Gen. Eric Smith testifies before the House Armed Services Committee on Readiness on April 19, 2023.

Gen. Eric Smith testifies before the House Armed Services Committee on Readiness on April 19, 2023. U.S. Air Force / Eric Dietrich

Marines’ Smith Vows to Press On with Force Design, Fight for 31 Amphibs, and Seek 3D Printers

The nominee for Corps commandant said “contested logistics” would be a focus if he’s confirmed.

The Marine Corps will continue to overhaul its forces—including a search for battlefield-manufacturing technologies—if Gen. Eric Smith is confirmed as the service’s next commandant, he told senators Tuesday.

“Force Design is on track. We need to accelerate those areas where we can. And that will come with the steady funding and the continued experimentation and quick feedback that we get from our extremely excellent Marine Corps Warfighting Lab,” Smith said during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Smith, the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, has been involved in Force Design 2030 since the beginning, so it comes as no surprise that he intends to pick up where his predecessor Gen. David Berger left off. The career infantry officer is also likely to continue the Marines’ fight to force the Navy to operate at least 31 amphibious warships, as he told the senators who pressed him on the topic.

Smith, who received his nomination less than two weeks ago, is the first of a coming wave of new service chiefs to receive his confirmation hearing. The Senate appears to be moving quickly in anticipation of Berger’s July retirement and in spite of the blanket hold on senior military promotions levied by Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala.

“You are eminently qualified to become the commandant of the United States Marine Corps, and we will do our best to expedite the confirmation. And we look forward to working with you,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I.

Tuberville, who voted to overturn election results in 2021, also said that he would support Smith’s nomination during the hearing.

Smith wants the Marines to continue working on “contested logistics”: supply challenges that could emerge in a far-flung war. The service is experimenting with pre-staging gear, unmanned aerial, surface and subsurface crafts, and 3D printers, all in the effort to reduce the time it takes to get equipment to a Marine.  

“We have to do some very creative work to do additive manufacturing and 3D printing forward,” Smith said. Even “major end items” such as aircraft engines and propellers, he said, ”we'll be doing that forward, as opposed to straining the lines that come from the United States through contested logistics areas.”

Smith said he also wants to use technologies that can lighten materiel such as ammunition and body armor.  

“Every pound matters when you're trying to move things across the expanse of the Pacific,” he said.

In the meantime, the best way to move Marines and their supplies forward is by using amphibious ships. In response to senators’ questions, Smith repeated Berger’s oft-repeated contention that the Marine Corps must have at least 31 amphibious warships to train with, deploy on missions, and realize the Force Design 2030 vision.

Force Design will continue because it will make us more ready to deal with peer threats. But sir, those 31 amphibious warships are a part of it, an absolute vital part, just as long-range fires, low-signature communications are…They're a national asset,” Smith said.

The Navy’s omission of an amphibious dock landing ship, or LPD, in its 2024 budget request and the early retirement of three Whidbey Island-class dock landing ships set the fleet on course to violate the 31-amphib floor set by the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act. Nor does the Navy’s latest 30-year shipbuilding plan include any new LPDs.

Lawmakers have not been happy. In its markup of the 2024 defense policy bill this week, the House Armed Services Committee orders the Navy to buy one LPD and forbids it to retire the three Whidbey Island-class amphibious ships.

During the confirmation hearing, Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, submitted into the record a bipartisan letter he had sent to Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro Tuesday morning about the 31-ship requirement, reminding Del Toro of his April 18 promise to come back “with a plan to adhere to the law.”

“At this time, you have not yet contacted the Committee to follow through on your commitment,” the letter says.

The letter requested the Navy send an updated shipbuilding plan by June 19 or another plan “to adhere to the statutory requirement before that date.”