Arlington, Va. ― A more powerful, more flexible and lighter Marine Corps, one capable of deploying on any Navy ship and directly facing off against China, is the one the Marine commandant has in mind for the next fight.
Traditional thinking of limiting Marine deployments to only certain types of Navy ships must end, the commandant said Wednesday, and conventional thought has to be pushed father and wider.
Commandant Gen. David Berger called for greater Marine integration with the Navy as key to keeping the Corps relevant for the next several decades as China continues a military buildup.
“There is nothing off the table for the Marine Corps and the Navy,” Berger told a crowd of troops, defense industry heads and journalists Wednesday here at the 32nd National Symposium for the Surface Navy Association.
But naval integration goes beyond putting more Marines on ships.
As part of his vision for an integrated Marine Corps and Navy ready to face off against China, Berger said he wants the Marine Corps to have the ability to fight and survive within range of Chinese missiles, take out enemy ships from land or sea and throw an unpredictable mix of firepower at the enemy.
To accomplish some of these capabilities Berger said the Navy and Marine Corps have need for a smaller, lighter amphibious ship.
“What does a future amphib look like?” Berger asked. “I think its beyond the classes of ships we have right now and I think its smaller, I don’t think we do away with the big, I think we add lot of small.”
The U.S. has watched China build and expand its conventional defensive force, Berger said. But it was when China built up its Navy that it was a “total game-changer."
In the past five to six years it has been China’s ships and relation to the sea that has significantly changed dynamics, he said.
To match that “game-changing” restructuring by China, the Marine Corps needs to reverse the diverging path it has been on with the U.S. Navy for the past two decades amid counterinsurgency conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The task must be different, the commandant said, and one borne out of reality, not just sentiment.
The Corps should focus on building up the Marine Corps’ capability in the Pacific in the hopes of deterring further Chinese aggression, Berger said.
“The cost of deterrence however high that is will always be cheaper than the cost of a conflict,” Berger said. “So pay the price for deterrence, pay the price up front.”
But while the focus is to build a foundation whose very presence prevents Chinese expansion and future conflict, the force needs to be capable of quickly launching an offensive against Chinese forces if peace fails.
“We will not be given the chance to swap out that force for another force,” Berger said. “So whatever force that you have forward that you’re intending to deter with must be able to switch immediately to a kinetic, to a fight."
Berger also called for the continued use of “lightning carriers” that ditch the V-22 Ospreys, sacrificing air assault capabilities normally used on amphibious class ships to maximize the firepower on-board and loading all the F-35 Lightnings the ship can hold.
“You know what would really mess up an enemy threat’s mind?" Berger said. “If you floated out a big deck one time loaded to the gills with F-35s and the next time you loaded it to the gills with NV-22s.”
“We need to constantly pose the advisory with different looks so that we become less predictable to them."
Berger has been pushing for further naval integration since he took over as commandant in summer 2019, and though the speech did not give new insight on what Berger wants, it did highlight how his message has been received by some inside the Pentagon.
During his speech Berger joked that Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday recently told him that he viewed the Corps’ III Marine Expeditionary Force ― mostly based in Hawaii and Okinawa, Japan ― as part of the Navy’s Pacific fleet.
Though the commandant did not cede ownership of the MEF to the Navy, he said he was encouraged by the CNO’s thinking.
“We as Marines must think how can we support the fleet commander," Berger said. "What do we need to do to help him accomplish his mission?”
It isn’t about ownership, Berger said, “This is about how we fight together.”