SIMI VALLEY, CA -- The Marine Corps is open to one day adopting a hypersonic strike weapon if its size is not too cumbersome for new front-line units being designed to operate in contested areas, said the service's top general, who allowed the service "could be" interested in a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency effort called OpFires.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger told reporters here on the sidelines of the Reagan National Defense Forum that the ground and maritime hypersonic strike weapon in joint development by the Navy and Army is too big for Marine Corps units being designed to move nimbly around the Pacific.
“I don’t know if there is a role or not,” Berger said, when asked by a reporter if he sees a place for hypersonic weapons in his new concept for “stand-in forces” designed to deploy and operate within China’s striking range.
He noted the Marine Corps is closely monitoring Army plans to field a Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon by 2023 and the Navy’s plan to field the Conventional Prompt Strike on a destroyer by 2025 and a submarine by 2028. While they have separate names, both are based on the same hypersonic glide vehicle launched from a two-stage rocket that is 34.5-inches in diameter.
“The approach we're taking is just stay partnered with the Navy, see how it goes -- and the Army,” Berger said. “If it's too big, though, we're not going to go for it because we have to be able to operate pretty light. So, if the end result is big, long, heavy, then we're not going to go there. If it ends up being small enough, then maybe so.”
Asked if that meant the Marine Corps could be interested in a project such as DARPA’s OpFires, which is focused on developing a “novel ground-launched system enabling advanced tactical weapons to penetrate modern enemy air defenses, and rapidly and precisely engage critical time sensitive targets,” Berger said: “Could be. But it's too early to tell you.”
In June 2020, Marine Corps Combat Development Command threw cold water on the idea that it had any near-term plans for a hypersonic weapon after a senior Pentagon official characterized discussions between DARPA and the Corps about a hypersonic weapon as active.
"There are conversations happening between DARPA and the Marines in particular to talk about the potential transition of a land-based, hypersonic capability to the Marines," Mike White, DOD's assistant director for hypersonics, said at the time. That prompted a senior Marine Corps leader to issue a statement explaining that while the service supports long-range fires, “we are a light and austere force who must consider our speed and mobility.”
At some point, if a hypersonic weapon can be scaled to a size where it fits in a missile launcher armed with other offensive weapons or defensive interceptors, Berger said it could be very useful to the fleet.
“If deterrence is really about creating a perception, right? Then [the adversary] needs to perceive that we might,” have a hypersonic strike weapon, he said.
The perspective of an adversary watching U.S. Marines, Berger said, could be: “You have a box, I saw it on a satellite. What's in the box if I can't see in the box?” he said, referring to a mobile missile launcher.
“We have to be that conniving going forward,” the commandant said. “Or even if they detect something, we make it hard to figure out what exactly is that thing and that multiple rocket launcher thing? What is that? I can't see the munition inside. We’ve got to be really creative here.”