|Marine Corps War Plans Are Too Sino-Centric. What About The Other 90% Of The World?|
Loren ThompsonSenior Contributor
I write about national security, especially its business dimensions.
Oct 17, 2022,11:40am EDT
China has long been known in standard Mandarin as Zongguo, the “middle country.” Judging from President Xi Jinping’s remarks to the Communist Party congress this weekend, the idea that China is the center of the world is just fine with him.
However, the Pentagon’s 2018 National Defense Strategy may have gone too far in designating China as the central threat around which future U.S. military preparations must be organized.
The Chinese challenge to America is mainly economic in nature, and Taiwan looks to be the only place where Beijing might undertake a military campaign in the foreseeable future. For all its superpower pretensions, China remains an insular nation hemmed in by geography and its own internal challenges.
Nonetheless, U.S. military services have been striving since the release of the 2018 strategy to demonstrate their relevance to the Chinese threat. Nowhere is this more true than in the Marine Corps, where Commandant David H. Berger has undertaken a wholesale redesign of his service’s formations and plans.
Plans to replace aging amphibious warships with "Flight II" variants of these San Antonio-class ... [+]Wikipedia
Among other things, General Berger has called for eliminating all of the Corps’ tanks and a sizable chunk of its rotorcraft; creating smaller combat units; fielding a new class of light amphibious vessels capable of eluding enemy detection; and increasing Marine support of the Navy’s sea-control mission.
All of these changes have been initiated to bolster Marine relevance in the Western Pacific. They are intended to facilitate “Expeditionary Advance Base Operations” and “Littoral Operations In Contested Environments”—doctrines generated to combat China within the confines of the first island chain along its eastern coast.
And while the commandant states in his 2019 planning guidance that the 31 large amphibious warships the Navy currently operates to lift Marine units “will remain the benchmark of our forward operating crisis response forces,” he also raises doubts about the survivability of such vessels in what is now the most important theater of operations for U.S. military planners.
This has sown confusion in the Navy’s shipbuilding plans, which currently propose truncating a planned buy of 13 new LPD amphibious warships at three while commencing early retirement of the decrepit amphibs they were supposed to replace, and stretching out construction of larger LHA assault warships to twice the preferred interval—up to ten years.
If these proposals were actually implemented, they would leave the Marine Corps with a grossly inadequate lift capacity for dealing with crises in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Persian Gulf and elsewhere, while fielding dozens of “light amphibious warships” likely to prove useless in most contingencies.
Thanks to its amphibious-landing capabilities and training to operate under austere conditions ashore, the Marine Corps has long served as America’s first-responder force, able to insert ground forces into crisis situations before other U.S. services or allies arrive.
According to NASA, over a third of the global population lives within 60 miles of the sea. Most of the world’s megacities, from Jakarta to Karachi to Lagos to Shanghai, are located on or near the ocean. Every country likely to challenge U.S. interests in the years ahead is accessible from the sea.
So, the value of a sea-based quick reaction force such as the Marine Corps is not hard to grasp. Marines have been used to intervene in the Caribbean dozens of times, and may yet do so again in Cuba or Nicaragua or Venezuela. It is a rare year when Marines are not called on to perform critical missions in the Mediterranean.
The problem with redirecting Corps preparations to the Chinese littoral is that the service is called on to develop capabilities that aren’t much use elsewhere—and might not make much difference even there.
The basic idea Marine leaders have advanced is that platoon-size units transported on light amphibious warships and equipped with long-range munitions can hop among the islands off the Chinese coast, disrupting the movement of Beijing’s naval forces and aiding U.S. military efforts to control littoral seas.
Unfortunately, this requires the Marine units to operate within range of Chinese weapons, which is why they need to be highly mobile and generate minimal trackable signatures. Commandant Berger freely admits that current Marine air defenses and reconnaissance assets are not up to the job—which is why money needs to be freed up to buy new equipment such as the light amphibs.
However, in an August 26 report, respected congressional naval expert Ronald O’Rourke raises a series of searching questions about this concept of operations:
Do Marine plans focus too much on China at the expense of other challenges and missions?
Can the Marines successfully gain access to littoral islands and then survive there?
Can the Navy resupply Marine units within range of Chinese weapons once deployed there?
If the proposed force redesign is implemented, would it significantly aid U.S. sea control in the region?
The short answer to these questions is that nobody can say today, because it all depends on what reconnaissance assets Beijing deploys between now and when the Marines are ready to execute their operational concepts in the Chinese littoral. It is not hard to imagine how a combination of long-endurance drones and orbital assets might preclude even small units from hiding in wartime.
The more immediate issue, though, is how this problematic approach to the China challenge might deprive the Marine Corps of capabilities needed to respond elsewhere. We are already seeing evidence that the consensus supporting a fleet of large amphibs suitable for responding to crises in other places is being undermined by confusion over Marine plans.
Getting rid of all the tanks on the assumption the Army can supply heavy armor in a timely fashion seems unrealistic. And eliminating squadrons of heavy, medium, and light rotorcraft is doubly questionable, given the fact that Marines are already breaking up deployed readiness groups to cope with diverse regional challenges. Those rotorcraft may not be needed to fight China, but there are dozens of other places around the world where they could prove more useful than a light amphibious warship.