Japanese SSM unit vehicle, left, and a US HIMARS unit vehicle participate in the US Japan joint exercise in Yamato Town, Kumamoto Prefecture on September, 2019. Photo: AFP

Both the United States and Israel are in the middle of reassessing and reworking their war fighting capability. In the US the shift is linked to the growing importance of the Pacific theater of operations. In Israel the focus is on countering new generations of weapons supplied by Iran to different terrorist groups, and to a rising crisis with Iran itself.

The first sign of major change is in the US Marines, who are reducing numbers, shifting to smart weapons, and reducing support for heavy weapons including eliminating all main battle tanks.  The Marines will be downsized, mainly by cutting units they will no longer support. 

Some of the reduction involves the Marines getting rid of so-called legacy equipment. For example, artillery cannon batteries will be reduced from 21 to five; Hawaii-based Marine Light Attack helicopter squadron 367 “Scarface” will be deactivated; at least one Tiltrotor V-22 Osprey medium lift squadron will also be deactivated. A heavy lift Marine squadron known as the “Heavy Haulers,” Squadron 462 based in Miramar, California, will also be eliminated.

Instead of the war on terror, the US Marines are shifting to sea denial and control missions and will be formed up into three littoral regiments.

Under the Marine’s plan, in the shift to littoral regiments, the focus will be on using precision rocket artillery that can be operated on land but also from sea platforms.  The Marines have been testing, with considerable success, launching precision rockets from launch trucks on board ships.  In one test in 2017, a HIMARS or High Mobility Mobile Artillery Rocket System was fired from a truck lashed to the deck of the USS Anchorage (LPD-23), an amphibious transport dock.  The HIMARS was testing a strike on an enemy air defense system, located on a small island.  In the test the target was destroyed.

The sea-test demonstrated that HIMARS worked very well from a sea platform and required only small changes in the system’s software. HIMARS has a range of up to 300 km.

According to the US Naval Institute, “Senior officials have been looking at how the Marine Corps, which is historically focused on land based operations, can support the Navy at sea and bolster the amphibious force’s ability to obtain and maintain “sea control,” in areas of current and potential future operations.” 

The US Naval Institute also reports that the Marines could operate HIMARS and other systems including Harpoon missiles against both land and sea targets.  A key advantage is that the Marines could lead strikes on medium-distance targets without the need to employ fighter aircraft, which may not always be available or will have other high priority missions, especially establishing and maintaining air superiority.

An interesting sidelight to the changes taking place in the Marines, is a decision in the works to reduce the number of F-35B and F-35C stealth fighters per squadron from 16 to 10, reflecting less need to rely on jet fighters if the Marines can carry out their mission with long range precision rocket artillery.  Among other things this means smaller squadron sizes on Okinawa.

The Marines plan to increase their precision rocket artillery force by 300% and will also adopt the next generation of precision artillery systems being developed for the Army.  The Marines say they are doing this to be prepared for naval expeditionary warfare in “actively contested spaces.”  This model is especially important should China try to implement its First Island Chain policy using force.

In Israel the problem is that its enemies also are getting more sophisticated weapons and Israeli forces need to adapt.  In a paper for the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Yaakov Lappin writes that the new Israeli military plan, named Momentum, is focusing on destroying the enemy’s capabilities rather than just retaliating against specific attacks. The Momentum Plan stresses that the Israeli Army’s new approach approach is not to seize territory but to take away the enemy strike capability. The US Marines shares this outlook with their Israeli colleagues.

A big concern in Israel is the not-too-distant future arrival of precision weapons in the hands of various terror groups, Hezbollah and Hamas being the most immediate worry, but others, even Iranians firing precision missiles from Syria or Lebanon posing a  growing problem.

In the past Israel has been able to sustain enemy missile strikes because the weapons used, principally Katyushas and bigger missiles such as Fajr-5 and Zelzal, an Iranian knock-off of the Russian Frog missile, were not terribly reliable nor accurate.  But the newer weapons in Iran and flowing out to their surrogates makes the challenge to Israel more serious, because Iran could now more accurately target Israeli airfields, air defense systems, command posts and critical infrastructure.

The recent Iranian strike against Saudi Arabia’s oil installations featured precision attack drones and cruise missiles. Top Israeli experts say that these Iranian systems showed extreme accuracy and attributed their pinpoint capability to new, autonomous guidance systems that, once aimed properly, could fly to their targets without an operator adjusting the flight path.

There is an Israeli suspicion the Iranian weapons that showed up in Saudi Arabia may have the equivalent of a TERCOM guidance system (used in long range American cruise missiles), meaning there was no need to rely on GPS for running the flight profile or fixing the target. 

While no one knows the timetable for systems of this kind to proliferate, the Israelis have been working on ways and means to find the missiles and their operators before they can be used against them.  Hence a spate of attacks on Iranian and Hezbollah installations in Syria, and attacks on storage centers such as warehouses and bunkers. 

While Israel always denies it made these attacks, it is common knowledge that Israel has the only air force, outside of the US and Russia, that could take such action.  In fact it can be said that, for Israel, the silver lining of the Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia was to unveil a new generation of weapons sooner, rather than later, and before they were in the field facing Israeli cities and military installations.

The Momentum Plan also changes the command structure in major ways through decentralization, allowing local commanders to make instant decisions and not have to go through a centralized headquarters for clearance, as they presently do.  Israeli military planners think this will significantly shorten the time to respond to an imminent threat.  Local commanders will have the full range of information and situational awareness, based on networks and elaborate sensors, to make decisions when a threat materializes.

Israel also is developing deep strike capabilities aimed at removing threats that may materialize on Iranian or “near Iranian” territory, as from Yemen or Iraq.  Part of the reason for Israel’s acquisition of F-35’s, and a likely future upgrade of its F-15’s, is to deal with longer range threats.

No one knows how far the Iranians may go in challenging Israel.  But the rising danger is well knows throughout the Israeli military.

The growing fear of active Chinese attacks on US allies and US interests resembles somewhat the challenge facing Israel. That is one of the reasons why the Marines are moving quickly to change over their force to deal with the threat in the South China Sea and the First Island Chain.  It also illustrates a new way that the Marines and the Navy could significantly aid Taiwan in a crisis, by clearing Chinese vessels crossing the Taiwan Straits and hitting departure points either on the Chinese mainland or nearby Chinese islands.

For this reason the Marines are also looking past HIMARS to newer precision rocket artillery systems.  In a few years HIMARS will be superseded by even longer range precision guided artillery, perhaps a range nearing 1,000 km although in the first iteration it will be about 400 km. 

Lockheed has already developed a long range precision guided artillery round called PrSM  (for Precision Strike Missile) which it is testing and the Army is running a competition to see which contractor will build this new system.  It will use the same launch tubes and trucks as HIMARS.  PrSM is an all-weather system that can operate even in environments where GPS is jammed, making it especially important as a field weapon.

The PrSM competition will soon be awarded (Raytheon, a possible competitor to Lockheed, just dropped out because they were unable to field test their version of PrSM). PrSM is expected to go into service in 2023.

Far more will change in the US posture as it meets the greater strategic challenge that China could mount.  Similarly in Israel, changes are being made anticipating new challenges from Iran, which also gets technology, weapons and supplies from Russia, China and North Korea.