ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Top Marine Corps leaders say that the current way the force keeps its wartime inventory positioned forward won’t work in a battle with China and needs major changes to remain relevant.

For nearly 40 years the Marine Corps has relied on the Maritime Prepositioning Force program to have a brigade’s worth of gear at the ready in key theaters. That program has been reconfigured over the years but essentially uses squadrons of densely packed commercial ships that hold everything from tanks to trucks to radios to spare parts.

But three generals who spoke at the annual National Defense Industrial Association Expeditionary Warfare Conference said the program at best needs changing and could need an entire overhaul.

Lt. Gen. David Berger, commanding general of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, said that while the MPF program was a “brilliant concept” in its day, it’s time to change.

“Those giant roll on, roll off ships are not survivable, they’re not compatible to the places where we’re going to have to pull them in the future because of their deep draft,” Berger said.

The ships are large and require deep water ports and sophisticated crews to unpack the gear in a very linear way.

“They were perfect for landing in Desert Shield/Desert Storm,” he said. “They are not perfect for competing with China.”

The program began in the Cold War and was first called the Near Term Prepositioning Force, which included seven chartered vessels stationed near the Middle East as a type of ready warehouse of gear.

That evolved into the MPF program that saw three Maritime Prepositioning Ships Squadrons. One was stationed on the East Coast of the United States, another at Diego Garcia, an island in the Indian Ocean and a third parked at Guam and Tinian.

Ships from both MPSRONs were used to supply gear to Marines in Desert Shield/Desert Storm.

From 1999 to 2003 three more ships were added, one to each squadron, that added a fleet hospital, equipment for a Naval Mobile Construction Battalion, an Expeditionary Airfield and other assets.

Equipment from the ships was used in Operation Iraqi Freedom in both 2003 and 2004.

From 2008 to 2012, older model commercial ships were replaced with newer, sturdier transport ships to accommodate the added armored vehicles being put in the inventory.

Beginning in 2013 the squadrons were reduced to two, the Diego Garcia and Guam-based squadrons. The squadrons were also reconfigured to provide options for configurable packages from light- to medium- to full-strength MPSRONs.

During that time frame the Navy also tried to shift the program, replacing one of the MPRSONs with a combat-ready squadron dubbed the MPF(Future). But budget constraints and realizations that the MPF(F) would not survive a forcible entry-type of assault caused its cancellation in 2010.

As recently as September, a Department of Defense Inspector General report revealed that the Military Sealift Command failed to properly oversee maintenance of the MPF ships. The MSC was “unable to accurately assess the condition and readiness” of some of the ships, resulting in delays of gear for exercises and lack of accountability for gear and crew preparedness.

Brig. Gen. James Adams, head of the capabilities directorate for Combat Development and Integration said the Corps is looking at alternative ideas.

The two most difficult things to work in the battlespace are command and control and logistics, he said.

And anti-access methods being employed by adversaries such as Russia and China are having these military leaders rethinking a range of processes.

“How do you sustain a widely distributed force effectively to make them credible, make them resilient and make them an asset who’s lethal as opposed to a liability because they don’t have their sustainment?” he said.

They do have some ideas, though nothing’s been decided officially.

“So, we think that the future MPF concept would be something that instead of a large, giant, multi-hull with lots of storage in it or major end items and prime movers, instead a set of smaller, tailorable lift assets that could be more mobile, be more utilized in a lot of these exercises that we’re doing, tailored for these missions,” Adams said.

That’s another concern for commanders at levels from the Marine Expeditionary Unit to the Marine Expeditionary Brigade to theater combatant commanders – using the gear that’s there.

The MPF gear is supposed to be pristine equipment, ready for war at a moment’s notice.

But Berger said that’s the wrong way of looking at those items.

Marines need to get their hands on that gear, use it on exercises and missions. And by using it, unloading and loading these pieces, they can be more proficient in time of war.

“We would love to use the (Maritime Prepositioning Ships Squadron) year round, in Korea, in the Philippines,” Berger said. “But it wasn’t practical.”

A few had novel ideas, such as Brig. Gen. Christian Wortman, who said that closing and sustaining the force in the highly contested littoral environment will present major challenges.

He advocated for looking at unmanned and autonomous systems to help with resupply and positioning.

In a separate interview with Marine Corps Times, Dakota Wood, a retired lieutenant colonel who is now a senior research fellow for the Heritage Foundation, said that the use of the MPF must be modernized to more than simply a floating warehouse.

Wood said that at the very least the program needs to be re-evaluated. It may be that the Marine Corps makes slight modifications and continues seeing it as the way to go.

But, he said, they’re more likely to conclude that it’s an idea whose time has come and gone.

He offered an idea where the ships could be attached to the Amphibious Readiness Groups, moving alongside them but at protected distances.

Those ships could then be reconfigured to support more advanced technologies to upgrade or maintain drone fleets or other weapon systems in addition to carrying inventories.

“You could have an interior space with long-loiter aerial vehicles in an elevator system that can be brought up to the flight deck,” he said.

That would free up deck space on other ships for larger manned or unmanned aircraft.

“These MPF ships could be reconfigured to something more relevant,” Wood said.