US Marine Corps General David Berger rejects war plans anticipating a Cold War-style confrontation in which huge ships can creep close to shore free from the threat of precision-guided munitions. Photo: Handout

General David Berger, commandant of the US Marine Corps, already under fire from critics for his plans to revamp the service radically, has let loose another attack on the status quo.

In a draft operating concept obtained by Breaking Defense, Berger, never one to hold back, dismisses current USMC and US Navy plans for amphibious ships as “obsolete.”

Says the commandant, not only does China have the ability to replace damaged ships faster than the US, it can now control islands, coastlines and vast swaths of the sea with aircraft carriers, and boasts a swelling blue ocean fleet and long-distance precision munitions.

The warnings are the latest in a campaign waged by Berger to overhaul how the Marine Corps trains and equips to meet the growing challenges of China and other advanced nations, according to a report by Paul McLeary of Breaking Defense.

This follows Berger’s previous outlined plans: to rethink the role that amphibious ships play in future; divest of M1 Abrams tanks; cut artillery units; slash helicopter squadrons; and reassess the role F-35s might play in future operations.

In the sharply worded 22-page document, the reform-minded Berger rejects war plans anticipating a Cold War-style confrontation in which huge ships can creep close to shore free from the threat of precision-guided munitions, Breaking Defense reported.

He calls the current configuration of amphibious ships “the most obvious manifestation of this obsolete paradigm.”

In an unsigned draft of the unreleased report, “Naval Campaigning: The 2020 Marine Corps Capstone Operating Concept,” Berger underlines the need for new thinking about how the USMC and US Navy will fight China’s advanced military.

The old way of thinking “is also exemplified by our current amphibious warships and maritime prepositioning ships, which are large and built for deployment efficiency rather than warfighting effectiveness,” he writes. “These superb, multipurpose ships are extremely expensive – meaning we’ve never had the desired number.”

Berger also raises significant concerns about the United States’ ability to replace any combat losses, even in a short, sharp conflict, Breaking Defense reported. 

“Replacing ships lost in combat will be problematic, inasmuch as our industrial base has shrunk, while peer adversaries have expanded their shipbuilding capacity. In an extended conflict, the United States will be on the losing end of a production race – reversing the advantage we had in World War II when we last fought a peer competitor.”

The stark admission comes as the US Navy’s shipyards struggle under the disruptions caused by Covid-19, leading the service to order an emergency call up of 1,600 reservists to fill labor shortages to do repair work, Breaking Defense reported.

According to Berger, the era of building slow amphibious ships to carry marines across the globe is over.

The Corps wants to build a more dynamic “inside force” of smaller ships that can operate within range of Chinese and Russian weapons and pack a potent offensive punch while offering more and smaller targets than the current amphibious fleet.

But these small ships won’t replace their bigger cousins – they’ll come in addition to them, creating new issues for both navy budgets and the limited number of shipbuilders who can produce hulls for the sea service, Breaking Defense reported.

In recent weeks, the US Navy met with shipbuilders to talk about plans for a new class of logistics ship that can operate under fire and resupply marines deep within the range of enemy precision weapons. The Next Generation Medium Logistics Ship would resupply both ships at sea, as well as small, ad hoc bases ashore. 

The Corps and navy are also looking to buy as many as 30 Light Amphibious Warships in coming years, which would be much smaller than the current amphibious ships, Breaking Defense reported. 

The navy’s plans are in such a fluid state that Vice-Admiral Stuart Munsch, head of the service’s Warfighting Development office, cited Chinese attention as a reason to decline to give a progress report in a call with reporters earlier this month.

“I’m not going to divulge our intentions,” he said. “I’m very conscious that, if I say anything public, I’m an authoritative source and the Chinese will key on what I say, and likewise any kind of public-facing document that we put out as well.”