Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro swears in Gen. Eric Smith as the 39th commandant of the Marine Corps, Sept. 22, in the Pentagon.

Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro swears in Gen. Eric Smith as the 39th commandant of the Marine Corps, Sept. 22, in the Pentagon. U.S. Navy / Lt. Gabrielle Dimaapi

Top Marine outlines priorities for next four years

In his first interview since shedding the “acting” label, commandant cites people, modernization, and organic mobility as top areas of focus.

As Gen. Eric Smith nears 100 days of leading the Marine Corps, he says his thoughts are focused on one thing: his people.

“The first thing I think about when I get up in the morning, or the last thing I think about before I hit the rack at night, is Marines. How do I make them more capable, more lethal? How do I make it easier for them to have some control over their careers?” Smith told Defense One in his first interview since being confirmed as Marine Corps commandant.

His efforts are complicated by the fact that he is still working two jobs, thanks to a GOP senator’s blanket hold on senior military promotions.

“[W]hen you have senior people doing two jobs, that by definition means you're not focused on either job solely, which is what the Marines deserve,” said Smith, the former assistant commandant who became acting commandant when Gen. David Berger retired on July 10. “I mean, one person cannot do both jobs as well as two people can do those two jobs.”

Smith shed the acting label with his Senate confirmation on Sept. 21, but continues to carry the workload of assistant commandant—plus the duties of a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—because Sen. Tommy Tuberville is blocking Lt. Gen. Christopher Mahoney’s nomination to be assistant commandant and there is “no lawful mechanism” for someone to step in as an acting ACMC.

And the leaders of the other military services are in a similar situation, which makes it hard to work on joint topics, he said.

“Their time is split across three jobs…my time is split across three jobs…So it does affect your ability to link up on key issues,” Smith said. “Because I may be focused on an assistant commandant task when Gen. [Randy] George is focused on chief of staff of the Army task. And so it's unhelpful.”

During Smith’s first 100 days, the Marine Corps has had some wins but has also experienced tragedy. The service met its 2023 recruiting goal, while the other services continue to struggle. But the Marine aviation community has seen two deadly crashes and the loss of an F-35B fighter jet. The incidents prompted Smith to direct a service-wide safety review and then a stand down; he expects the results of the former later this month.

“It's going to tell me, are we doing our maintenance in the best possible way to generate readiness? Because readiness is safety. Pilots who have flown more hours tend to be safer than pilots who have flown less hours,” Smith said. “So all that will come to me this month during October, and then I'll put something out more formally that says, ‘Here are the top 2, 3, 4, 5 things that we found. So, if your unit isn't focused on those, I want you to focus on those.’ And that'll also drive us toward putting a general officer in charge of safety by next summer.”

Also coming this fall: Smith’s much-anticipated planning guidance. The document, in which every commandant lays out their priorities to the force, was delayed because of the drawn-out confirmation process. Not surprisingly, Smith said it will primarily focus on Marines: how to recruit them, how to prepare them to fight, and how to keep them in the service.

“[T]he focus has to be, always, on Marines. That is what makes us unique. It's not a piece of equipment. It’s not artillery versus missiles,” he said. “It's about the individual Marine and the ethos of the Marine as a warfighter.”

The emphasis on people is not new: Smith spent a lot of his time as assistant commandant working on what the service calls “talent management.” He’s also the father of a Marine, and says that “taking care of Marines is job [number] one.”

Smith plans to focus on three priorities over his four years as commandant: the Marines; supporting Force Design 2030 modernization efforts; and “organic mobility,” or the service’s aircraft, vehicles, and vessels.

On Force Design, Smith has repeatedly said the service must “accelerate.” One of the modernization efforts that needs an extra push, he said, is “communication layers,” which are critical in the current information environment.

“We need the ability—and are working hard to obtain the ability—to ubiquitously pass data securely across the battlefield. That is a real challenge in a world where adversaries have the ability to deny, degrade, disrupt those communications, to jam and or to hack into our systems. That is a fundamental need across the battlefield,” he said. “The ability to deliver cyber effects and information effects against an adversary, those are absolutely critical to the package of capabilities that Marines are going to need on the future battlefield.”

One example of this type of technology, Smith said, is the government-focused Starshield satellite network provided by SpaceX, which also owns the Starlink network being used by Ukrainian troops.

Another major priority under the Force Design umbrella is long-range fires, Smith said. While the Corps has done some great work with the NMESIS program, which has robotically fired a Tomahawk missile from a Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, Smith wants to get even more nimble.

“Now, we're always looking for smaller, longer-range missiles as opposed to bigger trucks, because we're the light expeditionary force,” he said. “So, we'll continue to prioritize long-range fires, we're just looking for the smallest possible missile, lightest weight, that gets us the range that we need.”

Smith acknowledged that his priorities will require more than four years of work, and will most likely be passed on to future commandants. But he wants Marines and their families to know he is trying to balance preparation for the next fight with quality-of-life investments needed at home.

“Our mission is seize or defend advanced naval bases," Smith said. "I believe we can do that and provide a high quality of life. But it's not either/or, it's a blending of the two. And there are going to be times when there's not enough time, funding, to do everything I want to do simultaneously.

“So we're going to attack each problem simultaneously, but that means it's going to be a 10-year problem to get out of the barracks issue. It's going to be years to fix every chow hall. It's going to be years to fix housing. It's going to be years to develop all the communications architecture I want, etc.

"And so, I think Marines do understand that. They just need to be communicated with honestly.””