The nominee to be the next commandant of the Marine Corps reiterated the service’s minimum requirement of 31 amphibious ships to meet the service’s missions.
On Tuesday, Assistant Commandant Gen. Eric Smith told the Senate Armed Service Committee that total “is the minimum.”
“We are and must respond [as] America’s crisis response force,” Smith said.
The ships “are an absolutely vital part” for the Marines to operate in a contested environment with the joint force. In an answer to other questions on the value of amphibious ships in a crisis, Smith said they were not available to assist in evacuating Americans from Sudan as it descended into civil war earlier this year. They also played a crucial role in airlifting Marines to Afghanistan to provide security at Kabul’s airport in 2021, he said.
As to whether the amphibious ships are survivable in combat, Smith said on-scene commanders and combatant commanders “will protect those assets with a plethora of tools.”
He said the ships were integral to Force Design 2030, the plan to shift the Marines’ focus from counter-insurgency warfare to high-end conflict, where agility and maneuverability were essential to stay one step ahead of a potential enemy.
In its mark-up of the defense authorization bill, the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee would block the Navy’s plan to decommission three Whidbey Island-class docking landing ships. The panel also authorized funding to build one San Antonio-class amphib. The full committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee are expected to complete their mark-ups on June 21.
When pressed by ranking member Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) about how long it takes to build a San-Antonio-class ship, Smith said “normal production is two years.” The LPDs are built at HII’s Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Miss.
Wicker joined 13 other committee members in signing a letter to Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro reminding him of a promise he made this spring to return with a plan on reconciling the statutory requirement for 31 amphibious vessels with current shipbuilding plans. Politico first reported on the letter.
“The statutory requirement for the Navy to maintain 31 amphibious warfare ships is not a suggestion, but a requirement based on the assessed needs of the Navy and Marine Corps. The Navy’s current plan not only violates the statutory requirement but also jeopardizes the future effectiveness of the Joint Force, especially as we consider national security threats in the Indo-Pacific,” reads the letter.
The Senate letter directed Del Toro to deliver a revised shipbuilding plan to Congress by June 19.
At the hearing, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) wanted reassurances that the new large amphibious ship “will stay in your inventory of requirements” and not be scrapped “in three or four years” like the anti-submarine warfare variant Freedom-class Littoral Combat Ship.
Smith placed the amphibious ships, including the shore-to-shore Landing Ship Medium, at the top of the list of platforms needed to continue modernizing the force. He said the Marine Corps is “in a very good place” overall and mentioned long-range strike missiles, KC-130s and heavy-lift helicopters as needed platforms to speed up Force Design 2030.
Looking further into the future, he said the service’s warfighting laboratory is working on unmanned systems for deliveries of cargo on land and from undersea. He sees great potential for lightening the Marine Corps in additive manufacturing and 3D printing capabilities with deployed forces. Smith told the committee that with the proper authorities in place, it’s possible to use additive manufacturing to produce aircraft engines while deployed.
The added benefit, Smith said, is ending dependence on an extended supply chain to keep operating while moving.
Like other general and flag officers set to promote, Smith’s confirmation is on hold by Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), who is in a dispute with the Pentagon over its policy of paying travel expenses for service members to access abortion care outside of the state the member is assigned.
As of Tuesday afternoon, 252 general and flag officer promotions and job assignments are stalled by Tuberville’s hold.
Current commandant Gen. David Berger is set to retire on July 11. Berger, speaking at the Heritage Foundation as Smith’s confirmation was underway, said that by law he couldn’t serve as an “interim” leader until a successor is confirmed.
“All that ends on the 11th of July,” he said.
Smith likely will serve as the Marines’ interim leader if he is not confirmed by then, Politico reported on Monday.
The next chief of naval operations, chief of staff of the Air Force, chief of staff of the Army and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff are also stalled.
In the Navy, the hold delays the confirmation of the long-vacant officer of the Navy’s chief acquisition official, the commander of the Japan-based U.S. 7th Fleet, the Atlantic’s U.S. 2nd Fleet, the Middle East’s U.S. 5th Fleet, the next Naval Academy superintendent and the next commanders of U.S. Naval Air Forces, Submarine Forces and Naval Sea Systems Command.