Slaying the Dragon: Marines Retooling for Potential War with China

By Jon Harper
Marines prepare to conduct an air assault during an exercise.

Defense Dept. photo

The island-hopping campaign against Japanese forces during World War II was perhaps the U.S. Marine Corps’ finest hour. Today, Marines are trying to ready themselves for a potential conflagration against another Indo-Pacific adversary that has emerged as a great power competitor in the 21st century — China.

After the 9/11 attacks and the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, counterinsurgency became the service’s main focus. But not anymore.

The Corps has been conducting “a lot of COIN ops for the last two decades,” Lt. Gen. Mark Wise, deputy commandant for aviation, noted at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space conference in August.

However, “the potential adversaries that we have out there have been watching closely and not standing idly by,” he said. “They have been increasing in complexity, they’ve been increasing in capacity, and they’ve been doing all of that over the last 20 years. And it’s only accelerating right now.”

Who are these potential adversaries?

“The pacing threat is China,” said Lt. Gen. Eric Smith, commanding general at Marine Corps Combat Development Command and deputy commandant for combat development and integration. “We shouldn’t sugarcoat that and talk in vague terms. We’re talking about China as a pacing threat because of their bellicose actions and language.”

The Corps is not as well postured as it should be to address the challenge, officials say. To get after the problem, the service is pursuing new technologies, force structure changes and operating concepts.

Operating concepts that the Marines are looking to apply in the Indo-Pacific region include distributed maritime ops, littoral ops in a contested environment, and expeditionary advanced base operations.

Marines must be able to employ mobile, low-signature, operationally relevant, and easy to maintain and sustain naval expeditionary forces from a series of austere, temporary locations ashore or inshore within a contested or potentially contested maritime area in order to conduct sea denial, support sea control, or enable fleet sustainment, according to a service news release.

Employing these concepts in the Indo-Pacific is no easy task, Wise noted.

“When you look at an archipelago that’s greater than 1,000 islands and you’re looking at how you’re going to posture in a theater like that … that adds a level of complexity to the challenge you’re trying to solve,” he said. “How are you going to operate in that theater? ... It [is] really hard when you’re looking at the distances we’re covering to do that.”

The Marine aviation community envisions a “defense-in-depth approach,” according to Wise.

Under this construct, F-35B joint strike fighters — which have a short-takeoff/vertical-landing capability— can be deployed from “big-deck” amphibious warships or other locations and operate on the “outer edge” of the battlespace as both sensors and shooters, he said. Drones such as the MQ-9 Reaper could provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support. And transport aircraft such as the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor platform — which can take off and land vertically like a helicopter and then fly faster in fixed-wing mode — would quickly move Marines where they need to go to conduct assaults or perform other missions.

To boost the lethality of aircraft, the service is developing new air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons.

However, “the key and operative piece here is the network that supports it,” Wise said. That will enable warfighters to “take longer-range shots” and better control weapons.

The Marine Corps is working with the Navy on an initiative known as Project Overmatch, the sea services’ contribution to joint all-domain command and control. The aim is to better connect sensors and shooters and “integrate the kill chains out there and make sure that we can put steel on target,” said William Williford, executive director at Marine Corps Systems Command.

During joint exercises, the Corps has been practicing the ability to shoot weapons from one platform and guide them from another. It has done so “with great success,” Wise said. “But there’s some work still to do.”

In a contested environment, Marines want to have multiple pathways to transmit data between sensors and weapon systems such as loitering munitions and long-range fires.

“What we’re trying to do on the acquisition side is making sure that we look at all those new capabilities and we integrate those with the naval force … utilizing legacy systems throughout the process — and making sure that we’re integrating [all of] those capabilities across the battlespace,” Williford said.

Brig. Gen. David Odom, director of expeditionary warfare, N95, compared the Corps to a Swiss Army knife that must provide capabilities across the spectrum of conflict.

Williford noted that Marines are getting new equipment to make them more lethal and survivable. That includes: an enhanced combat helmet system with better communications capabilities; squad monocular night vision goggles; the M27 infantry automatic rifle; an enhanced 5.56 round; new suppressors; and Carl Gustaf multipurpose anti-armor/anti-personnel weapon systems.

However, in many cases Marines may find themselves in a supporting role rather than as trigger pullers.

“Marines all want to be out there slinging lead, they want to be out there dropping targets,” Smith said. “We have not gone away from that.”

However, “when you’re talking about a pacing threat, our largest contribution may be that we sense and make sense of what’s going on and that we gain and maintain custody of targets and pass that data to the naval and Joint Force,” he said. “We may do that more than we prosecute targets, because that’s how the Joint Force goes after a pacing threat. We are not going after … a peer competitor solo. That is not the future.”

An example of how the Marine Corps could support its sister services is by employing anti-ship missiles from mobile, ground-based platforms that are difficult to locate. Such weapons, at a cost of about $1.7 million, could sink a $2 billion enemy warship and contribute to “sea denial” operations, Smith said.

Work is underway to bring that capability online. Oshkosh Defense’s Remotely Operated Ground Unit for Expeditionary Fires platform recently participated in sink-at-sea exercises known as SINKEX in Hawaii.

The company’s unmanned ROGUE Fires system leverages the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle’s off-road mobility and payload capacity and Oshkosh’s advanced autonomous vehicle technologies, the contractor said in a press release.

As part of the demonstration, a Navy-Marine Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System, based on a ROGUE Fires chassis, successfully launched a Naval Strike Missile and scored a direct hit on a target at sea, Oshkosh said.

“When you put a remotely operated ground unit expeditionary road vehicle … and the Naval Strike Missile together and you put it in the First Island Chain — good luck finding that [if you’re the enemy], because you won’t,” Smith said, referring to a strategic area in the Asia-Pacific theater. “You have to respect that if you’re a peer adversary. That is a game-changing capability for the combatant commander.”

Meanwhile, the Corps wants to upgrade the vessels that would be needed to transport Marines and their equipment.

“The development of a robust inventory of traditional amphibious ships, new light ships, alternate platforms and littoral connectors is required to create a true naval expeditionary stand-in-force and force-in-readiness,” Commandant Gen. David Berger said in a recent update to his planning guidance.

Senior leaders are exploring various options for the amphibious fleet structure and overall requirements, Odom said.

The sea services currently aim to acquire 35 new light amphibious warships, known as LAWs, to support other L-class vessels and Marine littoral regiments.

“We’ll need that organic lift, that maneuverability, that mobility and survivability inside the web” of adversaries’ targeting capabilities, Odom said.

Officials are looking at the connector fleet that carries troops from ship to shore. Landing craft utility and landing craft air cushion vehicles are aging, Odom noted. The Navy and Marine Corps want new LCUs and LCACs that are more capable and reliable.

The service is transitioning to a more advanced LPD Flight II amphibious transport dock, but Berger is already looking ahead at what comes next.

“It is also time to begin seeking a replacement for the LPD-17 Flight II whose fundamental design elements were conceived more than 25 years ago,” Berger wrote. “We must answer the question — what is LXX? While we do not have an answer to that question yet, we do know that the most lethal capability on a non-big deck amphibious ship of the future cannot be the individual Marine.”

Ashore, the Corps wants Marines to be more self-sufficient when forward deployed in austere locations. That requires being able to forage for food, purify water from local sources and use nontraditional energy technology.

“If you’re working on things that are small [such as] reverse-osmosis water purification units, you’re probably on the right track,” Smith told members of industry. “If you’re working on wearable power generation, solar power that can be used at scale by a unit that can power up squad radios, platoon radios — those kinds of things — you’re probably on the right track.”

Those types of capabilities would reduce dependence on logistics ships to move nonlethal materiel, thereby freeing up assets to move weapon systems and “bring more lethality” to the battlefield, he added.

Meanwhile, officials are keen on the potential of robotic systems and artificial intelligence to augment the force.

“With unmanned and AI, I think we’re sort of at the tip of the iceberg,” Odom said. Platforms and individual Marines can be equipped with such technologies, he noted.

“Right now, we’re starting to see a combined arms approach of both of those capabilities … which I think is a force multiplier for our fleet commanders,” he said.

To better prepare for a potential future battle against China, the Corps is looking to get rid of some legacy systems to free up money to buy new equipment that would be more relevant in that type of fight.

“You must divest of something to generate those assets, to then begin the process of experimenting, testing, procuring,” Smith said. “The sooner we accelerate that, the sooner we’ll get to where we need to be against the pacing threat.”

Smith noted that the Corps has taken a lot of heat over its decision to get rid of its tanks, but he argued those platforms wouldn’t have as much utility as other systems in a war against China.

“Hate the game, not the player,” he said. “I love tanks. They’re awesome. [But] they are not of the same value as long-range precision fires in the Indo-Pacific theater.”

To achieve Berger’s goals and vision for the future force, Smith said the Marine Corps needs sufficient funding from Congress for modernization and transformation.

“Doing this is going to be wicked hard for the next several years,” he said.

Topics: Marine Corps News, International, Global Defense Market

Comments (2)

Re: Marines Retooling for Potential War with China

Never should have cancelled NLOS-FH or FOG-M. Buy the Spike for the USMC...

HD Kent at 11:02 AM
Re: Marines Retooling for Potential War with China

As someone following Force Design 2030 for a while, I found that the divestment in USMC Legacy equipment, such as artillery and USMC M1A1 tanks did save the US Marines money. However, besides the new replacement systems mentioned here, there hasn't been any mention of any new weapons systems for overmatch for peer nations' armored vehicles.

For example, SPIKE NLOS ATGM on a JLTV is already purchased by the Estonian Army and eight SPIKE ATGMs on a JLTV was tested. The US Marines made no mention of wanting any of this. RIwP on a JLTV might suffice with Javelin COAX, but SPIKE NLOS has a 15 mile range, not five miles although it is debatable if armor engagements with ATGM JLTVs should be beyond five miles.

There has been no Marine mention of replacement firepower for the divested systems. Drones are supposed to replace this lack of organic firepower, and perhaps cruise missiles dropped from C-130s and NMESIS Naval Strike Missiles and HIMARS, but when it comes to direct-fire weapons, the need for ground armor seems lacking and driving around in open unarmed MRZRs seems silly in an artillery-filled environment. The Textron Cottonmouth Recon Vehicle seems lesser-armed with CROWS II .50cal with Javelin COAX than the LAV 25 because Javelin is just a one-shot ATGM weapon before reloading.

The US Marines have stated, very obviously, that a lot is Classified with Force Design 2030. They don't want to discuss or disclose what they have their eye on as new weapon system replacements, especially for ground warfare in the wheeled realm besides Cottonmouth. However, a lot of what the US and European Defense Industry has is COTS and I have not seen any indication of the US Marines making a move towards buying any of these newer more capable weapons systems being used by NATO or RIMPAC Asian armies.

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