Marine Gen. Eric Smith, testifies during the Senate Armed Services hearing on his nomination to lead the U.S. Marine Corps, Tuesday, June 13, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Marine Gen. Eric Smith, testifies during the Senate Armed Services hearing on his nomination to lead the U.S. Marine Corps, Tuesday, June 13, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Mariam Zuhaib/AP)

WASHINGTON — Marine Gen. Eric Smith on Tuesday told senators that Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s effort to hold up hundreds of military promotions could undermine national security.

“It certainly compromises our ability to be most ready,” Smith told members of Senate Armed Services Committee during a hearing on his nomination to become the next commandant of the Marine Corps. “Our readiness is national security.”

The four-star general said the blocked promotions, which include more than 200 military officers, have an impact on readiness, decision making and the effectiveness of the units hindered by the delays.

“When a three-star general retires … there will be a one-star general, a fairly new one, in charge of [a] 48,000-person Marine Expeditionary Force,” Smith offered as an example of how the delay can affect readiness. “It will have an effect.”

Tuberville, R-Ala., a member of the committee who was at the hearing, has blocked the Senate for months from making standard voice votes to approve military promotions over his objection to a Pentagon policy that provides travel money to troops for reproductive health care, including abortions. The nominees can be confirmed by the Senate one by one in a process that would consume months of the upper chamber’s floor time.

“We live in a dangerous world,” Tuberville told Smith. “And I would hope some of your colleagues in the Pentagon would catch on to that a little bit and get politics out of this. I mean, politics is detrimental to a lot of things. It’s good for some things, some things it’s not. For the military, it’s not.”

Smith fielded other questions during the hearing on an array of issues, such as the service’s modernization program, a possible lack of amphibious assault ships next year and military recruiting difficulties.

“I will never be shy about telling you what our young Marines need to have an unfair fight,” he said. “China is the pacing challenge. Russia is the acute threat. What capabilities do they have and what do we need to thwart them?”

Smith, 58, was nominated by President Joe Biden last month to be the 39th commandant of the Marine Corps when Gen. David Berger retires next month. He’s been assistant commandant since late 2021. As commandant, Smith would be the service’s highest-ranking officer and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

To ascend to the post, Smith must be confirmed by the Senate. First, it must be approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Some members on the committee asked Smith about the Navy having enough amphibious warships — a question that’s swirled in Congress for months since Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro ordered a pause last year on building new ones. Del Toro ordered the pause so a study could determine how many ships are needed as part of the Marines’ modernization plan, called Force Design 2030.

The service’s 2024 budget aims to retire multiple amphibious warships without replacing them, leaving the Navy with less than 31, which federal law says is the minimum for optimal readiness. Amphibious warships include dock landing vessels and assault ships that can swiftly deliver Marines on land during an assault.

“Thirty-one, at a minimum, enables us to train and to deploy and to stay deployed,” Smith told the committee.

He said having enough amphibious ships is critical to success because they also deliver equipment and weeks of necessities, such as food.

“Those [31 ships] must be at a ready state because Marines are in a ready state,” Smith said. “Crises never wait for you to finish repairs or finish training before you go. We need those 31 at a minimum.”

Having enough ships is important for what Smith called “organic mobility.”

“That mobility — be it KC-130 transport refueler aircraft, CH-53K heavy-haul helicopters and, most importantly, amphibious warships — those are all part of the spectrum of organic mobility that enables Marines to be first to fight. We absolutely must have that.”

Another priority that Smith said he would push as Marine Corps commandant is embracing new technologies and controlling intellectual property rights.

“One of the keys is 3D printing. When we own the tech data rights to things we procure, [we] can build and print aircraft engines,” he said. “When you can do that, that is an entire supply chain that is relieved of some stress. And it gets the engine into the hands of the warfighter today, not weeks from now.”

Smith also said the Marine Corps is making “rapid progress” with Force Design 2030. But he cautioned, because it’s a yearslong program, there’s some concern about possible funding gaps and not modernizing quickly enough.

“We are never satisfied. We are Marines, we want to go faster,” he said. “We don’t know when the fight starts, so we must assume it starts when the sun goes down tonight.”

Smith’s remarks came about a week after the Marines issued an update to Force Design 2030, which called for more funding for issues such as infrastructure and base housing.

“It starts and ends with people,” Smith said, noting the Marine Corps continues to do well recruiting as other military services struggle attracting enough troops. The Army has said meeting its goal of 65,000 new recruits this year will be a challenge and the Air Force has said it expects to be about 10% short of its 2023 goal.

“The Marine Corps met its recruiting challenge last year and they will meet it again this year,” Smith said. “I think the reason the Marine Corps has met its recruiting objectives is we haven’t changed. We haven’t lowered our standards and we won’t. … Because the combat that comes tomorrow demands those high standards.”

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Doug G. Ware covers the Department of Defense at the Pentagon. He has many years of experience in journalism, digital media and broadcasting and holds a degree from the University of Utah. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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