US Marines exercise with armored vehicles in Thailand in February 2020. The Marine Corps is working to deploy lighter, more agile and more dispersed forces to counter China in the region. Photo: AFP

When it comes to strategic priorities, what a difference a few years make.

In 2013, then-US 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 – as US Navy Pacific Fleet intelligence chief Captain James Fanell discovered.

In 2014, Fanell said publicly that China was preparing for a “short, sharp war” against Japan that would draw in the United States. He was sacked.

But by 2017, the US National Security Strategy was all but calling China an enemy.

Beijing is no rollover. China is undertaking the fastest, biggest military build-up since World War II.  And the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, is shaping up as a very serious competitor for US forces in the Indo-Pacific.

The US military is now facing up to this challenge, with each service re-gearing in its own way. The US Navy is by far the farthest along. But now the US Marines – widely seen as the most ferocious and expeditionary force in the Pentagon’s portfolio – are following suit.

In mid-2019, USMC Commandant General David Berger declared the Asia-Pacific the Corps’s priority theater after nearly 20 years focused on the Middle East and Afghanistan. And Berger was clear: It is all about China. That country, he said, in an interview in  October 2019, is “clearly the long-term existential threat to the US.”

This is requiring a re-think of the Marine Corps’s traditional approach in the Pacific: Large amphibious forces battling their way ashore to vanquish enemies, Iwo Jima-style. 

Not only would the idea of an amphibious assault on the Chinese mainland be madness, but amphibious flotillas also offer Chinese missiles fat targets. So do large support bases. Vulnerabilities will increase as China develops more and smarter long-range weapons.

So what does the Marine Commandant have in mind? Use geography to America’s advantage, fight from the strategic defensive and become lighter and more agile.

Nimbler fighting force

Details of the transformation, including the specific adjustments the Marine Corps will make to carry out the Indo-Pacific strategy, were outlined in its Force Design 2030 publication.

The highlights include cutting several infantry battalions, eliminating all tanks not agile enough 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 unmanned aerial vehicles 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 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 positions along the so-called first island chain, stretching from Japan to Taiwan and the Philippines and on to Indonesia, that hems in the Chinese mainland. The net effect is a deadly “web” that will make for a long afternoon for PLA Navy ships and aircraft trying to break out into the Pacific Ocean. The web will also provide cover for the US Navy as it maneuvers.

Smaller, mobile Marine units armed with long-range precision weapons throughout the region are also more survivable than big battalions. 

Consider the challenges from the PLA’s perspective.

Hitting huge American bases on Guam or Okinawa is one thing. Locating and destroying Marine anti-ship missile launcher units on East Asian coastlines – perhaps hidden in easily moved shipping containers, of which there are millions – is another.

In short, the PLA can’t locate the Marines and their weapons but the small Marine forces, with their long-range weapons, can find Chinese targets and hit them accurately from afar.  

Transformative challenges

The first challenge is where to put the Marines. An “old school” Marine division is based in Okinawa, Japan. Guam remains a potential base, but the smaller packets of Marines need to disperse much more widely.

The welcome mat isn’t out anywhere just yet and it’s essential to pre-position rather than trying to get in uninvited at the last minute. 

The Marines will also require more and different types of vessels – smaller and faster – to move and supply these smaller detachments. The US Navy does not have enough, and its shipbuilding plans and budgets are uncertain. 

The Marine detachments also need to be inconspicuous. Shipping containers with missiles inside are easy to move and hide, but Westerners of military age stand out in all parts of Asia. China, and its agents across the Pacific, might notice.

Moreover, China isn’t standing still. Its economic inroads across the region have built political influence. Beijing ultimately wants a military presence, but just being able to keep Americans from getting in – as might be happening in the Philippines – is an advantage in itself.

The Marines will need partners to make this scheme most effective. Working with the Japanese and Australians should be easy.

Making more friends is made easier since maneuverable, long-range precision weapons are a useful asymmetric capability for most potential partners, one that enables them to defend their territories and take on PLA naval and air forces in a conflict scenario.

China front-of-mind

The Marines, of course, are just one arm of the US military.

The China threat has been front-of-mind for the US Navy’s Japan-based 7th Fleet for years, regardless of some accommodationist thinking being pushed from Honolulu. It operates throughout the region, has a particularly excellent operational relationship with the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force and can give a good account of itself even now.

But the US Navy needs more ships and submarines to cover this huge operational area. And it over-relies on aircraft carriers. Carriers are powerful but vulnerable, especially as Chinese “carrier killer” missiles become an increasing threat.

The US Air Force recently withdrew its permanently based B52 bombers from Guam. This raised eyebrows and suggested a lack of US commitment. But by regularly moving aircraft into the region and using different airfields, the USAF becomes a less predictable target.

The US Army, forward deployed in South Korea, wants a piece of the action and is hyping its long-range missiles as game-changers. They are useful but just one piece of the puzzle.

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, which sounds like a second Marine Corps.

A problem facing all US services in the region is a perceived lack of staying power. The Chinese, after all, are permanently nearby.

This issue was on display recently when the 7th Fleet dispatched the 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 Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). 

The Americans and an Australian Navy ship sailed around for a few days and then left. The Malaysians reportedly felt abandoned, which is fair enough. But Malaysia could offer to host US forces – as could other Association of Southeast Asian Nation countries – thus allowing more “time on station” for the Americans.

One way or another, Americans need to figure out how to be in more places more often. For this, local partners are indispensable. 

Feasible change?

Will General Berger’s scheme to transition towards a much lighter and more agile Marine Corps stick? He will be gone in a few years and has said that his revamp of the Corps will take 10 years. His successor may be less interested in the Indo-Pacific.

If another conflict breaks out, say in the Middle East, Asia could once again become a backwater, despite the PLA’s ongoing buildup. An industry counterattack is inevitable if the Marines buy fewer F35s. And there is also opposition from within the corps, and especially from retired Marines. 

Skeptics argue the commandant is over-focusing on a single enemy in a particular location; Marines are expected to operate in “every clime and place.” 

There is also concern that the Marines will talk themselves out of the grinding sustained ground combat that has won them so much past glory, and specialize in littoral fights. The recent announcement of the “Marine littoral regiment” concept further fired up critics.

Considerable details and funding still 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 the rest of the globe.

The PLA is the one military that could defeat American forces. China has been studying the US military since at least 1989, identifying its weak points and devising plans and weapons to exploit them. It has done well.

Smart American commanders are now considering how the PLA would least like to fight, and how to present the PLA with new kinds of problems. That’s how a nation wins wars, or even better avoids fighting them at all.