Category Archives: Chokepoints and Littorals Week

Developing Security in a White Water World: Preparing for the Arctic

Chokepoints and Littorals Topic Week

By Ian Birdwell

In a speech to the Arctic Council during the 11th Ministerial Meeting in Rovaniemi, Finland, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo railed against a critical security problem for the United States in the Arctic region: Russian Militarization.1 Pompeo argued “No one denies Russia has significant Arctic interests…But Russia is unique. Its actions deserve special attention, special attention of this Council, in part because of their sheer scale. But also because we know Russian territorial ambitions can turn violent.”

As the Arctic has warmed, the once ice-locked Russian northern coast has become an emerging strategic zone of littorals and chokepoints for global trade, with the potential to shorten the transit time from Rotterdam to Shanghai by thousands of nautical miles. It is already in use.2 As the ice has warmed and regional interest has grown from powerful states like China, Russian forces have expanded their regional presence to reinforce territorial claims and assist vessels transiting the emerging Northeast Passage as part of the general modernization of Russian military forces.3 Despite these objectives, Russian Arctic militarization holds the potential to kick off a regional arms race. The reopening of Soviet-era Arctic installations and the construction of Arctic patrol vessels does correspond to the overall reinvigoration of the Russian Military; however, a comparison to equivalent American arctic capabilities evokes the kind of fears highlighted by Pompeo in his address. The most severe technological indication of American military under-preparedness remains the “icebreaker gap” of ice-capable and icebreaker vessels, with two American ice-capable vessels arrayed against Russia’s expanding fleet of more than 40 ships. For comparison China maintains two such vessels.4

The situation is not wholly grim when considering the growing interest of the American military toward the emerging Arctic security environment, with the U.S. Marine Corps having participated in a joint-training operation with Norway and the U.S. Navy sending a patrol into the Barents Sea after years of absence.5 However there are varied challenges for the United States’ ability to effectively address the region, including domestic financial concerns which killed the last push for a new icebreaker, balancing the internal politics of NATO regarding the Arctic, and policy stagnation at the highest levels of government with respect to the Arctic.6 Each of these factors leaves American policymakers in a lurch regarding the region which makes funding new Arctic capabilities problematic.7 With increasing Russian capabilities, growing global interest from states like China, and American security risks all increasing as the sea ice of the region melts away, the question remains of how the United States could best address the rising militarization of the Arctic.

The most effective direction for American policy in the region should be the signaling of a strong commitment by emphasizing the preparedness of existing U.S. expeditionary forces for Arctic operations, rather than the development of uniquely Arctic security capabilities. The focus on increasing the preparedness of existing forces rather than developing Arctic-specific forces or structures enables a more ready tackling of existing inhibitors to American Arctic security policy development, and it does so in three critical ways. First, it prevents the abandonment of cooperative regional pursuits. Next, it enables an adaptive response to shifting regional dynamics. Third, it prioritizes existing security arrangements without straining alliances.

The Arctic represents one of the few regions of the world where strategic adversaries will routinely cooperate and support the exact same scientific projects. This cooperative arrangement has been beneficial for all parties within the Arctic Council, the principle institutional mechanism for research cooperation on Arctic issues.8 Though the number of American allies and friends outweighs adversaries on the Council, the three legally binding agreements for the region have come from joint negotiations between the United States and Russia.9 American policy on the Council has been that of a patron alongside Russia in order to formulate policy and support research endeavors, with the critical aspect of the Council being that of the exclusion of security and territorial discussions.10 If the United States makes overtures to increase Arctic-specific military preparedness to balance against Russian capabilities, such as new ice-capable patrol vessels or icebreakers, the successes of the Arctic Council could be put into jeopardy as the Council has expressly avoided discussions of territorial disputes and security.11

Instead of developing Arctic-specific capabilities the U.S. military should instead pursue the readying of existing military forces for Arctic operations through training missions and the development of doctrine for Arctic operations, as these shifts will have the benefit of being able to tamp down considerations of a full-on Arctic arms race. Developing military capability solely for Arctic use could upset one of the few areas of positive interaction left for the U.S. relationship with Russia given the continual tension in other regions like Eastern Europe and the abandonment of other cooperative frameworks such as nuclear arms control.12 Moreover, given the American reliance on the Arctic Council to develop new policies for myriad agencies other than the American military, the preservation of funding for Arctic research and access to data from the Russian Arctic is critical to maintain American Arctic policy trajectories given the stagnation in Arctic policy since 2013.13 It becomes critical for the future of American policy development in the region as a whole to preserve the balance within the Arctic Council and not exacerbate the rising security challenges stemming from Russian militarization.

The Arctic’s marine environment is one defined by sea ice, and this highlights the second reason why the United States should be signaling regional commitment through an emphasis on regional preparedness and training rather than the more hardline approach of developing unique equipment for regional operations. Russian preparedness for Arctic operations is by far the most developed of all Arctic littoral states for white-water surface naval operations, despite the aged nature of the fleet and the superiority of American forces in traditional blue-water environments.14 The American focus on surface vessels for the Arctic region have largely downplayed or ignored the enormity of the financial burden to construct, crew, and berth an American white-water fleet. The cost of operations within the region for surface vessels is simply too much to bear for the U.S. government as other regions continually take greater priority.15 Instead, the U.S. Navy should rely on existing vessels with more extensive Arctic operations experience to project American security and signaling to the region: the submarine fleet. Extensive institutional experience from ballistic missile submarines and scientific research expeditions enables the American submarine fleet to be the primary agent for American Arctic security signaling.16

The Barents Sea represents the area most likely to become a flashpoint between the United States and Russia due to the presence of significant fisheries, oil resources, and the uneasy security situation between Norway and Russia.17 The Barents Sea is warming especially quickly and its proximity to the primary berths of the Russian Northern Fleet makes it a prominent area of potential conflict, significantly reducing the need for the pursuit of ice-capable vessels for the U.S. Navy.18 Posturing in northern Scandinavia with a defensive orientation utilizing traditional land, air, and sea forces will help contest the entrance of the Barents into the Norwegian Sea.19

These chokepoints are critical beyond military action as well, especially for maintaining mariner safety within them as the Arctic warms.20 Some of the most critical negotiations involving military activities regarding the Arctic have been related to coordination for search and rescue operations critical for expanded fishing and commercial routes. Given the chokepoints of the region are contested on either end of the Northern Sea route, the development of a white water navy would inhibit communal policy goals of regional economic development through arms racing rather than protect them. For instance, with half of the Bering Strait American and half Russian, a healthy relationship between the two coast guards is critical for the security of all mariners transiting the strait in order to have it become economically viable as safety considerations dominate the minds of merchant vessels entering this hazardous region.21

NATO has and will continue to be one of the most important partners for the United States, and though the organization appears monolithic it is not without challenges. The internal politics of NATO states informs their decision-making in critical respects regarding the Arctic, and especially regarding Russia in the Arctic. The most visible of such considerations involves Canada, which due to a confluence of issues related to Russian and American relations has been less than thrilled of the prospects of the United States spearheading NATO presence in the Arctic because of the possibility of eroding Canadian sovereignty regarding the Northwest Passage by the U.S. and other states.22 The status of the passage has been a contentious domestic political issue for every Canadian administration since the late 1990s. If the United States begins developing new ice-capable military patrol vessels or insists on forming a NATO maritime group, it could be seen as eroding Canadian regional sovereignty and cause a disagreement to flair between Ottawa and Washington.23 Given the Russian method of attempting to play Western allies off one another, such a disagreement would add fuel to Moscow’s efforts and further endanger coordination.24

A more moderate approach of pursuing national security objectives would be through bilateral and multilateral training and coordination with Arctic partner states like Canada and Norway.25 Emphasizing regional partnerships by increasing visible proposals of joint training operations and American force readiness for potential deployment would be useful in signaling commitment to defending American interests in the emerging strategic chokepoint without stepping on the toes of strategic partners. The aforementioned speech by Secretary of State Pompeo came just months after such training operations occurred bilaterally with the U.S. Marine Corps and Norwegian military in February 2019, and a year before scheduled regional NATO exercises proposed by Norway.26 Leaning on the proposals of NATO members like Norway on critical issues like Arctic preparedness removes the risk of the United States irritating critical regional actors while removing a degree of culpability for escalating the militarization of the region. Instead, visibly preparing for Arctic operations through training initiatives pursued bilaterally with Arctic states and multilaterally through NATO emphasizes a whole-of-region response to regional security issues while sharing associated costs.


The Arctic is changing physically and the security dimensions of the region are changing along with it. The region will not be ice-free overnight, and the United States is not without partners in addressing those changing strategic considerations. It behooves the United States to not pursue a hardline balancing arrangement against Russian militarization and instead pursue what it has been doing for some time, preparing for the potential of Arctic operations across all service branches. The pursuit of this policy perspective will signal American commitments to regional security without exacerbating the militarization of the Arctic into a full blown arms race, enabling an emerging littoral to be sufficiently addressed without intensifying competition within one of the most peaceful and cooperative regions of the world. 

Ian Birdwell is a Ph.D. Student at Old Dominion University’s Graduate Program in International Studies. His research focuses on the exploration of the motivations behind the pursuit of Arctic security, how identity factors into the cultivation of regional habits, and the impacts of emerging trade routes on global power dynamics.










9.; Wilson Rowe, Elana, and Helge Blakkisrud. The Arctic Council and US domestic policymaking. Policy Brief, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, 2019.


















Featured Image: Russian Arctic Brigade troops (Photo:

Seeing the World Through Points

Chokepoints and Littorals Topic Week

By Captain H. Clifton Hamilton, USMC


Strategic chokepoints and littorals are the arena of current and future power struggles. Great power competition is layered within these maritime and littoral domains. To a lesser extent, but still consequential, are the potential actions of regional and non-state actors capable of causing disruption along maritime chokepoints and littoral zones. The United States will be required to address multi-layered challenges to its maritime dominance in these areas while also fulfilling the role of humanitarian and the facilitator of free and open commerce. With technological proliferation and the impact of the speed of information, the United States has its work cut out across several chokepoints of interest.

The Strait of Hormuz

Discussions of chokepoints can begin with the most prominent in the popular consciousness. A narrow shipping route located in the Middle East, 96 miles long and 21 miles wide at its narrowest point, the Strait of Hormuz is one such chokepoint. What also comes to mind are Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait. These countries are all affected by occurrences in the strait, but so is the world more broadly. One-fifth of the world’s oil supply passed through the strait in the 2010s and the strait accounts for one-third of all seaborne trade. The Strait of Hormuz is also a gateway from the Persian Gulf, into the Gulf of Oman and Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, and ultimately into the Indian Ocean.

The Strait of Hormuz lacks large population centers in its immediate vicinity, but many of its challenges come from the complex military environment that includes the irregular nature of Iranian forces and tactics. The Iranian lack of conventional parity has encouraged the use of asymmetric tactics to achieve some influence over maritime behavior in the Strait of Hormuz. Examples of their asymmetric tactics include the dubious detention of western naval crew members, harassment of non-allied commercial vessels, and weaponizing small islands. Over the course of the past two decades Iran has seized several western vessels and routinely harasses the maritime interests of perceived anti-Iranian nations. Militarily, Iran has at its disposal small boats swarms, naval mines, anti-ship missiles, and large rockets. Iran has demonstrated the ability to undermine western technological superiority by capturing drones or flying devices below the threshold of detection by western systems. Taken together these threats allow for Iran to credibly harass and inhibit freedom of action by U.S. forces and others.

Through these capabilities Iran has the ability to cause significant disruptions to commercial and energy interests. The United States must maintain a credible deterrent force in the region to assure Iran of American resolve and demonstrate the capability to existentially wreck the Iranian regime. In so doing, a delicate diplomatic dance must also be achieved with regional powers that allows for basing an appropriate collaboration within the broader interests of maritime and energy security. Iranian probes must be met with continued tactical, technological, and strategic innovation. U.S. elements of power must continue to be leveraged holistically in the region to prevent Iranian capability and intent from reaching a critical threshold of disruption.

The Strait of Hormuz presents a vexing problem set, but approximately 1,500 nautical miles away lies another complex chokepoint.

The Bab-El-Mandeb

Departing the Strait of Hormuz and traveling westward one arrives at the Gulf of Aden and an important chokepoint, the Bab-El-Mandeb (BAM). The BAM is the southern gateway into the Red Sea, Gulf of Suez, and the Suez Canal which allows for maritime shipping into the Mediterranean and easy access to European economies. Billions of dollars in maritime trade passes through the BAM yearly. It is also an important trading corridor by being a two-way route for goods ultimately bound for Europe and, as well, from Europe to the East and locations in between. These features present different challenges and threat environments.

While the Strait of Hormuz offers an asymmetric military challenge in a largely isolated arena, the Gulf of Aden and BAM provide security challenges in an environment beset with tottering states and bulging populations. Promoting stability and security near the Horn of Africa requires addressing security needs with economic imperatives to assist countries with internal pressures acting against their stability. Yemen, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, and Ethiopia are in the immediate vicinity of this strategic chokepoint. These are all countries in various states of disruption and each represents different peoples, cultures, and particular deficiencies. This area requires strong, extra-regional governments to protect the nearby maritime commons, and their absence necessitates U.S. presence. However, the presence of great power competitors in the region complicates efforts.

China has begun to extend beyond the central Asian states of the old Soviet Union and into the Middle East and Africa. This foray is largely in search of energy and markets to satisfy increasing Chinese domestic demand and industrial capacity. However, the Chinese use diplomacy backed by exploitative economic policies. Exploitation often takes the form of secretive, leveraged commercial agreements between the Chinese government and those of the prospective nations. An example from this region includes the Djibouti port, airport, railway, and water pipeline loans, which were revealed to contain highly dubious terms. The Chinese “policy” of non-interference is rhetorically deployed to cover for mismanagement, corruption, and Chinese-facilitated malfeasance.

The most intransigent issue in the region is piracy and the role of non-state actors. Lawlessness and terrorism combine to form a potent combination in a region ill-suited to weather the disruptions terrorism is designed to manifest. Terrorism and piracy are significant issues to contend with in Somalia and Yemen especially, and they are both producers and exporters of the most virulent disruptions.

The USS Cole attack and several high-profile incidents such as the Red Sea attacks in 2016 highlight the volatility of this area. Planners using a whole-of-government approach must seek solutions to the underlying drivers to the continued unrest in the region and not just military solutions of a more reactive nature. Relationships based on mutual respect and staying power are a strong step in the right direction. Strengthening ties, countering nefarious influences, and combatting nihilistic ideologies will begin to turn the tide. Continued investment in and coordination with legitimate powers focused on improving governance is a key attribute to any approach. Diplomacy, information, and economics backed by strong military action against detrimental forces will create local prosperity that benefits the security of global maritime commons.

Southeast Asia

Some littorals feature breakneck developments in grand strategy and what can appear to be routine technological breakthroughs in capability. The South China Sea (SCS) is one such area. Taking the view of its northern resident, the SCS critically links China to Southeast Asia’s littorals and chokepoints. At either end of the SCS are strategic gateways critical to global commerce. The value of trade passing through the SCS complex is estimated to be over three trillion dollars per year, and the volume of traffic represents approximately one-quarter of global shipping.

Technological, economic, military, and geopolitical strategy are colliding in the SCS. The potential consequences harken to the days of the Cold War, where major military miscalculation could result in a form of mutually assured economic destruction. In this case, great power conflict could drive global chaos by disrupting the flow of shipping through Southeast Asia’s critical chokepoints. Any attempt to overtly exert hegemonic influence would also run against the fiercely independent nature of the countries in this region.

Inflaming these factors are the economic and technological advances in the region. China has taken an outsized lead and is exploiting this advantage to unilaterally impose itself as a de facto governor of the region and exercise veto power over decisions that are well within the sovereignty of other states. These other powers however lack the size, technological sophistication, and economic leverage necessary to counter Chinese influence with impunity.

Besides controlling a key gateway between East and West, establishing a sphere of influence would involve focusing on the possible presence of significant reserves of offshore oil. These resources would be a boon to the country capable of securely staking their share, but China has turned local resource exploitation into an arena for regional competition. It is in China’s interest to weaken both its neighbors’ access to these sources of possible energy independence and strengthen its own control of the maritime gateways to and from Asia.

U.S. national power is fully integrated in the region and must be applied assiduously to an existential threat to the established rules-based order. Security cooperation exercises, economic alliances, increased diplomatic outreach, and leveraging Western strengths can bolster the order against Chinese encroachment.

The Arctic

This next area of the globe is one of the locations of Earth’s harshest environments, largely devoid of life and requiring great efforts for man to survive. Natural planetary evolution and man-made activity are fomenting significant change here. Large energy deposits, emerging swaths of arable land, and newly emerging sea lanes are combining to make the Arctic littorals the location of future great power competition.

The Arctic region is vastly affecting the borders of several countries, some of which have come together in the Arctic Council to discuss activities in this region. Consisting of eight nations, the Arctic council includes the representation of indigenous persons, observer states, and other relevant organizations. However, the reality of its impact is much less sanguine. The council is inspiring, but the Arctic still requires the force of law or a threat of consequence weightier than moral opprobrium to develop peacefully with free and open maritime avenues. Nations and corporations are beginning to stake claims to portions of the Arctic as it becomes accessible to development. Claims to rights and privileges must be legitimately arbitrated and means for commercial security must exist.

Currently U.S. assets and attention lags far behind the greatest competitor in this region, Russia. The U.S. is now re-posturing in the Arctic in response to Russia’s superior icebreaker fleet, its constellation of bases and weapons in the Artic, and a demonstrated willingness to act unilaterally when unchallenged. United States Northern Command, (NORTHCOM), rightly declared the Arctic the first line of defense for the U.S., but much more is required to pose a serious challenge to Russian resurgence in the region.


Promoting maritime security in chokepoints and littorals will require aggressive and novel applications of every element of national power. The increasing importance of alliances and institutions cannot be overstated in this age of increasing technological parity and proliferation. The United Sates has the constellation of allies, domestic strengths, and tools to effectively manage these issues in the strategic chokepoints and littorals of the world.

Captain H. Clifton Hamilton has served in the Marines since 2005. Previous assignments include Information Operations, Recruiting, and various Intelligence billets. He currently serves in III MEF. He is a New Orleans native.

Featured Image: NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, recently past the halfway mark of his one-year mission to the International Space Station, photographed the Nile River during a nighttime flyover on Sept. 22, 2015. (NASA photo)

Sink ‘Em All: Envisioning Marine Corps Maritime Interdiction

Chokepoints and Littorals Topic Week

By Dustin League and Dan Justice

“Motor vessel Pangjang, you are entering a United States-designated exclusion zone. Due to the current state of war between the People’s Republic of China (PRC), immediately secure your engines and await further instructions. In accordance with *static* you will be directed to proceed to a nearby inspection and control point. If you deviate from these instructions, your vessel will be stopped with appropriate force.”

The master of the Chinese owned-and-operated bulk carrier Píng Jìng De Hǎi Yáng shook his head in disgust, only some of which was due to the American bastardization of his ship’s name. On the outbreak of war, the U.S. had designated the whole of the South China Sea along with the entire Indonesian and Philippine archipelagos as exclusion zones, ordering all merchant traffic to comply with strict traffic lanes and subjecting all vessels to inspections as part of their effort to blockade the People’s Republic into submission. Even long-time allies of the U.S. had voiced concerns over the scope of the U.S. restrictions, and protests had been logged not only by the PRC but by several affected ASEAN nations.

The PRC protest had largely been a pro forma move even as they recognized the toothless nature of the orders. The U.S. Navy, even with the support of local allies, lacked the capacity to simultaneously combat the People’s Liberation Army and Navy’s consolidation of rogue Taipei and patrol their exclusion zone. Even maintaining sufficient forces near chokepoints such as Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok Straits represented an unaffordable strain on USN forces. The Píng Jìng De Hǎi Yáng, like all of the carriers whose cargoes the PRC had designated as national resources, had been provided with daily status reports by the government on the status of enemy forces in the area and that, confirmed by his own shipboard radar, showed no Americans or their allied warships within hundreds of miles. Their Coast Guard had established an inspection station roughly halfway between Sunda and Lombok Straits off the south coast of East Java. It was undermanned and overloaded with compliant shipping. Some of the PRC’s own vessels, those with less strategically important cargos, had even been directed to the station in order to provide reports on its operations. In addition to U.S. and allied Coast Guard vessels, there was apparently a sizeable contingent of U.S. Marines conducting visit and inspections.

Militarily, the ship’s master had more limited information. He knew that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) operations around Taipei were proceeding successfully despite America’s futile attempts to roll them back. The U.S. carriers were being held at bay and kept beyond their ability to strike by the Second Artillery, and the PLAN surface fleet had established a secure perimeter around the island. Supposedly, the U.S. had established missile batteries on the northern tip of the Philippines, but they lacked the range needed to hit the fleet. Purportedly the U.S. submarine force remained a significant threat, but the ship’s master had no information on their operations. Neither the PRC nor the Americans were revealing any details on lost submarines, so it was impossible for him to gauge which side held the advantage in the undersea war. When the ship’s master had been notified that his vessel was now considered a critical national asset and subject to the military command to run the U.S. blockade, he’d been assured that the U.S. submarines would not bother wasting a torpedo on his vessels. They would need to save their inventory for PLAN vessels which, he had also been assured, could protect themselves.

There had been news of American amphibious forces trying to hop across the south Pacific on small, empty coral islands like they had done eighty years ago, but no warships. Even the challenge had been sent not by a USN warship or Coast Guard vessel but from a large unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) circling high above. The master also had reports on those UAVs, they were long-endurance reconnaissance types with no organic armaments. Another empty threat. Once he passed through the Lombok Strait and into the South China Sea, the risks he took in running the U.S. blockade would increase, but he would also be entering into the PRC’s own backyard where they could provide direct protection.

“Maintain course and speed,” He ordered. “Ignore all further hails.” His bridge crew acknowledged his order with calm, quiet professionalism. If any of them disagreed with the assessment of the situation as he’d briefed that morning, none showed their concerns. The drone circling overhead continued to pace them, repeating its message, its demands growing increasingly terse and harsh. The ship’s master counted no less than three times his vessel was threatened with lethal force with never a blip on the radar to indicate a closing vessel or aircraft. Open seas, open skies, and toothless demands.

Twenty-five minutes after the initial challenge, two long-range anti-ship missiles, their telemetry continually updated by the overhead drone, slammed into the Píng Jìng De Hǎi Yáng. One hit amidships just above the waterline, its warhead punching through the hull to let the ocean flood in. The second, less than a second later, struck the superstructure, taking out the entire bridge. The missile hits were insufficient to sink a vessel as large as the Píng Jìng De Hǎi Yáng, but they were more than capable enough to leave it a helpless derelict. Mission kill.


First Lieutenant Tommy Hart, Commanding Officer of Charlie Platoon, 1st Battalion 3rd Marines, reviewed the video footage, noting the impact points and subsequent motion of the vessel. Smoke billowed thick and black in a column that rose as high as the UAV’s own operating altitude before being thinned by the wind. Finally satisfied, he logged the first kill of his maritime interdiction platoon.

“Flash , Flash, Flash, Alpha Sierra, Alpha Mike, this is Hotel Charlie Six,” Hart said into the radio, calling both the Surface Warfare Commander and the Amphibious Element Coordinator at the same time, “Splash, Skunk Two, with Bruiser, Over.” The acknowledgment came back. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought it was the first such kill of the war and he felt pride in his team. And maybe just a twinge of instinctual moral qualm. He’d joined the Marines to defend his nation and he’d fully expected that would mean killing the enemy during times of war; but when he’d joined Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps he hadn’t thought of unarmed oil tankers as “the enemy.”   

He noted the position of the tanker – fifty miles south of Lombok Strait and eighty miles from his own position on East Java. Well inside the range of the anti-ship missiles on his High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) but close to the edge of his targeting UAV’s range. The range from the strait was critical. Hart wasn’t privy to the governmental horse-trading that had to be going on behind the scenes, but he knew that Indonesia had demanded strong assurances before allowing the Marines to deploy their chokepoint control stand-in forces on their territory; chief among those was the requirement that no vessels be sunk within twelve nautical miles of any of the straits’ entrances.

Against almost any kind of PLAN warship the strike would have been impossible. First there would have been the difficulty in finding a target – warships maneuvered too often, too fast, and refused to follow predictable transit paths – which would have exhausted his small UAVs’ endurance. Then there was the problem of PLAN anti-air defenses. Even with the new missiles, the HIMARS’ ability to generate a large enough salvo to overwhelm a modern frigate or destroyer’s defense was woefully insufficient. But merchant vessels and oil tankers were another matter. Those he knew where to find – if they wanted to deliver to resources the PRC so desperately needed, they would have to come through Lombok Strait or one of the other chokepoints in the archipelagos surrounding the South and East China Seas. Lombok was the responsibility of his company, the others were guarded by similar U.S. Marine Corps units. Small stand-in forces, rapidly deployed around the First Island Chain, teamed with unmanned systems for patrolling the adversary’s sea lines of communication, finding and challenging their shipping, and finally targeting them for the HIMARS’ missiles.

“Nice flying, Torres,” he said to the young Marine who’d been piloting the UAV. Torres has been near the top of her class at Fort Huachuca and could always seem to squeeze an extra 30 or 60 minutes out of the UAV’s batteries. Endurance wasn’t a big factor now, the drone had only been up six hours. Seventh fleet had sent them the Píng Jìng De Hǎi Yáng track earlier that morning from a Triton that was up, allowing Hart to plan his UAV time well. In a combat zone as large as the Pacific, even the remarkable range and endurance of Hart’s tactical UAVs was insufficient to large-area search problems. The coordination of assets and passing of track data through the Global Combat Support System – Navy Marine Corps was critical to the platoon’s mission.

“Push their updated position, course, and speed to Geeks so the Coasties can send someone out to haul her to port.”   

“All right everyone, time to move,” he ordered the rest of the platoon. “Handoff to Baker Platoon in fifteen.” They were outside the PRC’s anti-access/area-denial zone of control, but there was still enough risk in detection that no one wanted to wait around for a retaliatory PLAN strike. His platoon was already making preparations to step off. The HIMARS crew were completing final post-firing checks and battening down for departure. His entire platoon consisted of four elements; two semi-truck sized HIMARS batteries, a UAV carrier roughly the same size that could carry four of the long-range drones; a counter-precision guided munition point defense battery; and a small transport. A lot of firepower for a first lieutenant, though he’d feel unarmed until he could get the HIMARS batteries re-loaded from one of the company’s caches.

They had only been on Lombok for a week, dropped off from the Essex, their gear and the HIMARS truck brought ashore by some of the “Mike Boats” the Marines had started picking out of the various boneyards across the country. Already Hart was starting to fantasize about a shower and a burger when they would be picked back up after another 10 to 12 days. Or would there be enough shooting that they’d go Winchester early? He shook those thoughts from his head and returned his attention to the pack out. They would be packed up and on the road within thirty minutes. Until he could reposition and redeploy his force, this sector of the U.S. exclusion zone would be the responsibility of Baker Platoon who, he knew, was roughly fifty miles west of his position, on the other side of Lombok Strait itself.

Within hours, Hart knew, the crippling of the Píng Jìng De Hǎi Yáng would be all over the news. The PRC would shout in protest and the U.S. would again assert its ability to enforce exclusion zones during a time of war. The Navy and Marine Corps would explain both the need and the precedent for such operations – one had only to look back to World War II when the Navy had declared unrestricted submarine and air warfare against Japanese commercial traffic. He suspected other PRC vessels would continue trying to run the blockade and there would be a handful of more high-profile sinkings, but he doubted they would last for long. Once it became clear that the Marines could and would effectively target and destroy any uncooperative vessel, there would be very, very few ship masters willing to take the risk.

Hart had not joined the Marine Corps expecting this kind of mission. He’d joined at a time when the USMC had just begun a major re-alignment, shifting from protracted ground operations back to a role supporting naval operations in the littorals. Even then he’d expected to be employing the capabilities of his platoon against adversary naval targets – against warships. But there’d been a need to expand the USMC role beyond naval and into maritime support. The Corps had purchased the weapons and developed the skills needed to combat a great power, but like the submarine force in World War II, they’d found that those same capabilities could be far more effective against an adversary’s commerce. And, like the silent service, what had once been seen as a “lesser included mission” had become a critical role in a major war.


The vignette described above is an attempt to expand on some of the concepts described in Commandant Berger’s Planning Guidance to the US Marine Corps.[1] The capabilities employed by Lieutenant Hart’ platoon –  the HMARS armed with anti-ship missiles, the tactically-controlled long-range UAVs, and the counter-precision guided missile defense – are all explicitly called for in that document. The uses we postulate for them – the destruction of unarmed merchant vessels in defense of a distant blockade – are not. Such use relies on several underlying assumptions about the nature of a future conflict which may or may not be borne out. First that the United States enters into war with another great power. Second, that in such a war the U.S. would again resort to a similar commerce destruction strategy that was a keystone of the Pacific War against Japan. Third, that the U.S. Marine Corps would be tasked with such a role. Fourth, that U.S. allies or neutral nations in the region would allow a force like Hart’s to operate on their territory. Even with the 350 nautical mile missiles and 200 nautical mile drones the Commandant of the Marine Corps has called for, the Marines need somewhere to stand.

Berger has called on the Marines to become an integrated naval force to prioritize operations in the littorals that support the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations concept and counter great power rival investments in anti-access/area-denial capabilities. The missions implied in the guidance call for Marine stand-in forces to operate inside contested zones and provide anti-ship and anti-air fires, with the strong implication that the target set will be the enemy’s military assets. Going against the PLAN on their home turf, the Navy should certainly welcome the additional firepower; however, it may not be the best use of the Marines’ new capabilities.

There is no shortage of commentary on the tyranny of distance the USN would face if it finds itself in a shooting war with China. It bears repeating again. Assuming an invasion of Taiwan as the source of conflict, and PLAN deployments converge around the island nation, there is precious little real estate for the USMC to place its stand-in forces and still have the range to hit their targets. Additionally, simply getting missiles in range will be of little use if they cannot penetrate the target defenses. The PLAN has capable warships with modern anti-air defenses that will require extremely capable missiles fired in large salvos to defeat. How many HIMARS batteries will be needed to achieve a mission kill on even a single PLAN destroyer, let alone a surface action group with coordinated defenses? 

The U.S. Navy went through a similar experience in the lead up to World War II. The submarine community had spent the interwar years developing a fleet of boats to combat the Imperial Japanese Navy, softening it up before the expected battle line confrontation by attriting IJN warships. Instead, those boats which had been built to sink battleships spent much of the war sinking Japanese merchant vessels, choking Japan’s critical supply lines. What had been seen as, at best, a lesser included mission, became the defining task of the community.

Joel Ira Holwitt’s Execute Against Japan[2] details the evolution of U.S. Naval thought and policy on unrestricted warfare. It chronicles the long process of legal, ethical, and strategic issues the Navy had to work through before executing the doctrine. The analogy is not perfect of course. China is not an island, dependent on outside resources to the same extent as was Japan. However, this line of thinking is still valid, and it is important to consider if what we might need to do wasn’t already planned for. Similarly, the Marine Corps should be exploring the larger mission set inherent in maritime operations. That may involve commerce destruction in support of blockade operations and chokepoint control. It may involve seizure of China’s “string of pearl” bases around the globe. As the Marines conduct the extensive wargaming and analysis Gen. Berger also calls for, they should look beyond the inherently military target set in a specific region and embrace the potential for action across the larger maritime domain.

The commandant is committed to designing a Marine Corps which will remain the “Force of Choice.” He has outlined the salient features he believes that force will require, the challenges it will face, and the path to getting it built. While General Berger’s assessment, goals, and methods are welcomed, a broader vision for the naval services is needed, one which harnesses their capabilities across the whole range of maritime security.

Dustin League is a Senior Military Operations Analyst at Systems Planning and Analysis, Inc. and a former U.S. Navy Submarine Warfare Officer. The views and opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of SPA, Inc.

LCDR Dan Justice is a U.S. Navy Foreign Affairs Officer and former Submarine Warfare Officer. The views and opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Navy.


1. Berger, G. D. (2019, July 17). Commandant’s Planning Guidance. Retrieved from Marine Corps Electronic LIbrary:

2. Holwitt, J. I. (2009). Execute Against Japan: The U.S. Decision to Conduct Unrestricted Submarine Warfare. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press.

Featured Image: “S-300V” by Mikhail Selevonik via Artstation

Sea Control 181 – The “Amphibious” 8th in the Pacific War

By Jared Samuelson

Chokepoints and Littorals Week continues on CIMSEC! Major General Pat Donahoe, Deputy Commander for Operations, U.S. 8th Army, and Prof. Don Chisholm of the U.S. Naval War College join us to discuss why the 8th Army is known as “the Amphibious 8th,” the campaign through the southern Philippines in World War II, Admiral Daniel Barbey, and the different amphibious cultures that emerged during the war. Images are taken from The Reports of General MacArthur and digitally enhanced by Dr. Erik Villard (@Erikhistorian), Digital Military Historian at the Center for Military History.

Download Sea Control 181 – The “Amphibious” 8th in the Pacific War


Final Operations on Mindanao

Summary of the Mindanao Campaign

Western Visayas Task Force Operations

Victor Operations

Landings on Cebu, Bohol, and Negros Oriental

Palawan Attack Plan

Jared Samuelson is the Senior Producer of the Sea Control Podcast. Contact him at