Asia Defense | Security | East Asia

US Marine Corps Unveils Transformation Plan Focused on China

The plan will cut tanks and other traditional weapons to make room for new anti-ship missions.

Steven Stashwick
US Marine Corps Unveils Transformation Plan Focused on China
Credit: DoD photo by Master Sgt. Ken Hammond, U.S. Air Force

The U.S. Marine Corps wants to undertake a radical, decade-long transformation of its force to fight the sort of war it envisions might happen against an adversary like China, which Marine leaders describe as the U.S. military’s “pacing threat.”

The commandant of the Marine Corps, General David Berger, came into the job last summer determined to remake a force that had spent 20 years fighting largely as an adjunct of the army in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and return it to its maritime roots to face new threats in the western Pacific. The new vision is expected to be released this week.

The plan reflects a shift in the Marines’ outlook on what will be the hardest and most important missions in a future war. Traditionally, the Navy has provided control over the seas for the purpose of safely delivering marines ashore. The new concepts reverses the Marines’ role to one of helping the Navy control sea lanes that are expected to be under increasing threat from advanced missiles and growing adversary fleets from coastal bases.

In an essay on his vision from last December, Berger said that “the design of our force, how we organize for combat, our equipment, and our war-fighting capabilities, are no longer aligned to the potential adversaries America faces.” He said the new initiative would reshape the Marine Corps to focus on maritime warfare, denying use of the seas to adversaries, and ensuring freedom of action for U.S. forces. He warned that this reshaping would require shedding some traditional Marine capabilities in favor of new ones.

Previews of the new initiative indicate the Marines will divest all of its tanks, specialized law enforcement units, and combat bridge units. It will modestly reduce the number of infantry units, drastically cut the number of artillery units, cut amphibious vehicles and some types of aircraft, and shrink by 12,000 people overall.

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These cuts will support the creation of new Marine Littoral Regiments equipped with shore-based anti-ship weapons designed to deny use of near seas to adversary ships from small islands or coastal outposts like those littering the South and East China Seas. Other units will specialize in seizing and building small expeditionary bases to support logistics for aircraft, ships, and other units that may be fighting in the area but out of range of the United States’ large, fixed bases.

The Marine Corps has spent the last several years thinking about fighting in the maritime environment and how to integrate and fight more effectively with the U.S. Navy, rather than simply being transported by it. Early projects like the Littoral Operations in Contested Environments concept gamed out how marines would work with the Navy to get ashore facing greater opposition than it has been used to in recent decades. Follow-on experiments saw marines firing missiles off of the decks of Navy warships and last spring the Marines  Corps selected an anti-ship missile with a 100-mile range to fire against enemy warships from mobile launchers on small bases ashore.

The Marines revealed in their 2021 budget request that they also want to procure a ground-launched version of the Tomahawk cruise missile capable of targeting ships. Ground-launched Tomahawks, which have a range of about 900 miles, were banned under the Cold War-era INF treaty until the United States left it last year, citing Russian violations of its terms.