Marine Corps Will Retool, With an Eye to China

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jserraglio
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Marine Corps Will Retool, With an Eye to China

Post by jserraglio » Mon Mar 23, 2020 8:44 am

The Wall Street Journal
March 23, 2020
Marines Will Retool, With an Eye to China

BY MICHAEL R. GORDON


The Marine Corps is undertaking its most sweeping transformation in decades, pivoting from a focus on fighting insurgents in the Middle East to developing the ability to hop from island to island in the western Pacific to bottle up the Chinese fleet.

The 10-year plan to revamp the Corps, set to be unveiled this week, follows years of classified U.S. wargames that revealed China’s missile and naval forces to be eroding American military advantages in the region.

“China, in terms of military capability, is the pacing threat,” Gen. David Berger, the Marine Corps commandant, said in an interview. “If we did nothing, we would be passed.”

To reinvent themselves as a naval expeditionary force within budget limits, the Marines plan to get rid of all tanks, cut back on their aircraft and shrink in total numbers from 189,000 to as few as 170,000, Gen. Berger said. “I have come to the conclusion that we need to contract the size of the Marine Corps to get quality,” he said.

The changes are part of a shift by all branches of the armed forces, which are honing new fighting concepts and planning to spend billions of dollars on what the Pentagon projects will be intensified competition with China and Russia.

Nearly 20 years ago, U.S. troops found themselves battling militants in Iraq and Afghanistan who used suicide car bombs and roadside explosives but had no air force or heavy mechanized forces.

While the U.S. focused on the Middle East, however, China and Russia worked on systems to thwart the American ability to assemble forces near their regions and command them in battle. If war broke out, U.S. officials concluded, China could fire hundreds of missiles at U.S. and allies’ air bases, ports and command centers throughout the Pacific, jam the U.S. military’s GPS, attack satellite systems and use its air defenses to keep U.S. warplanes at bay.

A sobering assessment of how U.S. forces would match up against rivals was prepared by the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment and the Rand Corp. and presented to then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in 2017.

The new strategy faces some significant obstacles. One is that the defense budget is more likely to stay flat or contract over the next several years. Another question is whether Washington will be able to concentrate on the Chinese and Russian threats given persistent tensions with Iran.

Some retired Marines caution that too heavy a focus on China may make the Corps less flexible in dealing with conflicts that might erupt in the Middle East. “I think it is a mistake to organize yourself in a way to go after a specific region,” said Anthony Zinni,a retired four-star Marine general who led the Central Command.

At the heart of Gen. Berger’s plan is the establishment of naval expeditionary units—what the Marines call “littoral regiments”—whose mission would be to take on the Chinese navy.

If a confrontation loomed, the regiments would disperse small teams of Marines, who would rush in sleek landing craft to the tiny islands that dot the South and East China Seas, according to Gen. Berger and other senior Marine officers. Armed with sensor-laden drones that operate in the air, on the sea and underwater, the Marines would target Chinese warships before they ventured into the wider Pacific.

The Marine teams would fire antiship missiles at the Chinese fleet. Targeting data also would be passed to Air Force or Navy units farther away, which would fire longer-range missiles.

To elude retaliatory blows, the Marines would hop from island to island every 48 or 72 hours, relying on amphibious ships that could be piloted remotely. Other Marine teams would operate from U.S. warships with decoy vessels nearby.

Gen. Berger said the wargames showed that the new Marine capabilities and tactics would create “a ton of problems” for the Chinese forces.

The Marines would deploy new missile batteries, drone units and amphibious ships. A major push is being made to ease the logistical burden, such as exploring the use of 3-D printing on the battlefield to make spare parts. The strategy requires deeper integration with the Navy, and Marine teams might perform other missions like refueling submarines or sub-hunting planes.

To fund the capabilities, the Marines will dispense with all tanks over the next few years, eliminate its bridge-laying companies and cut back on aviation and howitzers.

Gen. Berger said that adjusting over the next 10 to 20 years is part of the plan, and that the Marines are proceeding with “the cleared-eyed view that the threat is moving also.”

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