A Joint Light Tactical Vehicle drives off of the ramp of a Stern Landing Vessel, a modified oil-rig industry off-shore support vessel, in order to transport personnel off of the vessel as part of Project Convergence Capstone Four, Feb. 23, 2024 at the Del Mar Boat Basin, Camp Pendleton, CA.

A Joint Light Tactical Vehicle drives off of the ramp of a Stern Landing Vessel, a modified oil-rig industry off-shore support vessel, in order to transport personnel off of the vessel as part of Project Convergence Capstone Four, Feb. 23, 2024 at the Del Mar Boat Basin, Camp Pendleton, CA. U.S. Marine Corps / Kevin Ray J. Salvador

The State of the Marine Corps 2024

The Corps' race to become a lighter service might move faster if its budget weren’t flat.

The Marine Corps is leaning into its transformation into a lighter service of futuristic weapons, advanced logistics, and leaner formations, but it could move even faster if its budget weren’t flat.

That’s the assessment from Gen. Christopher Mahoney, the Corps’ assistant commandant. 

Many of the 96 programs that support modernization efforts are “performing very well,” Mahoney said in a recent interview with Defense One. “What we can't do is accelerate them as fast as I would like, and build a depth of magazine to the level that I would like.”

That’s because Congress failed to pass a budget last year and instead funded the government with a series of continuing resolutions. And with the Corps’s fiscal year 2025 budget request set at $53.7 billion—down just a bit, in real terms, from last year’s $53.2 billion—next year’s prospects for acceleration are dim.

The modernization efforts aim in large part to prepare the Marines to fight in the logistically challenging environment of the Pacific, where distances are measured in thousands of nautical miles. 

As part of the shift, dubbed Force Design 2030, the Corps has dropped its tanks, bridging equipment, and older logistics equipment, and plans to reduce towed artillery and many aircraft. In its place, the Corps is placing bets on drones and missiles to give them the firepower needed to counter China. 

The Corps is also making progress on plans to turn three regiments into new “Marine Littoral Regiments,” which are designed for reconnaissance and emplacement at island and coastal choke points. 

In 2022, the Corps transformed the 3rd Marine Regiment into the 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment. The regiment reached initial operational capacity at the end of September 2023, and is expected to reach full capacity by September 2025. 

Another regiment was renamed the 12th Marine Littoral Regiment in November and will be restructured by fiscal year 2025 to meet the littoral regiment concept.

In a win for the Corps, the Pentagon also agreed to fully fund a new Marine Corps transport ship that leaders had been pushing for. The new vessel, dubbed the Landing Ship Medium, or LSM, is designed for landing in areas without docks. Each Marine Littoral Regiment is meant to have nine LSMs available to it. 

This year’s budget documents show the Corps will purchase one LSM in fiscal year 2025, one in fiscal year 2026, and two ships per year through to fiscal year 2029. The program will cost $268 million in fiscal year 2025. 

Those ships won’t necessarily take the role of the overstretched, larger amphibious ships the service needs to transport its Marine Expeditionary Units, a rapid-reaction force that theoretically is always on call but in practice must deal with a limited supply of ready ships. 

The LSM is instead focused on “intra-theater maritime mobility,” or moving troops and weapons across the islands of the Pacific, said Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, the deputy commandant of the Marine Corps for combat development and integration in an interview with Defense One

The LSM is just a part of the overall Corps logistics transformation, which has gathered pace this year following the issuance of logistic goals for the Force Design concept in February of 2023. 

The Corps is seeing progress in particular in fielding or experimenting with new types of transport vessels, including autonomous drones. 

In November 2023, the Corps fielded six Tactical Resupply Unmanned Aircraft System drones, which can carry a load of 150 pounds around nine miles. More drones are coming, with heavier variants set for testing later this year. The Corps is also experimenting with a small semi-submersible drone boat, dubbed the Autonomous Low-Profile Vessel, that takes a page out of designs used by narco-traffickers. 

The advances in autonomy come amid the Marine Corps’ return to operating the V-22 Osprey helicopter, which was grounded in December due to a fatal crash and returned to service in March of this year. 

“My confidence and faith in aircraft is completely unwavering,” said Heckl, a pilot who commanded the second Osprey squadron to deploy to combat.

Other work in progress includes redesigning logistic processes to make them lower profile, or 

pushing maintenance work closer to the frontline to reduce the need to ship important equipment back for repair. In February, the Corps redesignated the 2nd Marine Logistics Group as 2nd Combat Readiness Regiment, a unit with more ability to do frontline repairs. 

Some ambitious plans are not yet accomplished, said Col. Aaron Angell, who leads the Logistics Combat Element division at the Marine Corps’ center for Combat Development and Integration. For example, a Corps plan for computer programs that could minutely track equipment availability is difficult to implement due to how data is organized across the Defense Department.

Nevertheless, Logistics Force Design 2030 “initiated movement,” Angell said. “We are definitely moving forward.” 

Marine Corps investments in precision attack capabilities, from loitering munitions to long-range missiles, are also bearing fruit, Mahoney said. 

Mahoney praised the Corps’ effort to equip squads with one-way attack drones as one of the successes of Force Design programs. The program, dubbed Organic Precision Fire—Infantry (OPF-I), is “performing very, very well,” said Mahoney. 

A capabilities integration officer for the Marine Corps earlier told Defense One that the Corps hopes to field loitering munitions at the squad level by 2027, and work is continuing to identify how best to handle the impact of weather on the storage and use of the sophisticated weapons. 

The Marine Corps also runs a program for launching loitering munitions from vehicles in a program called Organic Precision Fire—Mounted, or OPF-M. 

Mahony said OPF-M has “been a challenge, both from a technical standpoint, and from a performance standpoint,” but said the Marine Corps is continuing to work on the acquisition strategy. 

This year’s budget also marks a period of investment in the Marine Corps’ new precision missile platforms, which match long range-missiles with an unmanned version of the Corps’ Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, dubbed the ROGUE Fires unmanned missile launcher. 

For 2025, the Marines hope to acquire 90 Naval Strike Missiles for the Navy/Marine Corps Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System (NMESIS), which Mahoney called “one of my better performing programs.” 

The service is also looking to buy eight Long Range Fires (LRF) systems, which launch the longer-range Tomahawk missile from a ROGUE Fires launcher. 

The Marine Corps will focus on making the system as a whole “smaller and lighter,” Mahoney said. “It's the logistics train that would follow In the immediate physical footprint that we're trying to shrink down to be more expeditionary.”

NEXT STORY: The State of the Space Force 2024