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US Marines Plan to Retool to Meet China Threat

04:45  23 march  2020
04:45  23 march  2020 Source:   online.wsj.com

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The Marine Corps is undertaking its most sweeping transformation in decades, pivoting from a focus on fighting insurgents in the Middle East to developing the ability to hop from island to island in the western Pacific to bottle up the Chinese fleet.

The 10-year plan to revamp the Corps, scheduled to be unveiled this week, follows years of classified U.S. wargames that revealed China’s missile and naval forces to be eroding American military advantages in the region.

“China, in terms of military capability, is the pacing threat,” Gen. David Berger, the Marine Corps commandant, said in an interview. “If we did nothing, we would be passed.”

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To reinvent themselves as a naval expeditionary force within budget limits, the Marines plan to get rid of all of their tanks, cut back on their aircraft and shrink in total numbers from 189,000 to as few as 170,000, Gen. Berger said.

“I have come to the conclusion that we need to contract the size of the Marine Corps to get quality,” he said.

The changes are part of a broad shift by all branches of the armed forces, which are honing new fighting concepts and planning to spend billions of dollars on what the Pentagon projects will be an era of intensified competition with China and Russia.

Among an array of new high-tech programs, the Air Force is developing a hypersonic missile that would travel five times the speed of sound, and has been experimenting with the “loyal wingman,” an unmanned aircraft that would carry bombs and fly in formations with piloted planes.

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The Army, which has established a Futures Command to oversee its transformation, tested a cannon at the Yuma Proving Ground earlier this month that fired shells about 40 miles—roughly twice the range of current systems. The Navy, for its part, has been developing tactics to disperse aircraft carrier battle groups to make them a less inviting target for Chinese medium-range missiles, and it is pursuing the development of unmanned submarines and ships.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper has vowed to make this the year when the Defense Department moves toward “full, irreversible implementation” of the strategy shift. The Pentagon’s $705 billion spending request for the 2021 fiscal year includes the largest research-and-development budget in 70 years: nearly $107 billion.

Nearly 20 years ago, the military was pivoting in a very different direction. After decades of preparing for combat with Soviet forces and other large conventional armies, U.S. troops found themselves battling militants in Iraq and Afghanistan who used suicide car bombs and roadside explosives but had no air force or heavy mechanized forces. Focused on its counterinsurgency mission, the Army allowed its capabilities for electronic warfare to atrophy while the Pentagon trimmed funds for other major weapon systems.

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While the U.S. focused on the Middle East, however, China and Russia worked on systems to thwart the American military’s ability to assemble forces near their regions and command them in battle. If war broke out, U.S. officials concluded, China could fire hundreds of missiles at U.S. and allies’ air bases, ports and command centers throughout the Pacific, jam the U.S. military’s GPS, attack American satellite systems and use its air defenses to keep U.S. warplanes at bay.

Russia similarly would use the surface-to-surface missiles, air defenses and antiship missiles deployed in Kaliningrad and on the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.

U.S. officials worry that, even in peacetime, China’s and Russia’s new capabilities could become a means of political coercion, threatening America’s ability to defend allies and partners, from Taiwan to the Baltic states, who might conclude that Washington would be hard put to protect them.

The Chinese and Russian advances led the Pentagon to conclude that the U.S. was entering a new age of great-power conflict. A sobering assessment of how U.S. forces would match up against their rivals was prepared by the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment and the Rand Corp., a research center that carries out classified analysis for the government, and presented to then Defense Secretary Jim Mattis soon after he took office in 2017.

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China in particular is a concern, given its fast-rising defense spending and its clear intention of becoming the dominant superpower. It may sound exotic, but the threat is not make-believe or theoretical. A single EMP weapon, delivered on target, could essentially shut down America.

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Before he resigned in December 2018, Mr. Mattis oversaw the development of a new national defense strategy, which asserted that the long-term competition with China and Russia was the Pentagon’s top priorities and cast North Korea, Iran and terrorists as lesser dangers.

The current Pentagon leadership remains committed to the strategy, which has spawned a new vernacular, including concepts like “joint all-domain command and control”—a targeting and command-and-control system that would connect all forces on the battlefield.

The Pentagon’s new strategy faces some significant obstacles. One big one is that the defense budget is more likely to stay flat or even contract over the next several years in the face of soaring federal deficits than to grow at the 3% to 5% rate, after inflation, that Mr. Esper has urged.

Another question is whether Washington will be able to concentrate on the Chinese and Russian threats given persistent tensions with Iran—the product of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure campaign” of imposing severe sanctions against Tehran, and the Iranian regime’s determination to keep supporting militant groups in the Middle East.

Earlier this month, following missile attacks by Iran and repeated rocket firings by Iranian-backed Shiite militants, Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, said the U.S. is keeping two aircraft carriers in the region and will move Patriot antimissile batteries into Iraq to protect bases where U.S. and coalition troops are located.

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Regardless, the Pentagon leadership says the budgetary priority is planning for future war. “It makes no sense to buy stuff that isn’t in alignment with” the new defense strategy, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told Congress this month.

To free up funds for the future projects, the military is planning to retire older but still functioning weapons systems. That would add to the strains it faces in carrying out its current missions before new systems come online.

“We’ll end up having to take some more risks in the next couple of years,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. Mark Kelly. The Air Force is planning to retire 17 B-1 bombers, 44 A-10 attack planes, as well as 16 KC-10 and 13 KC-135 refueling tankers, so it can channel more spending to future projects.

Within the military, nobody is proposing more far-reaching changes than Gen. Berger. He served as the top Marine commander in the Pacific, then headed the Marines’ Combat Development Command in Quantico, Va., which develops war-fighting concepts and oversees training. The command has run classified wargames such as “Pacific Surprise” and “Ghost Fleet,” which looked at how the Marines might counter the Chinese threat in the decade ahead.

For the Marines, the new Pentagon strategy raised questions about whether it should adapt for a toe-to-toe fight against China or should concentrate on lesser but still challenging dangers.

“The wargames do show that, absent significant change, the Marine Corps will not be in a position to be relevant” in a clash with a “peer competitor,” said Lt. Gen. Eric Smith, who succeeded Gen. Berger as the head of that command.

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Gen. Berger’s answer was to reconfigure the Corps to focus on a China threat. The Marines would fight within reach of Chinese missiles, planes and naval forces to blunt any aggression. While other services might lob missiles from long range, the Marines, in military parlance, would operate inside “the weapons engagement zone.”

Some retired Marines caution that too heavy a focus on China may make the Corps less flexible in dealing with conflicts that might erupt in the Middle East and other distant regions, which they consider to be more likely.

“I think it is a mistake to organize yourself in a way to go after a specific region,” said Anthony Zinni, a retired four-star Marine general who led the Central Command. “Something could happen tomorrow with the Iranians. The answer is to be ready, expeditionary and balanced.”

At the heart of Gen. Berger’s plan is the establishment of new naval expeditionary units—what the Marines call “littoral regiments”—whose mission would be to take on the Chinese navy.

If a military confrontation loomed, the regiments would disperse small teams of Marines, who would rush in sleek landing craft to the tiny islands that dot the South and East China Seas, according to Gen. Berger and other senior Marine officers. Armed with sensor-laden drones that operate in the air, on the sea and underwater, the Marines would target Chinese warships before they ventured into the wider Pacific Ocean. The Marine teams, which could have 50 to 100 personnel, would fire antiship missiles at the Chinese fleet. Targeting data also would be passed to Air Force or Navy units farther away, which would fire longer-range missiles.

To elude retaliatory blows, the Marines would hop from island to island every 48 or 72 hours, relying on a new generation of amphibious ships, which could be piloted remotely. Other Marine teams would operate from U.S. warships with decoy vessels nearby.

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Gen. Berger said the wargames showed that the new Marine capabilities and tactics would create “a ton of problems” for the Chinese forces. “It is very difficult for them to counter a distributed naval expeditionary force that is small, that is mobile, but has the capability to reach out and touch you,” he said.

To carry out the strategy, the Marines would deploy new missile batteries, armed drone units and amphibious ships. A major push is being made to ease the logistical burden, such as exploring the use of 3-D printing on the battlefield to make spare parts. The strategy requires deeper integration with the Navy, and Marine teams might perform other missions like refueling submarines or sub-hunting planes. While most of the effort to transform the Corps is focused on the Pacific, the Marines would retain other forces to respond to crises world-wide, including floating 2,200-strong Marine expeditionary units

To fund the new capabilities, the Marines will dispense with all of its tanks over the next few years, eliminate its bridge-laying companies and cut back on aviation and howitzers. “We need an Army with lots of tanks,” Gen. Berger said. “We don’t need a Marine Corps with tanks.”

Some defense experts are supportive of the plan. “China is the major competitor,” said Dakota Wood, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “The Marines are rightly stepping out to change their approach to combat.”

Other retired Marines question the feasibility of putting Marines on tiny islands the Chinese would try to bombard.

“It is very easy when developing concepts on paper to underestimate the challenges of logistics,” said Mark Cancian, a retired Marine colonel with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan Washington think tank. “With this concept, the Marines need to figure out what in fact is viable and hedge for the possibility that they got it wrong.”

Gen. Berger said that adjusting over the next 10 to 20 years is part of the plan, and that the Marines are proceeding with “the cleared-eyed view that the threat is moving also.”

“Some of the capabilities we assume might pan out, will not pan out, and other technological things will come along that we have not even considered,” he said. The Marines, he said, will use their new plan “as an aim point and monitor the threat all along as we go.”

Write to Michael R. Gordon at michael.gordon@wsj.com

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