The U.S. Marine Corp’s Force Design 2030 (FD2030), the service branch’s restructuring plan to prepare for a future conflict with near-peer adversaries, includes Littoral Regiments. These could possibly pose a threat to any aggressor’s actions in limited areas of the Western Pacific. They theoretically extend American striking power into areas where our enemies hope to dominate and use as access points into open ocean areas critical to America and its allies.
A legitimate threat is something our enemies will not ignore in a conflict. They will target and strike Littoral Regiments deployed on the small islands that threaten the enemy’s access to the region. Once the regiments’ equipment is destroyed, the enemy can cut off and bypass the island, leaving the Marines to “die on the vine” like Japan’s powerful base at Rabaul in World War II. Therein lies the undiscussed challenge facing Force Design 2030 and the Littoral Regiment concept: how to survive and sustain the regiments against a well-armed, air and missile-equipped enemy.
In today’s world, a threat can be found and struck rapidly from afar. So the regiments must either enjoy significant integrated air and missile defense support or adopt a maritime equivalent to artillery’s “shoot and scoot” tactics. That is, insert quickly, target and shoot and then deploy rapidly to another location. Otherwise, the regiments will suffer the same fate as America’s Wake Island defenders and Japan’s Rabaul and many of its island garrisons in World War II.
A recent exercise at Twentynine Palms, California, reportedly has shown the regiments have a reasonable capability to withstand a combined arms assault. However, has anyone simulated the most likely enemy response to a Littoral Regiment attack, a retaliatory air and missile strike? What air and missile defenses will the regiments enjoy? If China is the enemy, expect those attacks to involve precision strikes U.S. forces have not experienced in years, if not ever. What tools does the regiment or Joint Task Force Commander have to address that problem? Hardening against attacks from above takes time and expense, neither of which exists in abundance once the conflict starts. Dispersal and constant shifting of positions around the island seem wiser, particularly if the regiment adroitly executes camouflage and deception.
Many of the Marines will survive those strikes, but the same cannot be said for the equipment. Without missiles, radars, and other combat systems, the regiment becomes an impotent maritime force that must be reinforced, reconstituted, and logistically supported. Near-peer state opponents have the technology to isolate and re-strike the regiments as required to conduct that state’s operational and strategic objectives. An isolated garrison that can neither strike nor impede enemy operations will be bypassed, monitored and occasionally struck again for training if not operational purposes. That is the fate of unsupported Littoral Regiments that stay in place.
This is not to say such regiments may have no impact or purpose. Their deployment during a crisis could strengthen the deterrence of any U.S. and allied actions. It could also complicate the aggressor’s operations and plans. Suddenly, its access outward may be constrained and the regiments’ presence at or near maritime chokepoints enhances the U.S. and allied ability to enter areas the aggressor hopes to restrict to its own use. However, combatant and Marine commanders need to consider the likely enemy actions against those regiments if the aggressor chooses to launch a war. Island garrisons are only as valuable as their ability to impede enemy operations and that necessitates supporting them against enemy action.
So far, the Navy has not properly supported the Marines Force Design 2030. Proposing a fourteen-knot modified merchant ship does not an amphibious maneuver force make. Instead, naval planners should be working with the Marines to address the regiments’ mission challenges and requirements. The concept is potentially attractive if it addresses all the operational requirements needed for success. Rapid movement and re-deployment will be essential. The Littoral Combat Ships (LCSs) largely are an open-ocean warfare disaster waiting to happen, but they should be considered for the rapid transport mission the Marines need. In World War II, the U.S. Navy modified obsolete destroyers to serve as high-speed amphibious transports. The forty-five-knot Independence-class LCSs can transport the Marines and helo-transportable equipment to and from deployment sites. The heavier equipment will require a platform with greater lift, either an air cushion vehicle the LCS can transport or a seaplane. The Navy-Marine team should examine both if their leaders are serious about the Littoral Regiment concept.
Seaplanes may offer a better solution. They are faster and offer more flexible deployment options. Unfortunately, none with appropriate capabilities are in service now but the Special Operations Community is examining the development of kits to make some C-130 aircraft into ad hoc seaplanes. What will work for special operations forces will work for the Marines. The Littoral Regiments’ radars and other equipment can be transported in C-130s. If shoot and scoot are what one needs, seaplanes are a better option than any ship.
Force Design 2030 has sacrificed the Marine Corps’ overall broad mission capabilities, promising to transform the Marine Corps into an innovative and relevant twenty-first-century warfare force. Making that promise reality will require a great deal more study and thought that has appeared so far in public discourse. The enemy gets a vote in war and so far the FD2030 concept and debate have ignored that potential vote. Neither the Marine Corps nor this nation can afford that oversight to continue.
Looking beyond its combat concept, America also cannot afford FD2030’s impact on the Marine Corps’s broad overall combat capabilities. History has not been kind to single-mission forces and the narrowing of Marine Corps mission focus and capabilities comes at the expense of the missions at which it excels, rapidly responding to the needs of Americans in danger or populations hit by natural or manmade calamities. The Navy-Marine Corps team owes the American people a better plan than that presented in FD2030.
Captain (USN) Carl O. Schuster is a career naval officer who served on a variety of U.S. and allied warships before transferring to intelligence at mid-career. He has extensive experience as a planner at the amphibious group to the theater command level and finished his career as the director of operations at the U.S. Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center.
Image: Courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps.