You’re Gonna Need a Smaller Boat: US Marines Revamp Strategy to Counter China

November 28, 2019 Updated: December 4, 2019

After nearly two decades of accumulating dust on the streets of Fallujah and Camp Bastion, the U.S. Marines are once again preparing to get their boots wet.

Following the publication of the Trump administration’s 2018 National Defense strategy, the U.S. military has been revamping its strategies to counter Russia and China, in an era of what analysts call renewed “great power competition.”

In the Pacific, China’s layers of long-range precision missiles designed to hold the U.S. Navy and its jets at arm’s length have left strategists with a headache.

The concerns aren’t simply about all-out warfare, but that this so-called “anti-access bubble” hampers the support of regional allies—and potentially threatens to push the United States out of now-vulnerable permanent positions such as deep-water ports.

The Marines have now come up with a plan to turn the tables on the Chinese military.

They’re going to need a smaller boat.

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger published (pdf) a major shift in strategy in July, which would see the Marines return to their roots as an expeditionary force that supports the Navy, with an almost exclusive focus on countering China in the Pacific.

“The current force is not organized, trained, or equipped to support the Naval force—operating in contested maritime spaces, facilitating sea control, or executing distributed maritime operations,” Berger wrote. “There is no piece of equipment or major defense acquisition program that defines us.”

Berger’s plan has yet to run the gauntlet of Congress, and needs the green light from the Navy in the form of a sweeping Navy force-structure assessment (FSA), expected sometime in the next month.

“The biggest thing that came out of the new strategy is the shift of the Marine Corps away from focusing on amphibious assaults, where they will storm a beach like in World War II, toward much smaller operations,” said Bryan Clark, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. 

Assault Craft Unit 5 (L) during the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s amphibious offload to Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in California.  (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Adam Dublinske)

Clark, a former special assistant to the Chief of Naval Operations, told The Epoch Times that those new operations would be “more like small raids, setting up advanced bases in remote locations.”

Using higher numbers of smaller ships, the Marines would set up artillery, batteries, and surveillance on numerous remote atolls and island chains, slipping inside the anti-aircraft bubble on smaller ships, without the provocation or risk associated with a carrier or large amphibious ship.

“That shift [in strategy] has a lot of implications for the kinds of equipment and systems the Marines need, which has created a lot of disruption in the industry that supports the Marine Corps and also with the Navy that builds the ships and mans the ships the Marines use,” Clark said.

Great power competition has pushed the 186,000-strong Marine Corps to narrow its strategy focus almost exclusively on China, Clark says, while NATO and the U.S. army tackle the other strategic challenges posed by Russia in Europe.

An MV-22 Osprey lands on the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4) while the amphibious dock landing ship USS Harpers Ferry (LSD 49) follows. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kyle Carlstrom)

In many ways, that marks a return to the traditional role of the Marines as an amphibious Navy-supporting expeditionary force—albeit minus the large-scale beach assaults launched from massive amphibious ships.

Distributed Lethality

The Marine Corps’ strategy aligns with new Navy tactics called distributed operations, designed to counter the fact that the queens in the game of maritime chess—the large U.S. ships and carriers—are held at bay by relatively expendable firepower.

Distributed operations mean moving away from reliance on a few large ships, instead, distributing the firepower and forces (lethality), as well as surveillance, across many more platforms, including unmanned ships, with no single point of failure.

Visions of a massed naval armada nine nautical miles off-shore in the South China Sea preparing to launch the landing force in swarms of ACVs, LCUs, and LCACs [amphibious landing vehicles] are impractical and unreasonable,” Berger wrote in his strategy document. “We must accept the realities created by the proliferation of precision long-range fires, mines, and other smart-weapons, and seek innovative ways to overcome those threat capabilities.”

A US Navy hovercraft speeds past the USS Wasp, a US Navy multipurpose amphibious assault ship, during the amphibious landing exercises as part of the annual joint U.S.–Philippines military exercise on the shores of San Antonio town, facing the South China Sea. (Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images)

Among the other solutions, Berger also proposed experimenting with “lethal long-range unmanned systems capable of traveling 200 nautical miles.”

But the mainstay of Marine-distributed operations would be Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO)—the creation of positions on numerous atolls and islands, potentially owned by allies, which Clark referred to.

Similar strategies have been proposed for British marines as a solution to the long-range missile puzzles.

Shell Game

Sidharth Kaushal, a research fellow on sea power at defense think tank Royal United Services Institute, last week co-authored a paper on the subject. 

It’s very difficult to find and suppress missile batteries on an island,” Kaushal told The Epoch Times.

“EABO envisions creating a litany of advanced anti-ship positions, anti-air defense positions, and potentially forward air refueling positions. This would now give the adversary a headache because they now have to waste expensive precision-guided munitions on multiple atolls, many of which are empty; most of which will be hardened to a certain degree,” he said.

“This would give the U.S. Navy—which would be operating behind these sorts of atoll positions—more freedom for maneuvers as well as a certain degree of air cover.”

That protection of the Naval force marks another key change in Marine Corps strategy, he said—a focus on assisting the fleet.

The Marine Corps could also bring anti-ship missiles to those positions—something it hasn’t done in the past.

A combined formation of aircraft from Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 5 and Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 9 pass in formation above the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) in the Philippine Sea on June 18, 2016. (Steve Smith/U.S. Navy/Handout via Reuters)

For the Chinese, it’s worthwhile to throw precision-guided missiles worth millions at a $14 billion ship that can be sunk with one hit, taking down billions of dollars worth of aircraft at one time.

But even if it can be identified, an island or atoll can’t be sunk, stacking the costs in favor of the Marines. Furthermore, the Marines would be constantly moving positions from one island to another.

It’s like a shell game, in a way,” Kaushal said. “One shell is full, many are empty. If you’re constantly moving, you force the opponent to expend munitions.”

But the island position strategy isn’t primarily about all-out warfare.

Instead, it turns the tables on adversaries that have relied on their anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile prowess to hassle their way toward their geopolitical goals without sparking all-out conflict.

Philippine Marines take part in a simulated beach landing exercise as part of their annual joint naval exercises with U.S. Marines at a marine base in Ternate, Cavite province, southwest of Manila on Oct. 8, 2015.  (Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images)

“This approach of putting U.S. weapons on allied soil—it’s using the Chinese playbook against them,” Clark notes. “Because you end up with a similar set of considerations.”

So having smaller ships (preferably with stealth capability) is vital not only militarily—it’s also about being able to slip into position either unnoticed or with a politically palatable cover story.

Political Cover Stories

Military analysts refer to this concept as “operating below the threshold of conflict.”

The U.S. National Defense Strategy specifically called for military day-to-day operations to be able to “defend U.S. interests from challenges below the level of armed conflict.”

Kaushal says that operating below the level of armed conflict can fall into one of two categories. One is actions that are coercive, but involve no actual conflict. He gives the example of Chinese fishing boats threatening competitors as the Chinese navy waits on the horizon.

The other category is an armed conflict that doesn’t tip into or trigger open war.

To engage “below the conflict,” a ship or force needs to already be in the neighborhood, and it needs a cover story, such as being on exercises, or stealth capability.

“It’s really the local forces that are available on-site, rather than the aggregate capabilities of both nations which matter,” says Kaushal. “It’s how much you can muster in a relatively short time span.”

That means there’s going to be a growing, but low-key, low-visibility military presence in the Pacific to keep all those elements ready, he says.

“There is going to be a growing emphasis on a forward-deployed layer of contact forces that can operate with a low signature and with a degree of stealth within the anti-aircraft bubble.”

“You see this very much in what America calls dynamic deployment.”

“If you can generate a relatively scalable force, and place it on a few islands after some provocation, that might be a way of sending a diplomatic and coercive counter-message without escalating to a level that, for example, politicians might not be comfortable with.”

“In a limited skirmish between the PLA [Chinese] navy and let’s say allied forces, deploying something like a carrier task group might be too political.”

To a degree, this is a return to the low-conflict, high-stakes skirmishes and maneuvers of the Cold War, Kaushal says.

“This form of conflict is likely to become ever more frequent because states can’t afford to clash openly in a world of mutually assured destruction and economic interdependence.”

While the cover stories of maneuvers, humanitarian missions, and so forth, allow forces to be in the right place at the right time and are transparent to both adversaries, as long as both sides have too much to lose from all-out conflict, neither will unmask that mutual fiction, Kaushal says.

“It’s a question of whether leaders in both countries are willing to tie themselves to a collision course by openly acknowledging what’s happening,”

Clark too says that the EABO concept is about operating below the threshold.

Smaller Boats

But the Marine Corps plan has a number of hurdles to pass, Clark says.

If you really accept the argument that this will be the form of Marine operations, at least for the foreseeable future, then a lot of the force structure shifts that the Navy’s been buying to support the Marines are not as useful.”

Instead of the current 33 large amphibious ships, for example, they might need 50 or 60 “much smaller ships,” Clark says.

“That’s a pretty significant disruption to the Navy’s shipbuilding and to the shipbuilding industry.”

“The other thing is that the Marine Corps internally is going to have to pay for all these new precision weapons, electronic warfare systems, command and control systems that they want to put ashore on these advanced bases.”

But Clark says that there’s a lot of interest on both the part of the Navy and Marine Corps in bringing Berger’s plan to life and that he expects the upcoming FSA to evolve the Navy fleet in that direction. 

“The question will then be whether the Navy and Marine Corps can make a case to Congress, and to the administration, even.”

“Then, they will have to convince the industry that there is a plan that will keep the industry solvent during this shift.”

The changes will come slowly, he says, because shipbuilding is a very capital intensive activity.

“With the Army, you can make much more rapid changes. We saw with the Army during the Iraq war, they were able to create a counter-insurgency-focused army within about three or four years.”

Appealing to the Marine Spirit

The largest of the amphibious ships won’t be axed, but instead, turned into mini-aircraft carriers for the new F-35B stealth fighter with its vertical takeoff and landing capability.

“They will want to keep the 11 of those that they plan on having,” says Clark, “and let them mostly do the job of carrying F-35s.”

In this handout image provided by the U.S. Navy, an F-35B Lightning II makes the first vertical landing on a flight deck at sea aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp in the Atlantic Ocean on Oct. 3, 2011. (Natasha R. Chalk/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)

 “Most of the adjustments that we will see in the amphibious force structure will be in the smaller LPDs. The Navy just bought a new tranche of those, they just bought 13, and they are getting ready to buy the next tranche.”

Gen. Berger has suggested that the force could be cut to pay for the changes—a move that Clark says is unlikely to go down well with Congress or with the retired Marines who hold some sway over decision-makers.

But despite the upheaval, the commandant’s plans could appeal to the core identity of the Marine Corps, and its fierce pride as a separate force in its own right, Clark says. “The [strategy] appeals in a way to the old guard because it creates a very different mission for the Marine Corps than the Army.” 

Kaushal agrees, saying that the seizing of offshore positions, EABO, and providing support for the Naval fleet all “reflects the classic emphasis of the Marine Corps.”

“What the Marine Corps was doing in the 2000s, helping with very distinctly land battles in the Middle East, Fallujah, and so on, was the real divergence from its culture.”

Follow Simon on Twitter: @SPVeazey
RECOMMENDED