Asia Defense | Security

U.S. Marines Planning Three Specialized Units for Island Fighting

Littoral Combat Regiments are intended to seize and set up logistics bases on small islands.

U.S. Marines Planning Three Specialized Units for Island Fighting
Credit: Flickr/Brook Ward

As the United States considers how best to deter potential Chinese aggression in the western Pacific and address its expanding envelope of military power across archipelagic geographies like the South China Sea, the U.S. Marines are considering creating as many as three new units designed for expeditionary combat in island environments.

Called Littoral Combat Regiments, the new units will have between 1,800 and 2,000 marines and will comprise a combat, logistics, and air defense team, according to USNI News. Infantry regiments typically have about 2,200 marines split across four battalions.

A marine regiment based in Hawaii will become the first experimental littoral regiment to test doctrine, organization, and practices. The experiment and design phase is intended to last three years.

The marines’ concept for littoral warfare is to seize islands or other coastal territory within a contested area and set up temporary expeditionary bases to provide logistical and fire support to other marine or navy units. The bases could provide advance refueling and rearmament for aircraft and mobile missile systems could provide cover for sorties of jets on their way to conduct strike missions.

In addition to providing air defense, the concept envisioned anti-ship and strike missiles to threaten enemy warships to protect sea lanes for supply ships or support naval operations against adversary fleets. This was to include Tomahawk truck-mounted anti-ship missiles. The marines have already chosen a truck-based version of Norway’s Naval Strike Missile for anti-ship and land-strike missions. There were also plans to procure a version of the U.S. Army’s ground-based hypersonic missile. However, the most recent defense budget cut a significant share of the marines’ requested funding for these missile systems.

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Whether or not those weapons are restored, the littoral regiments still need transport to the islands they are intended to seize. The U.S. Navy’s current amphibious ships make large, vulnerable targets in a crowded archipelagic environment. Key to the Littoral Regiment’s mobility will be the procurement of new, smaller amphibious ships. The “Light Amphibious Warship” program envisions a fleet of around 30 vessels capable of supporting 75 marines and their equipment. The navy hopes to keep each vessel’s cost to around $100 million. Commanders might hesitate risking more expensive and harder-to-replace vessels in the potentially hazardous coastal environments they might have to operate in, and without the same advanced self-defense weaponry carried by larger warships.

With three littoral regiments, the Marines would hypothetically be able to maintain a constant regional presence, with one unit deployed to the Western Pacific, one in work-ups, and another readying to deploy, and could probably surge a second regiment to the region in response to a crisis.