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Interview: CMC Neller Lays Out Path To Future U.S. Marine Corps

Gen. Robert B. Neller steps out of a UH-1 Huey to talk with Marines Nov. 23 2015 at the Camp Hansen Theater, Camp Hansen, Okinawa. US Marine Corps Photo

Gen. Robert B. Neller steps out of a UH-1 Huey to talk with Marines Nov. 23, 2015 at the Camp Hansen Theater, Camp Hansen, Okinawa. US Marine Corps Photo

Gen. Neller is speaking today at the Center for Strategic and International Studies as part of the U.S. Naval Institute – CSIS Maritime Security Dialogue.

THE PENTAGON – Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert Neller said the service has a lot to be proud of today: amid flat funding levels, the Marines are building back readiness, deploying forces at as high a tempo as any time in recent memory, and replacing nearly all its types of aircraft and some ground vehicles with newer and more capable platforms.

And yet, sitting in his Pentagon office, Neller said he couldn’t let that be good enough.

“The time for an organization to really ratchet it up and go to the next level is when they think they’re on top – because if you ever start thinking you’ve got it all figured out and you’re really the best you can be, that’s when you get passed,” Neller told USNI News.
“And that’s not going to happen to us.”

Rather, Neller said he’s looking for evolution and improvement in everything the Marines do, from the technology it pursues to the way it organizes a Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) to the people it recruits.

“The only thing we’re not going to do is stay the same,” he said.

Today’s Readiness and Force Structure

U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Chance Seckenger rides in a Combat Rubber Raiding Craft from the well deck of the USS Green Bay (LPD-20), at sea, July 9, 2015. US Marine Corps Photo

U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Chance Seckenger rides in a Combat Rubber Raiding Craft from the welldeck of the USS Green Bay (LPD-20), at sea, July 9, 2015. US Marine Corps Photo

Demand for Marine Corps presence around the world has increased even as the size of the Marine Corps has decreased over the past couple years, creating some challenges for the service.

For ground forces, particularly the basic infantry battalion, “in the aggregate I think our readiness is pretty good,” Neller said. But aviation readiness worries him. As squadrons transition from old aircraft to the longer-range and more combat-capable replacements, those units go offline for 18 to 24 months, leaving the rest of the squadrons to meet global requirements. Add to that delays in getting CH-53Es and F/A-18 Hornets through depot maintenance, plus delays in fielding the F-35B Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter, and “their readiness is of most concern,” Neller said of the aviation community.

He noted that “we’re starting to see a slight, consistent uptick in the number of aircraft that are on the ramp,” but it will take several more years of stable resources and attention to build back readiness across the aviation community.

Still, Neller said the Marine Corps would not back away from meeting combatant commander needs across the globe.

“I think if you talk to anybody, particularly those people that are deploying, they would say that the overall [deployment] tempo on the force is as great as it was at the height of Iraq and Afghanistan – so even though we may not be going into combat, we’re going to deploy,” he said.
“In the middle of this recapitalization of all this aviation is the continued demand on the forces. We are trying to meet the demands of the combatant commanders, meet the demands of the nation to be the nation’s force in readiness, continue to support with forward-deployed forces whether they be in the Pacific, whether they be in ARG/MEUs (Amphibious Ready Groups/Marine Expeditionary Units), whether they be in Special Purpose MAGTFs, but do so in a way that, at the same time, back at home station we can train but also reset ourselves.”

MV-22 Osprey tilt rotor aircraft prepare to take off from the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6), while in the background an landing craft air cushion (LCAC) approaches the amphibious transport dock ship USS Green Bay (LPD 20) in April 2015. US Navy photo.

MV-22 Osprey tilt rotor aircraft prepare to take off from the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6), while in the background an landing craft air cushion (LCAC) approaches the amphibious transport dock ship USS Green Bay (LPD 20) in April 2015. US Navy photo.

To help the Marines operate across the globe, Neller said he still needs more amphibious ships. The Navy is conducting a new force structure assessment to lay out updated requirements for each ship type based on global demand signal, and Neller said he expects the amphib requirement to at least remain at the current 38-ship figure.

“Both (Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John) Richardson’s and my predecessors have documented a valid requirement for a minimum of 38 amphib ships. So that’s not being met today, there’s 30. Based on the ship construction plan it’ll go to 34 and then it will probably taper off again. There’s not a current plan that gets us to 38,” Neller said.
“Ships are expensive, I understand that, but we will continue to advocate to do anything we can do to increase the number of amphib ships because we believe that provides operational advantage to combatant commanders and enhances the security of the United States.”

The 38-ship figure comes from the Corps’ requirement for two Marine Expeditionary Brigades to provide a forcible entry capability from the sea – 17 ships needed to transport a MEB, plus a 15-percent buffer, or four ships, to account for ships in planned or emergent maintenance periods.

Asked about the utility of maintaining the 38-ship requirement given that current Navy plans cannot support building fast enough to reach, let alone sustain, that total, Neller replied, “at what point do you simply have to say, look, this is what we think we need to be able to do, this is what the plans that are written up say we have to be able to do to be successful, so therefore this is the requirement?”

“I would not support changing – the requirement is the requirement. There’s also the reality of what you can do and what you can afford, but it doesn’t mean the requirement isn’t what it is,” he continued.
“And in my mind 38 is the minimum requirement of what this nation needs as long as we say we want to have a forcible entry capability from the sea based on two Marine Expeditionary Brigades, which is not a whole lot.”

Tomorrow’s Future Force

U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Cesar Salinas, an infantry Marine with Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, displays the PD-100 Black Hornet after an exercise for Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory's Marine Air-Ground Task Force Integrated Experiment on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, July 9, 2016. US Marine Corps Photo

U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Cesar Salinas, an infantry Marine with Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, displays the PD-100 Black Hornet after an exercise for Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory’s Marine Air-Ground Task Force Integrated Experiment on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, July 9, 2016. US Marine Corps Photo

Though the Marine Corps today is getting by with flat budgets and sky-high operational demands, the service cannot sustain that stress forever. To get ahead of that problem, the Marine Corps tasked two groups with looking at how to evolve the force into one optimized for future requirements: one would evolve the force in an evolutionary manner, the other in a revolutionary manner.

Neller was to pick one option to pursue – and as a first step, the experimental battalion, 3rd Battalion 5th Marines, would be outfitted, organized and employed accordingly – but he said the two groups ultimately merged into a single hybrid path forward. With this single hybrid approach, service leaders are now considering what communities in the Marine Corps would need to grow to support this future force and, if the 182,000-topline remains in place, what capabilities to decrease, eliminate or move to the reserves to make room for the new capabilities. Up for debate is even the basic question of how to organize the infantry, Neller said, and though he hasn’t settled on all the answers yet he expects to have a decision early next year.

“We’ve got a pretty good idea of the capability sets that we think we need to have more of, I think we have an idea of where we would get some of these people from, I think we have an idea of where we might mitigate some of the risk by putting some of the capability in the reserves, and I think we’ve got a good idea of what this force would look like if we were unconstrained resource-wise – but the likelihood of that is pretty low,” he said.

One of the areas the Marine Corps will have to grow is its cyber force. U.S. Cyber Command has tasked the Marine Corps with developing teams to conduct “defensive and other” operations, and the Marine Corps is still recruiting and training to fill those new jobs.

Pfc. Alec Rivera, a cyber-network specialist with Headquarters Company, Combat Logistics Regiment 25, works on a computer during a command post exercise at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Feb. 2, 2016. US Marine Corps Photo

Pfc. Alec Rivera, a cyber-network specialist with Headquarters Company, Combat Logistics Regiment 25, works on a computer during a command post exercise at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Feb. 2, 2016. US Marine Corps Photo

“You have to have people that understand what the effects are that you can achieve, and then you have to know how to request the effect. There’s always been certain capabilities in the radio battalions to do stuff on the electromagnetic spectrum, and those Marines will continue to be there, but what we’re really looking for, we’re looking for people that can not just execute certain things, but they can plan it and know how to access the capability across the entire government of the United States,” Neller explained.

The commandant has made clear that any cyber warrior wearing a Marine uniform will be held to Marine Corps fitness and other standards, but he said part of considering the future force will be finding ways to bring in the best expertise for complex cyber and information-age warfare.

In pursuing this future force, Neller said service leadership is also thinking critically about concept documents like Expeditionary Force 21, which lays out a vision of the 21st Century Marine Corps. Neller is about to sign an updated version of the two-year-old document, with the update being “more focused on how we do what we do, and not the why but the how.”

The update will also include discussion of the capabilities and technologies needed to achieve that goal.

Deputy Commandant for Installations and Logistics Lt. Gen. Michael Dana released a video earlier this summer calling for innovative ideas from Marines throughout the service, and Neller said they received more than 300 ideas. The service will soon announce which ideas it selected to pursue, but Neller said this was the first and not the only opportunity for Marines to make their voices heard in Marine Corps innovation, experimentation and rapid prototyping.

“Gen. Dana’s thing was kind of the first one out the door where, hey, if you’ve got an idea on how to make it better we’ll start there,” Neller said.
“But we are going to formalize and institutionalize a place to kind of be the recipient of all that.”

The commandant said the Marine Corps works with U.S. Special Operations Command on some small-unit rapid prototyping ideas but primarily relies on the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab to push forward innovations big and small – better boots and body armor, robotic devices to assist troops on the move, unmanned systems, counter-drone technologies and more.

Neller said he didn’t have his eye on one big innovation focus area to pursue. Rather, “to me, change and progress is the compilation of a whole bunch of little things that all take you to a different place in the not too distant future.”

  • Western

    I just don’t know the answer, but I will ask. Just like there are plans to “militarize” commercial aircraft if there is a dire need, are there existing merchant ships that could be utilized by the Marines to transport that brigade if necessary?

    • Horn

      Short answer, yes. The MSC has over 100+ ships plus another 90+ in reserve. The NDRF has over 230+ ships with around 50 in the RRF for rapid mobilization. Because of the reduction in the size of the Merchant Marine since the 1950s, the US government would also hire any other marine vessel capable of transport like ocean liners or foreign cargo ships if their needs were extremely dire. We don’t have nearly the transportation capabilities as we did in the 1950s, but we also don’t have the capability to protect that many ships either.

      • Spencer Whitson

        It is worth noting that a number of vessels are not under US flag per se, but their owners might make available their ships due to some reason like patriotism.

        • Horn

          Yes, some are American-owned but foreign flagged, or some are foreign-owned but American flagged.

  • FedUpWithWelfareStates

    More Insanity coming from Neller & co.

    Archaic, Out-dated, Dysfunctional, Risk Adverse, Lack of Forward Thinking, etc. These are just a few descriptions of our military’s lack of vision that still see them operating under post WWII models, which are as archaic & dysfunctional, as their Pacific basing strategy. It has been feed the status quo year after year since WWII, with any change only designed to increase the budget…NOT streamline OUR military for the 21st Century & beyond.

    “The Amphibious Landing, circa WWII from within visual range of the beach, ain’t going to happen again…evah!”

    What will happen, if the USMC starts to look forward for a change & really trains hard for the mission, is Amphibious Raids, via small boat (RIBs…NOT CRRCs) from OTH, at night, with dedicated air cover standing by. This is exactly why the USMC needs to put away those leftover illusions of air wing grandeur, seeded by Gen. Amos, & get back to doing what Marines are SUPPOSED to be doing…NOT trying to do both the Army’s (conventional ground force) & USAF’s (Fixed Wing Air Force) job.

    This is also why the USMC needs to WTFU & smell the coffee! Notice how you are always left out of the fight while SOF stays right in the mix? This is all due to your insistence of tradition, as in not changing with the times. The question that needs to be asked, is “What has the U.S. Navy done for you lately?” Nada… for your almost 240 years in existence, the USMC has ALWAYS taken a back seat, as in placed on the back burner, to USN priorities. Thus the half-hearted humor at trying to do more with less that you can do anything with nothing quips to try to explain your dependency away.

    It is time to seriously consider allowing SOCOM to become the 4th Branch of the military service, consolidating ALL SOF capabilities, & the USMC falling under SOCOM intact, as the nation’s premiere “Amphibious Special Operations Force,” but as a more streamlined force of ALL Special Operations Personnel, qualified as REAL Operators, not just rubber stamped IOT be ready for deployment…yea, you know what I am talking about…

    • Jay

      Playing wargames at home again? Got the tray table out, eating a TV Dinner and doing “strategery”? Too funny. You shoud do cancer research in your spare time ad maybe spend a little time to solve global warming on weekends. Arrogant clown.

  • Murray

    The UK never thought they would ever mount a major amphibious assault again far from Europe and the RN did not have enough amphib ships for the 1982 Falklands War. They won (just) by using STUFT (ships taken up from trade). There are some lessons here for the USMC.
    With the tilt to the Pacific, there are also allies & friends such as South Korea, Japan, Australia & New Zealand which operate large modern amphibious vessels. If push comes to shove these countries may well provide assistance to the USN & USMC. I thought that’s what RIMPAC was all about.