While US forces spent the past two decades fighting terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Chinese steadily made their People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) into “the world’s premier counter-American military force.” Understanding America had grown complacent in its ability to operate in uncontested air and naval spaces, China and the PLA have been tightly focused on challenging that assumption.
Over the past decade, the Chinese military have deployed thousands of “anti-access” and “area denial” (A2/AD) weapons “whose range and precision create a death zone extending hundreds of miles from the Chinese coast,” noted Foreign Policy. All these new precision weapons “will make it impossible for traditional expeditionary forces—like the existing U.S. Marine Expeditionary Units—to get within striking range of any East Asian battlefield without risking destruction.”
In response, as I wrote about previously, the Marines’ innovative new Commandant, General David Berger, has embarked the Corps on its most sweeping transformation in decades… shedding their recent counterinsurgency and land warfare focus to become a ‘littoral warfare’ force-in-readiness — oriented specifically to fighting China in its own backyard. But what are the risks with this bold new strategy?
As noted by Foreign Policy:
Recognizing that the Marines will not be able to pierce through enemy “weapons engagement zones” once hostilities begin, Berger proposes that the United States should have Marine Corps units stationed inside these zones before war begins. He envisions turning the islands of the West Pacific into small redoubts bristling with Marines.
These Marines will be armed to the teeth with long-range missiles and unmanned aircraft, each with the ability to target Chinese ships from hundreds of miles away. In Berger’s words, this “inside force” will “reverse the cost imposition that determined adversaries seek to impose” on American forces, putting the PLA Navy in the same desperate situation now faced by U.S. ships.
As I stated earlier, this radical transformation appears to be one bold solution to the growing Chinese military threat, but some wonder if the Marines may be throwing all their eggs into only one basket. While superficially attractive, these radical new concepts do not come without costs and risks (RELATED: U.S. Marine Corps Transforming to Defeat China).
To achieve Berger’s vision, by 2030 the Corps will have divested all its tank battalions, specialized law enforcement units, and combat bridge companies. Additionally, notes USNI News, the Corps will reduce the number of infantry battalions; artillery cannon batteries; amphibious vehicle companies; and reduce tilt-rotor, attack, and heavy lift squadrons.
Overall, the Corps will shrink by 12,000 personnel.
If enacted, explains Foreign Policy “the changes he proposes will drastically transform the doctrine that guides Marine Corps operations and will likely lead to permanent changes in the Marine Corps’ future force structure.” But, what if the Marine Corps’ predictions for the future are wrong? The Marine Corps is too small to get it wrong and survive.
“Why doesn’t the Marine Corps hedge?” For example, “the Corps could reduce Marine armor to one or two battalions instead of no battalions. It could keep some of this capacity in reserve just in case the international situation changes and these skills are suddenly needed.”
Questions and concerns about the new Marine strategy range from the technical and the tactical up to the strategic and geopolitical.
I will look more closely at these questions and concerns in a future piece. It is quite likely that General Berger and his staff can answer them all. But as Foreign Policy notes, ultimately it is up to the US Congress to decide. Congress has the responsibility to determine if the Marines bold new concept is the correct path forward, or if changes are needed.
Hopefully, Congress will ask the right questions. It needs to ensure that the Marine Corps is able to not only help defeat China in any conflict, but also remain America’s “force in readiness” for any needs the nation may have.