The United States is becoming increasingly challenged at sea. Last year the Admiral Philip Davidson, current commander of Indo-Pacific Command, told The New York Times that “In short, China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.”1 This increasing anxiety is echoed in the 2016 Surface Forces Strategy (SFS), which identifies a “new era” of threats and challenges.2 In response the United States Navy has been at work on new concepts to help bolster combat power like Distributed Lethality and Distributed Maritime Operations. While neither have been released to the public in full, unclassified versions, the gist of both are clear. The SFS ascribes three tenets to distributed lethality – increasing the offensive and defensive capability of all platforms, distributing platforms, and improving the survivability and complimentary nature of their systems. The Navy is on the right track but can achieve a much larger increase in distribution and offensive capability by looking beyond the surface assets it already owns. The Navy has argued that it requires a 355-ship fleet to perform all of its missions, but the current shipbuilding program will not meet that goal anytime in the next three decades.3 Recently the Under Secretary of the Navy lamented the state of the under-resourced fleet “no decrease in operational requirements, and yet there are not enough ships to do the mission.”4 The Navy needs to look for combat power elsewhere if it cannot soon build or buy the ships it needs.
In a fight for sea control, the Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs) are currently a wasted asset. MEUs are powerful, mixed purpose units built around a Marine infantry battalion with significant additional ground capability in tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery with a full range of air combat and lift capability. But Marine doctrine and training emphasize only operations ashore, and operations in getting to shore. The Corps has traditionally failed to consider their role in maritime operations like sea control or sea denial and husbanded its resources for the terrestrial fight. This is changing slowly – the unreleased Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) concept is expected to emphasize the Marine role in a maritime campaign, but EABO is a Marine-led concept. The Navy needs to push Marines back into a role where they support naval operations and stop allowing the Marines to build a capability focused only on power projection ashore.
Marines already have some capabilities that can contribute to a sea control fight. They had the first operational F-35 squadron, ahead of the Air Force and the Navy and they have experience training and operating their jets in rugged and austere environments. Marine rocket artillery (HIMARS) recently fired at their first floating targets and have also demonstrated a rapid infiltration and raid capability with the same platform.5,6 They are going further and investing in a new Group 5 Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) program called the MAGTF UAS Expeditionary (MUX) that would contribute to targeting, reconnaissance and strike architecture.7 The Marines need to focus their training and planning around employing these assets in support of maritime operations not operations ashore.
Furthermore, the Marines need to rapidly diversify their portfolio of weapons when it comes to sea control and denial. They need to move ahead with a longer range, anti-ship missile on a mobile platform – much like systems Poland has acquired for coastal defense that fire the Naval Strike Missile.8 Such a weapon would drastically increase the range and lethality with that the Corps could project over the water. Employed, on or near narrows, straits and other chokepoints, these missiles could deny an adversary passage or annihilate an amphibious force. The Army has been interested in the NSM and has made Long Range Precision Fires their top modernization priority.9,10 Continued integration with the Navy and Marines should lead to a joint littoral fires capability that provides the fleet more options for distributing their surface fires.
Marines can also increase their contribution by investing in a coastal or fast attack craft capability. Currently the Navy maintains a portfolio of brown water capability in Naval Expeditionary Combat Command (NECC) but it is primarily for supporting special operations and harbor defense. A new Marine force, employing Mk VI patrol boats armed with NSMs would be a potent threat to even the largest and best protected enemy vessels at a fraction of the cost of adding more destroyers and frigates the surface fleet.
The Marines should also identify opportunities to up-gun their existing platforms. The MV-22 Osprey, the Marines’ capable, medium, tilt-rotor craft is usually unarmed. It can mount door guns but it is a platform begging for armament like the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS) or other types of rockets and missiles – a match that has already been tested.11 Armed with its own precision fires, an Osprey or the Corps’ new CH-53K could hunt enemy small boats to protect larger surface vessels or better support Marine insertions. Other authors at CIMSEC and War on the Rocks have argued for arming L-Class amphibious ships and connectors like Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC).12,13
Another opportunity for increasing the Navy’s lethality and combat power is the Air Force. The Air Force recently acquired the Long Range Anti-Ship missile, a new, stealthy naval cruise missile that can be launched from B-1 bombers. This is a key capability that allows the Air Force to better support the Navy – a single B-1 bomber can carry 24 LRASMs, so a flight of four bombers can launch more anti-ship missiles that an Arleigh-Burke class destroyer and then return to do it again in hours.14 The Navy and the Air Force should continue to expand the number of aircraft capable of delivering LRSAMs and train for their employment jointly. Air-delivered, long range anti-ship missiles are a new capability for the U.S. military but one long employed by Russia and China.
Sea control is a joint mission. No longer can the Navy alone get it done. America’s control of the sea is fundamental to our peace and security and it will require forces, capabilities, and support from the Marines, Army, and Air Force. In pursuit of new concepts like Distributed Lethality and Distributed Maritime Operations, the Navy needs to look beyond the fleet for ways to increase combat power. The 2016 SFS labels the “right mix of resources to persist in a fight” as one of the three tenets of Distributed Lethality.15 At a minimum that mix must include Marine and Army surface fires, fast attack craft, Air Force anti-surface warfare, and whatever else is needed to distribute firepower and sustain command of the seas.
1stLt Walker D. Mills is a Marine Corps infantry officer. He is currently a student at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California.
 Hannah Beech, “China’s Sea Control is a Done Deal ‘Short of War With the US’” New York Times (20 September, 2018) https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/20/world/asia/south-china-sea-navy.html.
 United States Navy, Surface Forces Strategy (2016) https://www.public.navy.mil/surfor/Documents/Surface_Forces_Strategy.pdf.
 Goeff Ziezulewicz, “Budget watchdog questions Navy’s plan for 355-ship fleet” (24 October 2018) https://www.navytimes.com/news/your-navy/2018/10/24/budget-watchdog-questions-navys-plan-for-355-ship-fleet/.
 Gidget Fuentes, “Modly: Navy Needs to Radically Change How it Operates in New Era of Great Power Competition” USNI News (14 February 2019) https://news.usni.org/2019/02/14/modly-navy-needs-radically-change-operates-new-era-great-power-competition.
 Gidget Fuentes, “Marines Fire HIMARS From Ship in Sea Control Experiment with Navy” USNI News (24 October, 2017) https://news.usni.org/2017/10/24/marines-fire-himars-ship-sea-control-experiment-navy.
 Shawn Snow, “ The Corps’ HIMARS are going airborne as Marines bring them to targets via KC-130s” Marine Corps Times (28 December 2018) https://www.marinecorpstimes.com/news/your-marine-corps/2018/12/28/the-corps-himars-are-going-airborne-as-marines-bring-them-to-targets-via-kc-130s/.
 Meghan Eckstein, “Marines Zero In On Requirement for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle” USNI News (23 April 2018) https://news.usni.org/2018/04/23/marines-zero-requirements-future-mux-unmanned-aerial-vehicle.
 Jaroslaw Adamowski, “Poland Eyes Third Missile Squadron, Subs for Navy” Defense News (4 November 2016) https://www.defensenews.com/naval/2016/11/04/poland-eyes-third-missiles-squadron-subs-for-navy/.
 Joseph Trevithick, “The Army Eyes Getting Into the Ship Killing Business With This Cruise Missile” The Drive (12 February 2018) http://thedrive.com/the-war-zone/18427/the-army-eyes-getting-into-the-ship-killing-business-with-this-cruise-missile.
 David Vergun, “Long-range, precision fires modernization a joint effort, Army tech leader says” Army News Service (22 August 2018) https://www.army.mil/article/210198/long_range_precision_fires_modernization_a_joint_effort_army_tech_leader_says.
 Shawn Snow, “Marines consider forward-firing rockets for MV-22 Osprey” Marine Corps Times (21 March 2018) https://www.marinecorpstimes.com/news/your-marine-corps/2018/03/21/marines-consider-forward-firing-rockets-for-the-mv-22-osprey-fleet/.
 Chris O’Connor, “Distributed Leathernecks” CIMSEC (23 February, 2019) http://cimsec.org/distributed-leathernecks/22448.
 Douglas King and Brett Friedman, “Why the Navy Needs a Fighting Connector: Distributed Maritime Operations and the Modern Littoral Environment” War on the Rocks (10 November, 2017) https://warontherocks.com/2017/11/navy-needs-fighting-connector-distributed-maritime-operations-modern-littoral-environment/.
 Oriana Pawlyk, “B-1 Crews Prep for Anti-Surface Warfare in Latest LRSAM Tests” Military.com (3 January 2018) https://www.military.com/dodbuzz/2018/01/03/b-1-crews-prep-anti-surface-warfare-latest-lrasm-tests.html.
 Surface Forces Strategy.
Featured Image: Marines with Combat Logistics Battalion 11, Headquarters Regiment, 1st Marine Logistics Group, overlook the beach during a field exercise at Camp Pendleton, California, December 12, 2017 (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Adam Dublinske)
This article originally featured on the Jamestown Foundation’s Chief Brief. Read it in its original form here.
By Dennis J. Blasko and Roderick Lee
Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a two-part article discussing organizational reforms and evolving missions for the PLA Navy (PLAN) Marine Corps. The first part focuses on the growing order of battle for the PLAN Marines. The second part, which will appear will focus on the creation of a service 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.”
On August 16, 2018, the Department of Defense Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2018, reported that “One of the most significant PLAN structural changes in 2017 was the expansion of the PLAN Marine Corps (PLANMC).” The PLA Marine Corps (中国人民解放军海军陆战队) has historically been limited in terms of personnel, geography, and mission—with a primary service focus on amphibious assault, and the defense of outposts in the South China Sea. However, under currently estimated plans for service expansion, “by 2020, the PLANMC will consist of 7 brigades, may have more than 30,000 personnel, and will expand its mission to include expeditionary operations on foreign soil.”1
The expansion of the PLANMC, which commenced in April 2017, is an important element of reforms to the PLA’s operational forces. For the past two decades, the Marine Corps consisted of only two brigades, the 1st and 164th Marine Brigades (each estimated to number from 5,000 – 6,000 personnel) assigned to the South Sea Fleet stationed in Zhanjiang, Guangdong. After recent reforms, the number of brigades now amounts to a total of eight, with four new Marine combined arms brigades, a Special Operations Forces (SOF) brigade, and the core of a shipborne aviation (helicopter) brigade added to the previously existing two brigades. The four new combined arms brigades were formed out of units transferred from the Army, while the SOF and helicopter brigades were created from standing Navy units. A corps-level headquarters for the Marine Corps also has been identified. Though the Chinese government has not officially explained these developments, this new structure probably amounts to a total of up to approximately 40,000 personnel distributed among eight brigades at full strength.
The expanded Marine Corps, supported by Navy long-range sealift, likely will become the core of the PLA’s future expeditionary force. Training that began in 2014 further indicates that the eventual objective for the Marine Corps is to be capable of conducting operations in many types of terrain and climates – ranging beyond the PLANMC’s former, and continuing, focus on islands and reefs in the South China Sea. The manner by which the force has expanded, however, suggests that the PLA leadership was not motivated by an immediate need for a larger amphibious capability; rather, it appears to be consistent with several new missions undertaken by the Chinese military over the past decade that have provided impetus for the addition of new Marine units. It will likely take several years for all of the Marine Corps’ new units to reach full operational readiness as measured by personnel, equipment, and training.
Expanded Order of Battle
After “below the neck” reforms and restructuring implemented throughout PLA in 2017, Marine units are now found along China’s eastern seaboard from Shandong in the north, to Fujian and Guangdong in the east opposite Taiwan, to Hainan in the South China Sea. In northern Shandong, a former Army motorized infantry brigade of the old 26th Group Army has been transformed into a new Marine brigade (Jiefangjun Bao Online, September 30 2017). On Shandong’s southern coast, a second new brigade has been formed from what likely was a former Army coastal defense regiment located near Qingdao (Qingdao Television, February 12 2018). Further south, an Army coastal defense division stationed around Jinjiang, Fujian was the basis for a third new brigade that remains in that same locale; and may also have provided manpower and resources for a fourth new brigade that recently moved to Jieyang in eastern Guangdong province (Anxi, Fujian Government website, August 1 2017; Jieyang News, August 17 2018). Although the PLA has not widely publicized either the creation of these new brigades or their true unit designators, the emergence of photos and new military unit cover designators associated with the Marine brigades both suggest a 1st through 6th brigade numbering scheme.2
As the new Marine brigades are being organized and equipped for their new missions, the two previously existing brigades also appear to have been reorganized. Most significantly, to streamline their chain of command, the former amphibious armored regiment headquarters appear to have been eliminated: command is now passed directly from brigade level to the newly established combined arms battalions (similar to the Army’s brigade command structure). Marine combined arms battalions are distinguished between amphibious mechanized and light mechanized combined arms battalions. Some, if not all, Marine brigades also have, or will likely have, units trained for air assault operations (Jiefangjun Bao Online, December 10 2017), and will be reinforced by operational support battalions.3
It is likely that in coming years older equipment will be retired and all Marine units will be issued new amphibious vehicles—such as the tracked ZBD05 Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV), tracked ZTD05 Assault Vehicle, PLZ07 122mm Self-Propelled Howitzer, the eight-wheeled ZBL09 IFV, the eight-wheeled ZTL11 assault vehicle, and the Mengshi Assault Vehicle. (The latter three vehicles have been observed deployed to the Djibouti Support Base). Some reconnaissance units are also receiving light 8×8 all-terrain-vehicles for terrain that is inaccessible to larger vehicles (Chinaso.com, April 9, 2018).
In total, the Army probably transferred over 20,000 personnel to the Navy’s new Marine units, while retaining its own amphibious capability. The Army’s two former amphibious infantry divisions—one previously stationed in the Nanjing Military Region near Hangzhou and the other in the Guangdong Military Region near Huizhou—were both transformed into two combined arms brigades each, while keeping their amphibious weapons and capabilities. A fifth former amphibious armored brigade also was converted into a new Army combined arms brigade located in Fujian. The decision to maintain these amphibious units in the Army reflects that service’s continued role in building capabilities to deter further steps toward Taiwan independence—one of the missions of foremost importance to the PLA.
Had the senior PLA leadership perceived the need to increase rapidly the Navy’s amphibious capacity, it could have decided to transfer to the Marine Corps those existing Army amphibious units, all of which were equipped and trained for assault from the sea. But by transforming a motorized infantry brigade and multiple coastal defense units—none of which were outfitted with amphibious equipment, nor trained extensively in amphibious operations—the PLA leadership understood that it would take multiple years for these units to be equipped, and even more annual training cycles before they would be fully trained to undertake amphibious operations. So, while the Marine Corps has been expanded in size, its actual amphibious capabilities will increase gradually over the next several years.
The new Marine special operations force (SOF) brigade has been formed out of the Navy’s existing SOF Regiment stationed in Hainan, which includes the Jiaolong (“Dragon”) commando unit (China Central Television, December 12 2017). The former Navy SOF Regiment’s missions and capabilities overlapped with that of the Marine Corps, and therefore their transfer is a logical evolution as the Marine Corps expands. Eventually, the new brigade will likely number approximately one thousand personnel more than the old regiment (estimated to have been about 2,000 strong). Some of those personnel may have been transferred from the 1st and 164th Marine Brigades’ structure, each of which probably included SOF elements in their former reconnaissance battalions. Of all the new Marine units within the expanded force structure, the SOF Brigade currently is the most combat ready.
The 2018 DOD report on the Chinese military also noted the creation of an independent aviation capability for the PLA Marines, stating that the expanding PLANMC “may also incorporate an aviation brigade, which could provide an organic helicopter transport and attack capability, increasing its amphibious and expeditionary warfare capabilities.”4 The new Marine Shipborne Aviation (helicopter) Brigade apparently has been built out of elements from all three PLAN independent air regiments (Weibo, January 27 2018). These regiments have been busy since 2009, provided the aircraft for 15 of 30 of the Navy’s deployments to the Gulf of Aden escort mission (PLA Daily, July 16 2018).
Currently, the new Marine helicopter unit likely has considerably less than a full contingent of aircraft compared to an Army Aviation Brigade, which when fully equipped probably consists of over 70 helicopters. The Military Balance 2018 estimates the Navy’s entire helicopter fleet at slightly over 100 aircraft, with about half being transport helicopters—while the others are anti-submarine warfare, early warning, and search and rescue aircraft needed to support the rest of the Navy’s operations.5 Heretofore the Navy apparently has experimented with only a few armed Z-9 helicopters (People’s Navy, July 31 2012). Until additional attack helicopters are added to the force, as a stop gap measure it would be possible for the Army to temporarily assign a few of its attack helicopters to the Marines to assist in training and doctrine development for amphibious operations. Thus, it is likely that it will take several more years to add additional transport and attack helicopters and train the pilots and crews before the new Marine helicopter brigade is at full strength and combat ready.
This article will continue in the next issue of China Brief, with “The Chinese Navy’s Marine Corps, Part 2: Chain-of-Command Reforms and Evolving Training.”
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.
 Military unit cover designators (MUCDs) are serial numbers (consisting of five digits) employed by the People’s Liberation Army to identify specific military units, and are frequently employed in official communications in the place of the true unit designators.
 People’s Navy, January 23, 2018 and February 9, 2018.
According to the 2016 Marine Corps Operating Concept (MOC), the greatest risk to the Marine Corps is that it becomes unbalanced in its development as a force that is at once naval, expeditionary, agile, and lethal.1 Four decades of institutional neglect of naval surface fire support (NSFS) has led to precisely that: the Corps is over-reliant on aviation and cruise missiles to provide fires in a non-permissive maritime domain. Without investment in NSFS solutions that balance capability and capacity, the Marine Corps will be constrained in its ability to maneuver at sea, leaving Marines ill-equipped to fight and win in the future operating environments the MOC predicts.
The MOC makes it clear, though, that identified problems should be accompanied with feasible solutions: Marines innovate and adapt to win. By developing innovative tactics and munitions for the existing high mobility artillery rocket system (HIMARS) and by adapting the San Antonio-class amphibious transport docks (LPD) to support a naval gun, the Marine Corps can fulfill the MOC’s call for an agile, lethal, and expeditionary force with an ability to secure the sea control essential for the prosecution of naval campaigns.
The Problem: The Neglect of Naval Surface Fire Support
The MOC opens by stating that the Marine Corps is “not organized, trained, and equipped to meet the demands of a future operating environment characterized by complex terrain, technology proliferation…and an increasingly non-permissive maritime domain.”2 While some critics dismiss NSFS as an anachronism in the modern context, it is the increasing complexity of advanced anti-access area-denial (A2/AD) weapon systems and the subsequent proliferation of such affordable capabilities that necessitates its revival. Detractors argue that naval aviation and the Navy’s Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) complement are sufficient to service targets in support of an amphibious force. In a permissive maritime environment, this argument is likely valid. However, rival powers have identified America’s critical capabilities and are preparing to remove them accordingly; a reality the MOC identifies as a future constant.3 Nowhere is this more evident than in the Western Pacific. Over the past two decades, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has invested considerable resources into acquiring the capabilities necessary to deter, counter, and defeat adversarial power projection into regional conflicts.4 The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fields a comprehensive battle network of sensors, platforms, and weapons that form a robust, multi-domain reconnaissance-strike complex capable of effectively engaging naval vessels over 800 miles from China’s shores.5
As these threats force the surface groups’ operational areas further from the adversary, the tyranny of distance restricts Marine aviation’s ability to influence the environment. Increased range forces the platforms to dedicate more weight to fuel over munitions and limits time on target. Extended distance also prohibits the use of some platforms outright. For example, rotary-wing attack aircraft are restricted to operating within 120 nautical miles of a fuel source, and fixed wing aircraft do not fare much better. While the F-35 is a revolutionary airframe with inherent stealth characteristics, the high value air assets (HVAA) on which it depends are not so resilient. In “Short Legs Can’t Win Arms Races,” Greg Knepper and Peter Singer identify airborne refueling tankers as the weakest link in America’s kill chain.6 They argue that the removal of a single tanker could lead to a flight package aborting its mission, or the destruction of the entire complement, if (when) fuel expires.7 The design of the PLA’s fifth generation stealth aircraft, the J-20, increasingly resembles that of a long-range interceptor. Analysts assess such a design is optimized to engage America’s critical HVAA with long-range air-to-air missiles, a tactic consistent with Chinese operational and strategic thought.8
A common counter-argument is that long-range cruise missiles, such as TLAMs, will be used to neutralize threats in order to enable follow-on aviation operations. Libya is cited as a textbook example for “rolling back” an integrated air defense system, with submarines removing the threats necessary to support follow-on aviation operations. Unfortunately, the Navy may lack the capacity to support this approach in the years to come, losing the tremendous 154 TLAM payload of each of the four modified Ohio-class submarines (SSGNs) when the boats are retired by 2028.9 The Virginia-class payload modules are intended to replace the SSGN’s strike capability, but with 40 TLAMs they are arguably insufficient against the demands posed by conflict with a near-peer power.10 In a hypothetical contest with the PRC, such shortfalls are compounded by the escalating threat posed by China’s increasingly stealthy and lethal undersea fleet: a force that is expected to deploy over 70 vessels by 2030.11 While the exceptionally quiet Virginia submarines provide America with a qualitative undersea advantage, the Navy expects to have roughly 41 in service by 2029.12 This reinforces the likelihood that the undersea force will be restricted in its ability to support Marines ashore, likely prioritizing anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare missions above strike.13
Tomahawk cruise missile launched from USS Florida (SSGN-728)
If one continues to use the ‘Roll Back’ concept, then surface combatants will be forced to mitigate the TLAM shortfall. This highlights a second critical vulnerability of the force: surface combatants cannot reload their VLS at sea. Broadly speaking, Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers (CG) are equipped with a VLS that can support 122 missiles and Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers (DDG) are capable of storing 96.14 The VLS missile silos are outfitted in accordance with the threat environment. Operations in a non-permissive maritime environment will necessitate a readiness to counter a variety of threats and support a wide range of missions in addition to surface strike, such as ballistic missile defense, anti-surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare, and anti-air warfare. Much like the submarine force, it is not unreasonable to think that during a crisis with a near-peer power, strike will be the lowest priority. Therefore, the number of available TLAMs will be significantly below the maximum capacities outlined above. Indeed, the protection of the Navy’s capital ships remains a priority in current doctrine, further eroding the potential of a strike-centric cruiser or destroyer in a contested battlespace.15
Moreover, new operational concepts may exacerbate the NSFS shortfall. The Navy’s answer to the proliferation of A2/AD weapon systems is known as distributed lethality (DL). The core thrust of DL is that the Navy seeks to strain an adversary’s ability to assess and act by “spreading the playing field.”16 As Admirals Rowden, Gumataotao, and Fanta state, “Distributed lethality is the condition gained by increasing the offensive power of individual components of the surface force and then employing them in dispersed offensive formations.”17 There is potential that disaggregation of surface groups will increase the geographic distance between the vessels expected to provide NSFS and the operating areas of Marines ashore.
Even then, TLAMs are not necessarily the best or most economical solution to support maneuver units. The Department of the Navy states that a TLAM’s speed is roughly 550 mph.18 If a maneuver unit was conducting operations 30 nautical miles over the horizon, this would result in over three and a half minute time of flight, hardly ideal for troops in contact. TLAMs could be vulnerable to GPS spoofing or jamming, and could be engaged by adversaries’ point defense systems. The excessive cost would restrict the requesting unit’s ability to bracket a target or call for re-attacks in such events. If one uses $607,000 as a TLAM’s unit cost, the Navy expended over $121,400,000 of cruise missiles during the operation in Libya.19 This is hardly sustainable, which leaves the Mk-45 5-inch gun as the only current alternative NSFS capability.
The Mk-45, found on most cruisers and destroyers has a range of roughly 13 nautical miles though the Navy plans to field an extended-range projectile that could reach 30 nautical miles. If the Marine Corps views the promised munition with skepticism, it would be justified. The recent cancellation of the Long-Range Land Attack Projectile (LRLAP) manifests the sad state of NSFS affairs. The Iowa-class battleships were retired with the assurance that the Navy would acquire a vessel that would meet or exceed the battleships’ NSFS capability. The Navy intended to purchase 29 ships of what was then referred to as the DDX program, which eventually metastasized into the Zumwalt-class destroyer.20 After suffering consistent cost overruns and ultimately being truncated in favor of procuring more DDG-51s, the Zumwalt-class will yield three ships instead of the promised 29.21 The decreased ship count has led to the cancellation of the LRLAP round, the intended munition for the Zumwalt-class’s Advanced Gun System (AGS). Strangely, the AGS and the LRLAP were two of the only technologies that were not subject to development delays or cost over-runs that plagued the DDX program.22 The LRLAP was cancelled as the unit costs would not depreciate to a tolerable threshold in light of the decreased quantity of deployed guns.23
If the NSFS deficit of the fleet is not rectified, the Marine Corps will be limited in its ability to maneuver in a contested maritime environment. To paraphrase the legendary Chesty Puller, “You can’t hurt ’em if you can’t hit ’em.”
Leveraging Legacy Systems: Maritime HIMARS
NSFS publications all too often end with gold plated solutions: the revival of the Iowa-class battleships, for example, or the fielding of a NSFS specific ship class, such as the Arsenal Ship.24 Yet, the MOC charges Marines to develop solutions that are technically feasible and institutionally affordable.25 While the thought of an un-mothballed USS New Jersey delivering a full nine-gun broadside is certainly patriotic, the operational requirements demand NSFS solutions that possess more range than what the venerated 16 inch guns can deliver.26 In “Bring Your Own Fires,” John Spang argues that the high mobility artillery rocket system/multiple launch rocket system (HIMARS/MLRS) is an ideal solution to the NSFS dilemma.27 The technology and the support procedures already exist. The trucks are purchased, the Marines trained, and the munitions proven in combat. The Marines should seize the current enthusiasm for military expansion by adding HIMARS battalions to the existing two.
The HIMARS launcher carries two families of guided missiles: the guided multiple-launch rocket system (GMLRS) and the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS). The GMLRS can strike targets at 48 nautical miles, while the ATACMs missile has the capability of launching a 500lb high explosive warhead 162 nautical miles.28 While the HIMARS is a road-mobile system, it has been fired at sea. In 1995, the Army successfully fired tactical ballistic missiles off the fantail of the USS Mount Vernon (LSD-39).29 This highlights not only technical feasibility, but a dramatic increase in warfighting potential. An embarked HIMARS converts any ship capable of handling the weight and the missile back blast into a NSFS platform. This dovetails almost perfectly into Admiral Fanta’s distributed lethality motto, “If it floats, it fights.”30 HIMARS systems and their rocket pods could be latched down to any vessel with a flight deck, weaponizing civilian, merchant marine vessels, or even auxiliaries such as the Expeditionary Transfer Dock or the Expeditionary Sea Base. When required to echelon ashore, the CH-53K could externally lift the launchers to support the ground scheme of maneuver, providing an additional return on investment in the form of operational tempo and initiative. It is even possible that HIMARS could be adapted for use as a NSFS module on a Littoral Combat Ship, provided the heat of the missile launch does not compromise the integrity of the aluminum hull.
The shipboard use of HIMARS aligns with PACOM commander Admiral Harris’ call for cross-domain fires.31 At the 2016 Land Power in the Pacific Symposium, Admiral Harris called on the Army to be “back in the business of killing ships,” employing modified artillery shells and HIMARS missiles to sink enemy men of war. The Department of Defense is moving forward with this concept by developing an ATACMs variant capable of engaging moving targets on both land and sea. This mission should be seized by the Marines, both due to the statutory responsibility of seizing and defending advanced naval bases, and because it fulfills the MOC’s aims of a Corps equipped to support sea control.32
The integration of the existing HIMARS system would inevitably result in tactical and operational trade-offs: the vehicles would likely be placed on flight decks, limiting aviation operations. Nevertheless, a modular, easily-distributed strike capability would force the adversary to contend with yet another ‘stick.’ HIMARS equipped with long range, surface-to-surface, and anti-ship missiles could sever an enemy’s interior lines of communication, reinforce and support surface combatants, and maintain localized pockets of sea control.33 Comparably low-cost, low signature, and highly mobile anti-ship missiles systems could leverage the complicated littoral geography of the Western Pacific, creating a ‘Murderer’s Row’ with allied and like-minded nations between enemy harbors and assessed operating areas.34,35 This would in turn exhaust the People Liberation Army’s command and control architecture, forcing the PLA to not only search a huge number of locations, but have the assets in place to target them, significantly diluting the effectiveness of the much lauded PLA missile and air forces.36
Giving the Gators Teeth
In light of the distributed lethality operational concept, the Navy is looking toward up-gunning the ‘gators.’37 Original designs of the San Antonio-class LPD called for two 8-cell Mk-41 VLS in the bow of the ship, but the cells were cut during development.38 Marine Commandant General Neller has expressed public enthusiasm for reversing this decision, stating that the addition of the VLS to the LPD would “change the game.”39 The addition of missiles would provide long-range fires to Amphibious Ready Groups or Marine Expeditionary Units, and support disaggregated, independent operations by the LPD. While the addition of 16 TLAMs would increase the LPDs’ lethal capability, it does not appreciably improve NSFS capacity, especially if the LPD is operating independently. The lack of a reload capability restricts tactical flexibility for fire support: the threshold to expend a TLAM would likely limit small, distributed units from exploiting gaps and seams as they develop. It also limits operational flexibility as the small magazine would prevent longer operations and limit time on station.
Instead of installing a VLS into the LPD, the services should investigate the possibility of installing a naval gun. Quantity has a quality all of its own: guns provide a capacity that a 16 cell VLS does not. From an economic perspective, the use of a naval gun allows the Navy to invert the acquisition model from one centered on high-cost, low capacity missile purchases to a low cost, high-capacity gun system that will would enjoy better economy of scale.40 While the initial costs in ship modification may be more expensive when compared to the VLS, the price dynamics of a gun system are more favorable than TLAMs over the long term, especially given the tactical dividend of the gun’s ability to be reloaded indefinitely at sea.
A potential course of action could be the Advanced Gun System Lite (AGS-L), a modified AGS that was designed to fit into the same space as the Mk-45 5-inch gun found on most surface combatants.41 The AGS-L is capable of firing the LRLAP to its 71 nautical mile range, at six rounds per minute, housing up to 240 LRLAP rounds in the magazine. 42,43 More importantly, the modification of the LPDs to support deck guns would allow the ships to capitalize on the future Hyper Velocity Projectiles (HVP) that are currently in development for strike and air defense.44 Capable of being fired from a traditional gun, HVPs launched from the AGS are capable of intercepting cruise missiles at ranges over 10 nautical miles, but are exponentially more affordable than the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles currently stocked in the VLS for defense.45,46 When Houthi rebels attacked the USS Mason with Chinese-produced C-802 anti-ship cruise missiles in October, James Holmes estimated that it cost the Navy upwards of $8 million dollars to defend the vessel against enemy projectiles valued at $500,000 piece; a cost ratio of over 8-1.47 The installation of a naval gun not only allows the LPD an increased capacity to support troops ashore, but also position the fleet to take advantage of fiscally sustainable medium-range air and missile defense capabilities in development.48
Counter-arguments to the retrofitting of the AGS-L into standing surface combatants exist. Studies would have to identify the effect of the gun on other naval systems, specifically the heat, vibration, and gases. Of most relevance is the ship’s superstructure: will the bridge’s fragility prohibit a gun entirely? While BAE promotional materials highlight the similarities of the physical dimensions between the Mk-45 and the AGS-L, careful attention would need to be paid to the extent at which the ship would have to be modified to support shell hoists, cooling, and magazine spaces. The back end logistics and life cycle maintenance would be an additional cost to consider.
While these challenges are indeed daunting, the ability for an LPD to provide NSFS to the Marines already embarked would relieve other surface combatants and their magazines to prosecute other warfighting functions. An LPD is already better suited to provide NSFS because her engines and fuel supply allow for longer on-station times compared to cruisers or destroyers. On a personal level, the LPD crew providing fires to her previously embarked Marines could yield a familiar and habitual relationship between supporting and supported units, leading to increased combat effectiveness (and plenty of opportunities to practice processes while underway).49 Combined with her reduced radar cross-section, aviation space, and command and control capability, the LPD would be in a unique position to operate independently, supporting distributed operations across the maritime domain.
If the MOC desires a force capable of securing sea control in order to support power projection in future operating environments, it must invest in NSFS solutions today. Imagine multiple, independently operating LPDs providing NSFS to distributed Advanced Expeditionary Bases armed to the teeth with ship-killing, low signature HIMARs detachments. The absence of capable NSFS threatens to yield a future Corps that is not only unbalanced, but possibly irrelevant. The most dangerous weapon in the world is a Marine and their rifle, a modern, usable, and cost-effective NSFS capability ensures they can get into the fight.
Captain Vincent J. DePinto, USMC is an Intelligence Officer who served two tours in the Pacific. He holds a graduate degree from the National Intelligence University and is a student in the Naval War College’s Fleet Seminar Program. He can be reached at email@example.com.
1. Department of the Navy. The Marine Corps Operating Concept: How an Expeditionary Force Operates in the 21st Century. Washington, DC. Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, 2016.
4. Secretary of Defense. Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016. Arlington, Virginia : Department of Defense , 2016.
5. Sloman, Jesse, and Bryan Clark. Advancing Beyond the Beach: Amphibious Operations in an Era of Precision Weapons. Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2016.
6. Knepper, Greg and Singer, Peter. Short Legs Can’t Win Arms Races: Range Issues And New Threats To Aerial Refueling Put U.S. Strategy At Risk. May 20, 2016. https://warontherocks.com/2015/05/short-legs-cant-win-arms-races-range-issues-new-threats-aerial-refueling/ (accessed November 29, 2016).
9. Ron’ Rourke, Navy Virginia (SSN-774) Class Attack Submarine Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress, Congressional Research Service, October 25, 2016.
11. Majumdar, Dave. Undersea Crisis: China Will Have Nearly Twice as Many Subs as the U.S. February 26, 2016. (Accessed January 27, 2017)http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/undersea-crisis-china-will-have-nearly-twice-many-subs-the-15335
20. Joseph E. Santos and Andrew Stigler. “Littoral Combat Ship – A TKO for the Streetfighter,” A Case Study in Naval Force Planning, (Newport, R.I.: Naval War College, updated 2015).
22. LaGrone, Sam. Navy Planning on Not Buying More LRLAP Rounds for Zumwalt Class. November 07, 2016 . https://news.usni.org/2016/11/07/navy-planning-not-buying-lrlap-rounds (accessed November 14, 2016).
25. Department of the Navy. The Marine Corps Operating Concept: How an Expeditionary Force Operates in the 21st Century. Washington, DC. Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, 2016.
26. Spang, John. “Bring Your Own Fires.” Marine Corps Gazette, February 2011: 70-71.
29. Erwin, Sandra. Marines Clamor for Long Range Artillery at Sea. January 2002. http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/archive/2002/January/Pages/Marines_Clamor6864.aspx (accessed November 10, 2016).
30. Rowden, Thomas, Peter Gumataotao, and Peter Fanta. “Distributed Lethality.” Proceedings Magazine, January 2015.
31. Osborn, Kris. Emerging DOD ‘Cross Domain Fires’ Strategy: Army Will Attack Enemy Ships. November 25, 2016. http://www.scout.com/military/warrior/story/1687351-emerging-dod-strategy-cross-domain-fires (accessed November 29, 2016).
32. Department of the Navy. The Marine Corps Operating Concept: How an Expeditionary Force Operates in the 21st Century. Washington, DC. Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, 2016.
33. Jensen, Benjamin Back to the Future: Distributed Maritime Operations. April 9, 2015. http://warontherocks.com/2015/04/distributed-maritime-operations-an-emerging-paradigm/ (accessed November 10, 2016).
36. Terrence Kelly, Anthony Atler, Todd Nichols, and Lloyd Thrall. Employing Land-Based Anti-Ship Missiles in the Western Pacific. 2013. http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/technical_reports/TR1300/TR1321/RAND_TR1321.pdf
37. LaGrone, Sam. Navy, Marine Corps Considering Adding Vertical Launch System to San Antonio Amphibs. October 13, 2016. https://news.usni.org/2016/10/13/vertical-launch-system-san-antonio-amphibs (accessed November 14, 2016).
Featured Image: A Marine with 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, runs forward while an Amphibious Assault Vehicle drives onto the sand behind him at Pyramid Rock Beach as part of the final assault during the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) Exercise 2014. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Sarah Dietz/Released)
We interview Louis, the Marine Veteran of “PokemonGO in Kurdistan Meme” fame, and an independent foreign fighter with the Kurds in Iraq. We discuss his motivations for heading out to the fight, about his process of joining, integrating, and operating with the Kurdish forces in the field. We also discuss how he and his fellow western fighters coordinate their operations and regulate themselves, as well as the day-to-day realities of life in the Kurdish war zone.
Louis hopes that the popularity of his meme draws public interest to the on-the- ground realities of the fight against ISIS. He also hopes it can bring attention to those carrying on that fight. That is what we have endeavored to do with this interview.