The recent evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Khartoum, Sudan, was noteworthy, not only for its successful outcome, but also because such missions — once a standard capability for Navy and Marine amphibious forces — must now apparently be conducted by a special operations force. And the Corps only has itself to blame.
The genesis of an amphibious lift shortfall is the Corps’ abandonment of its long-standing requirement for a larger fleet of 38 ships. This requirement, formalized in a 2009 agreement between the secretary of the Navy, the Marine commandant and the chief of Naval operations, led to a decadelong reversal in declining numbers of amphibious ships.
That positive trend changed with the commandant’s 2019 guidance, in which he stated that the primary rationale for 38, the ability to support a two-brigade landing, was no longer valid.
Setting the stage for the Corps’ future operating concept, Force Design 2030, the commandant argued that “different approaches are required” in the face of modern threats to “massed naval armadas.”
Instead, the Corps would focus on smaller units dispersed across the littorals.
Dispersion may well be warranted in light of projected threats, but what the commandant overlooked was that abandoning one requirement without articulating a new one meant the Navy would simply shift funding. In short, the Corps touted its “divest to invest” approach, the Navy only heard “divest.”
As the retirement of older ships and the delay of new ones became reality, Marine leadership struggled to stem the bleeding.
It articulated a new minimum of 31 ships in 2022, but unlike the previous requirement, the new number offered no operational logic beyond past Department of the Navy studies, which actually allowed as few as 28 ships.
Congress supported the Marines’ new number nevertheless, and inserted language in the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act to require the Navy to maintain a fleet of 31.
At office of the secretary of defense’s (OSD) direction, the Navy plans to pause its successful dock landing platform (LPD-17 Flight II) shipbuilding program and accelerate the decommissioning of its dock landing ships (LSD-41/49) early. If the dock landing platform ship line is not continued, the amphibious fleet eventually will decline to 25 ships when the last of the dock landing ships are gone.
Marine leadership is now fixated on maintaining 31 ships. A Marine official recently commented that the size of the Navy’s amphibious fleet left the Corps unable to respond to the earthquake in Turkey. He used the occasion to reinforce the requirement: “31 is the number.”
The problem is, the Navy currently has 31 amphibious ships. A listener would be forgiven for some confusion: A 31-ship fleet is inadequate, but a 31-ship fleet is what the Corps must have?
As the crisis in Sudan demonstrates, 31 ships are not nearly enough. A fleet that small does not support the Corps’ needs, including deployments of sufficient Marine expeditionary units. These forward-deployed units provide flexible forces for a variety of routine operations like engagement with allies and partners and presence in troubled areas. The Marines, vehicles, aircraft and other equipment are uniquely suited to respond to earthquakes, typhoons, noncombatant evacuations and other contingencies. But they can do this only if they have the ships from which to operate.
In the past, Marine expeditionary units and the Navy amphibious ready group ships upon which they embark deployed in overlapping cycles, ensuring continuous presence in key areas. With 31 ships, this presence is routinely “gapped,” meaning a deployed MEU/ARG returns home months before the next one sails.
The absence of a MEU/ARG anywhere near Sudan is a foreseeable consequence of an inadequate fleet. The MEU/ARG closest to Sudan remains in predeployment training, their predecessors having returned to the U.S. months ago.
Deploying ships to meet a small-scale contingency, or to reinforce units responding to a larger one, is often impossible with a fleet this small. A robust amphibious fleet is essential for crisis response, and the inability to respond in Sudan and Turkey are only the latest examples. When asked to accelerate a MEU/ARG deployment as the war in Ukraine broke out in 2022, the ships could not deploy early, Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl told the Senate Armed Services seapower subcommittee.
Fewer ships stress the remaining fleet. Ships require extended maintenance periods between deployments.
However, as maintenance begins, additional problems, often corrosion-related, are discovered, and decisions are required whether to extend maintenance or to defer the repairs. Amphibious ships, whose well decks literally invite the sea inside the ship’s hull, are especially susceptible.
Record-low ship readiness rates are an indicator of an overstretched fleet more than any other contributing factor. According to the commandant, fewer than one-third of the Navy’s amphibious ships are ready to deploy, Defense One reported.
The commandant is mounting a strong effort to reverse these developments, but rebuilding the fleet will require a long-term, sustained effort, and a true partnership with the Navy, OSD and Congress to prioritize the resources toward this critical national requirement. ■
Maj. Gen. Christopher Owens (retired) is a career Marine Corps officer, aviator, educator and operational planner. From 2015–2017, he served as the chief of Naval operations’ director of expeditionary warfare (OPNAV N95).
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