Marines trade slow ships for drones and supply caches as they prep for modern warfare

Should war break out with China, the sprawling logistics depots of the type used by the Marine Corps in Afghanistan could quickly be turned into smoking craters—a fate previewed by Ukraine’s devastating strikes on Russian arms and oil depots. 

The Marines, at least on paper, aren’t waiting around for that to happen. In February, the Corps released sweeping plans to adapt logistics to the rising threat of long-range weapons. The plans, which draw upon lessons from the Ukrainian battlefield, nest within Force Design 2030, the Corps’ larger push to prepare for a Pacific fight. 

“Logistics will stop you in your tracks if you haven’t thought it through, if you don’t have a system that is strong and functioning,” Gen. Christopher Mahoney, assistant Marine Corps commandant, said in an interview with Defense One

The plan is ambitious. Among its dozens of objectives, it seeks to increase the use of drones, use artificial intelligence to manage inventory, boost 3D printing, and revamp logistics training and medical care. 

Marines supporting the efforts say that they’re seeing progress—even if more ambitious components of the plan have yet to be realized. 

Fulfilling all of the specific requirements laid out in the logistics document Force Design 2030 has been a “challenge,” said Col. Aaron Angell, who leads the Logistics Combat Element division at the Marine Corps’ center for Combat Development and Integration. 

Angell said the top challenge is something the military has long struggled with: what to do with data

“The one area where we really have a lot of work to do is global logistics awareness and decision making,” he said. According to the plan, the Corps should establish an information technology system that provides global and automated awareness of its readiness, among other parameters. 

With data stored across multiple different systems, even collecting all that data in one place is difficult, said Angell. Data also comes with all sorts of other tasks, such as what information is shareable, and how to protect it, he added. 

Still, Logistics Force Design 2030 “initiated movement,” he said. “We are definitely moving forward. There’s always the stumbling blocks, but then it’s just how do you mitigate those.” 

Some of the most visible improvements have been investments in hardware, including delivery drones, semi-submersibles, and boats with designs borrowed from the oil and gas industry. 

In the 2025 budget proposal, the Marine Corps has requested funds to purchase its first Landing Ship Medium, a new design meant to be more advanced than a basic landing craft and the Navy’s much larger amphibious ships. 

The ship, which will be designed to land in areas without port facilities, are intended to be more survivable thanks to their improved ability to “hide among islands and other sea traffic,” according to a Congressional Research Service report

In February, the Corps tested a similar, commercially-procured vessel in order to test out concepts that will inform the ultimate design for the Landing Ship Medium. 

The Corps is also testing out the Autonomous Low-Profile Vessel, an autonomous, small semi-submersible meant to slip past enemy defenses and supply isolated Marines. The design was influenced in part by the narco-submarines that smuggle drugs past the Coast Guard, according to Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl. 

The vessel is designed to take two Naval Strike Missiles, and so could be used to resupply one of the Corps’ autonomous missile launchers, dubbed the Navy Marine Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System, or NMESIS. 

The Marines are also leaning heavily into unmanned aerial resupply, looking to aerial drones to ferry supplies into areas that would otherwise be risky to reach. In November of last year, the Corps fielded six Tactical Resupply Unmanned Aircraft System drones, which can carry a load of 150 pounds around nine miles. 

The Corps is dreaming much bigger, though. Mahoney would like to see drones toting “thousands of pounds.” 

Angell says the Corps is moving to answer the call. This summer, Leidos and Kaman will compete to show off two medium drones, which Angell said must be capable of carrying 300 to 600 pounds at a distance of at least 25 nautical miles. 

Other options could include turning existing aircraft into drones and using them to haul equipment, Angell said, pointing to an experiment in Alaska that used a Cessna plane modified to work as a drone.  

With the fieldings, the Corps is also working through teething problems for the drones. For one, the Corps is coping with how to deconflict airspace, as both Corps planes and drones jostle for space, according to Master Sgt. Christopher Genualdi, capabilities integration officer for aerial delivery and autonomous distribution systems in the Marine Corps Combat Development Command. 

Humans’ trust of robots—particularly for moving humans—is another problem that will eventually have to be solved, both Angell and Mahoney said. People can be “very reluctant,” to trust drones to move humans, Mahoney said.

Pre-positioned stocks 

Not all the fixes involve futuristic robots. One key tactic is simply to find warehouses, rent them out, and fill them with the food and equipment needed to sustain troops—relieving them of the need to wait for shipments across the thousands of miles of the Pacific ocean.  

Starting last year, the Corps established its first prepositioned-stocks site in the Philippines’ Subic Bay, according to a spokesperson for the Marine Corps Forces Pacific, or MARFORPAC. 

More sites will eventually be added across the Pacific, allowing Marines to easily restock without exposing slow-moving logistics ships to fire. 

Sites are chosen for proximity to the areas where the supplies will come in handy, said Lt. Col. Greg Lynch, a logistician at MARFORPAC.  

Beside other defensive measures, their non-threatening footprint will also hopefully dissuade an enemy from attacking them, Lynch said. “We’re hoping that is not worth the cost of a multibillion dollar attack to attack a bunch of forklifts.”

It can take years to set up a single site, said Lynch. The Marines must evaluate potential sites for a lengthy set of criteria, negotiate with host governments, and then navigate local laws. 

The cost of setting up new sites also constrains the Corps ability to open new locations, he added. 

Still, he hailed the progress as encouraging.

“The fact that we’ve really shifted and implemented this new program in three or four years — in government bureaucracy timeline that’s very speedy,” said Lynch. It “is a reflection of the Marine Corps willingness to respond to an emerging requirement” he said. 

Switching up the rules 

On the ground, units are also pressing forward with experiments that reform how units operate in order to improve their logistics in a full-scale war. 

Maj. Dustin Nicholson of the 3d Marine Logistics Group in Okinawa said his unit has been experimenting with a new way of shipping “Role Two” medical supplies, a category of equipment that allows surgeons to operate in the field. 

The supplies can be bulky, thanks to the equipment they contain — in one exercise in 2018, the 3rd Marine Logistics Group needed 23,000 pounds of equipment to set up a Role Two field hospital, with set-up taking from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. According to doctrine, the shipment requires around 12 trucks to move, said Nicholson. 

The equipment is “a fairly heavy lift” when navigating around Pacific islands that may also be targeted by enemy forces, said Nicholson. 

The 3rd Marine Logistics groups’ medical and logistics units are now looking at ways to reduce the equipment load and power needs of a system. Another solution may be to break up large loads of standardized medical supplies, dubbed the Authorized Medical Allowance List, into smaller, more manageable loads. “Fundamentally, it’s an issue of having to have less,” said Nicholson. 

This is as much a bureaucratic fight as a financial decision, as changing the quantity and number of equipment runs up against Marine Corps standards based on past wars, he said. 

Another program his unit is working on is experimenting with a sustainment platoon that can go out and do more advanced maintenance than would be typically for frontline sites. 

Experimentation there, which began by merging supply and maintenance units, informed the creation of the Marine Corps’ new combat readiness regiment, Nicholson said. 

Nicholson said that he was optimistic about the pace of change, in part because of the increasing attention paid to contested logistics. 

Still, a fundamental question lingers on his mind, said Nicholson, especially when faced with roadblocks: “How much time do we have?” 

It’s a question that no one can answer, he says, but old concepts—for instance, that Japan would be a sanctuary—no longer hold. 

“We need to reset the baseline.” 

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Sam Skove