US Marine Corps retools to meet China threat

US Marine Corps retools to meet China threat

Description: US marines in action in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Picture: AFP
US marines in action in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Picture: AFP

By Michael R. Gordon, The Wall Street Journal – 23 March 2020

The US Marine Corps is undertaking its most sweeping transformation in decades, pivoting from a focus on fighting insurgents in the Middle East to developing the ability to hop from island to island in the western Pacific to bottle up the Chinese fleet.

The 10-year plan to revamp the corps, scheduled to be unveiled this week, follows years of classified US wargames that revealed China’s missile and naval forces to be eroding American military ­advantages in the region.

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 “China, in terms of military capability, is the pacing threat,” said David Berger, the Marine Corps commandant. “If we did nothing, we would be passed.”

To reinvent themselves as a naval expeditionary force within budget limits, the marines plan to get rid of all of their tanks, cut back on their aircraft and shrink in total numbers from 189,000 to as few as 170,000, General Berger said.

“I have come to the conclusion that we need to contract the size of the Marine Corps to get quality.”

While the US has focused on the Middle East, however, China and Russia worked on systems to thwart the American military’s ability to assemble forces near their regions and command them in battle. If war broke out, US officials concluded, China could fire hundreds of missiles at US and ­allied air bases, ports and command centres throughout the ­Pacific, jam the US military’s GPS, attack American satellite systems and use its air defences to keep US warplanes at bay.

The marines’ combat development command in Quantico, Virginia, has run classified wargames such as Pacific Surprise and Ghost Fleet, which looked at how the marines might counter the Chinese threat in the decade ahead.

For the marines, the new Pentagon strategy raised questions about whether it should adapt for a toe-to-toe fight against China or should concentrate on lesser but still challenging dangers.

“The wargames do show that, absent significant change, the Marine Corps will not be in a position to be relevant” in a clash with a “peer competitor”, said Lieutenant General Eric Smith, head of the combat development command. General Berger’s answer was to reconfigure the corps to focus on a China threat.

The marines would fight within reach of Chinese missiles, planes and naval forces to blunt any aggression. While other ser­vices might lob missiles from long range, the marines, in military parlance, would operate ­inside “the weapons ­engagement zone”.

At the heart of General Berger’s plan is the establishment of new naval expeditionary units — what the marines call “littoral regiments” — whose mission would be to take on the Chinese navy.

If a military confrontation loomed, the regiments would disperse small teams of marines, who would rush in sleek landing craft to the tiny islands that dot the South and East China seas.

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Armed with sensor-laden drones that operate in the air, on the sea and under water, the marines would target Chinese warships before they ventured into the wider Pacific Ocean.

The marine teams, which could have 50 to 100 personnel, would fire anti-ship missiles at the Chinese fleet. Targeting data also would be passed to air force or navy units further away, which would fire longer-range missiles.

To elude retaliatory blows, the marines would hop from island to island every 48 or 72 hours, relying on a new generation of amphibious ships, which could be piloted remotely. Other marine teams would operate from US warships with decoy vessels nearby.

General Berger said the wargames showed that the new marine capabilities and tactics would create “a tonne of problems” for the Chinese forces. “It is very difficult for them to counter a distributed naval expeditionary force that is small, that is mobile, but has the capability to reach out and touch you,” he said.

To carry out the strategy, the marines would deploy new missile batteries, drone units and ­amphibious ships. A major push is being made to ease the logistical burden, such as exploring the use of 3-D printing on the battlefield to make spare parts.

While most of the effort to transform the corps is focused on the Pacific, the marines would retain other forces to respond to crises worldwide, including floating 2200-strong marine expeditionary units. To fund the new capabilities, the marines will dispense with all of its tanks over the next few years, eliminate its bridge-­laying companies and cut back on aviation and howitzers. “We need an army with lots of tanks, ” General Berger said. “We don’t need a Marine Corps with tanks.”