for lack of access a single point of failure for these A2/AD capabilities? If access is not ironclad, what are the alternatives? While the US military must make planning assumptions, it must also have a Plan B should an assumption fail to prove out.
Issue #7: Marine Corps ship priorities for the Navy’s acquisition
Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert O. Work has authoritatively explained the rationale for the new class of thirty-five amphibious ships. He wrote:
If it is not possible to assemble “a large amphibious force within the range rings” of the Chinese A2/AD networks, then what is the Marines’ rationale for its planned requirement of thirty-one large amphibious assault ships?45“10 U.S.C. 8062(b) requires the Navy to include not less than 31 operational amphibious warfare ships. The 31 amphibious ships are to include not less than 10 LHA/LHD-type ‘big deck’ amphibious assault ships, with the remaining amphibious ships within the total of not less than 31 amphibious ships being LPD/LSD-type amphibious ships. The Navy’s force of amphibious ships at the end of FY2022 included 31 larger ships, including 9 amphibious assault ships (2 LHAs and 7 LHDs), 12 LPD-17 Flight I class ships, and 10 older LSD-41/49 class ships. The Navy’s FY2024 budget submission projects that the Navy at the end of FY2024 will include 29 larger amphibious ships, including 9 LHA/LHD-type ships, 13 LPD Flight I class ships, and 7 LSD-41/49 class ships.” See Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy LPD-17 Flight II and LHA Amphibious Ship Programs: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, Updated August 23, 2023. (These ships are also known as the L-class ships.) Mark Cancian, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, observed that the controversy over the number of amphibious ships “would die down if the Marine Corps offered a strong wartime rationale for 31 large amphibious ships.” He noted that the Marines argue that peacetime presence and crisis response require thirty-one L-class amphibious assault ships, as supported by the historical record. However, according to Cancian, the weakness of the Marines’ argument “is that the Marine Corps wants to build extremely capable and expensive platforms that it has already argued are vulnerable in wartime. If the main requirement is peacetime employment, then different and much cheaper platforms would suffice.”46Mark Cancian, “To Cool the War over Amphibs, the Navy and Marines Need a Clearer Justification,” Breaking Defense, June 27, 2023.
Additionally, if “two decades of wargaming and campaign analysis” supported the requirement for this new class of small amphibious ships, did the Marines and Navy ignore the data’s implications for the L-class ships? It seems unlikely that the United States would entertain the introduction of ground forces into mainland China and for what end—Beijing regime change or even a 1942 Dieppe-like raid?47Megan Eckstein, “Marines Want 31 Amphibious Ships. The Pentagon Disagrees. Now What?” Defense News, May 2, 2023. Dr. Jerry Hendrix, a senior fellow at the Sagamore Institute, has stated that the Marine Corps has
The Office of the Secretary of Defense may have similar concerns about the deterrent value generated by thirty-one L-class amphibious assault ships loaded with Marines conducting presence operations. It is likely that the Office of the Secretary of Defense questions the return on investment of these amphibious ships for a high-end conflict with China. However, a war with China would be global, and the L-class ships formed into amphibious-ready groups with their embarked Marines could, for example, act as the key means for a global horizontal escalation campaign against the Chinese economic assets that directly underpin China’s status as a superpower state. For example, they could neutralize the Chinese military base in the Republic of Djibouti to provide US control over multiple nearby maritime chokepoints to include the southern entrance into the Red Sea. To be fair, the L-class amphibious assault ships have great utility in the wider strategic campaign, beyond the operational aspects and confines of the Sino-American conflict in the Indo-Pacific.
In a budget-constrained environment, CNO Gilday noted that “as the service prepares for a potential fight against China, it must prioritize programs most relevant to that conflict.”49RAND analysts Bradley Martin and Christopher G. Pernin report that in the Indo-Pacific area of responsibility, “Intra-theater lift over water will require significant new capabilities, which no service has so far fully funded, just as no service has as yet been assigned responsibility for providing these capabilities—nor does the Department of Defense show any signs of designating a responsible party. In the absence of a unifying and coherent plan, the different services are moving forward with their own initiatives for intra-theater logistics.” Bradley Martin and Christopher G. Pernin, “So Many Questions, So Little Time for Pacific Logistics,” Breaking Defense, Commentary, June 23, 2023. Are thirty-one large amphibious assault ships relevant to a Chinese warfight? Are the acquisitions priorities of Landing Ship Medium and the big deck amphibs the same or is one more important than the other?
As of late June 2023, the Navy supported the Marines’ requirement for thirty-one large amphibious ships. On June 20, 2023, the Navy quietly submitted to Congress its classified Battle Force Ship Assessment and Requirement Report, indicating that the “Navy had a ‘future objective’ in the Report for 31 amphibious ships and that the analysis affirmed the amphibious ship total.”50Sam LaGrone, “Navy Raises Battle Force Goal to 381 Ships in Classified Report to Congress,” USNI News, July 18, 2023.
Is the Marine Corps’ rationale for thirty-five new amphibious ships consistent with its rationale for thirty-one large amphibious assault ships? If the Navy can fund the acquisition of only either the thirty-five new amphibious ships or the thirty-one large amphibious assault ships, which one has the higher priority between the two types of amphibious lift capabilities?
Issue #8: Joint Force acquisition priorities
In a possible future war with China, the Chinese will almost certainly immediately destroy the Navy’s principal logistical nodes in Japan: six major fuel oil depots; the Urago ammunition depot; and the Yokosuka naval base, which is the only facility in the Western Pacific that can repair aircraft carriers.51Toshi Yoshirara, “Chinese Views of Future Warfare in the Indo-Pacific: First Strike and U.S. Forward Bases in Japan” in The Road to Pearl Harbor: Great Power War in Asia and the Pacific, ed. John H. Maurer and Erik Goldstein (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2022). Guam would likely suffer the same fate, and there is little available back-up basing in the so-called Second Island Chain. The fighting then would extend across the Indo-Pacific theater, likely becoming global in scope as well as growing into a long war of attrition and sustainment. The logistical challenges would be immense, with the Chinese greatly benefitting from interior lines of communication.
Should war occur, the Chinese will likely follow the example set by the Imperial Japanese military on December 10, 1941. With one large aerial attack, the Japanese destroyed the US Navy’s Cavite naval base, whose “facilities served as the operational home of the US Asiatic Fleet and together constituted the Navy’s largest base in the Pacific west of Pearl Harbor.”52John J. Domalgalski, “Disaster at Cavite,” Naval History Magazine, Vol. 32, No. 6, December 2018. In fact, Cavite was the only Navy ship repair facility in the western Pacific. With his major operating base virtually demolished, Admiral Thomas Hart, US Asiatic Fleet commander, ordered Cavite abandoned. After Cavite’s loss, the Navy conducted ad hoc logistics support for its ships, as it ceded the operational theater to the Imperial Japanese Navy.53Ibid.
In a war with China, US lines of communication will stretch for thousands of miles from the homeland to the operating areas. These sea lines of communication, as well as US ports, will require protection because China has the means and the will to interdict and sever these lines to isolate US fighting forces and prevent their sustainment.
In August 2023, the Wall Street Journal reported in an article about the Marines that “the U.S. must figure out how to deploy, supply and provide medical care for troops over the Indo-Pacific’s vast distances.”54Cherney, “U.S. Marines Switch Gears.” RAND analysts Bradley Martin and Christopher G. Pernin have confirmed this reporting about the inadequate state of the logistics capabilities for a war with China. In their June 2023 report, Martin and Pernin stated:
These are sobering observations.56Breaking Defense reported in August 2023: “The challenge of resupplying forces across vast distances in the Indo-Pacific in the event of a fight is still vexing the Pentagon, with a key Air Force logistician saying that “though there are several options to solve the problem, officials aren’t sure what path might be best.” According to Breaking Defense, US Air Force Colonel James Hartle, the associate director of logistics, headquarters, US Air Force, stated that keeping the forces resupplied “is probably the largest conundrum of them all as we look at this problem set. I don’t think we have a good answer yet.” See Michael Marrow, “‘Largest Conundrum of Them All’: Air Force Still Unsure How to Keep Forces Supplied in Indo-Pacific,” Breaking Defense, August 30, 2023. As mentioned, CNO Gilday noted that the Navy “must prioritize programs most relevant” to a conflict with China. What can be more relevant to a conflict with China than logistics, especially with a US Navy conducting distributed operations, likely without the availability of Guam? Logistics ships to sustain combat, submarine tenders to rearm submarines, and oilers to refuel distributed forces across the vast Pacific distances may be more needed by the Navy than a new class of thirty-five amphibious ships. From a joint force perspective, how does the Marine Corps’ acquisition priorities for A2/AD and sealift capabilities compare with other capability requirements, such as the Navy’s logistics ships and inventories of weapons?57Retired US Navy Admiral Mark Montgomery and Bradley Bowman have noted, “Wargaming and operational exercises show that long-range strike weapons are America’s most reliable tool to both win a conflict with China and reduce U.S. casualties. Because of the cost of long-range strike systems, the U.S. military will require a large and mixed inventory of expensive, high-lethality weapons and less expensive swarming munitions.” See Mark Montgomery and Bradley Bowman, “Five Urgent Steps to Prevent American Military Defeat in the Pacific,” Defense News, June 12, 2023.
Moreover, in March 2022, the US military’s Indo-Pacific logistics posture further worsened with the permanent closure of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in Oahu, Hawaii, by the secretary of defense.58“Statement by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III on the Closure of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility,” Department of Defense, Press Release, March 7, 2022. With twenty massive fuel tanks, this centrally located facility had a capacity of 250 million gallons of ship and aircraft fuel to support current operations and act as wartime reserve.59Craig Hooper, “New U.S. Pacific Defense Crisis as Navy Missteps Threaten Hawaii Fuel Depot,” Forbes, December 7, 2022. Its replacement, according to the Indo-Pacific Command Strategic Fuel Storage Plans, consists of leveraging commercial infrastructure to provide a mix of undisclosed storage facilities scattered across the Indo-Pacific theater.60Department of Defense, “Closure of Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in Oahu, Hawaii and Redistribution of Fuel in Accordance with INDOPACOM Strategic Fuel Storage Plans Permanent Closure of Red Hill,” Fact Sheet, March 7, 2022. It is not clear how the lack of ready access to fuel will affect US military strategy.61US Army Colonel Jon Klug, an assistant professor at the US Army War College, has written: “Despite old military wisdom, logistics often gets short shrift in professional publications outside those specifically focused on the subject. Current practice in the Russo-Ukrainian War validated that the importance of logistics upon military strategy is alive and well in the Twenty-first Century. In conclusion, logistics affect military strategy by circumscribing the ways, defining the time horizon required to achieve the desired ends, and determining the level of risk.” See Jon Klug, “Establishing the Realm of the Possible: Logistics and Military Strategy,” Military Strategy Magazine, Vol. 9, No. 1 (summer 2023).
Issue #9: Priority naval warfighting missions and size of the US Navy’s fleet
In a war with China, Navy forces would protect the new class of thirty-five amphibious ships transporting the Marines to A2/AD warfighting positions. In addition to delivering and protecting the Marines, the Navy will need to sustain the Marines and protect the sustainment force supporting these widely dispersed Marines once in their firing positions. The Navy will also need to deliver and protect these Marines should they relocate to other firing positions. Sustainment will be a major operational factor, given the high rate of expected missile fires in a war of attrition versus the small quantity of missiles the Marines will bring to its warfighting positions.
It is not just the Marines that require Navy support. The US Army may also require the Navy to protect the Army ships delivering the Army’s A2/AD capabilities to its firing positions. As discussed above, the Army is procuring its own A2/AD delivery forces with a fleet of maneuver support vessels (also known as amphibious ships) to transport its Multi Domain Task Forces. These Army ships have very limited self-protection and require naval over-watch for operations in non-benign environments.
Note, to some observers, it is not entirely clear how the Marines, “holding and fighting from small forward outposts during a conflict,” expect “Navy ships to resupply such outposts under fire.”62Bradley Peniston, “State of the Navy 2023,” Defense One, March 2, 2023. In April 2023, FerryBridge Group Managing Director Bryan McGrath commented that he “can’t yet pin the Marine Corps down on its use case” for the new class of thirty-five amphibious ships. He stated that when the Marine Corps talks about this ship in a fight, “they talk about how it’s going to get out of the way,” noting the difficulty involved in such an operation. He concluded that “Congress should look really carefully at it.”63Luckenbaugh, “31 Amphibious Ships Are ‘Not Enough,’ Expert Says.”
Nonetheless, the Navy will be hard-pressed to provide sufficient forces to protect the delivery and sustainment of geographically distributed Army and Marine A2/AD forces. In a war with China over Taiwan, the Navy would face enormous demands for its forces to conduct an array of vital missions around the globe. Some of these missions may have a higher priority than escorting and sustaining Marine and Army A2/AD capabilities scattered across the archipelagic and maritime nations of the Indo-Pacific theater.64In a potential war with China, US Congressman Mike Waltz (R-FL) has noted that such a war “with any level of attrition in the Pacific could quickly turn catastrophic [for the United States] without sufficient warships, combat logistics vessels, and merchant ships. Outnumbered and without the capacity to replace, refuel, and provision our troops, we would struggle to deliver victory.” See Mike Waltz, “America Needs a National Maritime Strategy,” Real Clear Defense, September 27, 2023.
A few examples of these other competing high-priority missions include the following:
- Destroy the Chinese military forces invading Taiwan and deny Chinese achievement of its objectives
- Protect and defend Japan, South Korea, and Australia
- Isolate and strangle China from its war-making resources by maritime blockade
- Destroy Chinese forces beyond the Indo-Pacific theater, such as those at Djibouti
- Conduct active homeland defense to include not just Hawaii and Guam but also continental US Navy bases and critical transportation nodes, such as commercial seaports65The US strategic assumption that “the U.S. homeland would be largely immune from attack” is no longer valid … not only because of the risk of nuclear escalation (even with such adversaries as North Korea) but also because of advanced cyber and biological weapons and the potential for long-range conventional attacks. In any future conflict, the United States will have to assume that the homeland will be drawn in and that the conflict may not be able to stay limited to conventional weapons.” See Mazarr, “Defending without Dominance.”
- Maintain active surveillance of Chinese ballistic missile submarines
- Protect US sealift forces sustaining the joint force from US ports to the Indo-Pacific delivery ports
- Protect the Navy’s combat logistics force sustaining the widely distributed naval forces
- Deter Russia, Iran, and North Korea as opportunistic adversaries as well as from conducing malicious behaviors
- Maintain active surveillance of Russian ballistic missile submarines
While fighting the Chinese and deterring all other enemies, the Navy must be mindful to maintain its combat credibility throughout the duration of the conflict, especially for the purposes of eventual war termination. Clearly, the US Navy must avoid—in strategic terms—a “means-ends” misalignment. In short, the United States cannot lose its Navy defending Taiwan.66Retired US Navy Admiral Mark Montgomery and Bradley Bowman have noted, “Repeated wargaming of Taiwan conflict scenarios in the 2027-time frame demonstrates that even if the United States acts promptly and decisively once the conflict begins, American military forces would often be stretched too thin to support Taiwan quickly enough to prevent a fait accompli.” See Mark Montgomery and Bradley Bowman, “Five Urgent Steps to Prevent American Military Defeat in the Pacific,” Defense News, June 12, 2023.
Furthermore, while the Navy has around three hundred crewed ships, it will not have all of these ships initially available for the fight. A number of ships will be in some form of repair status, to include long-term maintenance. Others, unfortunately, that are pier-side in ports will likely be destroyed or severely damaged in the Chinese initial strikes, as the Chinese have the advantage to select the time and place to commence hostilities, not to mention enormous quantities of munitions. Moreover, given Chinese capabilities, US Navy ship losses in port may not just occur in Japan and Guam, but in Pearl Harbor, San Diego, and Bremerton. The naval contributions of allied nations, such as Japan and Australia, will obviously offset some level of the non-availability of US Navy forces.
In the event of a war with China, does the joint force have a clear understanding of all the competing mission priorities and the associated implications to force development and force design? Is the joint force confident its Marine and Army warfighting capabilities can get to the fight and not become wasted assets?
Issue #10: War termination
Per its most current strategy, Advantage at Sea and Naval Doctrine Publication-1 Naval Warfare (NDP-1), the US Navy places a priority emphasis on its sea control function over its other four functions, to include power projection. NDP-1 states, “Sea control is foremost among the naval functions, as it enables all others.”67The US Naval Service uses these enduring functions as its primary means to pursue national objectives in peace and war: (1) sea control; (2) power projection; (3) deterrence; (4) maritime security; and (5) sealift. Department of the Navy, Naval Doctrine Publication-1 Naval Warfare, April 2020, 22-23; Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Navy Tactical Reference Publication 1-02 (NTRP 1-02), Navy Supplement to the DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, April 2019. The Navy refers to sea control as both a core function and as a capability; however, the term also means a strategic and operational end state. The Navy does not achieve sea control for the sake of sea control, but rather for a larger, higher-order purpose. In a war with China or Russia, pursuing sea control must lead to war termination and not to attrition warfare.68In the maritime theater of the Indo-Pacific, a likelihood exists that both an adversary and the United States could experience mutual sea denial, just like the Germans and the British experienced in the North Sea during WWI. See Andrew Krepinevich, “Maritime Warfare in a Mature Precision-Strike Regime,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, April 13, 2015.
While the US Navy must emphasize sea control, especially to destroy the Chinese surface ships and amphibious forces assaulting Taiwan, the US Navy also needs to consider the implications of Chinese systems destruction warfare. The Chinese military recognizes war as “a contest among numerous adversarial operational systems. System destruction warfare, not annihilation warfare,” is the People’s Liberation Army’s current theory of victory to win the “informationized” conflicts.69Jeffrey Engstrom, Systems Confrontation and System Destruction Warfare—How the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Seeks to Wage Modern Warfare, RAND Corporation, July 2018. This warfare mode conducts “war in all seven domains simultaneously (land, sea, air, space, cyber, electromagnetic, and psychological),” and requires durable, resilient information networks superior to the adversary.70Ibid. In a possible war with China, a July 2023 Hudson Institute report observed:
In a war with China, is the fastest, most effective way for the Marines and Navy to achieve war termination for them to focus more on sea control or on systems destruction warfare against Chinese networks?72An example of systems destruction warfare is the 1940 conquest of France in forty-six days by the German Army against an equal, if not superior, force in terms of net assessment. In large part, the inability of the British and French Army high commands to counter their great confusion and disarray generated by the German Army attacks through the Ardennes and neutral Holland facilitated the loss of allied warfighting effectiveness through a series of piecemeal defeats. The French Army was not destroyed; the Germans captured almost 1.6 million French soldiers and much of its equipment intact, not to mention the British prisoners of war and forty-six thousand British Army vehicles.
At a higher level, the debate over the Marine Corps’ future roles and missions is also a debate about how much A2/AD and amphibious lift capabilities the nation needs and can afford. Unfortunately, there is an absence of a unifying and coherent joint force strategy and plan to direct this debate to produce from the individual US military services a single “joint fighting machine.” As recommended in a July 2023 RAND study, defense planning “efforts will be immeasurably enhanced if all stakeholders have a shared understanding of how joint and combined forces are intended to fight in the future.”73David A. Ochmanek, Anna Dowd, Stephen J. Flanagan, Andrew R. Hoehn, Jeffrey W. Hornung, Michael J. Lostumbo, and Michael J. Mazarr, “Inflection Point: How to Reverse the Erosion of U.S. and Allied Military Power and Influence,” RAND Corporation, July 2023. See also Mazarr, “Defending without Dominance.” He commented that “A second persistent challenge facing U.S. defense strategy is that none of the extant ideas amounts to a truly comprehensive strategy—a coherent design for the alignment of means to achieve ends through specified ways.”
In the absence of authoritative guidance, the individual services are moving forward with their own initiatives such as the Marines’ Force Design 2030. The Joint Staff has produced a classified Joint Warfighting Concept Version 3.0 that describes in conceptual terms how the services will fight and lists concepts for required military capabilities. It is unclear how binding the document’s guidance is on the individual services. It is also unclear if what is best for the Marines is also best for the joint force and the nation.74Dr. Steve Wills, a naval analyst at the Center for Maritime Strategy, Naval League of the United States, noted in September 2023, “The United States Navy has been without an operational level of war strategy to guide its force size, design, and employment since June 1990.” What documents the Navy has produced do not “provide a concrete operational strategy for how the Navy would be employed in war.” See Steve Wills, “The United States Navy Needs an Operational Level of War Strategy to Inform Fleet Design,” Center for International Maritime Security, September 25, 2023.
This report focuses on the diagnosis of the implications of Force Design 2030, not on their prescription. It is reasonable to suggest that for any prescription, the US military needs to both solve how much A2/AD and amphibious lift capabilities the nation needs and can afford as well as address the assured access issue along with the lack of joint comprehensive guidance on a possible future war with China. Moreover, the US military must develop a prescription within the context of whether the US Navy faces an inflection point in the character of war as “Ukraine destroys more Russian warships.” The Royal Navy’s first sea lord, Admiral Sir Ben Key, has commented that “uncrewed vessels and automation have delivered a ‘dreadnought moment,’ alluding to advances in propulsion, gunnery, and armor that led the British and German navies to overhaul their strategies in the early 1900s.”75Defense One reported that “hours after Ukraine destroyed a Russian Kilo-class submarine sitting in dry dock, Britain’s top naval officer hailed a new era of naval warfare.” Admiral Key commented, “We’re once again facing something completely new, a paradigm shift.” See Sam Skove, “Navies Face ‘Dreadnought Moment,’ British Admiral Says,” Defense One, September 13, 2023. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley agrees with Admiral Key. In May 2023, General Milley declared, “We are undergoing the most fundamental change in the character of war ever in recorded history,” with our ability to see and shoot accurately at great distances.76Mark Milley, “How to Avoid a Great-Power War,” A Conversation with General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Foreign Affairs Podcast, May 2, 2023. Indeed, General David H. Berger, the 38th commandant of the Marine Corps (2019-2023), recognized the increasing vulnerability of the Navy’s large amphibious ships to advances in Chinese detection capabilities (a key concern of this report as well). This recognition convinced him to advocate for a new class of small amphibious ships to transport Marine Littoral Regiments into combat.
The issues raised in this report have merit regarding the implementation of Force Design 2030. They deserve close examination. Hopefully, this will occur without opposition from the shipbuilding industry and domestic politics. Not to do so increases the risk of potentially repeating the US Navy’s expensive and disastrous experience implementing its vision for littoral warfare, with the littoral combat ship as the vision’s centerpiece. Despite mounting evidence for almost two decades that it was the wrong ship at the wrong time for the wrong war, funding continued for its acquisition, despite efforts by Defense Secretaries Chuck Hagel in 2014 and Ashton B. Carter in 2015 to halt its production.77Sapien, “The Inside Story of How the Navy Spent Billions on the ‘Little Crappy Ship.’” The article quoted a retired US Navy vice admiral who stated: “politics is king in the shipbuilding business.” The article also noted, “Once a massive project gains momentum and defense contractors begin hiring, it is politically easier to throw good money after bad.” As the ship lacks combat value for a high-end warfight against China, the Navy is finally discarding these ships as fast as it can. The Navy cannot afford another repeat performance as it implements Force Design 2030.
About the author
Bruce Stubbs served on the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV) staff from June 2011 to September 2022 as the director of strategy and strategic concepts (OPNAV N7), the director of strategy (OPNAV N3/5), and the deputy director of strategy and policy (OPNAV N3/5). Prior to those assignments, he served on the secretary of the Navy’s immediate staff from June 2008 to May 2011 with responsibility for the coordination and implementation of Maritime Domain Awareness programs, policies, and related issues across the Defense Department.
Forward Defense, housed within the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, generates ideas and connects stakeholders in the defense ecosystem to promote an enduring military advantage for the United States, its allies, and partners. Our work identifies the defense strategies, capabilities, and resources the United States needs to deter and, if necessary, prevail in future conflict.