The U.S. Marine Corps is eliminating all of its tanks and most of its artillery to become a smaller, lighter force.
The Marines are shifting towards the ability to seize small islands in the South China Sea during wartime.
Marine aviation, law enforcement, and other arms will also face steep cuts or elimination.
The U.S. Marine Corps is remaking itself to better fight China in a potential conflict, and it’s making bold choices to make it happen. The Marines will eliminate all of their tank units (a capability the service has had for nearly a century), most of its tube artillery, and a substantial amount of aviation units. In return the service will bulk up with long-range rocket artillery and anti-ship missiles, weapons the service thinks will be more useful in island-hopping campaigns in the South Pacific.
The Marine Corps, according to USNI News, says it is not “optimized to meet the demands of the National Defense Strategy.” The service also identifies China as the “pacing threat” to the U.S. and its allies in the coming years. Most experts believe that in the event of conflict between the two countries, the South China Sea will be a major theater of war.
The sea is the location of several island archipelagos, including the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, and a number of islets, atolls, shoals, and other above-water terrain features. In recent years China has claimed up to ninety percent of the South China Sea and established military bases at several key locations.
If war unfortunately breaks out, the Marine Corps will almost certainly ride into the South China Sea on Navy transport ships and seize many of these islands with military bases, in order to deprive China of their ports and airfields and the ability to flex military power. None of these “islands” are very large: Fiery Cross Reef, the site of a Chinese military air base, is only 677 acres. Subi Reef, the site of another air base, is only 976 acres.
The small size of the islands limits the size of the force needed to defend them, as well as the size of the force required to take them. The Marines apparently think that 65-ton M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks won’t be needed in amphibious assaults launched to take them, especially since China is unlikely to base their own tanks on these islands. Heavy cannon artillery in the 155-millimeter range would also be unnecessary, as the islands are too tiny to utilize their range.
The Marines are eliminating all four tank battalions, including three active duty and one reserve battalion equivalent. The Marine Corps has fielded tanks for 97 continuous years, receiving six M1917 six-ton tanks from the U.S. Army in 1923. The cuts will remove approximately 200 M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks from the Marines' inventory. Bridging units capable of setting up mobile bridges are also going away, as none of the islands have any rivers or streams.
The service will also eliminate three infantry battalions, each with about 800 personnel, 16 out of 21 artillery cannon batteries, two out of six amphibious companies, and four tiltrotor and helicopter squadrons. Even F-35 units will take a hit—though the Marines won’t deactivate any squadrons, each will have only 10 F-35s instead of the planned 16. Presumably that will also mean the Marines will buy fewer F-35s.
The Marines will make heavy cuts in existing capabilities to stand up new capabilities. Long range rocket artillery, which will allow the Marines to strike other islands and even People’s Liberation Army Navy ships at sea, will see a 300 percent boost. The Marines’ rocket artillery platform is HIMARS, or High Mobility Artillery Rocket System. HIMARS is a six tube rocket launcher mounted on the back of an armored truck, and has the capability to
The Marines are also buying new Naval Strike Missiles and Maritime Strike Tomahawk, a variant of the Tomahawk land attack cruise missile. Both missiles will allow the Marines to quickly fortify any islands that fall under their control, forcing Chinese navy ships to keep their distance. Maritime Strike Tomahawk has an unclassified range, according to Defense News, “of about 900 nautical miles.”
The Marines new blueprint is not without risks. The lack of tanks and the loss of tube artillery and an attack helicopter squadron arguably leaves the Marines with fewer weapons to confront main battle tanks. One potential combat zone for the Marines is the Baltic Sea versus Russia, and Moscow has several thousand tanks.
But the U.S. defense budget even before the coronavirus crisis was going to be tight in the 2020s, and the economic downturn from the ongoing public health emergency will be severe. A remodeled Marine Corps is inevitable and the service is taking the initiative before someone forces it on them.
The rest of the armed services would do well to follow the Marines’ example.
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