On 17 October, General Joseph F. Dunford Jr. became the 36th Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps. He takes the reins at a critical time for the Corps as it transitions from fighting for the better part of a decade as a land-based force in Iraq and Afghanistan back to its expeditionary roots. Like his fellow Sea Service chiefs, the new Commandant faces the reality of constrained budgets in a world of increasing threats that will require the Marine Corps to be ready when needed.
But the Corps has faced periods of uncertainty before and has not only survived but often emerged even stronger, as it did during the 1987–1991 commandancy of General Alfred M. Gray Jr. General Gray’s tenure saw the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and subsequent ejection from that country during Operation Desert Storm. According to Earl J. Catagnus Jr., the Commandant transformed the service as he strove to “mold the Corps into his vision of a highly flexible expeditionary fighting force capable of meeting threats in asymmetric low-intensity conflicts as well as conventional battles.” General Gray had a lasting effect on the Marine Corps, and perhaps his most significant achievement was the shift of Marine warfighting philosophy from attrition warfare to maneuver warfare, the legacy of which continues to this day.
The Marine Corps’ new capstone document, Expeditionary Force 21, envisions a service that is smaller and more widespread, yet one that will be required to support a greater operational tempo. “It must be routinely prepared to ‘fight tonight’” says retired Major Scott Kinner, “with the right force, with the right capabilities, in the right place, and on demand.” For the Corps to fulfill this role, it will have to reevaluate what the author refers to as its “Legos.” These basic building blocks must be able to aggregate and disaggregate, so that they can combine when necessary to execute the mission, but when the mission is completed return to their original tasks. Such a construct will allow commanders to efficiently tailor their responses to the needs at hand.
One area in which those building blocks may be required is the littorals. As U.S. engagement in Afghanistan wanes, the Marine Corps is increasingly likely to face action in the littorals, says Major Robert S. Bunn. A complex environment melding land, water, and cultures, this terrain will demand enhanced capabilities. Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MARSOC) will be a key contributor to these missions, as they will often be responsible for preparing the battlespace for conventional forces. Although these operations will remain a joint effort, the author believes MARSOC forces will bring “the expeditionary mindset and naval ethos inherent to their heritage as Marines.”
But how will Marines get to these future fights? Given the combination of the impending retirement of landing ship docks and what some consider to be the failed procurement of the littoral combat ship (LCS), the Navy must begin to consider their replacements. Affordability will be a significant factor, as well as the new vessel’s ability to take on tailored missions. Retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel J. Noel Williams contends that about 50 “frigate helicopter docks,” a smaller combatant that could “provide robust interfaces to all physical domains; to the surface and subsurface through a well deck, and to the air through a flight deck,” could fill this need. The ship would also be armed with a 48-cell launch system and a 5-inch gun to increase overall Fleet firepower. “We must begin to evolve toward a Fleet architecture of smaller and more numerous, lethal, signature-controlled, and protected combatants,” he says.
But that’s not the only type of vessel that could replace the LCS. As retired Navy Captain Gordan E. Van Hook points out, the Navy needs a new small surface combatant (SSC) such as an expeditionary frigate. “[It] should be expected to go into harm’s way and toe-to-toe in littoral waters with any likely surface competitor of a similar size, attacking aircraft, or quiet diesel submarines,” he envisions. And the perfect ships may not only already exist, but have already proven their capabilities: The Danish Absalon and Iver Huitfeldt classes offer increased lethality, survivability, flexibility, modularity, and affordability. “There is no need for an expensive redesign of existing warships, and a new SSC in the form of an expeditionary frigate can be acquired at a comparable or lower cost than the LCS,” he argues.
Paul Merzlak, Editor-in-Chief