If the Marine Corps had to go to war with the number of amphibious ships the Navy currently has, it likely wouldn't be able to pull off its missions successfully, the general tapped to lead the service warns.
Nineteen amphibious ships were ready to sail this week, Lt. Gen. David Berger, head of Marine Corps Combat Development Command, told lawmakers Tuesday, leaving about a third of the amphib fleet pierside. That could leave Marines strapped if they had to fight in a contested maritime requirement tomorrow, he said during a hearing on sea-power projection.
"The force we have this afternoon, while we're sitting in here, will not [allow us to compete in that environment] to the degree we need it to," said Berger, who was nominated this week to serve as the next commandant of the Marine Corps.
Navy Department leaders are facing scrutiny from lawmakers after the service's 2020 budget request didn't include any funding requests for amphibious ships.
Vice Adm. William Merz, deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems, said the Navy remains committed to building the amphib fleet, including accelerating its plans to deliver future landing helicopter assault ships. But Rep. Rob Wittman, a Virginia Republican, said seeing amphibs left out of the 2020 budget is concerning.
"We see no amphibious ship request, no amphibious connectors," he said. "So there's some concern about where we're going to be with the necessary capability in the Navy for Marine Corps operations."
Commandant Gen. Robert Neller said earlier this month that he planned to talk to members of Congress about the budget omission, especially as tensions rise in the Asia-Pacific region, where Marines have been told they need to prepare to fight.
"It's a maritime theater and ... we have a Marine Corps that comes from the sea," Neller said. "But we can't come from the sea if I don't have a way to get underway."
Next year's funding aside, Berger said the Navy and Marine Corps share some of the blame for the fleet's low readiness rates.
"When we rode the force hard and deferred maintenance and did that again and again, it didn't just affect the ships, but sent signals to industrial base that we were all over the map in terms of our maintenance," he said. "Just like our cars, if we don't change the oil in time, we're going to pay a bigger price later."
Two Wasp-class amphibs were unable to participate in the Rim of the Pacific exercise last year due to mechanical failures, highlighting continued readiness problems with the Navy's amphibious fleet, USNI News reported at the time. The Bonhomme Richard, which was supposed to play a key role in the exercise in and around Hawaii, was sidelined for half the exercise. The Boxer, set to be a key platform in the Southern California portion of RIMPAC, according to USNI News, was sidelined before the exercise began.
During Tuesday's hearing, Berger recalled seeing the Boxer at Pearl Harbor.
"It was frustrating ... watching that ship be pierside when all the other countries pulled out with their ships," he said. "That's a very capable ship, and it's very frustrating."
The services can no longer afford to delay maintenance on its existing ships, he added, but it's crucial that they get new vessels with "the right systems on board." Newer ships offer better protections, he said, and legacy-class amphibs don't have the same command-and-control and offensive systems found on newer vessels.
"To a degree, you can put in the Wasp, you can put in the Essex, but you really need the new ships in all type-model-series to give us another level of capability," Berger said.