The U.S. Marine Corps is practicing a new method of speeding firepower across a war zone. And that could have big implications for America's military strategy in the western Pacific.
On Dec. 7, 2018, Marines with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 352 hauled two M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System launchers from Camp Pendleton in California to Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah, where a war game was underway.
At least one of the 12-ton HIMARS, a wheeled vehicle that fires a variety of surface-to-surface rockets, rolled off its KC-130J transport, quickly fired a training rocket, then loaded back into the KC-130J for its return flight.
There's a name for the practice of deploying a rocket launcher via aircraft, promptly firing then redeploying. The U.S. Army, which pioneered the method, calls it "HIMARS Rapid Infiltration" or HIRAIN.
Combined with other new tactics and new rockets, HIRAIN could allow U.S. force to quickly position long-range artillery, frustrating an enemy's own movements. The method might even allow American troops to impede China's expansion in the western Pacific.
Beijing considers the string of islands stretching from Japan south to The Philippines -- what it calls the "first island chain" -- to be China's historical sphere of influence. The Chinese Communist Party uses trade deals, diplomacy and the threat of military force to exert influence over the region and, in the event of war, could seize many islands along the chain.
The Pentagon aims to complicate this expansion. While air and sea forces are central to American strategy in the region, ground troops could play a role, too. Retired U.S. Army general H.R. McMaster, who briefly served as Pres. Donald Trump's national security advisor, said he wanted the Army to consider "projecting power outwards from the land."
Janine Davidson, an undersecretary of the Navy under former president Barack Obama, said she tried to "get the Army to sink a ship." The Marine Corps, which possesses many of the same capabilities that the Army does, likewise could sink ships.
Imagine a Chinese flotilla sailing toward some remote island group near Japan or The Philippines during some near-future war. A Marine rocket battery could quickly deploy to one island aboard Marine or Air Force transports and lob a few rockets at the Chinese ships while the transports idled nearby. "After firing each volley, the missile battery would move to a new hide site and await orders to fire again," the California think-tank RAND explained in a 2017 report.
"Fortifying the offshore island chain while deploying naval assets in adjoining waters could yield major strategic gains on the cheap," James Holmes, a professor at the Naval War College in Rhode Island, advised in 2014. "Doing so is common sense."
The Army has practiced parts of the concept in realistic conditions. During the Rim of the Pacific war game in and around Hawaii in July 2018, an Army HIMARS battery struck the decommissioned U.S. Navy amphibious ship Racine with five rockets. An aerial drone provided the coordinates for the 50-mile strike.
Still, an unguided 227-millimeter-diameter rocket with a 200-pound warhead and a 40-mile range -- of which a HIMARS can cary six at a time -- is less than ideal as an anti-ship weapon.
Alternatively, a HIMARS can carry one guided 610-millimeter Army Tactical Missile System with a 500-pound warhead and a 190-mile range. In 2016, the Army began modifying the seekers on some ATACMS in order to improve their ability to hit ships.
The Marine Corps is considering buying a dedicated anti-ship missile for its HIMARS launchers. The Corps proved, in a fall 2018 demonstration in Arizona, that an F-35 stealth fighter can pass targeting data to a rocket battery, improving its accuracy. A Marine F-35B detected a metal container on the ground and passed the GPS coordinates via radio data-link to the HIMARS crew.
HIMARS packing new missiles could give the Corps a serious and survivable anti-ship capability. Adding F-35s could help the rockets strike with greater accuracy. And swiftly moving the launchers by air could protect them from counterattack ... and keep the enemy guessing.
David Axe edits War Is Boring . He is the author of the new graphic novels MACHETE SQUAD and THE STAN.