Parochial politics must not imperil a fiscally responsible Marine Corps transformation
Special to Stars and Stripes October 12, 2023
Amid a narrowly averted government shutdown, the ousting of the House speaker and the eruption of war in Israel and Gaza, one could be forgiven for overlooking the long-delayed confirmation of Gen. Eric Smith to be the new commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps last month. Bottled up by a blanket hold on Senate confirmation of military nominations from Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., Smith had been working double duty since June during a major transformation of the Marine Corps.
Unfortunately, while Smith is out of the woods, a fiscally responsible approach to the Marine Corps transformation is not, as it faces threats ranging from Congress’ shipbuilding addiction to Smith’s preference for a speedier transformation.
Under Smith’s predecessor, Gen. David Berger, the Marines began implementing a plan known as Force Design (FD) 2030. The central purpose of this transformation plan is to pivot the Marine Corps’ force structure and resources away from land-based counterterrorism missions toward supporting Navy operations and a National Defense Strategy centered on the potential of peer-level conflict.
Unlike virtually every other new Pentagon plan, FD 2030 proposed to fund the transformation by making cuts elsewhere in the Marine Corps’ budget. Specifically, it would reduce the Marine Corps’ forces by 12,000 personnel by 2030, cut certain battalions and equipment (such as tanks), and move away from larger amphibious warships in favor of lighter, stealthier and more cost-effective ships — all in service of transforming the Marine Corps into a more agile and modern force, one better prepared for the grim possibility of a peer-level conflict. As then-Commandant Berger argued in his 2019 planning guidance, “We must continue to seek the affordable and plentiful at the expense of the exquisite and few when conceiving of the future amphibious portion of the fleet.”
Unsurprisingly, the Marine Corps’ transformation faces a range of challenges, particularly with respect to the “divest-to-invest” funding model laid out in FD 2030. A forthcoming report by Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog, details some of these challenges, and Congress is proving to be one of the most formidable.
Last year, the Navy called for decommissioning 24 ships in its FY 2023 budget request, which would have saved taxpayers $3.6 billion over five years. Nine of those ships were Littoral Combat Ships, notorious for their cost overruns, ongoing mechanical issues, and their inability to carry out Anti-Submarine Warfare operations, one of their central missions.
Despite the Navy’s rationale for decommissioning, Congress only allowed four of these boondoggles to be retired. Because the Marine Corps’ budget is part of the Navy’s budget, congressional interference in decommission requests like this exerts undue pressure on both the Navy and Marine Corps budgets.
This year, Congress is coming around to the belated realization that the LCS is a bad investment, and is poised to allow the Navy to decommission two more LCS’s as requested. However, Congress is blocking the Navy’s request to decommission three Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruisers and three Whidbey Island-class dock landing ships. Moreover, lawmakers are also forcing the Navy to proceed with purchasing an amphibious transport dock, the LPD 33, funding its advanced procurement with $500 million — even though the Navy didn’t request it.
This is why we can’t have nice things. It is no secret members of Congress rake in a lot of campaign contributions from the arms industry, and lots of votes from constituents working for defense contractors. However, political considerations shouldn’t compromise national security and fiscal responsibility.
Ironically, another source of potential peril for the success of the Marine’s “divest-to-invest” approach is a request from Smith for more money to accelerate the FD 2030 implementation. While adaptability is essential for the military, rapid changes can often lead to cost overruns and equipment issues and Smith should adhere to the financially prudent approach outlined in FD 2030.
For lawmakers who advocate fiscal responsibility and support a robust military, budget season offers a chance to prove you mean what you say. It’s rare for any military service to evolve without asking for more money, and Berger deserves praise for developing a transformation plan that doesn’t assume limitless resources.
Congress should support this approach by endorsing the “divest-to-invest” model and rejecting an unwise “damn the torpedoes” approach for accelerated implementation. At the very least, lawmakers should stop blocking Navy divestment decisions and purchasing pauses.
The Marine Corps’ transformation plan, Force Design 2030, represents a groundbreaking approach to military evolution: cutting costs while pivoting toward future challenges. Yet, this vision is jeopardized by multiple factors — congressional unwillingness to decommission costly, outdated ships and the new commandant’s push for unduly rapid implementation.
Fiscal responsibility and national security are not mutually exclusive. As the country faces new challenges on both these fronts, Congress and the Pentagon must internalize this simple truth.
Gabe Murphy is a policy analyst focused on national security at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog advocating for transparency and calling out wasteful spending.