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“Transforming the Marine Corps: Adapting to the Chinese Threat in the Indo-Pacific”

The Marine Corps (180,000 men with a budget exceeding $30 billion) has embarked on a rapid and radical transformation process. The goal: to transform this force, suitable for combined combat with a maritime specificity, into a tailor-made force to respond to the Chinese threat in the Indo-Pacific arena. In other words, to transform a Swiss Army knife into a key fit for the Chinese lock. Responding to the Chinese threat, this new approach can be traced back to the beginning of the previous decade when the United States, under the leadership of Barack Obama, began their pivot back to the Pacific. As analyzed by Justin Vaïsse (Barack Obama and his foreign policy, 2008-2012), the new president, taking office in January 2009, considered the emergence of new powers, particularly China, as the most significant event of the time. He believed that the United States had largely missed this development because they were absorbed by the war on terrorism, Afghanistan, and Iraq. For Obama, it was necessary to rethink the role of the United States and especially to bring it closer to the new center of gravity of the world. And the Marine Corps (and the Navy in general) was in many ways the concrete tool of this strategy.

The Marines relocated to the Pacific region, reestablished ties with allies, and reacquired places (Okinawa, Guam) and environments neglected (though never abandoned) for many years. These returns led to the recognition mentioned above

: the forces deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Somalia with their artillery, armored vehicles, and aviation were not suitable for the arena or the threat, and therefore their mission. Since 2009, this threat has only grown. The rise to power of Xi Jinping and later his maintenance as president de facto for life are characterized by an increasingly confident China, ready to challenge the United States. Regarding Taiwan, the main but not the only point of contention, the policy adopted towards Hong Kong leaves little doubt about Xi’s vision. Adding to this the significant enhancement of the PLA (People’s Liberation Army), especially its navy, the United States has realized they can no longer assume unlimited access to the world’s oceans in times of conflict.

The area is nonetheless familiar. The Navy and the Marines are not novices. From 1941 to 1974, from Pearl Harbor to the evacuation of Saigon, the United States’ maritime forces fought against Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and China. They also positioned themselves against the USSR. The specificity of this geographical area, cut by chains of islands and islets off the coast of China, especially those forming an almost continuity between Taiwan and Japan, is well known. Holding these unsinkable aircraft carriers means hampering the freedom of movement of the adversary and, in the best case, prohibiting it. Gradually, through exercises, return of experience, and exchange with allies, the Marines matured their ideas and, towards the end of the 2010s, a new vision was developed.

It is part of the new maritime deterrence strategy published in 2020 by the Pentagon and titled Advantage at Sea, which includes the three American maritime services: the navy (USN), the Marines (USMC), and the coast guard.

The Marines are tasked with capturing and holding these islands to contribute decisively to the overall effort of American forces to interdict Chinese forces in the area. They should become the technological eyes and ears (electromagnetic interception, listening, passive sonar), the means of precision fire, and the relay of communications, at the heart of a network of multi-arm and alliance intelligence, control, and command means (Australia, Japan, South Korea, Philippines).

The Marines thus disposed of their tanks and much of their artillery, means now deemed unsuitable for the mission. The new Marine Corps began its restructuring into MLR, Marine Littoral Regiments, new formations that are smaller and more flexible. With 1,800/2,000 men, the MLR is conceived as a mobile force, persistent in contact, and relatively easy to maintain and sustain over time in the context of a naval expeditionary force. Its reference means of transport will be the Light Amphibious Warship (LAW), of which each MLR will be equipped with nine examples. Developed specifically to navigate easily among the numerous archipelagos of the region, the LAW will be able to carry on board more than 75 soldiers with their equipment, land them on the relevant islands, and then resupply them. According to initial estimates from Congress, each LAW will cost about 84 million euros to the United States Navy, which plans to acquire about thirty of them for now. The LAW will also be equipped with precision weapons and, with the necessary data, could serve as a maneuverable firing platform.

These new units and platforms will call upon unmanned aerial and maritime (surface and submarine) systems. These platforms will have the mission of reconnaissance/surveillance, logistics (with “delivery drones”), a logistical system aimed at automating resupply and sonar detection, particularly through passive sonar buoys. By the end of 2023, the Marine Corps has an MLR whose main mission is to test concepts and develop protocols and doctrines. However, many “components” are still missing, especially weapon systems and sensors. To overcome this situation, the service uses – an exception that deserves to be highlighted – commercial maritime sensors (COTS, Commercial off the Shelf Technology), a practice reminiscent of the introduction of drones in the Ukrainian and Russian armies during the war that opposes them since February 2022.

It is difficult to imagine that such a change could occur without opposition. Indeed, the announcement in 2020 of the restructuring Force Design 2030 has generated numerous criticisms of this program. Some senior officers of the Marine Corps in retirement, as well as former executives, argue that on the one hand, the Marines will certainly lose effectiveness as a force capable of fighting in combined conflict, while the new combat concepts of Force Design 2030 have not been proven and are difficult to sustain logistically. The United States armed forces undoubtedly risk losing capabilities they possess to engage in a risky adventure. The American Congress, after hearing the pros and cons, gave its green light, accepting the deep logic: to take risks to respond to a first-order threat.

Without entering into the fundamental debate, the transformation of the Marine Corps primarily demonstrates the seriousness with which the United States takes the Chinese military threat. But beyond the geopolitical context, it is a rare example of the ability of heavy institutions, like the American armed forces and the Pentagon, to make radical and rapid decisions, taking significant risks.

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