The Western Pacific Maritime Cockpit: US Navy, Marines (and Coast Guard) vs the PRC and PLA Navy

Further to this post (and other ones noted thereat),

The Western Pacific Naval Cockpit, or, PLA Navy vs US Navy

a whole lot of thinking is furiously going on about how to cope with a Dragon increasingly rampant on, under and over its regional seas (and sometimes beyond).

1) Excerpts from a major article by Megan Eckstein (tweets here) at US Naval Institute News (great source), with very tough–indeed harsh–language from the US services; seems to me they’re straying well into areas of high government policy that are not traditionally the domain publicly of the military. But that’s been going on for quite some time, here’s an example from the Obama years: “South China Sea: Why is USN Admiral Leading on US Policy vs China? Part 2“:

New U.S. Maritime Strategy Sets Sights on China

The Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard released their clearest argument yet for what they need to do to be prepared to take on China – not in a hypothetical future scenario, but in the day-to-day competition happening now on the seas.
The chief of naval operations and the commandants of the Marine Corps and Coast Guard signed a tri-service maritime strategy – Advantage at Sea; Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power – that was released today [Dec. 17] and is the first of its kind since the 2015 Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower.

The document notes that the services need to work together today to make preparations for a high-end war with China – but equally importantly, they need a strategy and the right tools to counter the day-to-day competition, sometimes called gray-zone operations, that China is currently conducting. The strategy accuses China of attacking military and civilian cyber networks; fielding naval auxiliaries disguised as civilian vessels; militarizing disputed islands and rock formations in the South China Sea; building up strategic, space, cyber, electronic, and psychological warfare capabilities; and pressuring small countries economically to build up overseas logistics and basing infrastructure in strategic maritime locations – activities that have been ongoing for years but the services haven’t been well positioned to talk about or counter.

This new strategy looks at the entire continuum of competition, crisis and conflict and examines in detail how the three services can play a role in each phase and what new tools and concepts they’ll need to succeed.

The document begins by laying out the problem: “Advantage at Sea is a Tri-Service Maritime Strategy that focuses on China and Russia, the two most significant threats to this era of global peace and prosperity. We prioritize competition with China due to its growing economic and military strength, increasing aggressiveness, and demonstrated intent to dominate its regional waters and remake the international order in its favor. Until China chooses to act as a responsible stakeholder rather than brandish its power to further its authoritarian interests, it represents the most comprehensive threat to the United States, our allies, and all nations supporting a free and open system [emphasis added].”

“China has implemented a strategy and revisionist approach that aims at the heart of the United States’ maritime power. It seeks to corrode international maritime governance, deny access to traditional logistical hubs, inhibit freedom of the seas, control use of key chokepoints, deter our engagement in regional disputes, and displace the United States as the preferred partner in countries around the world,” it adds.

Noting that China’s navy is growing faster than the U.S.’s and could further expand faster in wartime due to greater manufacturing capacity than the United States – plus the fleet is focused on the Western Pacific, whereas the U.S. fleet has global responsibilities – the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard lay out a new strategy that leverages each service’s unique advantages grows overall capacity in a cost-minded way.

“Integrated naval forces are uniquely suited for operations across the competition continuum. The Coast Guard’s mission profile makes it the preferred maritime security partner for many nations vulnerable to coercion. Integrating its unique authorities—law enforcement, fisheries protection, marine safety, and maritime security—with Navy and Marine Corps capabilities expands the options we provide to joint force commanders for cooperation and competition. In conflict, Navy-Marine Corps integration expands our ability to control the seas, as we combine distributed fleet operations and mobile, expeditionary formations with sea control and sea denial capabilities. These operations are guided by Naval Service concepts—Distributed Maritime Operations, Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment, and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations—that combine the effects of sea-based and land-based fires, enabling our forces to mass combat power at times and places of our choosing. Closer integration allows our forces to distribute more broadly and increase our operational unpredictability across the competition continuum by varying our timing, location, domain, forces, and activities.”

Further complicating the operating picture is the notion that, “In strategic competition, interactions between our forces and those of our competitors may occur at varying levels of intensity, in different locations, and in multiple domains simultaneously…

[We will] Deploy and sustain combat-credible forces. Forward deployed, combat-credible forces enable all lines of effort. We will deter potential adversaries from escalating into conflict by making that fight unwinnable for them. Should our adversaries choose the path of war, naval and joint forces will defeat adversary forces and impose global costs by leveraging our wartime operational concepts [emphasis added]

Starting with competition – which is already happening at sea today with China – the strategy says, “Together with international and whole-of-government efforts, the Naval Service will detect and document our rivals’ actions that violate international law, steal resources, and infringe upon the sovereignty of other nations. We will provide evidence of malign activities to U.S. and international officials to expose this behavior and increase the reputational costs for aggressors [emphasis added–this does not sound like a usual service role]. Forward naval forces, leveraging our complementary law-enforcement authorities and military capabilities, will stand ready to disrupt malign activities through assertive operations. Our expanded efforts will refute the false narratives of our rivals and demonstrate the United States’ commitment to protecting the rules-based order.”..

To prepare for all-out conflict, the strategy largely aligns with the operational concepts and related shipbuilding plans the Navy has been working on over the past few years. The Navy will achieve a fleet optimized for Distributed Maritime Operations, where a large number of small and unmanned ships will be spread out across the vast Pacific, with larger aircraft carriers, amphibious ships and destroyers armed with long-range weapons and aircraft to contribute to the fight. The Marine Corps will be optimized for its Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment and its Expeditionary Advance Base Operations concepts, where small groups of Marines will be able to maneuver around the battlespace, providing forward refueling stations, temporary missile-launching sites, intelligence-gathering posts and more [emphasis added, see 2) below–all these “distributed” ops seem rather dicey to me once the missiles start flying]. And the Coast Guard, which previously hadn’t talked about its role in this future DMO/EABO fight, would contribute with its niche capabilities, such as interdiction teams that could disrupt the flow of logistics to the enemy…

“Our combat operations will support, and be supported by, the Joint Force. Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force aircraft will sustain dominance of the skies, supported by joint aerial refueling assets [see this recent post on the USAF: “US Air Force Planning for “Distributed Operations” in Pacific“]. Bombers and fighters will mass overwhelming anti-surface and land-attack fires. Marine Corps expeditionary forces ashore will support domain awareness, provide forward arming and refueling points, and deny adversaries the use of key maritime terrain [emphasis added, ditto to comment above]. Rapidly deployable Coast Guard cutters, Port Security Units, and Advanced Interdiction Teams will provide specialized capabilities, augmenting operations in theater. Joint long-range precision fires will hold high-value adversary targets at risk, allowing U.S. and allied forces to focus on destroying the adversary’s fleet. Joint theater logistics will sustain and enable a high operational tempo in combat. Joint cyber and space effects will support all of these operations.”

“Allies and partners add capability, capacity, and legitimacy in combat operations. Leveraging our interoperable C2 networks, allies and partners provide all-domain fires to help establish sea control and project power. They interdict adversary war materials and commerce; provide access, basing, and overflight; and deliver additional critical capabilities, such as intelligence and logistics support [BUT YOU HAVE TO GET THOSE OTHER COUNTRIES ACTUALLY TO COMMIT TO DOING ALL THESE THINGS, AND THEN SOMEHOW EFFECTIVELY COORDINATE AND IMPLEMENT COMMON MILITARY/NAVAL ACTIONSsee 3) below on Japan]. Allies and partners will also play a crucial role in deterring opportunistic aggression in additional theaters, as well as maintaining maritime governance and exposing malign behavior.”

Many of the acquisition needs to support this vision are already well established, including long-range anti-ship missiles for Marines [the US Army wants them too, will money be there for both services? See this post: “Western Pacific, or, the US Services all Want to Try to Sink PLA Navy Ships–US Army Section“]; “maritime domain awareness technologies to find, fix, track, and target adversary forces;” Virginia-class attack submarines and improved undersea warfare capabilities such as a bolstered Integrated Undersea Surveillance System infrastructure and offensive mines; longer-range aircraft to expand the lethality and survivability of the carrier air wing; and a more flexible and resilient – and larger – network of logistics ships…

2) More on the Marines’ trying to re-invent themselves to take on the PRC (NOT ON THE MAINLAND), by Philip Athey (tweets here) at Marine Times:

What’s the role of Marine infantry in the new strategy to fight China? The Corps is still trying to figure it out

The tri-service maritime strategy released on Thursday [Dec. 17] by the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard painted a picture of China gaining strength and influence in the Pacific, threatening the “rules-based international order” and reminiscent of Imperial Japan in the decades prior to World War II.

To counter the modern Chinese threat, the three services will take a more aggressive posture toward China, while modernizing the force for a potential war, according to the strategy.

While the strategy lays out how the Marine Corps will use some of the new technologies it plans on acquiring, it did not lay out what the future of Marine infantry will be. That’s something the Corps is still working on, said Maj. Gen. Paul Rock Jr., director of the Corps’ strategy and plans division.

The Marine Corps kicked off its modernization process with the release of Force Design 2030, which will see the Marine Corps ditching its tanks, refocusing its artillery community toward rockets and away from M777s, and fielding smaller infantry units and squadrons.

The money saved from the divestments will be used to buy ship-sinking missiles and better electronic warfare capabilities.

“Our operations will mass the effects of joint, sea-based, and land-based kinetic and nonkinetic fires,” the strategy said about how those new acquisitions will be deployed if war were to break out.

Marine Littoral Regiments, as part of Marine Air Ground Task Forces and Marine Expeditionary Forces, will bring additional ISR, C2, and long-range fires capabilities,” the strategy added [but see this post: “Who will be Willing to Host US Intermediate-Range Missiles in the Western Pacific?“].

With missiles and sensor warfare, Marines will be focused on working with the Joint Force to sink ships [emphasis added] and confuse the enemy, and the Marine Corps’ air wing will work alongside the Navy and Air Force to gain air superiority.

Absent from the 24-page strategy document was any mention of Marine Corps infantry, the historic focus of the Marine Corps.

“It is something that in truth we are still defining,” Rock told reporters on Thursday…

The “commando -like” future Marine Corps infantry could be used to either provide security for advanced bases or to conduct its own raids into enemy territory, Rock said.

[Sounds sort of like the (much, much smaller) British Royal Marines whose own future relevance/missions are under discussion as the UK tries to revamp its defence forces the best to face our new world order: see this piece,the Royal Marines, have been steadily shrinking in size for years now” and this one, “What Is The Future Commando Force?“.]

“Their application in a distributed maritime environment that we envision operating in, is probably limited only by your imagination,” Rock said.

Though the role of Marine Corps infantry was not laid out in the tri-service strategy document, its place within the Marine Corps is not questioned, Rock said.

[THIS DOES RATHER RAISE THE ETERNAL QUESTION: DOES THE US REALLY NEED TWO ARMIES? Maybe the USMC will end up as it began: a specialized, essentially maritime force.]

3) As for those allies, how can the US get the Japan Self-Defence Forces (notably the air force and especially the very capable navy) to provide the greatest possible help? See this story:

Rand report highlights how Japan could assist US military with conflicts in East China Sea

A new Rand Corp. report released Thursday [Dec. 17, report here] found that the Japan Self-Defense Forces could offer “effective and capable” assistance to the United States should a conflict erupt with China in the East China Sea.

Japan’s Constitution restricts its military operations to defensive initiatives only, and its laws may hinder its efforts, according to the report.

Still, Japan’s strengths position it “to make things very difficult for China to prevail quickly in conflict,” according to the think tank report.

“Much relies on Japan’s political decision makers, who, in a time of a crisis, will be challenged to ensure that their decision-making timelines are fully in sync with U.S. operational needs,” the report said [NO KIDDING, read on]

Relevant earlier posts:

Canada and the Indo-Pacific Century: A Military/Naval Role?

Radically Re-Shaping US Marines to Take on China–e.g. no more Tanks

Does US Lose non-Nuclear War with China?

Australia Reacts to Worsening Strategic Position in Western Pacific–Plans major Defence Spending Boost and big Equipment Capability Upgrades

PLA Spreading its Long-Range Bombing Wings in South China Sea

Western Pacific, or, US Navy vs US Army for Funding, US Army vs US Marines for Missions

What’s the Poor US Army to do when the Main Adversary is the PRC?

Mark Collins

Twitter: @Mark3ds

16 thoughts on “The Western Pacific Maritime Cockpit: US Navy, Marines (and Coast Guard) vs the PRC and PLA Navy”

  1. More thoughts:

    The Marines really do seem to be thinking very hard at re-inventing to stay relevant, being willing to abandon major roles they’ve had for yonks. Not many services so creative and not how one used to imagine the USMC. But then consider, given their size, the number of top jobs of late they’ve had at combatant command and the JCS. Small dog gotta think hard to stay relevant to the fight.

    One wishes anyone in our services was anything like as creative/thoughtful but they’re just struggling to survive as real armed forces and not end up as militia/firemen.

    Back in the US everyone furiously trying to figure out how to fight the Chicoms (and being amazingly open about it). I really see no easy answers (subs, drone surface ships and subs, arsenal planes and ships?) and not much role for US Army since no-one’s going to attack the mainland with land forces (its role is Europe, much as Trump has hated it–and South Korea should be able to defend itself but then they’ll go nuclear so…). And meanwhile four services are competing like crazy for funding for almost the same weapons systems: hypersonics, anti-ship cruise missiles, ballistic missiles unbanned now by INF Treaty. With a Democratic president (though old school and his natsec picks so far look pretty Swampish) and House?

    So as things now stand if things hit the fan how fast might the US feel it necessary to go tac nuke? For starters.

    Mark Collins


  2. A friend knowledgeable of these matters responds:

    “How fast will the US go to tactical nuclear weapons?

    Every contingency that arises has a nuclear employment phase in the planning.

    However, the US scrapped its tactical nukes, except for the bombs in NATO. USN ships, including carriers, do not carry nuclear weapons, if we can believe declared policy.

    But what is a bit worrisome is that in the western Pacific theatre, tactical nuclear weapons would probably be delivered by strategic systems, such as new low-yield warheads on the SSBNs, B-52s & B-2s. The risk is that use of a strategic system could be mistaken for a strategic strike, with retaliation and escalation following.

    Once a few nukes go off, all that elaborate deterrence theory will go down the drain.”


    Mark Collins


  3. My friend also observes with regard to the US Navy in today’s increasingly PRC-pivoted US defence world:

    “For decades the USN focused on three principal missions: sea control (e.g., in the Persian Gulf and the sea lanes of communication in the Cold War, esp. reinforcing NATO); bombing countries that could not threaten the floating air bases; strategic deterrence and protecting the Boomers that provided it. At last, with the growing strength of China’s navy, the USN believes it has found an adversary worthy of its steel.”

    Firm focus, what?

    Mark Collins


  4. A retired Indian Navy commodore responds:

    Mark Collins


  5. Meanwhile Japan wants European navies in on the Indo-Pacific party–note final para of quote:

    ‘Japan calls on Germany to send warship to East Asia

    Tokyo is building alliances with like-minded nations around the world as it seeks to counter China’s aggressive expansionist policies in the Indo-Pacific region.

    The Japanese government has called on Germany to send a warship to East Asia in the year ahead as Tokyo looks to bolster international support for its vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region.

    Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi held online talks on Tuesday with his German counterpart, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, and expressed hope that a German vessel would take part in joint exercises with units of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces in 2021.

    More significantly, Kishi suggested it would assist the international community’s efforts to ensure the right of passage of vessels through the South China Sea if the German warship would traverse waters that have effectively been seized by Beijing in recent years, in defiance of rival claims to reefs, islands and waters from surrounding nations.

    The United States and Australia have both sent military vessels through the South China Sea, which Beijing effectively began annexing at the start of the decade.

    China initially insisted that it would not deploy military units to the islands, but large-scale reclamation work has been undertaken on a number of the larger islands, with missile emplacements and runways constructed for fighter aircraft…

    Akitoshi Miyashita, a professor of international relations at Tokyo International University, says Japan’s invitation to Germany is part of a bigger campaign to build an alliance against further Chinese territorial ambitions.

    “Japan is trying to have as many like-minded Western countries as possible send military units to the Far East to send a signal to China that they are united in seeking a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” he told DW.

    “I do not think that Germany will take part in any particular actions, but the sheer presence of a German warship in the Far East will send a clear message to Beijing,” he underlined. “This will be a symbolic visit, but one that will be very positively viewed in Japan.”

    Tokyo has already announced that Japan, France and the US will carry out joint military maneuvers for the first time in May 2021, while the British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth will also travel to the region with an accompanying task force for exercises.’

    The Royal Canadian Navy regularly sends a frigate to the region as part of Operation NEON–see here:

    Mark Collins


  6. Meanwhile in Canada:

    ‘Canada has ‘significant’ concerns about China: Defence Minister

    Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan is taking aim at what he describes as China’s unpredictability, refusal to play by the rules and expanding footprint around the world, saying those are among the “significant” concerns Canada and its allies have with Beijing.

    The comments come amid growing alarm over China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy, which has led Canadian military commanders and others to increasingly focus on what is being described as the next great power competition.

    The last great power competition saw Canada and its NATO allies face off against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

    Sajjan declined in an interview with The Canadian Press to describe China as an adversary even as he emphasized the importance of talk and diplomacy in dealing with the Chinese government.

    Yet the defence minister was also quick to list the many ways in which China’s recent actions have set off red flags in Ottawa and other western capitals, underscoring the importance of possessing a credible military response should it be required…’

    Mark Collins


  7. Hmm-fourth aircraft carrier construction to start this year:

    ” China speeds up building aircraft carriers but will PLA sailors be trained for hi-tech ships in time?
    *A floating dock and the expansion of Jiangnan Shipyard will boost China’s commercial and military shipbuilding capacity
    *The accelerated construction comes as China faces both traditional and non-traditional security challenges, says analyst…”

    Mark Collins


  8. More:

    ‘Marines, Navy Moving Quickly on Light Amphib, Anti-Ship Missiles to Create More Warfighting Options

    The Navy and Marine Corps are quickly seeking new ideas that allow Marines to support the Navy in sea control and other maritime missions, including the rapid acquisition of a light amphibious ship and a movement toward using Marine weapons while at sea…

    King and Deputy Commandant for Combat Development and Integration Lt. Gen. Eric Smith have been vocal proponents of LAW since Commandant Gen. David Berger released a 2019 Commandant’s Planning Guidance that suggested an overhaul in how Marines maneuvered around the sea, putting less emphasis on traditional large amphibious ships designed for forcible entry and instead focusing on ways to get a lot of small groups of Marines dispersed throughout the littorals.

    “I think we’re on track, I think we’re moving out smartly, and I’m excited about it because … I’m very pessimistic about the way our relationship with China is going, and we absolutely need this capability to continue to deter what could end up being a big war,” King said in the call.
    “A ship that can go 3,000, 4,000 miles, haul around 75 guys with excess cargo, excess fuel, serving as a lilypad and really enhancing the tactical maneuver of those small Marine units is really going to be something that a potential adversary has a hard time countering. Not a forcible entry platform, not a ship to shore connector, but a lilypad that our guys can get on, and the Navy can really complicate China’s calculus.”

    As for operations with traditional amphibious ships – specifically the San Antonio-class amphibious transport docks (LPD-17) – King said he was looking at ways to add anti-ship missiles to the hulls and to allow the ship commander to make better use of the Marines’ assets while sailing at sea…

    Somewhat more complex is figuring out how to equip LPDs with anti-ship missiles. LPDs were originally designed to include vertical launching system cells but ultimately weren’t built to include them; refitting them would be a complex and costly effort, but King said the Navy is considering outfitting them with canisters of the Naval Strike Missile, much like the service did to the Littoral Combat Ship to increase their lethality.

    “The actual material solution is not my concern, which missile we put on the ship. But you heard me say, if it floats it fights. We have these magnificent 600-foot-long, highly survivable, highly capable LPD-17s that, in my humble opinion … I think that the LPDs need the ability to reach out and defend themselves and sink another ship,” King said…’

    Mark Collins


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