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April 22, 2021
Notes from the Pentagon

A new mission for the Marines

By Bill Gertz
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David H. Berger has revealed plans for shifting the Corps’ mission to prepare for a future conflict with China: scouting and screening operations.

The approach upends the traditional mission of the Marines, who for decades have put amphibious assault from the sea to the land as the central priority.

“Given the realities of geography and the proliferating precision strike regime, the Navy and the joint force will need an ‘inside’ or ‘stand-in’ force that can operate persistently within the weapons engagement zone (WEZ) of a peer adversary,” Gen. Berger wrote in an article published Tuesday in the U.S. Army’s journal Military Review. “These same forces will remain inside an adversary WEZ to provide necessary support to naval and joint campaigning should competition escalate to war,” he said.

“Critically, given the vulnerability of large, fixed bases and shore-based infrastructure to long-range precision strike and the challenges of adequately defending that infrastructure, the stand-in force must be able to perform these functions from a strictly expeditionary and highly mobile posture.”

Gen. Berger outlined in the journal article that the new Marine mission will include reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance of People’s Liberation Army forces and activities from waters close to China‘s shores. Reconnaissance is detecting enemy activities, while counter-reconnaissance is blocking an adversary from doing the same to U.S. forces.

Gen. Berger said the two functions have also been called scouting and screening. Scouting is using all means to obtain and report combat information to commanders, while screening involves military operations to frustrate enemy scouting, including direct attacks on threatening enemy positions.

The new approach ends plans that called for keeping Marine ground units and F-35 fighter jets positioned mainly on a network of small bases close to China.

“The answer to the question of how we may best support the broader effort, it seems increasingly likely, is not lethal fires as an end in themselves but rather reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance applied in all domains and across the competition continuum,” Gen. Berger said.

Marine stand-in forces will be “constantly present” in key waters during periods of competition with China below the level of conflict and will seek to deter and counter “non-lethal coercive behavior and other malign activity directed at U.S. allies, partners, and other interests,” Gen. Berger wrote.

The new Marine strategy is based on war games that showed China‘s rapidly developing long-range, precision-strike missiles and weapons make land bases vulnerable to attack. Additionally, large Navy ships are vulnerable to China‘s new anti-ship ballistic missiles, the DF-21 and DF-26, the general said.

In response, “a light, self-reliant, highly mobile naval expeditionary force postured forward in littoral areas” close to China will provide military commanders with key abilities to find and track high-value targets such as PLA reconnaissance platforms, scouting units, and other Chinese command, control, communications, computers, cyberspace, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting systems.

The floating Marine units will be able to target those systems with missiles and other weapons and provide cues to other naval and military forces for what Gen. Berger said will be “highly lethal naval and joint fires kill chains.”

The stand-in Marine force would move continually from stealthy sea-based platforms and austere bases ashore. That would make it “fiendishly difficult for the adversary to locate, track, and effectively target” and significantly complicate Chinese leaders’ decision-making.

“Even in steady-state, day-to-day competition below the threshold of violence, this widely distributed mobile presence will greatly expand the depth and fidelity of the joint force commander’s understanding of the full range of adversary and other activity within the area of operations,” Gen. Berger wrote in the journal article.

The Marine scouting and screening forces will also cooperate closely with regional allies to discourage Chinese coercion and to contribute to deterrence by detection, he noted. The Marines will be operating from international waters with short periods ashore with local allies and partners, thus reducing the need for heavy ground forces or large land-based aviation forces. The smaller units also will reassure allies that are reluctant to host large numbers of U.S. military forces.

The four-star general predicted that the new mission will be controversial within the Marine Corps and the U.S. military in general because it appears to go against the service’s traditional role as amphibious shock troops. But the reform is needed as part of efforts to retool the military for a possible war with China.

Earlier, Gen. Berger announced that the Marines would give up all of its M1A1 tanks as part of a reform program called Force Design 2030.

Additional ground force changes include fielding a Marine littoral regiment, restructuring infantry battalions and eliminating much of towed artillery in favor of longer-range rockets and missiles, including anti-ship missiles.

The head of U.S. Strategic Command sharply rejected a Democratic proposal to adopt the Chinese model of not being the first nation to use nuclear weapons in a conflict.

During Senate testimony Tuesday, Stratcom’s Adm. Charles Richard, who oversees the U.S. nuclear arsenal, said a U.S. no-first-use policy would undermine the military’s ability to deter adversaries and assure allies.

“We’ve already run an excursion of what that would do to strategic deterrence. It will diminish it. You’ll remove a level of ambiguity now that has a deterrent effect short of [the] employment of nuclear weapons,” Adm. Richard told the Senate Armed Services Committee this week.

Additionally, declaring a no-first-use policy will lack credibility. “Nobody is going to believe it anyway,” the four-star admiral said. “It won’t be credible.”

Liberal Democrats Sen. Elizabeth Warren and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith introduced legislation this week that would force the military to adopt a no-first-use nuclear policy.

“Threatening to use nuclear weapons first makes America less safe because it increases the chances of a miscalculation or an accident,” said Ms. Warren, Massachusetts Democrat. “There are no winners in a nuclear war, and the U.S. should never start one.”

The legislation would declare that the United States will not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict and would shift to a second-strike retaliatory nuclear capability.

A multiyear nuclear modernization program is in jeopardy after the election of President Biden and control of both houses of Congress shifting to Democrats. The party has favored anti-nuclear-weapons policies for years.

Adm. Richard said the idea of eliminating all ground-based missiles, as some Democrats advocate, would also reduce U.S. deterrence and require the military to again place strategic bomber forces on alert. Bombers were taken off 24-hour alert status in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Adm. Richard said the nuclear threat posed by China and Russia “is only getting worse, rapidly.” China‘s arsenal is advancing so rapidly that the admiral said he has ordered all briefings more than one month old to be updated with new intelligence.

“I can’t get through a week right now without finding out something we didn’t know about China,” he said.

China‘s nuclear forces, while limited, are undergoing an “unprecedented” expansion, he said.

The expanding nuclear arsenal and support systems raise questions about Beijing’s declared no-first-use policy.

“While China keeps the majority of its forces in a peacetime status, increasing evidence suggests China has moved a portion of its nuclear force to a launch on warning (LOW) posture and are adopting a limited ‘high alert duty’ strategy,” Adm. Richard said.

China and Russia can rapidly produce more warheads while the United States is “just barely able” to extend the life of current U.S. warheads and will have little capability to remanufacture existing warheads.

“We have no capability now to actually make a new weapon,” he said.

China also is rapidly expanding its ability to make fuel for nuclear weapons that could allow for more rapid warhead production. “It’s only been within the last week that we became aware that this limitation on them has changed in an upward direction,” Adm. Richard said.

The commander of the Space Command, Gen. James H. Dickinson, told a Senate hearing this week that China has robot satellites capable of grabbing and destroying orbiting U.S. and allied satellites.

Gen. Dickinson said the capability is part of efforts by Beijing to achieve “space superiority through space and space attack systems.”

“One notable object is the Shijian-17, a Chinese satellite with a robotic arm,” Gen. Dickinson told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Space-based robotic arm technology could be used in a future system for grappling other satellites.”

Beijing also has fielded multiple ground-based lasers that can blind or damage satellites and is developing a broad array of jamming and cyberattack systems, directed-energy weapons and orbiting space warfare systems and ground-based anti-satellite missiles.

The comments on the Shijian-17 by a senior U.S. official were the first on the record.

NASA lists the Shijian-17 as an experimental satellite operating in geostationary orbit to test a variety of technologies, including spacecraft propulsion, solar-array cells, guidance, navigation and control, and space-based optical observation of space debris.

“China will attempt to hold U.S. space assets at risk while using its own space capabilities to support its military objectives and overall national security goals,” he said.

Brian G. Chow, a space national security expert, said Beijing has been building orbiting anti-satellite weapons since 2008.

“These ‘space stalkers’ could be placed on orbit in peacetime and maneuvered to tailgate U.S. satellites during a crisis,” Mr. Chow stated in a recent article in the journal Strategic Studies Quarterly. “At a moment’s notice, they could simultaneously attack multiple critical satellites from such close proximity that the United States would not have time to prevent damage.”

The robot satellites cannot be distinguished from nonthreatening satellites, and by destroying key U.S. satellites China could cripple military operations by disrupting communications, intelligence and targeting systems.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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