What a difference a few years make. In 2013, then-U.S. Pacific Command boss Admiral Samuel Locklear said his biggest worry was climate change. Though he may have believed it, mentioning China was risky in those days.
The U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet intelligence chief, Captain James Fanell was sacked in 2014 for saying publicly that China was a threat and also was preparing for a ‘short, sharp war’ against Japan – that would draw in the United States.
That was then. A few years later the 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy all but called China an enemy. It was about time. The People’s Republic of China was, and is, undertaking the fastest, biggest military build-up since World War Two. And it can give U.S. forces in the Pacific plenty of trouble.
The U.S. military is now girding its loins to take on the PRC.
Each service is going about it its own way and the U.S. Navy is by far the farthest along. The U.S. Marines Corps (USMC), making up for lost time, have done a quick U-turn.
In mid-2019 USMC Commandant General David Berger declared the Asia-Pacific was the Corps’ priority theater – after nearly 20 years focused on the Middle East and Afghanistan. And Berger was clear – it is all about China.
This is requiring a re-think of the Marine Corps’ traditional approach in the Pacific: large amphibious forces bulling their way ashore to vanquish enemies. Think Iwo Jima.
That won’t work against China. Besides the idea of landing on the Chinese mainland being madness, amphibious flotillas are fat targets for Chinese missiles. So are large support bases. And it will get even worse as China develops even ‘smarter’ long-range weapons.
So what does the Marine Commandant have in mind? Use geography to his advantage and fight from a strategic defensive.
He outlined more details last month with the publication of Force Design 2030 – the specific adjustments the Marine Corps will make to carry out the Pacific strategy.
The highlights include cutting several infantry battalions, eliminating all tanks (not considered useful for coastal fighting), and replacing about three-fourths of ‘regular’ artillery with long-range missile and rocket batteries. Fighter aircraft, helicopters, and amphibious assault vehicles will be reduced.
There will be more and improved long-range UAV’s for both surveillance and attack.
The idea is to conform to the geography. The Indo-Pacific has many islands and archipelagoes with narrow, confined seas. Small units of Marines occupying or seizing key terrain and using their own anti-ship missiles, long-range rockets, and air defense weapons, can easily turn nearby seas (and skies) into no-go zones – eventually stretching out hundreds of miles as improved weapons come on-line.
The Marines can defend along the so-called first island chain that stretches from Japan to Taiwan and the Philippines and on to Indonesia – and hems in the Chinese mainland. The net effect is a deadly ‘web’ that will make for a long afternoon for PLA ships and aircraft trying to break out into the Pacific Ocean. The ‘web’ also provides cover for the U.S. Navy as it maneuvers.
Smaller, mobile units of Marines armed with long-range precision weapons throughout the region are also more survivable.
Think of it from the PLA’s perspective: hitting an American base on Guam or Okinawa is one thing. But, locating and destroying Marine anti-ship missile launchers on East Asian coastlines – often hidden in easily moved shipping containers (of which there are a few million) is another.
So in theory, the PLA can’t locate the Marines and their weapons, but the Marines can find Chinese targets and hit them accurately from very long distances.
The Marine Corps’ challenges
The biggest challenge? Where to put the Marines. The welcome mat isn’t out anywhere just yet – except perhaps Guam. This needs to be done before the shooting starts – rather than trying to get in, uninvited, at the last minute.
The Marines will also require more and different types of ships – smaller and faster – to keep the detachments mobile and supplied. This is easier said than done. The US Navy hasn’t got enough ships, and its shipbuilding plans and budgets are, to put it charitably, uncertain.
The Marine detachments also need to be inconspicuous. Shipping containers with missiles inside are easy to hide, but military age Westerners tend to stand out in all parts of Asia. And there are Chinese and their paid friends all over the Pacific who might notice.
Moreover, the PRC isn’t standing still. Its economic inroads throughout the region also equal political influence. Beijing ultimately wants military presence, but just being able to keep the Americans from ‘getting in’ – as might be happening in the Philippines – is advantage enough for now.
The Marines will need partners to make this scheme most effective – as will all the services. Working with the Japanese and Australians should be easy. Making more friends is made easier since long-range precision weapons are a useful ‘asymmetric’ capability for most potential partners. It finally gives them a real capability to defend their territory and take on the PLA.
Meanwhile, what about the rest of the U.S. military?
The Marines, of course, are just one part of the U.S. military as a whole trying to present the PLA with a much tougher challenge.
The U.S. Navy’s Japan-based 7th Fleet has been thinking about the Chinese threat for years – regardless of the ‘accommodationist’ thinking sometimes being pushed from Honolulu. And it operates throughout the region – has an excellent operational relationship with the Japanese Navy – and can give a good account of itself even now.
But the U.S. Navy needs more ships and submarines to cover a huge operational area. And it wrestles with an over-reliance on aircraft carriers. Carriers are powerful but also vulnerable – even more as Chinese ‘carrier killer’ missiles become an increasing threat.
The U.S. Air Force recently withdrew its permanently based B52 bombers from Guam. This raised eyebrows – suggesting a lack of U..S commitment. But by regularly moving aircraft into the region and using different airfields, the USAF becomes a less predictable target but still able to pack a punch – to include sinking PLA Navy ships.
As for the U.S. Army, it desperately wants a piece of the action. It is hyping its long-range missiles as ‘game-changers’. They are useful but just one piece of the puzzle. And Army spokesmen talk of smaller, more mobile army units able to move about the region and occupy key terrain from which they employ long-range weapons.
That sounds like a second Marine Corps.
The U.S. Army also seems ambivalent about the PLA. While talking about ‘getting into the fight’ it still conducts joint training with the Chinese military, most recently in late 2019. Go figure.
Another problem facing all U.S. services in the region is a perceived lack of presence and staying power compared to the Chinese who are ‘always nearby.’
This was on display recently when 7th Fleet dispatched USS America and its escort ships to the southern end of the South China Sea where Chinese ships were intimidating a Malaysian survey ship operating inside the Malaysia EEZ.
The Americans (and an Australian Navy ship) sailed around for a few days and then left. The Malaysians reportedly felt abandoned. Fair enough. But Malaysia could offer to host U.S. forces – as could Vietnam, the Philippines, and Brunei – thus allowing more ‘time on station’ for the Americans.
One way or another, Americans need to figure out how to be in more places and a lot more often. Once again, partners are indispensable.
Is General Berger’s scheme a sea change for the Marine Corps?
That’s hard to say. He will be gone in a few years and his successor may be less interested in the Indo-Pacific. Or if a conflict breaks out – say in the Middle East – Asia might once again become a backwater, even as the PLA buildup continues.
An industry counterattack is inevitable if the Marines plan to buy fewer F35’s, but there is also opposition from within the Marine Corps – and especially former-Marines.
Skeptics argue the Commandant is over-focusing on a single enemy and in a particular location – while Marines are expected to operate in ‘every clime and place.’
Additionally, one might think the Marines have decided they won’t be doing ‘sustained ground combat,’ just littoral fights. Sort of the military equivalent of ‘union rules.’ The recent announcement of the ‘Marine Littoral Regiment’ concept further amped up the critics.
This writer’s opinion: The considerable details (and funding) need to be worked out, but the Marines – along with the other services – are on the right track as long as they don’t forget about the rest of the globe.
You see, the PLA is the one military that could defeat American forces. The Chinese have been studying the U.S. military since at least 1989 and figuring out its weak points and how to defeat it. They’ve done well.
But the Americans are now considering how the PLA would least like to fight – and presenting the PLA with a new kind of problem.
That’s how one wins wars. Or even better, avoids fighting them in the first place.
This should have happened back when Admiral Locklear was fretting about climate change and Captain Fanell was hounded from the service.
Better late than never.