The U.S. Marine Corps may deploy additional Marine Expeditionary Units (MEU) to Asia. A MEU is about two thousand marines with aircraft, weapons and equipment loaded onto three U.S. Navy amphibious ships. These units are mobile, able to operate afloat, ashore, and in-between, and can conduct operations ranging from disaster relief to combat.
This is a welcome development. Asia is a big place. The one amphibious unit currently based in the region—the Thirty-First MEU in Japan—is fully employed. And owing to maintenance requirements is only out and about roughly half a year. MEUs transiting the region enroute elsewhere are helpful, but not enough.
When the massive tsunami and earthquake hit Japan in 2011, the Thirty-First MEU was unfortunately down near Indonesia and took well over a week to return to Japan. Another amphibious unit closer to the scene would have been helpful: beyond allowing better regional coverage, another MEU or two is also a tangible sign of U.S. commitment, belying claims the Americans are fading away in Asia. And an amphibious task force dropping anchor anywhere is impressive in its own right.
This is all good, but the Marines can get much more out their amphibious forces with some effort and imagination.
A key part of MEU activities is a comprehensive bilateral and multilateral training scheme with partner militaries from South Korea to India. All are intended to improve partner capabilities and interoperability. However, a MEU showing up can resemble the famous Harlem Globetrotters basketball wizards coming to town. It’s entertaining, even exhilarating, but doesn’t leave behind better basketball players.
The question for the Marines to ask: “With which Asian military can you do a real world, short notice amphibious operation—as opposed to laboriously planned “canned” exercises?”
It’s a very short list—even after a half-century of the U.S. Marines (and U.S. Navy) conducting amphibious training with partners in the region. Before too long there will be a name on the “list”—the Australians. But that’s because they are the Australians. A few years back, the Australian Defense Force (ADF) realized it needed an amphibious force. After deciding it indeed wanted one, it went out and created it. The American Marines and Navy helped out, but the Australians would have created the amphibious force even without U.S. assistance.
The Marines ought to ensure additional MEUs don’t become a second squad of Globetrotters, simply increasing the number of exhibitions. Just filling the seats poses a challenge: regional militaries don’t sit around all year waiting for the Americans to pitch up. Indeed, a few years back, one unit’s reaction on being designated to train with a visiting MEU was, “Do we have to?”
Ironically, even though common sense suggests amphibious capabilities are essential in a region with oceans, islands and coastlines, there isn’t a single Asian military with an amphibious force that is properly developed, adequately resourced and without notable shortcomings.
The subpar state of Asian amphibious forces isn’t entirely the Marine Corps’ fault—but they aren’t blameless. The Marines tend to equate holding exercises with making partners better. Indeed, every exercise ever held lists “improving partner capabilities” and “improving interoperability” as objectives. And each exercise is invariably declared successful in this regard. This is an assertion for which there is scant evidence.
So what is USMC to do?
Focus on building truly useful amphibious counterparts. And most importantly, start keeping score.
First, recognize and address the fundamental problem that limits amphibious progress in Asian defense force: that amphibious forces have no natural constituency. They are the unloved stepchildren, surviving on scraps. In many Asian militaries the army dominates, while navies and air forces are viewed as rivals. Each wants their cut of the budget. Marines often fall under the Navy—and are at the bottom of the pecking order. Once each service has addressed its core and expensive interests—tanks, artillery, frigates, submarines, fighter jets—whatever is left might go to amphibious forces. Throw politicians and government officials into the mix with their own funding “interests,” usually related to hardware, and it gets even worse for the amphibious units. And amphibious forces are necessarily a “hybrid”—combining ground, sea and air capabilities. So each service has to give up something—personnel, money and even authority—potentially putting forces under another service’s command. Nobody wants to do that.
Given this environment, a MEU coming to town and putting on a show is not, by itself, going to convince anyone of the importance of amphibious forces. Nor is a visiting, glad-handing Marine Corps General going to change any minds.
The amphibious idea needs to be better “sold”—and there’s a compelling case to be made based on actual national defense requirements in regional nations. For example, it’s hard to argue Indonesia and Thailand need main battle tanks more than amphibious forces able to conduct joint operations.
But the Marines Corps writ large hasn’t made the case for amphibious forces in any systematic way—expecting “Globetrotter” exhibitions to speak for themselves. A key part of the solution is recognizing that amphibious capabilities need constant promotion—during the fifty weeks of the year when a MEU and Marines are not around. It’s no coincidence that once the Marine Corps put an officer in Tokyo full-time with latitude to operate, the JSDF began developing an amphibious force—something thought impossible, even by the Japanese. The Marines have also been in South Korea for decades, and the ROK Marine Corps are farther advanced than most. And, as mentioned, American Marine advisors facilitated, and sped up, the Australian amphibious effort.
A permanent Marine presence is vital to making progress. This approach should be expanded upon. Spread a half-dozen of the right Marine officers around certain “priority” Asian countries and give them two missions:
First, sell the amphibious idea—and create an environment where amphibious capability can develop. Build support for amphibious capabilities within the military, the political world, the media, academia and anywhere else that matters. Such efforts will provide “cover” and support for local amphibious proponents.
The second mission: improve local amphibious forces. It’s not enough to put together a ‘pick-up’ team to serve as the Globetrotter’s on-court patsies every year.
The better one does at the former, the better one does at the latter. And of course, the Marines need to provide the officer adequate support. All this requires the right sort of Marine officer—having a certain “magic” and ability to influence and to teach. Not everyone has it. And the ‘magic’ is more important than rank, so the right captain is better than the wrong colonel. The officer’s efforts also help keep partners wanting to remain partners with the Marines—and the United States.
This scheme should be easy enough. It’s only six marines. But many senior marines will insist that there aren’t a half-dozen officers to spare. Really? There are around 20,000 marine officers on active duty, and another 4,000 in the reserves. And there are not six to be found?
The permanent presence scheme is best viewed as one part of a broader, systematic effort by USMC and U.S. Navy to push amphibious capabilities.
In this regard, the Marine Corps’ Pacific Amphibious Leaders Seminar (PALS) is a good concept. But the original scheme called for a ‘working level’ gathering of officers involved in amphibious operations (an unappreciated lot) and building from the ground up. Instead, PALS more resembles a handsome cocktail party for generals and admirals to brush elbows. Turn a few smart majors and captains onto the problem for a couple days and they’ll produce good ideas. But here’s a few suggestions:
Use the new MEU as the basis of an informal—“U.S.-Australia MEU”—linked with the new Australian amphibious force—fully integrated and with “mix and match” capability. And don’t be shy about putting the force under Australian command. Amphibious units from other friendly nations—such as Japan and New Zealand—will want to get involved.
With more ships and troops, the Marines and Navy can of course do more training with partners. Pay plenty of attention to “underserved” militaries—to include in the Indian Ocean region—and give them one-on-one attention. But make it the right sort of training.
A common (though quietly voiced) complaint from one USMC partner a few years back was “can’t we do something besides a ‘VIP landing?’” in referring to a meticulously planned and rehearsed landing exercise that take place in front of an audience of senior military officers, politicians and the media. So make the exercises useful—and keep score. If you want to progress, ensure Marine and Navy advisors are teaching and advising at all training events, rather than leaving partners to figure things out on their own. And encourage partner amphibious forces to interact on their own—and without much or any American involvement. The extra MEUs bring along plenty of amphibious experts. Offer them up as advisors and instructors.