Send In the Marines

The US Marine Corps has a new commandant, and he is shaking up the way his Marines will be used in future wars. General David H. Berger is intimately familiar with the challenges facing both the Marine Corps and the US Navy in confronting what Berger terms “Chinese malign activities in the East and South China Seas.” In his Commandant’s Planning Guidance (CPG), issued shortly after he took over command of the US Marines on Jul. 11, Berger asked his Marines a fundamental question: does the Marine Corps align with the direction provided by the Secretary of Defense’s Defense Planning Guidance and the 2018 National Defense Strategy? His conclusion — that the Marine Corps is neither organized, trained, equipped nor postured to meet these demands — is as stark as it is honest. Berger has made rapidly changing this calculus his No. 1 priority. His new approach is particularly important for threats to the critical sea lanes that carry much of the world’s oil trade. While his focus is on China and the South China Sea, the same military logic also extends to the Mideast and the current confrontation with Iran near the Strait of Hormuz. The improved capabilities he describes would put a more diverse and usable range of military options in the hands of the US in confronting these problem areas.

Berger is an experienced warfighter, having served in combat during Operation Desert Storm and in both Iraq and Afghanistan after the attacks of Sep. 11, 2001. Also a former commander of US Marine Forces in the Pacific, Berger wrote in his CPG, “the coming decade will be characterized by conflict, crisis, and rapid change — just as every decade preceding it. And despite our best efforts, history demonstrates that we will fail to accurately predict every conflict; will be surprised by an unforeseen crisis; and may be late to fully grasp the implications of rapid change around us. The Arab Spring, West African Ebola Outbreak, Scarborough Shoal standoff, Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine, and weaponization of social media are but a few recent examples illustrating the point.

The Marine Corps has traditionally acted as a forward deployed expeditionary force. Marines stand in readiness on expensive amphibious assault ships deployed around the world to respond to any crisis at a moment’s notice. Berger noted in his CPG that he “will continue to advocate for the continued forward deployment of our forces globally to compete against the malign activities of China, Russia, Iran, and their proxies. However, the new commandant concluded that “our forces currently forward deployed lack the requisite capabilities to deter our adversaries and persist in a contested space to facilitate sea denial. In short, the Marine Corps is not capable of accomplishing its assigned mission. As Berger observed, the Marine Corps “must change. We must divest of legacy capabilities that do not meet our future requirements, regardless of their past operational efficacy. Failure to do so would not only cede strategic advantage to the adversaries but relegate the Marine Corps into irrelevance.

The Changing Face of War

One of the primary problems facing the Marines is the changing face of war. The traditional mode of amphibious warfare is no longer relevant. “Visions of a massed naval armada,” Berger writes, “… are impractical and unreasonable.” Berger’s observations match the current reality in the South China Sea, where the Chinese military recently deployed advanced YJ-12B anti-ship cruise missiles, with a range of 295 nautical miles, protected by HQ-9B long-range surface-to-air missiles capable of targeting aircraft, drones and cruise missiles within 160 nautical miles, on three islands in the Spratly chain.

“It would be illogical to continue to concentrate our forces on a few large ships, Berger argued. “The adversary will quickly recognize that striking while concentrated (aboard ship) is the preferred option. We need to change this calculus. The same holds true for the Maritime Prepositioning Force (MPF), which consists of roll-on/roll-off shipping loaded with weapons, equipment and material that would be married up with Marines flown to ports where the shipping had docked. “During a major contingency, our MPF ships would be highly vulnerable and difficult to protect. We must be prepared to fundamentally alter this capability.” The significant investment our adversaries have made in long-range precision fires, Berger has concluded, make the old way of sending Marines to war unsustainable. “Potential adversaries intend to target our forward fixed and vulnerable bases, as well as deep water ports, long runways, large signature platforms, and ships.

A Focus on the Pacific

While the Marine Corps will continue to be a global force in readiness, capable of power projection in Europe, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Middle East/Southwest Asia, Berger has directed that the focus of effort for the Marines will be transforming its capability in the Pacific. Berger has tasked his Marines with being able to create what he terms a mutually contested space in the South or East China Seas if directed to do so.

The principle adversary envisioned by Berger in his CPG is China, with “a prioritized focus on China’s One Belt, One Road initiative and Chinese malign activities in the East and South China Seas.” This matches the guidance issued by former Secretary of Defense James Mattis in the 2018 National Defense Strategy document, which declared that “China is a strategic competitor using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbors while militarizing features in the South China Sea.” Equating the One Belt, One Road initiative of China with “predatory economics,” and seeing that as linked to China’s military positioning, represents a new direction for the US. Gen. Berger is no longer simply thinking about confronting China over a few atolls situated in the South China Sea — he is focused on confronting China throughout the strategic depth of a major economic effort designed to alter the geopolitical balance in the Pacific as well as China’s overall global position.

Berger’s vision seeks to “shift from traditional power projection to meet the new challenges associated with maintaining persistent naval forward presence to enable sea control and denial operations. Berger’s new model of operations is based on what he calls “the Stand-in Forces concept.” He intends to use this approach to successfully confront China and others that infringe on the territorial boundaries and interests of US regional allies. Stand-in Forces are designed to “confront aggressor naval forces with an array of low signature, affordable, and risk-worthy platforms and payloads … in defiance of adversary long-range precision stand-off capabilities.”

Berger envisions a “low-signature force structure comprised largely of unmanned platforms that operate ashore, afloat, submerged, and aloft in close concert to overwhelm enemy platforms — in effect a virtual copy of the swarm tactics currently used by the Iranians in the Mideast Gulf to confront the US Navy. Recognizing that “the ability to project and maneuver from strategic distances will likely be detected and contested from the point of embarkation during a major contingency, Berger plans for this new force to be based out of “low-signature expeditionary advanced bases that could consist of a small dirt runway, an atoll, a barge afloat in the ocean, or any other non-traditional platform. The goal of the Stand-in Forces is to “take advantage of the strategic offensive and tactical defense to create disproportionate result at affordable cost, thereby restoring “combat credibility to forward deployed naval forces and serve to deter aggression.

Berger does not place his hopes on some untested high-tech solution, but rather present-day capabilities. He has expressed a particular interest in “lethal long-range unmanned systems capable of traveling 200 nautical miles, penetrating into the adversary enemy threat ring, and crossing the shoreline — causing the adversary to allocate resources to eliminate the threat, create dilemmas, and further create opportunities for fleet maneuver. This increase in demand for unmanned systems helps “reduce exposure of our most expensive platforms and reduce exposure of Marines wherever possible.

Berger also wants to develop ground-based long-range precision fire capability capable of attacking “an adversary’s sea lines of communication (SLOC) while defending our own in support of the Fleet or Joint Force.” This goal requires ground-based long-range position fires with 350 nautical mile ranges or more . One possible option being considered by Berger is forward deployment of multiple High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) batteries armed with long-range anti-ship missiles. The extent to which Berger seeks to transform theory into reality can be seen in a US and Australian bilateral training exercise this month, in which Marine Corps aircraft flew two HIMARS batteries into a remote landing strip, unloaded them and rapidly conducted fire missions. They then reloaded and relocated to follow on their objectives. Moreover, the US Army will be conducting tests of the new Precision Strike Missile (PSM) in December. The anticipated termination of the INF Treaty on August 2, which restricted the range of US missile systems, now permits the PSM to be tested to ranges greater than 500 miles. Once deployed, the PSM will give Marine HIMARS batteries the ability to interdict Chinese shipping from previously unavailable stand-off ranges.

“We are,” Gen. Berger declared of his Marines, “a naval expeditionary force capable of deterring malign behavior and, when necessary, fighting inside our adversary’s weapons-engagement-zone to facilitate sea denial in support of fleet operation and joint force horizontal escalation.” Under Gen. Berger’s vision, the Marine Corps will continue to be the “force of choice for the President, Secretary of Defense and Combatant Commander.” China, in particular, should heed Berger’s concluding remarks: “No matter what the crisis, our civilian leaders should always have one shared thought: send in the Marines.”

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