By Phil Steven
The United States Marine Corps has shifted its doctrine to combat the changing strategic environment in the Pacific. The shift includes no more tanks, more F-35Bs (stealth SVTLOR fighter jets), and a lot more missiles (MLRS elements and forward-deployed Tomahawks and Patriots). This shift is formally known as the Force Design 2030, of which General David Berger is the architect and enforcer. The goal is to field a smaller overall force that is more resilient against precision guided munitions (PGMs) and integrates better with the U.S. Navy. For the last two decades, the US Marines have been fielding MEUs to compete with U.S. Army’s BCTs (both self-sufficient units around 2,000 to 5,000 personnel). Now, they will swing back to their traditional “island hopping” strategy with smaller, mosaic pieces (“mosaic” refers to units that can attach anywhere, unlike “puzzle” pieces that require a specific fit). As the PLA’s capacity and posturing grows more aggressive, the U.S. Marines are forced to react.
There are numerous examples of this increased aggressiveness but China’s long-range missile development is the most trouble. The military industrial complex (IMIC) in China has reached a state where sophisticated, accurate missiles are being fielded in large numbers. Operationally, Marines can be shot in amphibious vehicles long before they even reach the shore. Furthermore, there has been a strengthening of a sophisticated “kill chain”, where intelligence, kinetic, and other forces find, deploy, fix, and strike targets. Public respect for the PLA Rocket Force--its own branch in the Chinese military--has grown and the PLA Rocket Force’s ability to integrate into a broader military hierarchy finished between 2018 and 2019. Ultimately, this is the fruition of PLA’s lessons from America’s First Gulf War, where PGMs dominated. The PLA shifted to “informationized” warfare, a means of building and strengthening command and control (C2) in a sophisticated kill chain. This shift leads to successful PGM strikes. Now in 2020, the United States has changed in a rather dramatic way.
The strongest example in Berger’s plan is the strategy to cut tanks and artillery and invest in fighter planes, missiles, and drones. RAND estimates that this will cause a shift of $700 million in the 2021 fiscal budget. The American MIC is not afraid to slow down implementation through legal procedures, but higher-level civilian leadership will need to step in to ensure change is made in a timely manner. Berger has built a strong and wide winning coalition in the USMC and the DoD. He is fully prepared to fight for his plan. Whether done in ten, twelve, or fifteen years, the new force will emerge.
How will this new USMC fight?
The answer is more lethal. Berger himself stated, “It will be purpose-built to facilitate sea denial and assured access in support of the fleet and joint operations.” To paint a picture, elements as small as infantry platoons (50 Marines), will take islands and deploy kinetic elements, anti-ship or anti-air missiles, non-kinetic elements, and radar and jamming, so they can form a reinforced blockade. This island chain would then be supported by naval and aerial forces at a safer distance. With all five branches working seamlessly together, this inter-service ballet would be incredibly pungent for area denial, a staple for warfare in the Pacific. Anytime the Marine island chain is contested by PLA forces, naval and aerial assets would provide a coordinated response. In an offensive manner, missiles placed on islands can peruse a cornucopia of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) elements to strike moving surface vessels, aircraft, and other targets.
These island chains will be challenging targets for long-range missiles, even if they are totally isolated. Covers, such as terrain features (like hills), and concealment (such as camouflage nets) make it incredibly difficult to spot and destroy USMC elements. The PLA will know there are Marines on the island but since missiles have smaller warheads than air dropped munitions, they call for precise guidance. Even if a PLA ISR element finds the exact location of a launcher, they will have to successfully pass the web of kinetic and non-kinetic anti-missiles forces. If a PLA missiles survives this web, a simple hill may block the angle of attack.
Essentially, one launcher is a link in a chain supported by surface vessels, submarines, fighter jets, ISR planes, satellites, drones, and cyber forces all coordinating to prevent and carry out strikes. By choosing to be more agile, the Marine Corps has increased survivability and become more lethal.
Philip is a Master of International Affairs student at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy studying international security with an emphasis on China. He spent 4 years in the U.S. Army Signal Corps as a Sergeant at Ft Lewis, Washington, finishing his BA in History remotely in 2017 from Thomas Edison State University. His research includes US-China security issues and cybersecurity.