Tag Archives: USMC

No Free Ride in the Pacific: The Case for Investing in Mobility

Countering China Topic Week

By Walker Mills

In recent years the Pentagon has doubled down on a Pacific focus. It has published a new Pacific strategy and the individual services have been burning the midnight oil to write their own new concepts oriented around the Pacific.1 The Navy has released its classified new concept Distributed Maritime Operations,2 the Army has its Multi-Domain Operations concept,3 and the Marines are still working on Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations.4 All three concepts are predicated on an ability to maneuver through and within the First Island Chain. They assume the future operating environment will be heavily contested and involve threatened areas much farther from the central battlefields than the military has experienced in recent decades. In his recent planning guidance, the new Commandant of the Marine Corps warned:

“Potential adversaries intend to target our forward fixed and vulnerable bases, as well as deep water ports, long runways, large signature platforms, and ships…The ability to project and maneuver from strategic distances will likely be detected and contested from the point of embarkation during a major contingency.”5

Notably, this would negatively impact logistics and sustainment operations across the Pacific theater, and not just at the bleeding edge of the combat zone.

All the concepts seek to leverage distribution and rapid maneuver – whether through distribution of austere bases, task forces, or naval vessels. While they are intended to be broadly applicable the concepts are optimized for operations in the Western Pacific to counter a rising China and her military. Essential to all of these concepts is intra-theater mobility – moving lethality to the decisive point, but it has yet to be addressed in a meaningful way in acquisition and modernization priorities. The services have poured much needed resources into platforms and systems that can kill and destroy, but they have neglected to invest in operational mobility.

It does not appear that U.S. allies and partners in the region have the stomach for a larger basing footprint that would allow forces to be permanently or rotationally based forward. This begs the question – who is doing mobility and logistics? How will Army and Marine Corps advances in lethality actually reach a far-flung Pacific battlefield? How would the “forward deployment of multiple High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) batteries armed with long-range anti-ship missiles” that Commandant Berger envisions actually happen in a contested environment?6

Shortfalls in Pacific Mobility

Today the intra-theater mobility requirement is largely filled by Expeditionary Fast-Transports (EFPs). These aluminum, double-hulled vessels are relatively new to the fleet but have been a continual disappointment. They have not been able to meet critical requirements for ship-to-ship transfers of supplies.7 They have sustained hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage in trans-oceanic voyages, voyages they would be needed for in a conflict.8 They have been plagued by maintenance issues. And perhaps worst, they have trouble operating in the open ocean because of the higher sea states there. An Operational Test and Evaluation Report concluded “The necessity of avoiding high sea states while transiting is an operational limitation that could be significant.” And “To utilize the speed capability of the ship, seas must not exceed Sea State 3 (significant wave height up to 1.25 meters).”9 A Department of Defense Inspector General report found 28 total deficiencies with the vessels in levels ranging from minor to severe, which means the deficiency in question “Precludes mission accomplishment.”10 The report found more than half of these deficiencies were either related to the vessels ability to meet cargo carrying requirement or network with the fleet – probably the two most important capabilities for the platform’s success.

Designed for inshore transport, the EFPs had been used successfully as short-haul commercial ferries between the Hawaiian Islands before the design was chosen by the Navy. But they are largely unsuitable for longer trips, like the nearly 1,600-kilometer trip between Okinawa and Tokyo, or the 1,700-kilometer trip between Okinawa and Manila, or the similarly lengthy trip to Guam. Today many of these trips are made by air or by Marines embarked on large, amphibious ships like the America class which may be too vulnerable and valuable to operate inside an enemy anti-access, area-denial envelope (A2/AD). The demand for these amphibious ships far outstrips the supply. Despite a longstanding (but recently waived) requirement of 38 amphibious ships set by Marine Corps leaders, the Navy’s current shipbuilding plan will not reach that number until 2033 or perhaps ever.11 Other sources, like the Heritage Foundation have argued that the requirement is as high as 45 amphibs.12 The Marine Corps went so far as to note this in their 2016 Marine Operating Concept that “We will likely continue to fall short of the number of amphibious warfare ships to meet CCMD operational demands…”13 Other transport programs like the Navy’s Common Hull Auxiliary Multi-Mission Platform (CHAMP), are still in the concept stages are likely fall in priority to other Navy programs because they are auxiliaries.14

KUCHING, Malaysia (March 28, 2019) The Military Sealift Command expeditionary fast transport ship USNS Fall River (T-EPF 4) arrives at the Port of Kuching for Pacific Partnership 2019. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Nicholas Burgains/Released)

A new platform for intra-theater mobility can share some of the burden carried by the larger amphibious ships.

Intra-theater mobility is critical to future Marine and Army operations. Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment specifically calls for the capability “…to employ scalable landing forces using a variety of platforms including amphibious ships as well as alternative capabilities…”15 But the short list of available platforms makes clear that this is not possible without acquiring new platforms or significantly modifying existing platforms. Seconding this sentiment, Commandant Berger noted in his planning guidance that:

“Our naval expeditionary forces must possess a variety of deployment options, including L-class and E-class ships, but also increasingly look to other available options such as unmanned platforms, stern landing vessels, other ocean-going connectors, and smaller more lethal and more risk-worthy platforms…We must also explore new options, such as inter-theater connectors and commercially available ships and craft that are smaller and less expensive, thereby increasing the affordability and allowing acquisition at a greater quantity.”

This specific capability gap is in addition to the yawning general capability gap the Navy is facing in logistics and sealift capability. A recent report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis made clear their belief that the Navy and associated institutions were woefully deficient in sealift capability in the opening sentence of their report, “The current and programmed defense maritime logistics force of the United States is inadequate to support the current U.S. National Defense Strategy and major military operations against China or Russia.”16 Specifically the roll-on/roll-off (RO/RO) ships that Marines forces rely on to move tanks, light armored vehicles, HIMARS, and logistics vehicles in bulk are plummeting below acceptable readiness. “…even with service-life extension funding for 22 ships… 30 of 65 RO/RO vessels could age out within the next 15 years.”17 It is also worth noting that this scathing assessment did not even consider the potential requirements for emerging Marine Corps concepts requiring greater dispersion.

It would be negligent not to note the role of Marine and Air Force airlift – critical in moving around forces in theater, but it is not nearly enough. Not only are the available air transport options questionably survivable in the projected operating environment, but there are just not enough of them to do the whole job. Recall the infamous Millennium Challenge event where retired Marine General Paul Van Riper’s red force would have massacred the blue forces arriving on waves of rotary-wing aircraft.18 It is also likely that much of the extant airlift capacity would be tied up supporting expeditionary airfields per the Marines’ EABO concept or the Air Force’s “Rapid Raptor” concept leaving little to ferry ground forces.19

Other voices have also called for plugging the maneuver gap in the Pacific with new surface vessels. Douglas King and Brett Friedman recently called for a “Fighting Connector” in War on the Rocks that:

“…would use sea lines of communication to fill the gap between amphibious assault ships, sea-based assets, and Expeditionary Advance Bases (EABs) until shore-based threats are reduced. The size of the fighting connector would be in the range of sloop or small corvette class ships, displacing roughly 500 to 2,000 tons — a step or two smaller than the littoral combat ship.”20

A recent study by the Heritage Foundation noted “The Corps must work with the Navy to develop smaller, lower-cost ships that are better suited to the type of dispersed operational posture implied by LOCE.”21 And the Marine Corps itself has noted that it is deficient across the range of capabilities required to perform EABO. The authors of the 2016 Marine Corps Operating Concept summarized:

“The Marine Corps is currently not organized, trained, and equipped to meet the demands of a future operating environment characterized by complex terrain, technology proliferation, information warfare, the need to shield and exploit signatures, and an increasingly non-permissive maritime domain.”22

The Marines and the Army are investing in much needed, new ground vehicles and long-range, precision-fires capabilities essential for contributing to sea control or sea denial from the landward side of the battlefield. But the Navy and Air Force have also prioritized offensive systems like the FFG(X) and the F-35 programs. Even the Marines’ new CH-53K, ideally suited for moving vehicles, cannot cover the distances required by the theater with an external load.

Conclusion

This issue of lift is existential for Army and Marine operations in the Pacific. The theater is massive – in many cases hundreds or thousands of miles away from U.S. installations. The Marine Corps intends to distribute its forces widely, and has already begun. There is a new rotational force in Darwin, Australia, and a plan to move forces to Guam from Okinawa. This is good news, but these far-flung garrisons need platforms that can move them rapidly and in a survivable way to where they are needed in conflict. And these platforms need to be able to carry the gear essential to sea control like HIMARS rockets and G/ATOR radars, not just grunts.

If the United States wants to compete, deter, and win in a potential conflict its military needs to be able to move troops around the theater in question at will. To do this will require a reallocation of acquisition priorities and investments.

Walker D. Mills is an active duty Marine Corps infantry officer. He is currently studying Spanish at the Defense Language Institute. These views are presented in a personal capacity.

References

[1] Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: Preparedness, Partnerships and Promoting a Networked Region. Department of Defense (Washington, D.C.: 2019) https://media.defense.gov/2019/Jul/01/2002152311/-1/-1/1/DEPARTMENT-OF-DEFENSE-INDO-PACIFIC-STRATEGY-REPORT-2019.PDF.

[2] Megan Eckstein, “Navy Planning for Gray-Zone conflict; Finalizing Distributed Maritime Operations for High-End Fight,” USNI News (December 19, 2018) https://news.usni.org/2018/12/19/navy-planning-for-gray-zone-conflict-finalizing-distributed-maritime-operations-for-high-end-fight.

[3] “The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028,” TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-1, U.S. Army (2018) https://www.tradoc.army.mil/Portals/14/Documents/MDO/TP525-3-1_30Nov2018.pdf.

[4] “EABO,” Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, webpage. Accessed July 15, 2019, https://www.candp.marines.mil/Concepts/Subordinate-Operating-Concepts/Expeditionary-Advanced-Base-Operations/.

[5] “Commandant’s Planning Guidance: 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps,” U.S. Marine Corps (2019) 1-4.

[6] “Commandant’s Planning Guidance,” 3.

[7] Brock Vergakis, “Report: Navy Ship Designed for Fast Transport Has Problems,” Military.com (28 April, 2018) https://www.military.com/daily-news/2018/04/28/navy-ship-designed-fast-transport-has-problems-report-says.html.

[8] Nick Stockton, “Yar! The Navy is Fixing Its Busted High-Speed Transport Ships,” Wired Magazine (January 20, 2016) https://www.wired.com/2016/01/yar-the-navy-is-fixing-its-busted-high-speed-transport-ships/.

[9] “Follow-on Operational Test and Evaluation (FOT &E) Report on the Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV),” memo (September 22, 2015) https://news.usni.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/9-22-15-Follow-On-Operational-Test-and-Evaluation-FOTE-Report-on-the-….pdf#viewer.action=download.

[10] “Expeditionary Fast Transport Capabilities,” Inspector General of the Department of Defense (April 25, 2018) 6-7. https://www.oversight.gov/sites/default/files/oig-reports/DODIG-2018-107.pdf.

[11] Dakota Wood, “Rebuilding America’s Military: The United States Marine Corps,” The Heritage Foundation (March 21, 2019) 39.  https://www.heritage.org/defense/report/rebuilding-americas-military-the-united-states-marine-corps.

[12] “U.S. Navy” The Heritage Foundation (October 4, 2018) https://www.heritage.org/military-strength/assessment-us-military-power/us-navy.

[13] “Marine Corps Operating Concept: How an Expeditionary Force Operates in the 21st Century,” U.S. Marine Corps (September 2016) 20. https://www.mcwl.marines.mil/Portals/34/Images/MarineCorpsOperatingConceptSept2016.pdf

[14] Megan Eckstein, “Navy Wants 2 Variants Next Common Auxiliary Hull: One for People, One for Volume,” USNI News (January 16, 2019). https://news.usni.org/2019/01/16/navy-wants-2-variants-next-common-auxiliary-hull-one-people-one-volume.

[15] “Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment,” U.S. Marine Corps (2017)17. https://news.usni.org/2017/09/26/document-marine-corps-littoral-operations-contested-environment-concept.

[16] Timothy A. Walton, Harrison Schramm and Ryan Boone, “Sustaining the Fight: Resilient Maritime Logistics for a New Era,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analyses (April 23, 2019) i. https://csbaonline.org/research/publications/sustaining-the-fight-resilient-maritime-logistics-for-a-new-era/publication.

[17] Ibid., 85.

[18] Micah Zenko, “Millenium Challenge: The Real Story of a Corrupted Military Exercise and Its Legacy,” War on the Rocks (November 5, 2015) https://warontherocks.com/2015/11/millennium-challenge-the-real-story-of-a-corrupted-military-exercise-and-its-legacy/.

[19] Blake Mize, “Rapid Raptor: getting the fighters to the fight,” U.S. Air Force Public Affairs (February 20, 2014) https://www.pacaf.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/591641/rapid-raptor-getting-fighters-to-the-fight/.

[20] Douglas King and Brett Friedman, “Why the Navy Needs a Fighting Connector: Distributed Maritime Operations and the Modern Littoral Environment,” War on the Rocks (November 10, 2017) https://warontherocks.com/2017/11/navy-needs-fighting-connector-distributed-maritime-operations-modern-littoral-environment/.

[21] Wood, “Rebuilding America’s Military,” 40.

[22] “Marine Corps Operating Concept,” 8.

Featured Image: EAST CHINA SEA (Feb. 4, 2019) – Marines assigned to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) board an MV-22 Osprey assigned to the “Flying Tigers” of Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 262 aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1) prior to flight operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Barker)

Adapting Command and Control for 21st Century Seapower

By Bryan McGrath

As the United States winds down from two regional land conflicts that have dominated the 21st century, great power competition with China and Russia rightly dominates defense planning and operations. Consequently, American seapower must once again evolve to meet the challenges of sustaining America’s prosperity and security in a multi-polar world. No element of modern seapower is more worthy of evolution than the operational relationship between the Navy and Marine Corps, and this essay asserts that the twentieth century approach to command and control (C2) of these forces must embrace the integrated approach offered by the Joint functional commander concept and its maritime instantiation, the Joint Forces Maritime Component Commander (JFMCC).  

The Department of the Navy includes two Armed Services, the Navy and Marine Corps, which together deliver American power and influence from the sea. This power and influence spans the range of military operations—from peacetime presence through great power war—accomplished by controlling the seas and projecting power therefrom. No other element of American military power is as flexible, useful, persistent, and ready as the seapower delivered by the Department of the Navy.

How the Navy and Marine Corps operate to deliver integrated American seapower has evolved over time, but for much of the twentieth century, naval doctrine for amphibious operations (an important subset of American seapower) featured two co-equal commanders whose authority was tied to the phase of a specified amphibious operation, while other naval task forces operated under the Combined Warfare Concept (CWC).

The Commander, Amphibious Task Force (CATF) was a Navy officer whose overall command of an amphibious operation existed when the force was primarily a seaward force, and the Commander, Landing Force (CLF) was a Marine Corps officer whose overall command of an amphibious operation existed during the landward phase of the operation. Each supported the other during the phase in which the other predominated. This approach to amphibious warfare was developed at the Naval War College in the 1920s and has existed with minor variation ever since.

Interestingly, the amphibious force (AF) existed mostly outside of larger naval command and control constructs. Because of the uniqueness and complexity of amphibious operations, the CATF-CLF relationship not only endured, but did so even as larger command and control constructs governing naval forces (the Navy’s Composite Warfare Commander (CWC) and the Joint Force Maritime Component Commander (JFMCC) construct) grew in importance. Organizational tension existed when attempting to integrate amphibious operations into either the Navy’s CWC or the Joint functional command relationship, mostly due to the degree to which amphibious forces had been operating independently from larger Navy formations. What developed as a temporary, mission specific C2 structure (CATF/CLF), morphed over the decades into the prevailing approach to amphibious force operations, whether an amphibious objective had been assigned or not, and when those operations bumped up against larger naval operations, amphibious forces were inelegantly integrated. For example, the capabilities of the embarked Marine Expeditionary Unit (including attack helicopters and fixed wing aircraft) were available for maritime use only in emergency conditions under a concept known as “Emergency Defense of the Amphibious Task Force.”

The Navy and Marine Corps experimented in the first part of this century on a blended C2 structure within the Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) concept in which traditional amphibious forces (an Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) of three ships and an embarked Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU)) were supplemented by a few surface combatants to create a strike group optimized for littoral power-projection. A traditional CWC was implemented with a Navy flag officer or Marine Corps general officer (and staff) acting as the Officer in Tactical Command (OTC). The CATF-CLF arrangement continued within this broader C2 structure as the defining command arrangement of amphibious operations, which by the nature of the ESG concept was to be only one of many missions undertaken. That said, the CATF-CLF approach continued to dominate the arrangement of forces, as the embarked U.S. Marine Corps forces remained under the control of the CLF and could be called upon for maritime missions only under emergency circumstances.

The ESG concept was largely abandoned in the past few years, as a paucity of escort combatants stressed the force in trying to meet the growing objectives asked of it. Navy and Marine Corps forces deploy today similarly to how they did in the 1990s, with the ARG/MEU training and certifying separately from aircraft carrier strike forces, and combined operations occurring infrequently and inelegantly. Additionally, once the ARG/MEU deploys overseas, it is common for the formation to be split and disaggregated in order to meet myriad combatant commander objectives concurrently.

Renewed great power competition calls for a closer look at the Navy and Marine Corps team’s operational approach, one that stresses the integrated nature of American seapower and leverages a tried and tested command and control (C2) structure. To that end, the services should begin to more closely embrace the Joint functional control approach to C2, one in which a Joint Forces Maritime Component Commander of appropriate rank and staffing exercises operational control (OPCON) and tactical control (TACON) of all forces within the ARG/MEU (as well as all other naval forces assigned), until such time as those forces are re-allocated in a campaign to another functional commander (Joint Forces Land Component Commander—JFLCC, or Joint Forces Air Component Commander—JFACC).

Under this arrangement, a Navy flag officer or Marine general officer would exercise authority over all the assets of the formation, irrespective of the service contributing them. The basic approach of the Navy’s CWC could convey with the ground force assigned to a Marine Corps commander and the air wing parceled out to other commanders (Surface, Air, Information) as the need arises. When an actual amphibious objective is designated, the CATF/CLF arrangement would apply, although these would be administrative titles rather than implying C2 authorities. The JFMCC would have a variety of capabilities to apply to the battlespace, including ground forces, surface and subsurface forces, and air forces. In essence, the JFMCC would be a “Joint Task Force” commander. Should the ground objective be part of a larger land campaign, Marine forces would “chop” to the JFLCC, but for amphibious operations of more limited duration, the JFMCC would be the functional commander exercising OPCON of those forces.

Embracing the Joint functional approach to C2 of naval forces offers several advantages over the current approach. First, it would drive integration at the operational level that does not currently exist. Most of the nation’s critical peacetime presence missions around the world can be more than adequately serviced by the forces of the Department of the Navy and integrating those forces under a single commander aligns with the principles of war and makes for more efficient operations.

Next, by integrating these forces under the JFMCC, pressure will grow to integrate operational architectures and concepts of operation, which would influence the acquisition community to provide weapons, networks, and sensors that serve a more coherent architecture, rather than the more separated service approaches that characterize the present. Communications and networks will necessarily benefit from co-development, but another benefit would be to highlight the lack of offensive power resident in ships of the amphibious force. An empowered JFMCC would look with interest upon the maritime real estate provided by the capacious decks of modern amphibious ships and wonder why there were not over-the-horizon missiles capable of land-attack and anti-ship engagements.

A third advantage is related to the second. Currently, the (Navy purchased and operated) ships of the amphibious force are thought of as transportation for and support to U.S. Marines ashore. It is axiomatic that the Commandant of the Marine Corps spends more time thinking about amphibious ship numbers than the Chief of Naval Operations does. Were these ships and their capabilities seen to be the province of the maritime commander—rather than simply support for land operations—more attention would be paid to their numbers, their capabilities, their readiness, and their place in the broader naval force architecture.

Conclusion

The Navy and Marine Corps provide the nation with the world’s most powerful and mobile air forces, the world’s most feared middleweight land force, and the world’s most lethal surface and submarine forces. Thought of as an integrated whole and operated under a coherent C2 arrangement, these forces offer the prospect of servicing most of the nation’s security needs forward, even as they protect and sustain America’s prosperity by commanding the maritime commons. Embracing the JFMCC functional approach to command and control of Department of the Navy forces offers the best option to accomplish this operational integration, which will then serve to drive bureaucratic, technical, and intellectual integration within the Department.

Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC, and the Deputy Director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower.

Featured Image: EAST CHINA SEA: The forward-deployed amphibious transport dock ship USS Green Bay (LPD 20), front, the forward-deployed amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1), middle, and the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force Osumi-class amphibious transport dock ship JS Shimokita (LST 4002) manuever together as part of a coordinated formation. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Taylor King/Released)

Look Beyond the Fleet: Finding the Capability for Distributed Maritime Operations

Distributed Maritime Operations Topic Week

By Walker D. Mills

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.

Conclusion 

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.

References

[1] 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.

[2] United States Navy, Surface Forces Strategy (2016) https://www.public.navy.mil/surfor/Documents/Surface_Forces_Strategy.pdf.

[3] 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/.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] 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/.

[7] 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.

[8] 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/.

[9] 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.

[10] 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.

[11] 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/.

[12] Chris O’Connor, “Distributed Leathernecks” CIMSEC (23 February, 2019) http://cimsec.org/distributed-leathernecks/22448.

[13] 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/.

[14] 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.

[15] 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)

The Chinese Navy’s Marine Corps, Part 1: Expansion and Reorganization

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.

Introduction

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.

Notes

[1] U.S. Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2018, p. 28. https://media.defense.gov/2018/Aug/16/2001955282/-1/-1/1/2018-CHINA-MILITARY-POWER-REPORT.PDF#page=11&zoom=auto,-85,733.

[2] 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. 

[3] People’s Navy, January 23, 2018 and February 9, 2018.

[4] U.S. Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2018, p. 28. https://media.defense.gov/2018/Aug/16/2001955282/-1/-1/1/2018-CHINA-MILITARY-POWER-REPORT.PDF#page=11&zoom=auto,-85,733.

[5] International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2018, p. 254.

Featured Image: PLAN Marine Corps command and staff personnel examine maps in the course of a cold weather training exercise in Inner Mongolia, March 2015. (Source: Xinhua)