Change isn’t always easy. Even for US Marines.
But as China’s military capabilities continue to improve at an alarming rate, the Marines are planning to reconfigure themselves to take on the People’s Liberation Army in the Western Pacific. The Marine initiative is a gamble with uncertain prospects, but it might be relevant for the Indian Armed Forces.
In mid-2019, after nearly 20 years of focus on the Middle East and Afghanistan, United States Marine Corps (USMC) Commandant General David Berger declared the maritime Asia-Pacific was now the Corps’ priority theater.
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 sailing unmolested and 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 and sophisticated surveillance networks.
In fact, the PLA has been studying the US military since at least 1989, figuring out its weak points and how to defeat it. They’ve done well.
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 UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) for both surveillance and attack.
The idea is to conform to the geography. The Asia-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 defence 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 Commandant’s planners are simply employing their own version of China’s “anti access/area denial” (A2/AD) strategy—using a range of weapons to prevent or impede the ability of adversary forces to operate in given territory—sea, air, and land—and far away.
The Marines can defend along the so-called first island chain that stretches from Japan to Taiwan to the Philippines and on to Indonesia—and hems in the Chinese mainland (it’s worth considering that China is effectively using its “string of pearls” ports in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and elsewhere to create its own “island chain” around India). 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 – or even just operate inside the first island chain.The ‘web’ also provides cover for the US 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: hammering an American base on Guam or Okinawa is one thing. But locating and destroying mobile Marine anti-ship missile launchers on East Asian coastlines – and 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 ship building 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. Within the Pacific, working with the Japanese and the Australians should be easy. Working with other friends in the region is made easier since long-range precision weapons are a useful “asymmetric” capability for most potential partners, something that could be relevant for India as well. It adds more value than simply “gifting” a refurbished patrol boat or a helicopter or two. And it finally gives partners a real capability to defend their territory and resist Chinese intimidation.
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 be a lesser priority, even as the PLA buildup continues.
An industry and Congressional counterattack is inevitable if the Marines plan to buy fewer F35 fighters, but there is also opposition from within the Marine Corps—and especially from former-Marines.
Sceptics 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” as the Marine Hymn promises.
Additionally, one might think the Commandant has decided the Corps won’t be doing “sustained ground combat”, just short littoral (coastal) fights. The critics bristle at the idea the Marine Corps—the nation’s “force in readiness” is primly choosing its fights rather than doing whatever the nation needs.
Regardless of criticisms—that have more to do with perceived effects of the Commandant’s plan on the larger Marine Corps and its operational capabilities—the basic re-design concept for taking on the PRC in the Western Pacific is a good one.
Technology and PLA capabilities have made it too hard to fight the way the Marine Corps always has. So it adjusts. And in the process presents the Chinese with an unexpected and unwanted challenge.
As described, the Marines are setting up a complex, mobile defence—using advanced weaponry and technology while making themselves a hard target—and letting the Chinese try to fight through it. And the more partners you bring into the mix, the better. The PLA may decide it’s not worth the cost.
Indian defence planners might find what the Marines have in mind relevant. The concept applies in the IOR just as well as the Western Pacific. With a little imagination one imagines a number of employment schemes that can turn large swaths of the Indian Ocean into areas the Chinese military will operate only at great risk.
And it might be worth hurrying.
Chinese military activities and encroachment in the Indian Ocean are well underway and have been a worry for many years. These will continue and increase—no matter what forbearance India shows the PRC in the South China Sea.
A designated Indian Marine Corps is not a requirement. Amphibious trained Army troops will do fine.
Other nations in the region and on the Indian Ocean rim might welcome the chance to get involved with the program and improve their capabilities. This also tends to deepen political ties, can be useful during natural disasters and be a part of India’s exercises with its own partners beyond in the Pacific.
This is all of course just one piece of the puzzle for defending the IOR—and requires close cooperation with naval and air forces to succeed. And it does not reduce the need for submarines, warships, fighters, UAVs, anti-submarine warfare and surveillance capabilities, and ground forces and necessary hardware as well.
Importantly, the concept is a golden opportunity to add some real substance to the India-US defence relationship by having the US Marines and the Indian Armed Forces work on this together.
But why should an Indian version of the US Marine scheme be a priority? Sometimes you can assess the value of a plan or a weapon or piece of hardware by asking if you would mind if the enemy had or was employing it.
If the PLA set up something akin to General Berger’s plan in the IOR, would it be a problem? Say, for example, an anti-ship missile network in the Maldives, or mobile detachments on the Myanmar coast. Or, even more difficult to find and destroy, the PLA using the “string of pearls” ports and ships China has, encircling India to launch fast, coordinated attacks on Indian assets and installations from its vast mobile cargo network.
That would be a problem.
And it’s hard to think otherwise.
Col. Grant Newsham (Ret.) is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies and a retired US Marine officer.