Preparing to fight China, the new imperial Japan, Marines look for victory in 1940s roots

How does the Marine Corps plan to defeat an enemy that has the same ambition as Imperial Japan — seizing control of the far western Pacific Ocean and then using that control to deny the free political and trade choices of other nations.

By doing sort of what my grandfather did on Okinawa. Secure control of forward territory. As reported by the Wall Street Journal and formalized by Marines Corps guidance this week, the Marines are returning to their Pacific roots.

The brainchild of the Marine Corps’ relatively new Commandant Gen. David Berger, the 2030 force vision abandons heavy armor and maneuver warfare and reembraces amphibious assault and stronghold warfighting. In essence, the Marines are going to become less focused on preparing for massed rushes across vast spaces, as seen in Iraq in 2003, and more focused on seizing Pacific islands, then using those islands to hop firepower against enemy forces.

China is embarked on a generational campaign to control the South China Sea and its access routes. To accomplish this goal, China has established artificial island fortresses across the region. Any civilian or military traffic transiting these areas is challenged to request permission to transit, thus helping formalize Chinese sovereignty claims. Those who do not request permission are then challenged by Chinese forces as having intruded in its sovereign territory.

Xi Jinping’s intent is to use this control to ensure that nations such as Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia make political decisions in deference to Beijing’s wishes, and to ensure that trillions of dollars in annual trade flows are subject to his veto. Just one example: China hopes its strategy will persuade nations far beyond the South China Sea to do business with its companies, rather than regional competitors, for fear of China obstructing their trade interests.

To be clear, this agenda represents as profound a long-term threat to the U.S.-led liberal international order as any threat since the end of the Second World War. If China succeeds, it will greatly undermine global democratic governance and the principles of free trade and movement that are integral to our mutual prosperity. Unfortunately, alongside great allies such as Australia and new partners such as India, other American allies, most hypocritically, Emmanuel Macron of France, are bowing to China. So America has had to take the lead.

Current U.S. strategy is to contest China’s artificial territories by sailing past them and flying over them. Washington hopes this will inspire more nations to do the same, undermining Beijing’s intimidation. But the risks of conflict are growing. China is adopting a more aggressive stance against U.S. Navy forces that transit its control zones, including by firing eye-debilitating lasers at aircrews. Russia is increasing its support for the Chinese military’s efforts.

As things stand, the current U.S. warfighting strategy for the South China Sea is for the U.S. Navy to isolate and project power off its carrier groups and submarine forces, with support from the Air Force. The Army is developing long-range artillery platforms it would use to attack Chinese forces from American strongholds further afield. But the Marine Corps’ strategy has been less clear until now. Stepping into the gap, Berger’s 2030 vision sees a smaller but more agile force that can seize and project power from islands. Or as Berger puts it, acting to support U.S. “sea control and sea denial in a contested littoral environment.”

Still, the Marines expect this environment to be “very challenging.”

That’s an appropriate descriptor. Chinese anti-ship and anti-surface ballistic missile capabilities are highly competent and far more of a threat, if delivered in saturation strikes, to U.S. forces than some are willing to admit (the Navy, in particular). Chinese naval forces are also developing rapidly in their capability and crew competencies. And due to Chinese electronic, space, and cyberwarfare developments, the U.S. military must credibly consider the prospect of losing any conflict in the South China Sea.

Berger’s vision accepts those concerns and aims to mitigate them by addressing “shortfalls in expeditionary long-range precision fires; medium-to-long-range air defense systems; short-range (point defense) air defense systems; high-endurance, long-range unmanned systems with Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), Electronic Warfare (EW), and lethal strike capabilities; and disruptive and less-lethal capabilities appropriate for countering malign activity by actors pursuing maritime ‘gray zone’ strategies.”

Translated into action, all that jargon means giving Marine forces the ability to deter nonlethal laser attacks, rapidly secure strongholds capable of blunting Chinese missile and air force attacks, and then use those strongholds to target and destroy Chinese naval, air, and ground forces surrounding the strongholds. The idea here is that if the U.S. can retake China’s artificial islands, or at least some of them, it can then use those islands to smash Chinese forces at their operational periphery, pushing China’s military back toward the mainland by punitively denying its freedom of action at range.

But there’s a particular if appropriate Marine aggression to this strategy. Berger’s document repeatedly emphasizes the need for his Marines to be able to “operate and persist” in areas well within Chinese weapons range. This strategy thus focuses on a traditional Marine Corps ethos: a willingness to accept casualties, perhaps heavy casualties, in return for moving the needle toward victory.

So it’s good news for a simple reason: If war ever comes, these reforms will make U.S. victory likelier.

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