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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

The U.S. Marine Corps: Now An Access-Denial Force to Fight China?

M777 Marine Corps
SYRIA - U.S. Marines with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit fire an M777 Howitzer during a fire mission in northern Syria as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, Mar. 24, 2017. The unit provided 24/7 support in all weather conditions to allow for troop movements, to include terrain denial and the subduing of enemy forces. More than 60 regional and international nations have joined together to enable partnered forces to defeat ISIS and restore stability and security. CJTF-OIR is the global Coalition to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. (Note: these are similar weapons to the ones being sent to Ukraine).

This week Yomiuri Shimbun reported that the U.S. Marine Corps intends to found a Marine Littoral Regiment capable of island-hopping along Japan’s Ryukyus chain, which arcs from the southernmost home island of Kyushu, through Okinawa at the chain’s midpoint, almost to within sight of northern Taiwan. Small sensor- and missile-equipped detachments will comprise the new regiment, helping it scout out hostile naval and air forces and pummel them should they draw near.

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The Marine Littoral Regiment constitutes part of Force Design 2030, Commandant David Berger’s concept for partly reconfiguring the Marine Corps as an access-denial force. Under the concept marines will fan out among the southwestern islands in concert with U.S. sea and air forces and the Japan Self-Defense Forces. Expeditionary units drawn from the regiment will “stand in,” defying China’s anti-access arsenal, rather than stand off for the sake of force protection.

And yield geographic space to China by default. The Marine Corps and the allies will refuse to give ground.

The regiment’s twin goals: to deny China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) access to the southwestern islands, safeguarding sovereign Japanese territory, and to deny Chinese naval and mercantile shipping the ability to transit the waters between the islands. Defend the islands while barring the straits and you cement the island chain into an offshore Great Wall in reverse—a fortified geographic barrier guarded by American and Japanese sentinels.

In turn you imprison the PLA Navy and Air Force within the China seas, depriving them of maneuver space that’s essential to bluewater operations.

It’s a truism in military strategy, as in sports, that the home team commands an innate edge over any visiting team. Its bases, forces, and manpower are nearby, as are likely battlegrounds. It knows the physical and human terrain better than any visitor could. Etc. China has leveraged its home-field advantage vis-à-vis U.S. and allied forces, strewing cruise, ballistic, and hypersonic missiles and missile-armed aircraft along its coastal zones. Operating in conjunction with the PLA Navy’s fleet of submarines and surface patrol craft, these shore-based implements of sea power can make things tough even on a stronger visiting team.

But what if two home teams square off? Japanese and Chinese armed forces play on the same fields, so they enjoy similar advantages. These Asian heavyweights have waged a back-and-forth series since the seventh century. Japan has dominated Sino-Japanese contests since the 1890s; China wants the championship back. If China is tapping the logic of home-field advantage, the United States and Japan are belatedly repaying the compliment, putting strategic geography, alliance diplomacy, and maritime might to work for themselves.

In short, the allies are harnessing their own advantages. One hopes their nautical Great Wall proves so forbidding that it deters China from trying to breach it. If so we will never learn who wins when home team meets home team on the field of battle.

And not knowing will be fine.

Now, as U.S. Marines and their comrades chart strategy and operations in the Ryukyus, they should take heed of Carl von Clausewitz’s sage counsel on “cordon warfare.” An offshore Great Wall is nothing more than a distended defensive perimeter with immovable guard towers, namely the islands themselves. Clausewitz vests little faith in defensive lines. “The obstacle they offer the attacker,” he maintains, is “worthless without powerful fire to support it. Otherwise it is good for nothing.”

Clausewitz was thinking mainly of armies trying to protect extended lines during land warfare in nineteenth-century Europe. That was his experience. But his warnings are sound even in twenty-first-century Asia. Think about perimeter defense in algebraic terms. By definition any line is a series of infinitely many points, while the contender that can mass superior force at any given point tends to prevail in combat. No defender can be stronger than its likely foe at infinitely many points, so the edge goes to the attacker. The attacker simply masses combat power at some point along the line, overwhelms the defenders, and punches through.

Clausewitz’s remedy is to keep defense perimeters short while using artillery to offset the mismatch between ground forces at a particular place and time. Marines and their Japanese allies can’t shorten the defensive line along the Ryukyus—the islands are where they are—but at the same time the islands are fixed and immovable on the map. This is an advantage of considerable scope. No Chinese merchantman or PLA Navy ship of war can plow through an island. In the end, then, the challenge of island-chain defense is all about keeping PLA amphibious forces from landing along the Ryukyus while barricading the straits.

This is a sturdy defense line.

Straits are narrow seas by definition. So think about the Ryukyu defensive line as a series of short interlocking cordons overshadowed by missiles fired from shore, sea, or aloft. That’s a workable operational design. Despite his misgivings toward cordon warfare, in fact, the Prussian master might crack a smile if he beheld Force Design 2030 in action.

Let’s hope so.

A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare, Marine Corps University. The views voiced here are his alone.

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Lonnie Griffis

    January 14, 2023 at 7:13 pm

    The US Marine Corps is a light infantry unit only fit for rear area security details and guarding malls and other soft targets. They gave up being a military force when they eliminated all their hardware and went “weak and woke.” And Yes, I was a Marine, but they used to be able to hold their own against anyone. Not so much anymore.

  2. David Chang

    January 14, 2023 at 7:37 pm

    God bless people in the world.

    Attacking requires more soldiers, time, and supplies than defending. Ukraine is a attrition war. But from Guam to Okinawa, surface vessels keep our supplies and avoid moving too deep.

    God bless America.

  3. pagar

    January 14, 2023 at 9:39 pm

    US marine Corp need to bring along some well known shiseido products like lip gloss or lip balm for use by assorted personnel before they hop onto the china beaches from nearby Okinawa in the ryukyus.

    That’s because Okinawa is the most haunted military base in the western Pacific, full of disembodied spirits & ghouls, and a couple of marines with shiny lips at the nearby disembarkation point could or would keep all those ghouls at bay.

    Thereby assuring a safe and uneventful journey across the water for the leathernecks.

  4. Dan Jenson

    January 14, 2023 at 11:09 pm

    They could be effective with truck mounted lrasms and avengers.

  5. GMBurns

    January 15, 2023 at 6:56 am

    I was never a marine, but I was a combat engineer. I definitely like this concept as part of a more general strategy.
    Combined with sufficient air support at least sometimes, operating from distant carriers or from Japan, and with occasional support from surface vessels and Supply by submarine or airdrop. It isn’t the whole strategy, but it helps.

  6. Ewiak Ryszard

    January 15, 2023 at 9:33 am

    For now Heaven is holding back the winds of global nuclear war. This war, however, is maturing. Moses has already written: “And ships from the direction of Kittim [US Navy], and will afflict Asshur [Russia] and will afflict Eber [remaining enemies, including Iran and China].” (Numbers 24:24a) This will be a mutual slaughter. This time it will be a world war not only by name. Peace will be taken from the earth and the sword of great power will be used. (Revelation 6:4) Jesus characterized it in this way: “A frightening things both and extraordinary (related to unusual phenomena) from sky powerful will be.” For this reason, there will be significant tremors along the length and breadth of the regions [of strategic importance] and famines, and pestilences. Some ancient manuscripts contain the words “and frosts”. The Aramaic Peshitta: “and will be great frosts”. (Luke 21:11) We call this today “nuclear winter”. In Mark 13:8 there are also words of Jesus: “and disorders” (lack of public order). The Aramaic Peshitta: “and confusion” (on the state of public order). This extremely detailed sign fits only one war. “All these are only the beginning of the labor pains.” (Matthew 24:8, New Catholic Bible)
    And now before us is the return of “the king of the north”. (Daniel 11:29a) And that, in this context, means the end of “the era of the unipolar world”. The Russian garrisons will return to where they were previously stationed. It also means military actions and major crisis. Not only the eurozone will break up, but also the European Union and NATO. This will be the last sign of a nuclear war coming. (Daniel 11:29b, 30a)

  7. Karl

    January 15, 2023 at 1:18 pm

    I’m surprised that Japan and the US haven’t been doing this already. I’m not sure if the Marines are the correct ones to handle this but I believe it needs to be done.

  8. Ken

    January 19, 2023 at 4:38 pm

    Sure there are some “woke” elements within the USMC as there are in all of our military, but who else would you suggest; the US Army?

  9. Eric Klein

    January 27, 2023 at 6:34 am

    I am curious about how these island bastions will be sustained. They are a few hundred miles from the PRC mainland and within range of ISR drones, ballistic & cruise missiles, and air-launched missiles. How will we withdrawal casualties and replenish troops and munitions? The ships such as the proposed LAW or the existing LSV and EFT will likely be interdicted and we do not have very many of them. I am certain the USMC has studied this, but there is very little in the popular press about this.

  10. Leidsegracht

    January 27, 2023 at 11:30 am

    The strategy raises a lot of issues regarding sustainment, mobility, defense in depth especially the USN and USAF’s ability (and willingness) to provide support for Marines who will be standing in.

    The recent disagreement surrounding the Navy’s 2023 budget in which the Marine Corps asked for additional funding to grow the amphibious fleet including to develop a new smaller class of amphibious landing ship to support this strategy while the Navy’s budget submission not only didn’t request funding for this new class but further decreased the size of the existing amphib force doesn’t bode well for this strategy (even though the budget passed by Congress gave the Commandant final say in force design of the amphib fleet).

    The flip, or Chinese side of this strategy is while we view this as a way to prevent the PLAN from gaining freedom of access to the wider Pacific, should the PLAN/PLA forces control this chain they will greatly restrict USN and JDF ability to access the East China and thereby support Taiwanese defense.

  11. ATM

    January 28, 2023 at 7:02 pm

    Perfect job for marines. They can sit on the duff for long deployments and repaint everything several times a year. China is like Ferdinand the bull. You have to really poke it to get a reaction.

  12. Jacksonian Libertarian

    February 5, 2023 at 7:47 pm

    The Marine’s are way out ahead of the other services in adapting to the Information Age smart weapons. However they are dependent on the Navy, which is the worst at adapting to the Information Age. The Marines are at the mercy of the Navy’s surface ship logistics, and non-stealthy copters and vertical lift.

    The Navy has saddled itself with a handful of big (10k ton) nuclear subs, when what it needs is hundreds of small (1k-2k ton) AIP amphibious subs that can crawl up on a beach and roll-on-roll-off several hundred tons of Marine forces, service drones in contested waters, and provide contested area security and logistics.

    The Navy violates the strategic principle of dispersion by putting all its eggs in one basket. And risks one hit kills of its entire surface force. It only takes one DF-26 4,000lb warhead to mission kill an Aircraft Carrier battle group ($50 billion), with its entire force of defenders (3-4 missile ships, and a 10k ton nuclear powered sub).

    Chinese surface ships are even more vulnerable as the Marine’s island hard point strategy shows. But that’s not going to help the Navy’s destroyed sitting ducks, or make the Marine’s strategy logistically feasible.

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