The US Marines have introduced a new littoral regiment designed to directly counter Beijing’s South China Sea island fortresses, with a focus on rapid deployability, fire power and a measure of self-contained operating capability.
In the immediate aftermath of the disastrous Japanese strikes against the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and the successful air attacks against the measly British naval task force deployed to support Singapore, the allies were on the backfoot across the vast Pacific archipelagos and island chains.
This realisation, combined with the rampaging efficacy of Japan's Banzai Blitzkrieg through south-east Asia and the Pacific, saw the allies pivot, leveraging clandestine, hit-and-run, guerilla tactics to slow and at times directly hinder the advance of Japanese troops.
At the forefront of this capability for the US were Edson's Raiders of the 1st Marine Raider Battalion and Carlson's Raiders of the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion, which were a light amphibious infantry force designed to sow devastation and confusion against heavily fortified Japanese garrisons as the US prepared for full-scale warfare.
While the raider units were in many ways the precursors to the US Special Forces community, the shifting nature of the war, namely the shift towards large-scale amphibious assaults against the likes of Peleliu, Okinawa and Iwo Jima, prompted the Marines to retire the Raider Battalions in the final days of the war, however nothing is ever truly dead.
As the US and its allies have been forced to reorientate themselves away from decades of guerilla conflict in the Middle East and central Asia toward more traditional concepts of high-intensity, peer v peer combat operations, fresh life is being breathed into the Marine Raider concept.
This culminated in the creation of the Marine Special Operations Regiment as part of the US Marine Corps Special Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) in 2014 and, for the first time since the Second World War, the re-establishment of a Marine Raider force.
Prompting this doctrine and force structure shift is Beijing's increased militarisation and expansion of man-made and heavily fortified and hardened airfields and naval infrastructure throughout the highly contested waterways of the South China Sea (SCS), as the rising superpower seeks to expand its influence and power projection over the region.
These fortified and often artificial islands are more than just physical manifestations of Beijing's regional ambitions, they're also powerful links in China's anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) weapons platforms, which pose major risks to key US and allied force multipliers.
In response, the Marines, ever the evolutionary fighting force, have responded with the introduction of a new, littoral focused, light infantry force, with one key target in mind: Beijing's island fortresses.
Light, fast and self supporting
Driving this force structure development, US Marine Corps Major General Kevin Liams, assistant deputy commandant for Combat Development, is seeking to role out the new littoral regiments over the next few years.
Establishing his vision, MajGen Liams explained his proposed force structure for the littoral regiment, stating, "What assets would we be able to place in that battle space that are very low signature and that give us the firepower that we need to be a relevant force that provides consequences, should we get past the deterrence phase."
As part of the structural shift and force structure reorientation, the Marines are planning for three new littoral regiments, all three of which are to be based in the Indo-Pacific region, with two regiments based in Japan and one in Guam to serve as rapid reaction forces to support larger Marine Corps force structure elements, namely the Marine Air-Ground Task Forces.
MajGen Liams explained that he envisages the forces to be capable of self sustaining operations, at least in a limited capacity, "Much like our [Marine air-ground task forces] that we have now, there are support elements to it. So, we’ll have a littoral combat team; we’ll have a littoral logistics battalion; and we’ll have an anti-air battalion."
These units are designed to directly counter the rising capability and proliferation of advanced Chinese and Russian A2/AD weapons systems, effectively serving to get in, and under the armour and pressing the advantage offensively behind the enemy's front line in a sharp, offensive and debilitating manner, providing broader support to the wider kill chain.
The introduction of these units comes in line with the growing shift within US Navy and Marine Corps planners as both seek a Light Amphibious Warship and a Next Generation Medium Logistics Ship (NGMLS), which would be capable of not only operating under fire but also resupplying Marines deep within the enemy's kill-web.
One of the standout possibilities for the Australian concept Stern Landing Vessel (SLV), designed by Queensland-based Sea Transport Solutions (STS), which drew serious attention from the Marines, including Marine Corps Commandant General David Berger earlier in the year, with the corps devoting US$30 million to design and develop the concept further.
This plan announced as part of the FY2021 budget request would seek a "medium amphibious ship that can support the kind of dispersed, agile, constantly relocating force described in the Littoral Operations in Contested Environment (LOCE) and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) concepts", the Marine Corps has written, as well as the overarching Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) from the Navy.
For Australia, a nation defined by its relationship with traditionally larger yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities and competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, place the nation at the centre of the 21st century’s “great game”.
Further compounding Australia’s precarious position is an acceptance that “Pax Americana”, or the post-Second World War “American Peace”, is over and Australia will require a uniquely Australian approach and recognition that the nation is now solely responsible for the security of its national interests, with key alliances serving a secondary, complementary role to the broader debate.
Today, strategic sea lines of communication support over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport.
Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and chokepoints of south-east Asia annually.
Meanwhile, the Indian Ocean and its critical global sea lines of communication are responsible for more than 80 per cent of the world’s seaborne trade in critical energy supplies, namely oil and natural gas, which serve as the lifeblood of any advanced economy, including Australia, which has become vulnerable, as events in both the Middle East and south-east Asia show.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic, economic, diplomatic and military capabilities, serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
Both fixed-wing naval aviation and amphibious capabilities are key force multipliers reshaping the regional balance of power, as the world's premier amphibious operations and maritime-based power projection force, the restructure of US Marines to better respond to 'great power competition' presents interesting concepts for Australian consideration.
The growing prevalence of fixed-wing naval aviation forces in particular serves to alter the strategic calculus and balance of power. Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below, or get in touch with [email protected] or [email protected].