Tag Archives: USMC

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)

Enhancing Existing Force Structure by Optimizing Maritime Service Specialization

Alternative Naval Force Structure Topic Week

By Eric Beaty

The factors which color our view of the world have changed significantly since the end of the Cold War. That overarching conflict polarized the world’s politics and drove the United States to build a naval force focused on blue-water combat against a peer competitor, but the demise of the Soviet Union left a much more complex world where the United States must be prepared to simultaneously counter myriad threats at multiple levels. There is not a uniform solution to every problem and there is not a uniform fleet for every theater. Luckily, the United States has three maritime services—the Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps—with different core competencies covering a broad range of naval missions. Current investments in force structure can be maximized by focusing the maritime services on their preferred missions.

Some missions have historically been assigned according to service and platform, rather than warfare areas, which has led to small, orphaned communities in some services. These communities are too small to have many high-ranking alumni in overall service leadership. The resulting consequences include them being often misunderstood and undervalued, poor funding, poor career opportunities, few if any champions in service leadership, and so on. Even when they are appreciated and funded, niche communities lack economies of scale. Therefore, the way to ensure missions are properly funded and manned is to task an interested party to advocate for them, and each of the maritime services has missions they are most passionate about.

The naval force of the future would see a Navy endorsement of the territorial patrol missions of the Coast Guard and expanding the role of the Navy-Marine Corps amphibious team, but there would be no radical course corrections. Instead, naval missions would be assigned to “centers of excellence” within the services to manage the organization, training, and tactics of the joint forces which would execute such missions.

Navy – Combat on the High Seas

The U.S. Navy would manage the missions of blue-water combat: submarine and antisubmarine warfare, carrier aviation, surface warfare, air defense, and sealift. These missions are already clearly within the Navy aegis, so there would be no major change in their execution. By focusing on these core mission sets, and shedding the remainder which the Navy has been unenthusiastic about, the leadership would be refocused on areas where Navy doctrine, tactics, and procurement have been most refined. As such, the platforms of the blue-water Navy would not deviate much from their present and planned configurations.

Coast Guard – Patrolling Offshore

The U.S. Coast Guard would be the mission manager for coastal and offshore patrol operations, for both law enforcement and maritime safety. Under the umbrella of muscular law enforcement, the Coast Guard would manage not only patrols of the American coast, but also patrols off South America and Africa as well. Most of these vessels would be frigates, both U.S. Navy and allied, rather than white-hull Coast Guard cutters, but all would be dedicated to low-intensity constabulary missions. By keeping the peace along much of the world’s coastline, the Coast Guard-led maritime patrol enterprise would free up high-capability vessels to deter peer competitors.

The worldwide maritime patrol enterprise would be led by the United States, with the nonjudgmental aim of maintaining the world’s seaways under the control of accepted and functional governments, because even reticent governments make easier negotiating partners than ungoverned chaos. The simplest way to lead such an enterprise is to help equip and train it, so the United States Navy and Coast Guard would have extensive foreign military sales, partnership programs, and personnel exchange programs with allied maritime nations.

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MAPUTO:: Mozambique (June 11:: 2012) Marine 1st Lt. Joseph McHugh Jr.:: officer-in-charge of Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force (SPMAGTF) 12.2 Security Team Six speaks with U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Lt. Ricardo Moreno:: who is translating fire team training tactics to Mozambique marine Sub Lt. Jorge A. Julius. Service members assigned to High Speed Vessel Swift (HSV 2) are conducting classroom engagements with local military members for Africa Partnership Station. APS is an international security cooperation initiative:: facilitated by Commander U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa aimed at strengthening global maritime partnerships through training and collaborative activities in order to improve maritime safety and security in Africa. (U.S. Navy photo by Ensign Joe Keiley/Released)

To make such a broad endeavor more practical, the Coast Guard’s offshore cutters, the Navy’s patrol frigates, and allied nations’ warships would need to be common. The principal requirements would be low cost, ease of maintenance, and margins for growth. The basic warship would have a simple power plant, enough systems to operate as a minimalist patrol ship, and substantial space and weight left available for additions. Buyers could add additional fuel tanks and provisions storage, a variety of weapons, helicopter or boat facilities, or a host of other standardized modifications. While these frigates would be too small to add all options to every vessel, they would also be inexpensive enough that customers of modest means could still purchase them, and customers like the United States could purchase lots of them.

Built cheaply and in large numbers, flotillas of these semi-modular ships would patrol for pirates off Africa, drug smugglers in the Gulf of Mexico, or vessels in distress off North America. For patrol locations far from suitable ports, the Navy would reawaken the concept of tender vessels; using replenishment ships to establish at-sea bases to extend the on-station time of frigates and cutters. These tenders would provide fuel, provisions, spare parts, and a base for the flotilla’s command element. By performing lower-threat missions economically, these frigates would free up the destroyers, cruisers, and carriers to concentrate in high-threat theaters, thereby maximizing combat power.

Marine Corps – Seizing the Littorals

While the Navy prepares to fight wars on the high seas and the Coast Guard leads patrol efforts in more stable theaters, the Marine Corps would manage naval missions across coastal seas and coastal lands. As the service tasked with crossing from sea to land, the Marine Corps is concerned with anything which could affect or impede an amphibious action, including the obvious amphibious tasks, but should now focus on missions like mine countermeasures and small boat operations. Afloat Marine forces are carried to battle by Navy amphibious assault ships and delivered to the beach by Navy landing craft, so there would remain a substantial Navy influence in certain elements, but the Marines would be the lead advocates for coastal mission capabilities.

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APRA HARBOR, Guam (Sept. 20, 2016) – Marines assigned to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit embark amphibious assault vehicles in the well deck of the Whidbey Island-class amphibious dock landing ship USS Germantown (LSD 42) during Valiant Shield 2016. Valiant Shield 16 is a biennial, U.S.-only, field training exercise (FTX) with a focus on integration of joint training among U.S. forces. Germantown, part of the Bonhomme Richard Expeditionary Strike Group with embarked 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, is participating in Valiant Shield in an effort to increase naval integration and joint capabilities in the event of conflict, contingency, or disaster relief. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Raymond D. Diaz III/Released)

Navy destroyers, cruisers, and carrier battle groups would be responsible for clearing a path to the coastal area for the amphibious train, but the amphibious ships and their direct escorts would be responsible for fighting their way to the beach and enabling the landing force to cross it. To defeat small boat threats and provide fire support until the Marine landing force could establish artillery ashore, the amphibious train would be escorted by frigates (based on the common hull introduced above) specialized with the maximum number of naval guns possible. With these frigates, the amphibious force would be able to defeat enemy forces in waters too constricted for the blue-water warships to operate effectively.

Closer to the beach, mines would be the next threat to an amphibious landing. Rather than operate a separate fleet of minesweepers and mine countermeasures support ships, the Marine Corps-centered littoral force would base countermine detachments aboard the same amphibious assault ships carrying the landing force. Assault ships are designed with large well decks, copious storage, and substantial berthing space, making them best-suited to operate divers and unmanned countermine vehicles of all sizes. Furthermore, they have the flight decks to operate the CH-53K King Stallions that would take the airborne minesweeping mission from the Navy’s MH-53E Sea Dragons as these aging helicopters are retired. Saving the Navy the purchase of new mine countermeasures ships would pay off in funding for extra amphibious landing ships and CH-53Ks, a doubly effective reorganization for the amphibious mission.

The Marine Corps would also take overall responsibility for the related riverine mission set. Outside of port security missions (which would fall under Coast Guard leadership), all coastal and riverine boat operations would become part of the permanent Navy-Marine Corps amphibious enterprise. Effective riverine operations include the same elements as amphibious landings—afloat mobility, fire support, and power projection ashore—so consolidation of the riverine and amphibious communities would create a deeper and more diverse base of experience for both missions. Integration with Marine Corps infantry, aviation, and artillery would make the riverine squadrons more effective in combat than they could be alone. Also, increased small-boat landing and raiding capability would increase the Marines’ naval presence and take advantage of their unique maritime capabilities.

The Joint Naval Force in Action

This joint naval force of the future would perform in a very similar fashion to the present-day and historical naval forces, insofar as the various forces have capabilities available. Where the future naval force would excel is in peacetime administration and presence: more efficient management of missions would reduce redundancy and increase the number of forces available when and where they were needed for combat and deterrence. Transitory advantages like technology or brilliant leadership would come and go, but the future naval force would be organized to make the most efficient use of these advantages on the seas to achieve America’s long-term goals.

LT Eric Beaty is an E-2C/D Hawkeye Naval Flight Officer, presently working ashore in D.C. The views express herein are solely those of the author and are presented in a personal capacity on his own initiative. They do not reflect the official positions of the Department of Defense.

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (July 18, 2016) – Cpl. Ryan Dills communicates with other assault amphibious vehicles while traveling from amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) to Royal Australian Navy Canberra class amphibious ship HMAS Canberra (L02).  (U.S. Marine Corps photo by SSgt. Christopher Giannetti/Released)

South China Sea: FONOPS Not Enough, Time for Boots on the Ground, Active Neutrality

By Alex Calvo

After a long wait, the US Navy resumed FON (Freedom of Navigation) operations in the South China Sea (last carried out in 2012) on 27 October, with USS Lassen sailing within 12 nautical miles of Subi and Mischief Reefs, and conducting actions incompatible with innocent passage, in order to make it clear Washington does not recognize any territorial waters arising from the artificial islands built by Beijing through reclamation on low-tide elevations. On the other hand, in line with long-standing American policy, the US also emphasized that it was not taking sides concerning the underlying territorial disputes, and that freedom of navigation operations were aimed at any excessive maritime claims, underlining this by also sailing through waters around features claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines. Commentary has focused on the need for further FON cruises, and on China’s response, including the possibility of Beijing declaring an ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone).

Freedom of Navigation is indeed one of the pillars of both the post-war open economic system drawn up during the Second World War, and of the traditional American reliance on the ability to move troops by sea (in line with the British Empire, and its tandem Royal Navy – Indian Army). Therefore, contesting Chinese maritime claims is indeed an important policy goal, and furthermore one that should be shared by other maritime democracies. However, we must ask ourselves whether this is all. Furthermore, the time may have come to consider whether agnosticism on territorial claims is a sustainable policy, and whether the US can afford to see allies like the Philippines lose further territory to the PRC.

Even if FON operations become a regular feature and China’s extensive reclamation work turns out to pose no obstacle to peace-time navigation by merchantmen and warships, we would be fooling ourselves if we thought that there is no price to pay for failing to confront Beijing. First of all, an extensive network of man-made islands could make it much more difficult to operate in the region in the event of hostilities. Second, by condoning the violent taking of contested territories, the principles enshrined in the UN charter and in UNSC Resolution 502 would risk becoming irrelevant.

Concerning the latter, being neutral concerning territorial disputes can be interpreted in two ways. Up to now in the South China Sea it has meant Washington not supporting any competing claims. However, this is no longer enough. The Philippines’ marines have been making a heroic stand at BRP Sierra Madre, guarding Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin Shoal / Ren’Ai Jiao) while surrounded by hostile ships bent on preventing their resupply. However, given the much larger forces available to China, this strategy may not be sustainable. Furthermore, despite an existing mutual defense treaty and growing capacity building assistance (also provided by Japan), Washington has de facto been signaling Beijing that the occupation of the Second Thomas Shoal would not be considered an attack on Filipino territory. This increases the risk of a miscalculation, should China come to believe that the US will stand on the sidelines in such an scenario. Mutual defense treaties are not of much use if restricted in their geographical scope.

An alternative policy would be to embed USMC personnel in their Filipino counterparts, while explicitly announcing that despite still not taking sides on the ultimate issue of sovereignty, the US considered the Second Thomas Shoal (and other disputed territories currently under actual control by Manila) to fall within the purview of the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty. American policy would then be to actively seek to prevent changes on the ground, including expelling Filipino military personnel from the Second Thomas Shoal, while still pressing for a mediated (or arbitrated) solution, in line with US support for the international arbitration bid currently under consideration by the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Preserving the status quo requires extensive work on the BRP Sierra Madre, or its replacement by another ship or structure. In other words, America would be moving from passive neutrality to active neutrality. From merely declaring that differences must be settled peacefully in accordance to international law, to helping freeze the status quo so that revisionist powers are not tempted to gain in the field of battle what they should only be claiming in the diplomatic table or the courtroom.

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A precedent for this are Japan’s Senkaku Islands, also claimed by China and Taiwan. After some doubts and conflicting reports on whether the US-Japan Security Treaty extended to them, Washington explicitly announced that they did, while remaining non-committal about ultimate sovereignty. Japan, having greater maritime and naval capabilities than the Philippines, employs a different strategy to protects the islands, shielded by the country’s coastguard without any permanent ground deployment. Should Tokyo decide, or be forced, to permanently deploy some ground troops, it would also be positive to see USMC personnel embedded in them. We could also mention the occupation of Iceland during the Second World War, before Pearl Harbor.

Being neutral in a territorial dispute does not just mean supporting its peaceful resolution in accordance with international law. That is only the case when all sides involved renounce the use of force. When one refuses to take this step, and regularly resorts to it, notwithstanding the fact it is mostly of the non-lethal kind, the only alternative to appeasement is active neutrality, meaning a deployment designed to provide a tripwire, lessening the risks of miscalculation and signaling that aggression will not be condoned. Only this can provide the necessary incentives for a future peaceful resolution of the conflict, where Washington would indeed be neutral concerning its outcome, yet having avoided neutrality regarding how it came about.

Alex Calvo is a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan) focusing on security and defence policy, international law, and military history in the Indian-Pacific Ocean. Region. A member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) and Taiwan’s South China Sea Think-Tank, he is currently writing a book about Asia’s role and contribution to the Allied victory in the Great War. He tweets @Alex__Calvo and his work can be found here.