Don’t Go It Alone: A Top U.S. Marine’s Advice For Modernizing On A Budget

QUANTICO, Va. — As the Marine Corps continues to, shiplike, slowly turn itself away from the insurgent wars it has fought for nearly two decades toward old-school strategic competition, it must lean on larger sister services for major platform development and spend its own money only on Marine-specific gear, according to Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh.

Walsh is set to close a 39-year career that ultimately elevated him to deputy commandant for combat development and integration and chief of Marine Corps Combat Development Command.

“We have to be very, very careful that when we make a unique buy, it is the exception and not the rule,” Walsh said during a July 30 interview in his office at Quantico, the last he granted before retiring Aug. 30.

U.S. Marines with India Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force—Crisis Response—Central Command, conduct fast rope training from an MV-22 Osprey while deployed to Southwest Asia, Sept. 16, 2015.

U.S. Marines with India Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force—Crisis Response—Central Command, conduct fast rope training from an MV-22 Osprey while deployed to Southwest Asia, Sept. 16, 2015.

With specialized platforms like the V-22 and amphibious combat vehicle, the Marine Corps doesn’t really have a choice to join forces with other services. To some extent, it gained efficiencies by sharing development of the F-35 with the Navy and Air Force, but the short-takeoff, vertical landing B-model is the most unique of the three versions of that aircraft.

“We have to ask ourselves ‘Do we need it?’ and if we do, how do we integrate it and what are willing to trade to get it,” Walsh said.

Other examples where the Marines have gone it alone include the V-22 Osprey and the TPS-80 Ground/Air Task Oriented Radar (G/ATOR), which is an expeditionary active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar that provides unprecedented air-defense, command-and-control and data transfer capabilities.

“People questioned us on the MV-22, on G/ATOR, on the F-35, but now they have proven themselves,” he said. “We don’t want to become this exquisite force, but we also have to have the right equipment.”

Nearly every time the Marine Corps wants to buy a new piece of equipment, it first shops for other services that are after the same gear, Walsh said. For small arms or non-specialized vehicles, it can often “hop on” a larger service’s contract.

To a large extent, Marine Corps Combat Development Command, the USMC Warfighting Laboratory and its Futures Directorate and other organizations are plugged into the Army's laboratories, program executive offices and acquisition community. That goes for the Army's new Futures Command, as well. 

Walsh said he has an eye on and personnel involved with Army units chasing modernization priorities that the Marine Corps shares, especially next-generation combat vehicles, long-range precision fires, Future Vertical Lift and soldier lethality. The service is connected by umbilical to the Navy and has fewer collaborations with the Air Force but nonetheless meets with that service's modernization and weapon development community, as well, Walsh said. 

When the Marines join a developmental program, like the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, they want to be present early in the process to ensure its requirements are met and the Army doesn’t make it too large or heavy to go aboard ships, he said.

“With the Army, we want to be there at the beginning so that we have input on the requirements so whatever comes out works for us,” Walsh said. “It works best for us to try to spend our money uniquely, especially as we get into that high-end realm of aircraft and vehicles.”

For joint programs like JLTV, there are compromises that should be made on both sides short of creating a vehicle that is unworkable for one or both services, he said.

“With JLTV, it’s going to be larger because it will operate with the Army,” Walsh said. “Does it fit perfectly on a ship? Probably not, not as well as the way we would have designed it. But then it might not have been right for the Army.”

When the Marine Corps undertakes development or integration of a unique platform – think AV-8B Harrier or V-22 — it often fields revolutionary new technologies only with difficulty. Both of those aircraft suffered a spate of fatal mishaps during rocky periods of familiarization but ultimately changed the way Marine are able to operate.

The MV-22 has provided a significant increase in range and payload capacity over the service’s UH-1 and CH-53 helicopters, but since fielding has come off the production line in 72 different variants that makes maintenance difficult.

“Anytime we go it alone like with the V-22, we struggle with that,” he said. “Our readiness rates struggled. Systems integration has struggled.”

To correct the problem, Boeing [BA] and Bell [TXT] are under contract to bring war-weathered Ospreys through a Common Configuration-Readiness and Modernization (CCRAM) program that will bring the operational fleet to about five or so configurations. Walsh said the program will succeed in lightening the logistical tail for the aircraft, but sees it as a prescription for a symptom that nags the service when it fields unique capabilities.

It’s a risk that the Marine Corps is not unwilling to take when it finds a platform requirement that passes rigorous scrutiny. The most recent of those are the CH-53K King Stallion and the Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Experimental, or MUX for short. The service wants a high-altitude long-endurance drone that can launch from a ship, perform reconnaissance and relay communication to deployed ground forces for about $20 million per copy.

“We don’t always feel like we have the right answer, but with MUX, we feel this is the right way to go,” Walsh said. “We need a group-five UAS capability that can move with us from ship to shore. What will we have to trade in the future? We have to figure that out.”

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