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US Navy and Marine Corps Preparing for Combat in the Littoral

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Asia Defense

US Navy and Marine Corps Preparing for Combat in the Littoral

New war-fighting concepts enable a “denial” strategy against China.

US Navy and Marine Corps Preparing for Combat in the Littoral
Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James R. Evans/Released

New reporting from the independent United States Naval Institute (USNI) outlines the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps’ progress towards warfighting concepts to operate in contested littorals. While the concepts are generic, they are particularly salient in the archipelagic geography along the first island chain encircling China, and in the South China Sea where China has built up dual-use facilities and military bases in the disputed Spratly and Paracel island chains. In concert with other efforts in the U.S. Department of Defense and among U.S. allies like Japan, they point towards a growing, aspirational capability to contain Chinese power projection within the first island chain.

For much of the post-Cold War era the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps practiced amphibious landings with an assumption that the Navy would have control of the seas they were operating in. The threat of Hezbollah-trained anti-ship missiles during the evacuation of non-combatants from Lebanon in 2006 and expanding anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities in competitors like China suggested that the assumption of conducting amphibious operations from uncontested seas no longer held.

But it soon became clear that the challenge was not just that the Navy’s job of getting the Marines ashore was harder. Instead, John Berry of the Marine Corps’ Futures Directorate explained to USNI that in future conflict scenarios the support would need to go the other way – with the Marines helping the Navy to seize and maintain control of the seas.

Berry explained the difference with examples from the United States’ experience in World War II. In the Atlantic, the Navy established sea control so that the Army could project power ashore, whereas in the Pacific, the Marines’ island-hopping amphibious campaigns supported projecting power seaward to establish and extend the Navy’s sea control. The Navy and Marine Corps are now relearning those lessons from the Pacific theater to design new warfighting concepts called Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE) and Expeditionary Advance Base Operations (EABO). Together these concepts integrate the Marines into the Navy’s effort to gain and maintain control of the seas both by fighting at-sea, and supporting the maritime fight from the shore.

At the Surface Navy Association’s conference in January, the Navy Staff’s director of Expeditionary Warfare – which is in charge of the Navy’s part in amphibious operations – explained what this new “Green in support of Blue” paradigm, or Marines supporting the Navy, would include. By establishing remote refueling and rearming sites for Naval aviation and forward logistics sites, neutralizing land-based adversary threats to ships or aircraft, and conducting their own fires against adversary shipping and aircraft, the Marines can help establish localized areas of sea and air control in contested areas under threat from long-range A2/AD systems.

This is broadly consistent with the vision for future Amphibious Operations that the Center for Budgetary and Strategic Assessments (CSBA) articulated a recent Fleet Architecture Study ordered by the U.S. Senate to guide future Navy acquisitions and organization. CSBA’s report has the Navy and Marine Corps working together to ensure Navy access by eliminating adversary weapons and sensors in littoral areas through amphibious raids, establishing expeditionary bases for logistics, surveillance, and fire support, and providing direct fire against adversary surface ships. The idea, articulated more directly by CSBA, is to be able to turn islands and archipelagos into barriers against adversary power projection.

While the LOCE concept is being designed for contingencies in hostile environments, it is not intended to address operations in a major war. This is consistent with CSBA’s overarching notion of “deterrence by denial” by prohibitively raising an adversary’s costs to achieving their objectives through force. In this context, amphibious forces may need to be postured inside contested environments.

While there are other littoral areas of concern in the world, the most strategically fraught are in East Asia, and specifically along the first island chain encircling China, and in the South China and East China Seas. CSBA illustrations of some of these concepts show how they might be implemented against prospective Chinese aggression, such as turning Japan’s Ryukyu islands into a barrier against Chinese fleets projecting their own force into the western Pacific, and showing how an amphibious raid might be conducted against China’s facilities on Woody Island in the South China Sea.

Nor are the Marines alone their efforts. The Marines’ LOCE concept is mirrored by the Army’s work towards a Multi-Domain Battle concept to similarly project land power in support of air and sea supremacy in an A2/AD environment that I described last year.

And these U.S. efforts could be complemented by Asian allies as well. Japan has been building up its own ground-based capabilities to project power towards the sea with new island radar sites and procurement of a new 300 kilometer-range mobile anti-ship missile for the Japan Ground Self Defense Force. This could enable Japan to create it’s own anti-access/area denial shield pointed towards China.

The four Japanese home islands together with the Ryukyu chain to the south effectively contain China’s entire east coast, with the widest possible “breakout” path through the 130 nautical mile wide Miyako Strait northeast of Taiwan, a gap that could credibly be covered by the JGSDF’s new anti-ship missile. China’s only other routes to the wider western Pacific are through the South China Sea, straits that must pass through or near the Philippines, another U.S. ally.

All of this suggests a modified approach to China’s A2/AD capabilities in the Pacific theater for the United States. The earlier AirSea Battle concept was largely offensive, potentially utilizing deep strikes on the Chinese mainland to defeat its A2/AD capabilities and provide access for follow-on forces within the first island chain. Insofar as concepts like LOCE and Multi-Domain Battle enable U.S. forces to operate within a contested environment, that is, inside an A2/AD umbrella, they could act as enablers to offensive operations utilizing concepts like AirSea Battle.

But the deterrence-by-denial effects that those ground-based, littoral capabilities provide against prospective Chinese aggression are noteworthy ends in themselves that don’t require follow-on offensive operations to justify them. The prospect of a Chinese A2/AD umbrella facing a U.S. and allied A2/AD umbrella was described last year in a study envisioning a future western Pacific war. The authors foresaw:

…a U.S. sphere of influence around allied landmasses, a Chinese sphere of influence over the Chinese mainland, and contested battlespace covering much of the South and East China Seas, wherein neither power enjoys wartime freedom of surface or air movement.

The result of an effective, mobile U.S. A2/AD umbrella over the first island chain against China’s entrenched A2/AD umbrella could mean that any future Sino-U.S. clash is likely to end in stalemate. More optimistically, the expectation of a stalemate would prevent such a clash in the first place.