The Marine Corps plans to give up its tanks, dramatically remake its artillery batteries, cut its helicopter fleet and take a host of other “radical” steps in arguably the most sweeping American military overhaul in a century — all with the goal of preparing for a potential 21st-century conflict with China.
And a little global pandemic hasn’t stopped the Corps from hitting a very different beach.
Seventy-five years after storming beaches at Iwo Jima, Marine Corps leaders unveiled a blueprint this month concluding that the branch’s traditional approach no longer meets the nation’s needs.
“The Marine Corps we have been building for many years now is increasingly out of step with the problems they’re going to face” in confronting China, said Chris Brose, chief strategy officer at Anduril Industries and former staff director for the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“There are reasons for why that is the case,” he added. “The Marine Corps has borne the burden of a lot of the deployments overseas post-9/11. They were optimizing for a different set of challenges.”
Pentagon officials argue that China’s rapidly improving military capabilities make the prospect of a traditional Iwo Jima-type shore landing exceedingly unlikely, and the Corps instead will shift its resources toward becoming a “stand-in” force that can operate within enemy range rather than fighting its way into theater from the sea.
In a sweeping planning document released last week, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David H. Berger laid out a host of other major changes designed to remake the service with the recognition that preparing for a World War II-style conflict — or even a major ground- and air-based operation such as the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq — can no longer be the service’s top priority. Some critics are already arguing that the new approach is too China-centric, but top Marine officials stress that now is the time for systematic change.
“I am convinced that the defining attributes of our current force design are no longer what the nation requires of the Marine Corps,” Gen. Berger said in the document, which lays out a decadelong plan to shift the service into a more modern role. “With the shift in our primary focus to great power competition and a renewed focus on the Indo-Pacific region, the current force has shortfalls in capabilities needed to support emerging joint, naval and Marine Corps operating concepts.”
Aside from the broad shift toward preparing for conflict with China in the Pacific, Gen. Berger calls for a host of more specific changes to standard Marine Corps operations. Perhaps the most notable — and divisive — is a plan to fully scrap the Corps’ seven tank companies.
Under the new guidance, the Army would take over full responsibility for tanks that would be used in major ground combat operations. The document also calls on the Marine Corps to cut the number of engineering “bridging companies,” suggesting a move away from more traditional ground-based combat operations and toward a focus on island conflicts in places such as the South China Sea.
The Marine Corps is also adopting a new approach to artillery, moving from cannon batteries to missile and rocket batteries under the belief that the service may not need to support large-scale ground troop movements as it has in the past. Instead, the Corps will focus on anti-ship artillery and longer-range weapons capable of hitting enemy targets from greater distances.
At its core, Gen. Berger’s revamped approach charts a course for a Marine Corps that is more nimble and able to provide unique capabilities. The guidance also calls for a more distributed force structure, which analysts say is designed explicitly with China in mind.
“Small Marine forces would deploy around the islands of the first island chain and the South China Sea, each element having the ability to contest the surrounding air and naval space using anti-air and anti-ship missiles,” Mark Cancian, senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a retired Marine Corps colonel, wrote in a recent analysis of the Marine Corps’ plan. “Collectively, these forces would hem in Chinese forces, prevent them from moving outward, and ultimately, as part of a joint campaign, squeeze them back to the Chinese homeland.”
“Implementation [of the Marine Corps plan] will be a 10-year effort that makes the radical changes that the guidance implied. The restructured Marine Corps will focus single-mindedly on a conflict with China in the Western Pacific” and structure all of its efforts with such a scenario in mind, he said.
Lighter and leaner
The force itself, Gen. Berger said, can be smaller.
His blueprint calls for “the reduction of approximately 12,000 Marines relative to the current total force by 2030,” underscoring the belief that the Marine Corps may shift away from being a major ground combat force in its own right.
Officials say the smaller force will be designed to operate, survive and thrive inside an enemy’s “weapons engagement zone,” the area vulnerable to an adversary’s long-range precision fire capabilities. The approach suggests that the Marine Corps envisions having to operate on islands or other areas within China’s range.
Such missions, while clearly dangerous, would be vital to the U.S. military’s success.
“These stand-in forces attrite adversary forces, enable joint force access requirements, complicate targeting and consume adversary … resources, and prevent fait accompli scenarios,” Gen. Berger wrote.
The close-in Marine deployments, in other words, would complicate life for Beijing’s military planners, buy time for U.S. and allied forces to coalesce in a shooting war and prevent China from a lightning strike that would force the U.S. to either stand down or escalate sharply.
The strategy certainly carries risk. Mr. Cancian warned that the “new Marine Corps faces major risks if the future is different from that envisioned” or if the changeover proves more difficult than expected to implement.
Other specialists say the Marine Corps is simply confronting reality and is long overdue in doing so.
“This is a fundamentally different type of challenge, particularly when you look at China,” said Mr. Brose, the former top Senate staffer. “China is more than a great power. China is emerging as a peer competitor of the United States, and a peer competitor is not something [the U.S.] has faced since its own rise to global preeminence.”
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