Marines See Asian Allies as Their Best Weapon Against China

By Sandra I. Erwin

In response to the People’s Republic of China’sascendancy as a military power, the Pentagon drafted an “air-sea battle” concept that calls for the U.S. armed forces to ensure their aircraft, ships and guided weapons can outmatch the PLA’s arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles.
Analysts predict that as Navy and Marine Corps forces expand their presence in the Asia-Pacific region, they will face so-called “anti-access” threats from emerging powers such as a China.
But Marine leaders in the region do not fear such scenarios, and believe that by establishing close ties with Asian allies, the United States will have access when it needs it, said Brig. Gen. Richard L. Simcock, deputy commander of Marine Forces Pacific. The command is the Corps’ largest, with approximately 83,000 Marines and sailors.

Dealing with anti-access threats is less about designing new weapons and more about “engagement” with friendly countries in Asia, Simcock said June 11 during a telephone conference with reporters. Steady coalition-building efforts such as multinational military exercises and U.S. teams training foreign allies almost guarantee that America’s military will remain the dominant power in Asia-Pacific, he said.

Working with allies and helping to train their armed forces — or what the Pentagon calls “phase zero” operations — would help avert armed conflict as the United States would have a huge coalition on its side to deter a potential enemy, Simcock said.

Navy and Marine Corps officials in Asia are convinced that “engagement” is the ticket to peace in the region, he said. “Countries are very receptive to the type of engagement that the Navy and Marine Corps bring to the maritime theater,” he said.

No country wants to see the United States increase its military presence in the area permanently, but Asian allies welcome opportunities to train with U.S. forces and buy U.S. technology so their weapons are compatible. “That type of engagement and access is what we build upon” to push back against enemies that would seek to deny entry to U.S. forces, he said. “The relationships we build today, before any crisis hits, will pay off when a crisis occurs,” regardless of whether it is a man-made or a natural disaster.

After spending a year traveling around Asia, Simcock said he concluded that U.S. military dominance in the region is not likely to be challenged any time soon.  Washington policymakers and think tanks, meanwhile, obsess over a potential war with China.

In reality, the United States is in a much stronger position than most people realize, Simcock said. There is a case to be made that U.S. weaponry should be improved and ships should be hardened for any eventual contingency, Simcock said. But the focus should be on preventing crises, not just on how to respond to one, he added. “You want to hedge all bets. But the conversation needs to start with the actions we are taking today with countries,” he said. “These relationships [are] going to assure the access we will need when a crisis strikes.”

Cyber espionage and concerns about the hacking of U.S. networks reportedly originating in China are legitimate issues, but none that causes Simcock to lose sleep. “The only thing that keeps me up at night is coffee, and I don't mean to be flippant,” he said. “I am very positive about the Pacific. We have become the partner of choice in the region.”

Simcock said Marine forces currently are involved in 170 international training exercises per year in the U.S. Pacific Command area of operations. As part of the Pentagon’s “pivot to Asia” plan, the Marine Corps will seek to relocate more than 9,000 Marines from Okinawa, Japan, to other parts of the Pacific: 4,800 to Guam, 2,700 to Hawaii and 2,500 to Australia.

With the Defense Department facing across-the-board budget cuts, analysts have questioned whether the Marine Corps can afford to carry out the realignment in Asia. “Conducting large-scale posture transformations during an era of increasing budgetary pressures and competition for scarce resources has proven to be a challenge for the Defense Department,” said aJune 2013 report by the Government Accountability Office. The Pentagon originally estimated that the cost to relocate Marines in Asia would be $4.2 billion, but the Marine Corps later upped the price tag to $13 billion. GAO said even the larger sum might not account for all costs.

Simcock downplayed the impact that budget cuts would have on the Marine Corps’ strategy in Asia. The military is in a financial crunch, he recognized, but it can still pivot to Asia successfully. “We may not have everything we want,” he said. “But right now I have everything I need.”

To make up for shortages of amphibious warships, for instance, Marines are using cargo ships that usually serve as floating warehouses. “We are putting Marines on them and deploying them in exercises.” Marines increasingly will rely on smaller ferries, known as “joint high speed vessels,” that are cheaper to operate than big-deck amphibious ships. Every Marine commander would like more amphibious vessels, he said, but missions can still be done with what is available.

Marines in the Pacific are exuberant about the recent deployment of a V-22 Osprey squadron in Japan, and the prospect of a second one in the near future, said Simcock. Within a few years, the F-35B joint strike fighter will be coming to Japan, too, he noted.

Topics: Expeditionary Warfare, International

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