Tag Archives: Marines

Don’t Give Up the Ship

Fiction Contest Week

By Major Brian Kerg, USMC

July 10th, 203X. Expeditionary Advanced Base (EAB) Itbayat, Philippines. 156 km from Taiwan.

First Lieutenant Stephanie ‘John Paul’ Jones stood in the company command post with her platoon sergeant, Staff Sergeant Billy Wickem. They were both trying to ignore the stifling humidity that wrapped around their woodland cammies like a hot blanket. The company command post (CP) consisted only of cammie netting tied to trees, a map hanging from five-fifty cord, MRE boxes, and a High Frequency (HF) Low Probability of Detection (LPD) radio connected to a laptop.1 Still, it was a welcome reprieve that caught a fair amount of wind coming in off the coast despite being hidden in the tree-line.

She and her Marines had been persisting at their EAB with the rest of Charlie Company, waiting to be employed in support of the Littoral Combat Battalion for a month. Her hair, rolled in a moto-bun, was starting to get crusty. She wondered how the company commander might react if she asked if she could shave her head or cut it to male high-and-tight grooming standards, both to better cool off and break the monotony for her platoon.

But more than that, the sheer boredom of waiting for their shot was eating the morale of her Marines. Alpha Company was slinging enhanced naval strike missiles at People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) ships across the area of operations, and Bravo Company was cruising around in Mark VI patrol boats, boarding and disabling or sinking People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAF-MM) craft. Alpha and Bravo were racking up notches on their belts. Meanwhile, ‘Check-in-the-Box’ Charlie Company, which covered down on all the other mission essential tasks for their battalion, was still kicking rocks in this godforsaken jungle. Her platoon, which owned the expeditionary mine warfare mission set, didn’t seem to have much of a place in the defense of Taiwan.

A rustle in the brush caught Stephanie’s ear, snapping her from her reverie. Captain Phan stepped out of the jungle and into the CP, followed by his operations chief, Gunny Malone. The skipper, it seemed, was omnipresent, constantly cutting through the network of covered trails, checking in on every platoon day after day, night after night, reminding the Marines that above all else they were there to “persist forward indefinitely!,” a hallmark of Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO).2

“Lieutenant, Staff Sergeant,” Pham said, smiling and nodding at each of them. “Glad you came so quickly. How’s your platoon holding up?”

“Oh, sir, you know,” Stephanie said, trying to match Pham’s alacrity. “Persisting forward.”

“Indefinitely…” Wickem added, a blunt, tired punctuation.

“Sounds like they’re getting comfortable in the routine,” Malone said, grinning. “Maybe we’ll have to kick ‘em off the island.”

Stephanie raised an eyebrow, glancing from Malone to Pham. “Sir?”

“It’s your platoon’s lucky day, Jones,” Pham said. He tapped on the radio. “You’ve got a mission.”

Stephanie’s heart beat rapidly in her chest, and she fought back a smile, maintaining her bearing. “The platoon’s ready for anything, sir.”

Malone stood in front of the map, and everyone closed in around him. As he briefed them, he tapped at each point on the map. “Here’s us, at our EAB in Itbayat,” he said. “About 150 clicks north of us is Taiwan. When China launched their operation to ‘reclaim’ the island, Taiwan fought back hard. Flooding the Taiwan Strait with mines and surrounding the island with mobile maritime minefields has been the lynchpin of their defense. They can remotely open the minefields to allow shipping to reach the island, then close the fields to keep China out. The PRC didn’t anticipate how long it would take to clear these fields, or that mining would sink more of their ships than any other weapon system in the fight.3 This is what bought our task force time to deploy to the AO.”

“Washington, of course,” Pham said, “isn’t looking to escalate this into a full-blown war with China. If that happens, we all lose. We’re just here to support Taiwan.”

“Right,” Morales said. “And supporting Taiwan means keeping them in the fight. China can’t break through to Taiwan, so they’re looking to blockade Taiwan instead.” He traced a line connecting Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines.4 “Taiwan’s holding their own within their territorial waters, but they can’t cover the international waters. Chinese ships can hook around and cast a wide net. So, the Coalition has declared an exclusion zone, here.” He traced another line between Indonesia and Taiwan, crossing the Bashi Channel. “Any Chinese ships that try to break through it are fair game, so they can’t effect a blockade. ‘Fair game’ so far has been blasting them with rocket artillery from our EABs.”5

“Sea denial 101,” Stephanie said.6

“But there’s just too many targets,” Pham said. “They have more pawns on the board than we do, and they don’t care how many get killed. We’re starting to run dry on missiles and it’s going to be a minute before our battalion gets resupplied. Hell, at this rate, the entire regiment could go Winchester before we know it.”7

“And we come in where, exactly?” Stephanie asked.  Malone tapped the map between Taiwan and Itbayat. “The Bashi Channel. You’re going to mine it.”

Wickem cleared his throat. “I thought it was already mined. The Navy’s had an Upward Falling Payload at the sea floor there since before things kicked off.”8

“They did, until the PRC detected and cleared the field,” Pham said. “Which is good, because they won’t expect another minefield, and won’t be looking for one inserted like this.”

“Lay the mines, then hold tight at Mavulis Island and control your minefields from there,” Malone said. “Signature management is key. Communicate by exception only. Turn radios on only to receive at our designated comms windows.”9

“And remember,” Pham said.

“Persist forward,” Stephanie said, indulging in a half-smile.

“Indefinitely…” Wickem muttered.

The Bashi Channel

Stephanie sat in the pilothouse of the modified Mark VI patrol boat, staring out at the waters of the Bashi Channel. While usually acting as a maritime, mobile command post for her platoon, their task required most of the boat’s capabilities be avoided. With GPS and other electronic means of navigation disabled to avoid detection, her navigator, Corporal Schwab, was plotting their location on a map using a compass, ruler, and manual calculations. The current plot showed them about halfway between Itbayat, far to the south, and Taiwan’s Orchid Island to the northwest.

“It’s about that time,” Wickem said, looking from the chart to his watch. Stephanie nodded, and stepped out of the pilothouse to watch the payload get delivered.

Sergeant Ortega was at the boat’s stern, watching his team finish preparations of the mine racks. Twenty smooth black orbs were in each of the ten racks, glistening in the noon-day sun.

“Wouldn’t it be awful if Supply screwed up the order and these were bowling balls instead of mines?” Ortega asked, eyeing the racks.

“Bowling balls or mobile mines, all I care is that they can give us a strike,” Stephanie said. “Launch ‘em.”

“Launch!” Ortega ordered.

“Launching!” his Marines replied. They opened the rack gate and flipped a switch. As the boat sailed forward, the mines rolled one after the other into the water with a heavy splash.10 They immediately vanished into the water, following their algorithms to spread out, submerse to the correct depths, and stand by. If any targets met the strike criteria, the mines would close with the craft and detonate. Beyond that, they would sit idly by, in receive-only mode, waiting for an operator to give them the command to move to another location.11

Their mines released, Stephanie eyeballed her watch, giving her other squads operating just in sight to her north and south ample time to deliver their payloads in turn. Satisfied, she nodded at her radio operator, Lance Corporal Kim.

“Confirm delivery for me, would you, Kim?” Stephanie asked.

“You know, Ma’am,” Kim said, pulling a pair of flags out of her pack, “my recruiter told me going into Comm was going to let me work with cutting edge technology. You know, set me up for success in the outside world.” She stood, raised the flags, and sent a semaphore message to the two other patrol boats. She lowered her arms, glanced at Stephanie, and held the flags up helplessly. “This is BS.”

Stephanie couldn’t help a smile. “I guess if it doesn’t get us killed, it’s cutting edge. ‘Everything that’s old is new again,’ right?”

 Kim grinned, and looked back to the horizon. “You’re starting to sound like my dad,” Ortega snorted. “If the lieutenant is our dad, does that mean Staff Sergeant is our mom?” Kim shook her head. “I always imagined Staff Sergeant as more of a drunk uncle.” Stephanie crossed her arms and forced a smile, reflecting on their banter while they set about emplacing their killing field. Was this gallows humor? Anxiety? Or were they too relaxed, taking their eye off the ball?

Kim squinted, reading the flags sending her a message back. “Payloads delivered.” Stephanie nodded. “Let’s go home.”

Kim waved her flags again, signaling all to return to base, then tucked the flags back in her pack. As her patrol boat turned around, three missiles shot across the sky.12

“Theirs or ours?” Ortega asked.

“Ours,” Stephanie said, recognizing their signature from live-fire EABO exercises at Marine Corps Littoral Combat Center-Hawaii. “Looks like Alpha Company is staying busy.”

“Hope that’s three good kills,” Ortega said.

Stephanie shook her head. “We need a three-to-one saturation ratio to make sure we beat most Chinese ship defenses. It’s probably just one target. And its why our magazines are running dry so fast.”

Wickem stepped up behind her, watching the missiles fly. “And bad timing for us. That’s going to bring a whole lot of sensors looking in our direction. Alpha’s shooters are going to scoot to a new island while we head back to Mavulis.”

Stephanie nodded, seeing the missiles now as a bad omen. “We’ll have to go full dark when we get back. Let’s just focus on the next step.”

EAB Mavulis Island. 98 km from Taiwan.

With their boats hidden under signature dampening blankets and the Marines out of sight in the small structure abandoned by the Philippine military at the start of hostilities, Stephanie knew she should have felt confident in their concealment.13 Out of sight, out of mind, she told herself. But a lingering doubt nagged at her gut.

Sitting in an old fishing hut, she was passing the time by playing a game of Go on a small, portable nine-by-nine square board against Wickem. She looked at the black and white stones, mulled her strategy of laying the pieces to keep her black stones connected while simultaneously encircling Wickem’s white stones.

This is how it all fits together, she thought. EAB-hosted precision fires and mine warfare. Sea denial is a game of Go.

The crackling of her HF-LPD radio snapped her back into focus. Then the implications of being contacted crashed against her like a wave.14

Scrambling to the radio, she snagged the handset. Wickem ran to the window, shouted at the Marines to stand-to, then hurried back to his lieutenant.

“What’s the scoop, Ma’am?”

“We’ve been compromised,” she said. “Maritime militia are closing in on Mavulis.”

“How many boats?”

Stephanie’s face was grim. “A lot.”15

“Do we have time to bounce?” Wickem asked.

Stephanie shook her head. “There’s too many and they’re too close.”

Wickem grabbed his rifle from its spot against the wall. “Guess we’re fighting until the cavalry arrives or until the bitter end, then. I’ll get the platoon to their fighting positions.”

“Wickem,” Stephanie said, her mouth widening into a macabre smile.

Wickem sighed. “You’re going to say it, aren’t you, ‘John Paul’?”

Stephanie grinned. “’Don’t give up the ship!’”

“We won’t, but we might just sink with it,” Wickem said, shaking his head, then stepped toward the door. Stephanie held up a hand, her eyes wide, illuminated with a sudden thought.

“Wait. Get me Ortega first.”

Moments later, most of the platoon was covered and concealed in fighting positions with weapons oriented out to sea toward the incoming ships. But Stephanie was on one knee, next to Ortega, over a rugged laptop connected to a receiver-transmitter. The laptop showed a map of their position at Mavulis Island and the surrounding waters. She pointed to a spot about a kilometer out from the beachhead. “There,” she said. “Right there.”

Ortega looked from the laptop to Stephanie. “Are you sure? Sending the signal will blow our cover.”

“It’s already blown,” Stephanie said. “We don’t keep using hand and arm signals after we’ve started shooting. We’re in a firefight already, it just looks different.” Ortega nodded and entered the command. Then, they waited.

Soon, a collection of PAF-MM ships were visible on the horizon, a motley crew of trawlers that Stephanie knew didn’t spend any time trawling. Through her binoculars, she could see medium machine guns on gun mounts, and crews wielding small arms. Stephanie stopped counting at twenty boats, estimating there were at least a hundred.16

“That… is a lot of boats,” Ortega said. “How can they mass so many? So fast? For such a small objective?”

“’Quantity has a quality all its own,’” Stephanie quoted.

“Is this going to work?” Ortega asked.

Stephanie slapped her hand on his shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “It worked in our war games,” she lied. “It’ll work here.”

Ortega glanced at Stephanie and smirked. “We never wargamed this, Ma’am. But thanks for trying to keep things positive.” He winked. “We won’t give up the ship.” Stephanie slapped his shoulder again and laughed, and Ortega laughed with her.

They turned their heads to watch the approaching boats, and their laughter died on the wind. Their smiles slid from their faces, which became stone masks, mere witnesses to the next moves of the game.

They saw the explosion before they heard it. The lead boat was consumed in a fiery blast, contrasted by the arcing splash of seawater that burst into the air. Then a second boat, a third, and a fourth were struck. Boat fragments and sailors were sent in all directions. Five, six, seven explosions, then too many together to count. The rest of the trawlers turned, broke, and fled from Mavulis Island.

“Should we pursue?” Ortega asked. “These aren’t just mines, they’re munitions. We can chase those boats down and strike them as easily as return the mines to their original position.”

Stephanie shook her head. “We need to give the Chinese an off-ramp. We can’t escalate. Let them run, make them reconsider.”

Some of the sailors in the water were still moving, thrashing to stay afloat. “Aren’t their guys coming back to scoop them out of the water?” Ortega asked.

“It doesn’t look like it,” Stephanie said, her voice a near whisper.

Ortega watched, confused. “Why won’t they?”

“They don’t need to,” Stephanie said, bile rising in her throat.17

Ortega was breathing, hard, confused. “Then will we?”

Stephanie wondered the same thing, afraid to listen too closely to her conscience. Wickem stepped up behind them. “Only if we want to die. They only sent the militia to try and get some of us alive. Now they’ll just rain missiles down on us. Those aren’t POWs. They’re a trap.” The surviving sailors started disappearing beneath the waves, one by one, toward Davy Jones’ locker.

Stephanie felt a hollowness opening up within her, watching the drowning men. Then she glanced at Ortega, imagined him in the water instead, face down and surrounded by the burning remnants of their patrol boat.

“Staff Sergeant’s right,” she said, clearing her throat and steeling herself. “Let’s get off this rock and bed down at our alternate position.”

Soon, the platoon was sailing away from Mavulis Island. Stephanie watched Ortega issue another command to the mobile minefield, moving the remaining mines back to their original blocking position in the Bashi Channel.

As they departed, she forced herself to watch the burning boats and the drowned men, and imagined that the black, oily smoke rising to the sky was a burnt offering to King Neptune, one mariner’s prayer that the war might end before it got any worse.

Brian Kerg is a Non-Resident Fellow at Marine Corps University’s Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity, and a Military Fellow with the College of William and Mary’s Project for International Peace and Stability. He is currently serving as the Fleet Amphibious Communications Officer, U.S. Fleet Forces Command. Follow or contact him at @BrianKerg.

References

1. G. Bark, “Power control in an LPI adaptive frequency-hopping system for HF communications,” HF Radio Systems and Techniques, Seventh International Conference, Conference Publication No. 441., August 1997.

2. Headquarters, Marine Corps, “Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations,” U. S. Marine Corps Concepts and Programs,  (accessed 28 Jan 2020: https://www.candp.marines.mil/Concepts/Subordinate-Operating-Concepts/Expeditionary-Advanced-Base-Operations/)

3. Joshua J. Edwards and Dennis M. Gallagher, “Mine and Undersea Warfare for the Future,” Proceedings 140 no. 8, (Annapolis, MD: USNI, 2014).

4. Andrew F. Krepinevich, “How to Deter China: The Case for Archipelagic Defense,” Foreign Affairs (accessed 10 April 2020: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2015-02-16/how-deter-china).

5. Headquarters, Marine Corps, “Force Design 2030,” (Washington, D.C.: HQMC, March 2020).

6. Daniel E. Ward, “Going to War with China? Dust Off Corbett!” Proceedings 146 no. 403, (accessed 11 June 2020: https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2020/january/going-war-china-dust-corbett).

7. Megan Eckstein, “Marine Testing Regiment at Heart of Emerging Island Hopping Future,” USNI News, (accessed 19 September 2020: https://news.usni.org/2020/06/04/marines-testing-regiment-at-heart-of-emerging-island-hopping-future)

8. Timothy McGeehan and Douglas Wahl, “Flash Mob in the Shipping Lane!”, Proceedings 142 no. 355 (Annapolis, MD: USNI, 2016).

9.  Brian Kerg, “More Command, Less Control,” Marine Corps Gazette (Quantico, VA: Marine Corps Association and Foundation, March 2020).

10. Allan Lucas and Ian Cameron, “Mine Warfare: Ready and Able Now,” Proceedings 144, no. 357 (Annapolis, MD: USNI, 2018).

11. Brian Kerg, “Mine the Littorals and Chokepoints,” Center for International Maritime Security, (accessed 22 June 2020 http://cimsec.org/mine-the-littorals-and-chokepoints-mine-warfare-in-support-of-sea-control/43996).

12. Todd South, “Ship-sinking missile for Marines headed to test fire,” Marine Corps Times (accessed 22 June 2020: https://www.marinecorpstimes.com/news/your-marine-corps/2020/03/05/marine-corps-ship-sinking-missile-headed-for-test-fire/).

13. Tin Hat Ranch, “How to Hide from Drones/Thermal Imaging,” (accessed 21 September 2020: http://tinhatranch.com/hide-dronesthermal-imaging/).

14. National Urban Security Technology Laboratory, Radio Frequency Detection, Spectrum Analysis, and Direction Finding Equipment, (New York: Department of Homeland Defense, 2019), 12.

15. Niharika Mandhana, “China’s Fishing Militia Swarms Philippine Island, Seeking Edge in Sea Dispute,” The Wall Street Journal, (accessed 04 August 2020: https://www.wsj.com/articles/chinas-fishing-militia-swarms-philippine-island-seeking-edge-in-sea-dispute-11554391301).

16. Gonzalo Solano and Christopher Torchia, “260 Chinese boats fish near Galapagos, Ecuador on alert,” The Washington Post,  (accessed 04 August 2020: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/260-chinese-boats-fish-near-galapagos-ecuador-on-alert/2020/07/30/01b0d98e-d29f-11ea-826b-cc394d824e35_story.html).

17. Stephen Rosenfeld, “Human Waves,” The Washington Post, (accessed 21 September 2020: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1984/03/09/human-waves/05544e3f-ed65-49a5-93c3-eb30eb84a8f8/).

Featured Image: “The Jungle Base” by Tom Lee (via Artstation)

Jennings

Fiction Contest Week

By Ryan Belscamper

Seven years ago, the Marine Corps decided they needed a better way to “Kick in doors on foreign shores!” Landing craft were slow and vulnerable, aircraft weren’t as slow, but still pretty vulnerable, and the ships to launch either one of them would not survive for long operating nearby. Shore bombardment was a problem, too. How do you provide enough firepower when you don’t have enough ships? Hitting the beach was only the first insurmountable problem. Once there, Marines would need to fight further inshore, using who knows what for supply lines, and only the equipment that could have been landed in the first place. If someone could just get a foot in the door, take an airfield or knock out local defenses, then more traditional methods could handle everything else. If victory could be won fast enough, then resources might go far enough. That’s where really bad ideas started sounding like good ideas.

_______________________________________

Two years ago, Jennings had been on a patrol in Afghanistan when they’d come under attack. Half the squad was dead or wounded in the first two seconds, the other half fighting for their lives. Reinforcement took four minutes to arrive, and the fight didn’t last long after that. For those four minutes though, Jennings was in a special place. There was no panic, no pain, no fear or loss. For four minutes, Jennings just did his job. Bullets couldn’t touch him, and he couldn’t miss. Two grenades over there, one more to the left. Grab more from McBride, he wasn’t going to use them. Grab an extra magazine while he was at it, and shoot that guy on the right. Combat was supposed to be terrifying, but this was just shooting things.

Afterward, Colonel Walks told Jennings he’d fought well, and asked if he wanted to avoid pulling guard or patrol duty ever again. That sounded pretty unlikely, so Jennings asked what the catch was.

“The catch is, all you’ll ever do again is either train or fight. New unit, handpicked, volunteer only, and you have to get shot at to join.” the Colonel explained. “Today, you got shot at.” 

To Jennings, training was fun, sitting in barracks dull, guard duty was awful, patrol duty was torture, and combat was just shooting things. So he said “Yes, sir.”  That evening, he was in the back of a C-17, heading stateside.

35 Marines made up the new unit. Five squads, seven Marines to a squad, plus a Major everyone called Brickhead, because the man looked like a brick. Seven was a peculiar number to make up a squad, but apparently that was all their new transports could fit. Not that Jennings or any of the other members of his unit got to see those transports yet.

For the next two years, Jennings and the others trained. They trained to enter and clear buildings, and they trained to fight in the mud. They trained as teams, then they trained to fight alone. They got new weapons, new armor, and a fancy new helmet that would show where everyone else was at. The Major called their gear a three-piece suit, though it looked nothing like a suit to Jennings. They spent a lot of time in the weight room, and more time in the ‘Rattle Room.’ The rattle room looked like one of those high-end flight simulators, the kind that move around on pneumatic pistons. This one was all about shaking a squad up, then stopping suddenly to see how fast they could recover.

No-one knew what to call their new unit. It was clearly a platoon, but a platoon of what? They’d eventually been allowed to pick their own names for squads. Someone in Jennings’ squad thought their new armor looked like an armadillo, and the name stuck. Growing up in east Texas, they looked nothing like armadillos to Jennings. Five of second squad’s seven original members were female, so Kline and Phillips just had to live with being called “She-Devils.” Jennings had seen them train, so he thought She-Devils was perhaps a bit too tame. “Vicious Amazonian terror fiends rage killing everything” was a bit unwieldy though. Kicking in doors was exactly what this whole unit was about, so calling themselves “Door-Kickers” made sense. Hedgehogs made about as much sense as Armadillos. Butterflies was a complete mystery, but it wasn’t excessively vulgar or obscene, so it stood. Other units on base supplied the platoon name by always complaining how Brickhead’s men never pulled guard duty.  They weren’t a platoon, or a company, or a brigade. They were “Brickheads.” Jennings was now a Brickhead.

_______________________________________

 “One-way in 30 minutes!” Sitting in the berthing compartment, Brickhead was briefing them on what would be their first operational mission. A Navy special warfare pin painted on one wall revealed the compartment’s usual occupants. Given a little paint, the Brickheads would’ve gladly replaced the Trident with a Globe. Two weeks stuck underwater gave them more than enough time. The slide showed a map of a small island with an airfield. “Armadillos, She-Devils, and Door-Kickers are hitting the north side of the island. Hedgehogs and Butterflies in the south.”

“Armadillos, we’re going down the west shore. Our job is to neutralize the airfield. Nothing takes off once we hit. She-Devils, you’re in the middle. Take down the control tower and main barracks. Door-Kickers, you’re on the east shore. This tower has the island’s main search radar, and this building is the operations center. Level them both.”

“Hedgehogs will come up the west shore from the south, taking out these missile sites. Butterflies will be coming up the eastern shore and taking out that marina. We don’t need to deal with any patrol boats.”  Yellow boxes were drawn around each major objective. Both the map and the boxes would appear on a display inside each Marine’s helmet. As objectives were assessed as either destroyed or neutralized, the yellow symbols would change to black. Blue circles would indicate each other’s positions, while red diamonds would relay enemy positions. A built-in radio would allow them to stay in constant contact with their squad and with the platoon.

While the Major continued, Jennings focused on his armor. Patrol had always sucked, lugging around 50 pounds of gear. Right now, Jennings was bolting on the last of about 120 pounds of armor. With a powered exoskeleton, it felt like about ten. Of course, that would only help for the first few minutes. After that, the armor would feel like about 40 pounds, and eventually he’d have to pull the cord that would shed both the exoskeleton and 90 pounds of his armor. Batteries only lasted so long, ten minutes, give or take. His weapon fired 12mm armor piercing sabots, with an underslung launcher firing up to nine 40mm smart grenades. Each member of the squad also carried four rockets, good to about 300 meters. They’d take the back off a tank, supposedly, if you could get behind one. The last two weapons seemed almost like a joke: a demolition charge about a foot across and three inches thick with foam glue on the dangerous side, and a combat knife that any sane person would call a sword. Just in case you needed to kill buildings or fight the Roman Army.

No one ever said the next part was a good idea. Actually, quite a lot of people had said it was a bad one. But apparently, somebody thought strapping a handful of Marines to the top of a ballistic missile wasn’t that bad of an idea, because Jennings was about to do just that, along with the rest of the Brickheads.

The Armadillos, She-devils, and Doorkickers filed out of the small berthing compartment onboard the converted ballistic missile submarine, into the missile room, through small hatches near the top of each missile tube, and into their deployment pods atop the repurposed missiles. The Hedgehogs and Butterflies would be doing the same aboard another sub somewhere. The corpsmen passed out Dramamine while boson-mates turned armor-techs literally bolted the armored warriors into place. The hatches were sealed, and then nothing happened.

“You sure this thing has room for seven?”

“Why, you don’t like my company?”

“Mom! He’s touching me!”

“No, I don’t like your elbow in my back.”

“That’s not my elbow.”

Laughter.

“How long is this flight supposed to be?” someone else chattered.

“About 500 miles.”

“So, is there a movie?”

More laughter.

Brickhead cut in on the banter, “Combat in eight minutes, jokers.”

One minute, 37 seconds later, something big kicked Jennings in the back. After the initial kick, he was falling backwards for about a second, before the rocket motor kicked in. Obviously, it was the rocket motor because Jennings’ teeth were rattling out and the kick became one continuous shove. At least this was the worst part.

Two minutes later, and the worst part was over. Now Jennings was in free fall and knew why the docs had passed out the Dramamine. His display read four minutes sixteen seconds to landing. Three arcs rose from the map, showing where each squad was rising from the ocean. Two more arcs began rising from the south. Three minutes. Two minutes. At a minute and a half, plummeting back into atmosphere, Jennings learned two things. The first was that he was wrong about launch being the worst part. The second was why those Rattle-Room operators had always tossed them around so much. He was a rag-doll in the hands of an insane child. If he could have moved, he’d have broken every limb flailing about. Things were breaking off the capsule, up and down were alien concepts, the display was a riot of lines and colors, and something went missing. His display changed to an overlay of the island, with a timer counting down from thirty. The violent jolting eased, as the capsule dropped just below Mach five in its descent. At 27 seconds, Jennings again learned he was wrong about the worst part. Retrorockets fired, crushing Jennings in his armor. The pod flew apart around him, bolts released, the ground came with a thump, and he was face down in the sand.

_______________________________________

Jennings could feel the warmth of the coral sand beneath him. Rolling onto his back, he could just barely feel the tropical breeze under his armor. He sat up in the sand, enjoying the peace and quiet, not entirely certain how he got there. The sea lapped at the shoreline a few dozen feet away, while acrid smoke drifted by from the left. He could hear some voices, and off in the far distance there was a staccato popping sound. Looking to his right, Jennings could see the sun just cresting some low, ugly buildings sporting radio towers. Something about the size of a surfboard impaled the sand nearby. To his left was a smoking, hollowed out cone about ten feet high. Why did that voice sound so urgent? And what was that sputtering in the sand all around him?

“JENNINGS! GET YOUR HEAD IN THE GAME!” Brickhead screamed. “She-Devils are out. Ajax, we’re getting shot at, you wanna do something about that?  Flores, Young, take the shore defense. Jennings, Chavez, control tower! Hamlet, you’re with me. Let’s wreck that flight line before anything leaves this island!”

Jennings remembered where he was. This was a hostile island with 500 enemy soldiers and 35 of his own unit trying to take the whole thing out. Scratch that, She-Devils were out? So, 28 against 500. Great. Rolling and turning he got to his knees, then to his feet. He began running. The sputtering in the nearby sand turned to a tapping on his armor as Jennings realized he was being shot at. With a terrific ripping sound, first one, then three rockets launched from the squad behind him. A short tower with a point defense weapon atop it exploded on one side, while other things went crack and boom behind him. Another pair of rockets, one each from Jennings and Chavez into the barricades ahead and the tapping stopped. Spotting one of the island’s cruise missile launchers, he let off a second rocket.

Jennings saw the island’s radar turn to shrapnel and wreckage as a rocket from the Door-Kickers hit. His display didn’t change the objective from yellow to black. None of the other Brickheads appeared on his display either. As Jennings and Chavez approached the control tower, they spotted a number of enemy soldiers improvising a second defensive position. What were they called again? People’s Soldiers? Revolutionary Marines?  Freedom Militia? It didn’t matter, Chavez put a rocket into the position, and Jennings set three grenades to go off just above and behind the barricades that might have saved someone from the rocket. They continued their charge to the tower.

Reaching the back of the tower, the two Brickheads rested for a half-second. The door was not on this side, so they would need to circle the building to find an entrance. Their comms were filled with static, so Chavez pointed first at Jennings, then the corner on their left. Chavez turned and went for the right. As Jennings stepped around the corner he spotted the heavy machine gun waiting for him. He leapt back, barely getting clear before bullets began tearing at the concrete and the air in front of him. Chavez wasn’t so lucky rounding the other side of the building. They wore a lot of armor, and at longer range, laying prone, the bullets might have deflected off. At less than forty feet, catching fire right in the chest, Chavez didn’t have much chance. Jennings bounced three grenades around the corner, then turned to help Chavez. Reaching her ankle, he dragged her behind the building before lobbing three more grenades into that alley. A handful of pockmarks showed where the armor had actually worked, but one furrow dug into the armor showed where a bullet had slid up the chest plate and under her helmet.

Jennings grabbed the demo charge from Chavez’s side, and slapped it onto the wall. He moved as far toward one alley as he dared, stepping back from the wall and crouching as the charge went off. Shaped charge explosives make a heck of a hole in one direction, but still blow a lot of shrapnel out to the sides as well. Jennings avoided most of it by not being in plane with the charge, but his armor still rattled with what he did catch. Jumping to his feet, Jennings dove through the door he had just made. Pulling down two display cases, he blocked the front door. Shoving a flagstaff through the push bar secured it just a little better. After that, he found the stairs.

Reaching the control room, he shot the two guards. An officer of some type still had his sidearm holstered. The officer reached for his weapon, struggling to get it clear, and stopped as he realized the futility of his situation. Jennings took two steps, punching the man in the face with an armored fist. The officer dropped to the floor, unconscious. The horrified controllers in the room broke and ran when Jennings started shouting at them and chasing them with his knife. It was one way to clear a room, and probably faster than shooting everyone. Down the stairs, he could hear revolutionary soldiers or whatever they were called trying to break through the front door. No time to do things neatly, Jennings shot every console and equipment box he saw, smashing two handheld radios to the ground.

Turning back to the stairs, he found the first enemy just reaching the control room. The same exoskeleton that made it possible to run and fight wearing so much armor made a kick to the chest an unstoppable force. Sending the man back down the stairs with two of his buddies, Jennings grabbed a desk and shoved it onto the stairs behind them. While he waited for something to go wrong, he looked out the windows at the island below.

The northern half of the flight line was a smoking wreck, and two fighter-bombers littered the taxiway. Brickhead and Hamlet were doing their job well. A helicopter tried to lift off behind them, flames shooting from the engine compartment before the craft was engulfed in a fireball. The wreckage landed on the runway, blocking its use. To the south, Jennings could see the Butterflies and Hedgehogs working their way north, about a mile distant. Three patrol boats had made it out of the marina and were beginning to shell the Butterflies with grenades and rocket fire. One of the patrol boats exploded as it was hit by a rocket, but the other two kept firing. Surface-to-air missile launchers were elevated on the western shore, but began exploding as the Hedgehogs got close enough to them. One missile launched, then exploded in mid-air. Another spiraled into the sea, holes punched through its guidance systems. Just below, Jennings could see the barracks on fire and partially collapsed. The armory was in worse shape, having taken five or more rocket hits. A radio mast collapsed, and Jennings’ display flickered to life. The operations center appeared to still be intact, so Jennings decided to go there next. Yelling and banging behind him told Jennings his makeshift barricade was at an end.

Moving sluggishly, he realized his batteries were beginning to run low. He checked his ammunition: two magazines with 25 rounds each, no grenades, two rockets, and a demolition charge. And one knife. He put five rounds through the desk to clear the top of the stairs, then pulled it aside. Seeing men coming around the landing, he slid feet first down the stairs, using his armor as a sled and his boots as a battering ram. Bringing out his knife, he dispatched the men who broke his fall. One flight down, four to go, and he’d be outside again. Repeating his armor sled trick, he almost made it. On the last step, the soldier he aimed for managed to jump aside. While Jennings was on the ground, three more jumped on him, pinning his now unpowered form to the ground. His display showed lines of red diamonds all over the island, as the defenders managed to regroup. Eight blue circles remained, all of them surrounded by red. Everyone else had either died or taken their armor off. The good news was that all of the yellow was gone.

His captors didn’t need much time to find the release for his armor as they stripped him of his equipment. With one arm twisted so far behind his back Jennings thought they were trying to break it, he was marched outside toward the flight line. Smoke and a strange buzzing noise filled the air. Distant crunches told of fighting continuing to the south. He looked around, finding a disappointing number of buildings still undamaged. He was punched in the head, and his arm was lifted forcing Jennings to march doubled over as the buzzing grew louder. No more sight-seeing.

The gentle sea breeze erupted into a hurricane, the buzzing replaced by an enormous rush of air and sand. His captors scattered as an aircraft swooped overhead, dropping almost right on top of them. Another landed next to it, while a third circled overhead. Gunfire erupted as Marines poured from the aircraft, running past him. The two Ospreys leapt back into the air, the third dropping to unload its precious cargo. More shouts, then deafening roars as LCACs pulled onto the runway. Landing Craft, Air Cushion; they looked more like metal storage buildings drifting to a stop before sitting on the ground to release armored vehicles from within. Fighting vehicles and armored trucks rolled into the spaces between the various buildings, forming instant bunkers and strongpoints. They were too close to the buildings to protect themselves from rockets or grenades, but those buildings were already being swarmed by infantry. Jennings couldn’t count the aircraft suddenly overhead, but there were plenty.

_______________________________________

The Ospreys and the LCACs had been timed to arrive just after the Brickheads had done their work. By knocking the island’s radar out, grounding planes, ruining air and shore defenses, they’d made the island defenseless. With so much mayhem from the Brickheads, no one had even seen the assault craft. In less than 15 minutes the arriving Marines had secured every building, made prisoners of everyone still moving on the island, and begun setting up their own equipment. After 20 minutes everyone dove for cover when reports came in of enemy aircraft approaching. Five minutes after that it was back to work, apparently they weren’t coming after all. An hour after his own landing, Jennings was regrouped with the other surviving Brickheads, including the Major.

Within another hour, a second landing arrived, bringing a mobile radar station, surface to air missiles, and Seabees. Attack sirens sounded, then cleared, and sounded again throughout the day. Point defense guns went off twice. Long-range rocket artillery dotted the island, telling Jennings that the Marines would be staying here for as long as they wanted. By that afternoon, twelve of those rockets had been fired. Meanwhile, cargo aircraft had begun to arrive on the newly cleared airfield, bringing supplies and removing prisoners from the island. Later, the Air Force would arrive with Warthogs and Eagles, perfect forward deploying patrol forces.

The Brickheads wouldn’t be repeating their performance any time soon. The rockets they’d been launched on, and the capsules they’d dropped into combat in weren’t reusable. The rocket boosters had burned themselves up, and the capsules had shed layer after layer on the descent, ablating chaff and micro-jammers all the way down. What was left of the capsules got shot to pieces as the island’s defenders responded to the Brickhead’s unwelcome arrival. More painfully, half the Brickheads had died that day.

Jennings didn’t know if they had any more rockets to ride, but he knew replacing the She-devils, Butterflies, and others who’d been lost wouldn’t be fast or easy. Then Jennings broke into laughter.

“What’s so damn funny?” asked Ajax.

“I finally get… why the Major… calls our armor… a three piece suit!”  The other Brickheads were looking at Jennings like a strange animal, not sure if they should be worried or scared.

“Okay Jennings, I’ll bite. Why does the Major call our armor a three piece suit?”

Gasping for air and recovering somewhat, Jennings replied, “Because there are three pieces!”  Quizzical looks met him. “We rode in on rocket ships, that’s one.” Nods of vague understanding met him this time. “And our armor and weapons, that’s two.” More nods.

“Alright, so what’s the third piece? And don’t say something cheesy like ‘friendship’ or ‘teamwork,’” Young asked. She could be real sentimental at times.

“Close! We’re the third piece. If we’re ever going to do this again, the Corps need more rockets, more gear, and more of us.” This last part sobered Jennings up. It was the thought of what and who would need replacement that sparked his understanding. It was the reminder that people would need replacing that broke the joke. People he knew. Whether those people would be replaced, whether new recruits would fill their boots, or whether any more of the ballistic missiles they’d launched on that morning would be acquired, it all depended on whether or not anyone thought what they did that morning was worthwhile. And whether it was still a bad idea.

Ryan A. Belscamper is a retired U.S. Navy Firecontrolman with Bachelor’s degrees in Mechanical and Electrical Engineering from Southern Illinois University.  He is currently working as an Engineer with NSWC Crane.

Featured Image: “Soldier” by Richard Bagnall (via Artstation)

Localized Sea Denial: Countering Chinese Aggression in the South China Sea

Countering China Topic Week

By LtCol Roy Draa

“Free and open access to the South and East China Seas is critical to both regional security and international commerce…Through its illegitimate efforts to build and militarize islands in the region, the Chinese Communist Party has aggressively attempted to control these critical waterways and undermined international law. This legislation makes clear that any individual or entity supporting these illegal actions will be held accountable.”1

There can be no doubt that the United States lacks an actionable maritime strategy with respect to the South China Sea, nor does the maritime force exist to effectively counter Chinese expansion in this economically and politically critical space. The bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission made this clear in its recent report to Congress. While the Navy and Marine Corps have nascent  operating concepts in Littoral Operations in a Maritime Environment (LOCE) and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO),  the United States—given the current fiscal environment—is years away from developing a naval force in size and sophistication to directly contest Chinese militarization of the South China Sea through the implementation of said concepts. Moreover, as Rep. Mike Gallagher of the House Armed Services Committee recently explained, “The Marine Corps’ emerging Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations concept is a good start, but it needs to go further and focus on how to put capabilities in place persistently rather than moving them in place after a crisis begins.”2 In short, the maritime services have much work to do in refining and translating current operating concepts into a “just in time” stop-gap answer to an increasingly volatile security situation. They must do so in an innovative manner that inspires joint and combined action.

South China Sea Problem Response

A potential military solution to the ongoing and growing problem in the South China Sea lies in the middle ground between directly contesting and accommodating China’s illegal actions. This solution would be part of the “collective pressure” strategy recently recommended by Hal Brands and Zack Cooper. The United States, bringing all elements of national power to bear, would persistently reinforce diplomatic and economic relationships with regional partners (i.e. Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, etc.) while focusing theater security cooperation in the region in order to demonstrate its commitment to offsetting malign Chinese influence in the region. Central to this will be a tactical solution that provides a credible deterrent, and is capable of sea denial in the vicinity of key maritime terrain while functioning as a covering force for the deployment of a larger Combined Joint Task Force (JTF).

In the last six months, the United States Marine Corps’ Training and Education Command Warfighting Club (TWC) has considered this challenge in the context of LOCE/EABO and published its preliminary findings in the July 2019 Marine Corps Gazette. Using commercial, off-the-shelf simulations software, TWC was able to confirm the ineffectiveness of current U.S. Navy and Marine Corps doctrine and tables of organization against a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)-led limited objective attack in the South China Sea.

TWC also ran several sea denial simulations with a specifically designed “Inside Force,” building a Multi-Domain Marine Air Ground Task Force (MD-MAGTF) around a reinforced Marine Infantry Battalion forward deployed on key maritime terrain (the Philippine island of Palawan). The simulated MD-MAGTF was supported by land-based anti-ship missiles, armed (kinetic/electronic warfare) unmanned aerial systems (UAS), and unmanned surface vehicles (USV), as well as forward elements of the Pacific Fleet operating over the horizon in the Leyte Gulf. In each simulation, the MD-MAGTF was able to force Chinese naval and aviation forces to culminate both tactically and logistically with limited friendly losses. Through the employment of swarming tactics, the MD-MAGTF (supported by a larger JTF) overcame threat surface/aviation units, exposing their inability to effectively counter a coordinated UAS and anti-ship missile threat. In certain iterations of the simulation, the MD-MAGTF was able to commence limited strikes on militarized islands in anticipation of the entry of a follow-on combined maritime force.

Implementation of this inside covering force requires several critical actions and enablers:

1. United States Marine Corps remissioning/restructuring to address critical gaps in Mission Essential Tasks (METs), anti-aircraft/anti-ship missiles, and armed UAS capabilities. Service-level training exercises (SLTE) could easily incorporate these problem and potential solutions sets in the near future in live, virtual, and constructive maritime environments with requisite input and support of the Navy and Coast Guard.

Remissioning: As a part of the METL review process, Marine Corps planners must take a hard look at the Navy’s Composite Warfare doctrine and how Sea Denial is not addressed as a MET, with supporting Training and Readiness (T&R) tasks across the MAGTF.

Restructuring: The Marine Corps lacks critical capabilities to execute sea denial. In a fiscally constrained environment, these shortfalls can only be addressed through restructuring and a revision of tables of equipment. The focus should be on air defense, UAS, and artillery battalions.

Training and Exercises: At present, SLTEs are focused on land-based, offensive operations. Exercise design must also look at maritime operations in the littorals in partnership with the Navy and Coast Guard. This necessitates a dedicated plan of action for updating range and landing beaches on San Clemente Island, as well as this training area’s incorporation into SLTE design, whether through live or constructive means.

2. Focused INDO-PACOM partnership with the Philippine Armed Forces, specifically Task Forces 41 and 42, the 4th Naval District, and the 10th Marine Brigade Landing Team. The MD-MAGTF cannot effectively train nor operate without partner nation political and military support. With that in mind, INDO-PACOM must move beyond scripted amphibious bilateral exercises centered on Luzon. INDO-PACOM and III MEF planners must work with the Philippine Armed Forces in order to redirect efforts toward bilateral, free-play exercises in Palawan and the Philippines’ western littorals.

3. Over-the-horizon aviation and logistical support for the MD-MAGTF should be provided by an Expeditionary Strike Group (Task Force 76/31st Marine Expeditionary Unit) operating in the Leyte Gulf. This can easily be incorporated into INDO-PACOM’s current list of joint and combined exercises.

4. On call logistical support from an Expeditionary Transfer Dock vessel capable of over the horizon aerial/surface resupply via UAS/USV. The Navy and Marine Corps have conducted extensive experiments using this class of support ships as an adjunct to the ARG. Further experimentation is required to determine how non-L class ships can be added to or replace those capabilities typically found in a standard ESG. These experiments should focus on what personnel and support equipment capabilities are required to support launch and recovery of ordinance and logistics payloads on UAS/USV in support of a MD-MAGTF.

Conclusion

While the task of sea denial is not explicitly addressed as a current United States Marine Corps MET, this concept is not new and would nest well with the Naval Composite Warfare doctrine. It is a dusting off of the Marine Defense Battalion concept of the inter-war years. Despite less than optimal pre-war logistical support, the effectiveness and sacrifice of the 1st Marine Defense Battalion on Wake Island (in gaining time for U.S. offensive operations in the Pacific) and the TWC study of the problem set serve as a framework for the proposed solution. Based off the initial results of TWC simulations, a modern ground-based, multi-domain capable, inside covering force can act as an integral component of a larger JTF and may serve as an effective maritime counter to Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.

LtCol Draa is a career infantry officer with 19 years of active duty service in the United States Marine Corps. He is currently stationed at Quantico Marine Corps Base with Training and Education Command (TECOM). He is a charter member of the TECOM Warfighting Club, the Commanding General’s working group that explores and evaluates future warfare concepts, applications in maneuver warfare and mission command in improving professional military education. These are presented in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. government.

References

1. https://gallagher.house.gov/media/press-releases/gallagher-panetta-introduce-legislation-counter-chinese-aggression-south-and

2. https://cpb-us-e1.wpmucdn.com/blogs.gwu.edu/dist/1/2181/files/2019/06/Gallagher.pdf

Featured Image: Marines with Bravo Company, Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, ride aboard a Combat Rubber Raiding Craft during an amphibious raid exercise off the coast of Okinawa, Japan, April 17, 2018. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Jonah Baase)

The Chinese Navy’s Marine Corps, Part 2: Chain-of-Command Reforms and Evolving Training

This article originally featured on the Jamestown Foundation’s Chief Brief. Read it in its original form here. Read Part One here.

By Dennis J. Blasko and Roderick Lee

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a two-part article discussing organizational reforms and evolving missions for the PLA Navy (PLAN) Marine Corps. The first part, in our previous issue, focused on the growing order of battle for the PLAN Marines. This second part focuses on the creation of a service branch headquarters for the PLAN Marines, and their expanding training for expeditionary warfare and other missions. Taken as a whole, this two-part article provides significant new information and analysis to update the December 3, 2010 China Brief article titled “China’s Marines: Less is More.”

New Marine Headquarters Established

Along with increasing the number of PLA Marine Corps (Zhongguo Renmin Jiefangjun Haijun Luzhan Dui, 中国人民解放军海军陆战队) combat units, a corps-level Marine Corps Headquarters also has been formed. Its first commander is Major General Kong Jun—who shared responsibility with Political Commissar Yuan Huazhi, until Yuan was reassigned in early 2019 (Pengpai News, May 27 2017; Pengpai News, January 15). Kong spent most of his career in the Army, rising through the ranks as an armor officer and commander in the former 12th Group Army. After being assigned to the Marines, he led the Marine formation that took part in the July 2017 parade at Zhurihe Training Base in Inner Mongolia. Yuan spent most of his career as a naval political officer with service in the South Sea Fleet—where the two existing Marine brigades have been located—but was transferred to the Air Force. His successor has not yet been identified. The two leaders are assisted by deputies and a staff; among the headquarters staff, Senior Colonel Chen Weidong, former commander of the 1st Marine Brigade since at least 2010, is now a deputy chief of staff (PLA Daily, July 29 2018). Due to his long experience in the Marines, he is likely to move up the ladder as leadership positions become available.

The location of the new Marine Corps Headquarters appears to be near Chaozhou, Guangdong, just north of Shantou and slightly to the east of Jieyang, where a new Marine brigade is stationed (Xiangqiao Regional Government, July 26 2018). By locating its headquarters outside of Beijing, the Marine Corps organization parallels the PLA Air Force Airborne Corps—which maintains its headquarters in Xiaogan, (Hubei Province), and which also commands subordinate brigades dispersed in multiple regions. By locating its headquarters a great distance from many of its subordinate units, this structure implies that the Marine Corps is not intended to deploy and fight as an organic whole, as may be the case for Army group armies. Instead, like the Airborne, Marine brigades likely are conceived and designed to be employed independently, but supported by other elements of its parent service. As such, Marine brigades do not appear to be directly subordinate to the Theater Command Navies in whose regions they are located; rather, they fall under the direct command of Marine Corps Headquarters (MCHQ).

A major responsibility of the MCHQ will be to manage the distribution of the increasing number of missions Marine units are now required to support. These real-world tasks include: providing forces to the Gulf of Aden escort mission, which rotates among the three fleets roughly every four months; deploying personnel to the Djibouti Support Base, which opened in August 2017; and manning garrisons and newly constructed facilities in the Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The Headquarters will also manage training for the brigades, determining which units travel to what training areas and participate in which military competitions and exercises, both within and outside of China. It also will coordinate with the fleets to ensure that Marine units are available for service and joint exercises. Undoubtedly it will also inspect training and other brigade activities, such as political indoctrination, logistics, and maintenance.

Expanded Training Since 2014

For most of the past two to three decades, Marine brigades conducted the majority of their training in the South China Sea and near their bases on the Leizhou Peninsula. Most training was conducted independently, supported by Navy assets, and focused on island and reef operations. Only on a few occasions—such as the Peace Mission 2005 exercise with Russia on the Shandong peninsula—did Marine units engage in joint training outside of southern China. After Peace Mission 2005, Marine units began to exercise more often with foreign militaries, both in China and overseas. These opportunities increased as Navy task forces assigned to the Gulf of Aden escort mission traveled to and from their patrol duties, stopping along the way for port visits or bilateral exercises. Marine units have also hosted a variety of foreign visitors to their garrisons and opened a few of their exercises to outside observers.

Those training patterns changed in 2014 when the Marine Corps conducted its first winter training at the Zhurihe Training Base in Inner Mongolia. This was followed by trips to the Taonan Training Base in Jilin in 2015 and Korla, Xinjiang in 2016, which also included elements from the Navy SOF Regiment (PLA Daily, January 31 2015). In addition to the cold weather, units had to contend with desert, forest, and plateau terrain, very different from the sub-tropical climate and terrain in southern China. In a second out-of-area exercise in 2015, jungle training was conducted in Yunnan in August 2015 (PLA Daily, August 25 2015). In early 2018, Marine units, apparently including newly formed units, returned to Yunnan and also exercised simultaneously in Shandong (PLA Daily, March 16 2018). In July 2018, the PLA hosted the “Seaborne Assault” competition for Marine units as part of the International Military Games 2018 in Shishi, Quanzhou city (near Jinjiang and at one of the new Marine brigade’s garrisons) (PLA Daily, July 23 2018). These changes in Marine training indicate the determination of the PLA leadership for the Marine Corps to be ready to perform expeditionary missions in any terrain and climate.

PLAN Marine Corps Education

With the number of Marine Corps personnel roughly tripling in size and its missions expanding, one might assume that the PLAN Marine Corps Academy (海军陆战学院) in Guangzhou would also expand to provide education and training for aspiring PLANMC officers. However, the Marine Corps Academy is not currently listed among the PLA’s 37 professional education institutions. As a component of PLANMC restructuring, the Marine Corps Academy has been converted into a training base; it remains active in this capacity, but it does not appear to provide college education to young Marine Corps personnel.1 Accordingly, Marine officers and NCOs will be educated in other academies—some perhaps with Marine Corps Departments—and undergo specialized training at the training base or within their unit.

Conclusions

The 2018 Department of Defense (DOD) report to Congress states that “large-scale amphibious invasion is one of the most complicated and difficult military operations.” As such, amphibious operations require specialized equipment (both for landing and for naval/air support forces), extensive training, and intricate planning and timing in execution. Accordingly, considering the previously existing Marine and Army amphibious units and new Marine units under development, DOD concludes:

The PLA is capable of accomplishing various amphibious operations short of a full-scale invasion of Taiwan. With few overt military preparations beyond routine training, China could launch an invasion of small Taiwan-held islands in the South China Sea such as Pratas or Itu Aba. A PLA invasion of a medium-sized, better-defended island such as Matsu or Jinmen is within China’s capabilities.2

Campaigns against small or medium islands in China’s near seas likely would involve hundreds to the low thousands of troops delivered over the beach by a portion of the PLA Navy’s roughly 50 medium landing ships (LSM) and tank landing ships (LST) and scores of additional smaller landing craft, supported by ship-based helicopters and land-based aircraft. These assets are dispersed among all three fleets, but could be concentrated for an amphibious campaign. The Navy’s relatively new Type 071 Landing Platform Dock (LPD) large amphibious ships also could provide support to assaults on small or medium islands. Numerous civilian roll-on/roll-off ships and other transport ships may not be necessary for such limited operations, but would likely be employed in larger campaigns after a port is secured.

For missions beyond China’s three seas, the Navy’s fleet of six Type 071 LPDs, the first of which entered service in 2007, is the PLAN’s primary means of moving Marine units over long distances. These ships each can carry approximately a battalion of infantry, about 20 to 30 vehicles, and two to four helicopters for extended periods of time. Additional Type 071s are expected to enter service; and several new, larger amphibious ships, generally called the Type 075 amphibious assault ship (LHA), likely will also enter the force in coming years (Office of Naval Intelligence, 2018; National Interest, March 31 2017). Depending on the availability of ships, multiple battalions, amounting to a brigade or more, could be at sea for several weeks or months. In addition to combat, anti-terrorist, or deterrence missions, these forces could be used for disaster relief or emergency evacuation operations. But assembling a multi-ship, multiple battalion task force, with some degree of sea-based air support, is probably is at least a decade away as sealift is added and the PLA Marine Corps expands its resources and capabilities.

The expansion of Marine Corps is a major component of the goal to develop the PLA into a “world-class military” by the middle of the century (2049). When fully manned, equipped, and trained, the Marine Corps will provide Chinese leaders with options previously unavailable. As in Djibouti, PLA Marines will continue to be seen in places they’ve never been seen before. And, as they sing in their 2018 recruiting and propaganda videos, “We are different!” (PLA Daily, March 11 2018; PLA Daily, December 21 2018).

Dennis J. Blasko, Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army (Retired), was an army attaché in Beijing and in Hong Kong from 1992-1996 and is the author of The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century, second edition (Routledge, 2012).

Roderick Lee is an analyst with the United States Navy. His work focuses on Chinese maritime forces and strategy. He earned his Master of Arts degree from The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

The views and opinions expressed herein by the authors do not represent the policies or position of the U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy, and are the sole responsibility of the authors.

Notes

[1] People’s Navy, December 18, 2017.

[2] U.S. Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2018, p. 95. https://media.defense.gov/2018/Aug/16/2001955282/-1/-1/1/2018-CHINA-MILITARY-POWER-REPORT.PDF#page=11&zoom=auto,-85,733.

Featured Image: Soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Marine Corps are seen in training at a military training base in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, January 11, 2016. Picture taken January 11, 2016. (Photo by Reuters/CNS Photo)