The Marine Littoral Regiment

The Marine Corps is turning the 3rd Marine Regiment into the 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment. As a consequence, last week the Corps deactivated the 2nd Battalion 3rd Marines.

Longtime readers of the Oregon Catalyst may recall I have written several profiles of Vietnam veterans who served in this storied battalion. They can be read here, here, here, and here. These were snippets of my research that led to a book I published on the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive.

The retiring of the battalion colors is pictured above. That is an understandably sad image for veterans that fought with this unit in their youth, but there is more to this story.

The restructuring of the Marine Corps that caused Friday’s ceremony is worth pondering. Three years ago, General David Berger, the 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps, released a planning guidance that re-focused the Marine Corps on preparing for high-end combat against a peer adversary. By that point, marines have been deeply involved in counter-insurgency for most of the past two decades while the Corps kept trying to maintain the conventional combat strength it had on September 10, 2001.

The problem is that the nature of conventional warfare, particularly fighting high-intensity campaigns against a high-tech opponent tends to change over time. The diffusion of precision-guided missiles is one revolutionary development that military strategists have been talking about, but only the Marine Corps has actually been doing much about.

Since the Second World War, American military doctrine has been to maneuver around airpower. The first objective of every campaign establishes air superiority. Operating ground or naval forces without air superiority is completely outside the paradigm of how this country has been planning and fighting wars for a century now.

The new ubiquity of precision-guided missiles calls into question the very ability to maintain the force protection that air superiority has provided both to front line forces and to rear area logistics, the unsung part of the military that truly wins wars. To sink ships in Pearl Harbor today, or more importantly, hit the naval magazine and fuel storage on O’ahu no longer requires a carrier task force, as Admiral Yamamoto assembled in 1941. Ballistic missiles, armed with conventional warheads, can now be launched from the continent of Asia to do the same thing.

What about missile defense? We have it. We try to improve it. But there is an asymmetry of advantage in that arms race. One small improvement in missile countermeasures requires far more costly and sometimes improbable adaptation by the engineers of the missile defense system. It was one thing to intercept MIRVed ICBMs on the scale of a global thermal nuclear war, where thousands of projectiles would be striking American and allied targets across the globe. It is quite another thing to deal with thousands of projectiles trying to strike just one target. A few are going to get through. It only takes a few warheads to sink a Ford class carrier.

Accomplishing this from across the globe can be cost-prohibitive for a missile strike, presenting adversaries a pyrrhic victory. It’s in the shorter, in-theater range, that massed missile strikes with autonomous tracking systems will primarily have this revolutionary impact. So we may not have to worry too much about ICBMs in a conventional war, but a concentration of short-range missiles on Midway Island would likely threaten to overwhelm any missile defense system in Hawaii. And Midway Island’s missile defense could be overwhelmed by a concentration of short-range missiles on Wake Island. The Pacific campaign in WWII was a contest for airstrips, to build unsinkable aircraft carriers. General Berger sees a Pacific island-hopping campaign of today and the foreseeable future to be a contest for real estate to deploy mobile, concealed surface-to-surface missiles as unsinkable guided-missile cruisers.

The most influential paper developing this concept was penned in 2015 by Andrew Krepinevich when he was the president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment titled Maritime Competition in a Mature Precision-Strike Regime. Krepinevich argued that the aviation age has come to a close with the widespread diffusion of precision-strike capability from missiles. For the three decades that have passed since Operation: Desert Storm, the United States has enjoyed a monopoly of the use of precision strike capability. Though we have made ample use of the Tomahawk cruise missile, our preferred platform for delivery of smart ordinance has been from aircraft. Meanwhile, potential adversaries that could never afford to challenge our air superiority have been investing in mass missile capabilities as an alternative to fighting an air war. This has actually given these potential adversaries a stand-off capability over the United States.

To understand our relative naval strength against China, the traditional means of assessment has been to count the number of China’s carrier strike groups compared to ours. China doesn’t have many, but it has so many missiles that China treats them as a separate branch of service, called the Rocket Force. So, for naval warfare against China, comparing carriers is the wrong metric, because it’s so unlikely an American carrier could survive a massed Chinese missile strike. The new Ford class carrier is a floating city with an enormous amount of firepower, but that broad flight deck is just a big “hit me” sign. The strike range of these incredibly expensive carriers and their extremely expensive new F-35s is substantially shorter than the strike range of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that would be hurled at them.

The Navy is not responding well to this new reality. They are doubling down on the carrier strike group. It is too institutionally hard to break away from the organizational norm of large vessels and the enduring branding that the 1986 movie Top Gun embedded into the Navy’s public image. Rather than name the next carrier after a U.S. President, it ought to be christened the USS Tom Cruise.

The Marine Corps has proven to be more institutionally nimble. The Leathernecks have a well-branded image of their own in the light infantry regiment, but the new littoral regiments only require one infantry battalion. The other two are a missile battalion (the regiment’s primary offensive capability) and an air defense battalion (the regiment’s primary defensive capability). There will always be a need for perimeter security that the infantry will provide, but the primary threat to these units comes from above, not in the bush. In his planning guidance, General Berger described the Marine Corps’s adaption to the Mature Precision-Strike Regime with two key concepts: Stand-in Forces and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations.

Stand-in Forces is a play on the more common military term “stand-off” which is the ability to hit the enemy outside the maximum range of the enemy’s weapons. So “stand-in” means developing the ability to operate within the enemy’s range. This entails the rapid deployment of ground forces in the many remote islands in the Pacific Ocean to establish missile forces that are difficult for the enemy to detect and target. These Stand-in Forces are also intended to be diffuse, in that a successful hit on any one of them is less catastrophic than a successful hit on a Wasp class amphibious assault ship packed with marines. General Berger described the concept this way:

The Stand-in Forces concept is designed to restore the strategic initiative to naval forces and empower our allies and partners to successfully confront regional hegemons that infringe on their territorial boundaries and interests. Stand-in Forces are designed to generate technically disruptive, tactical stand-in engagements that confront aggressor naval forces with an array of low signature, affordable, and risk-worthy platforms and payloads. Stand-in forces take advantage of the relative strength of the contemporary defense and rapidly-emerging new technologies to create an integrated maritime defense that is optimized to operate in close and confined seas in defiance of adversary long-range precision “stand-off capabilities.”

Creating new capabilities that intentionally initiate stand-in engagements is a disruptive “button hook” in force development that runs counter to the action that our adversaries anticipate. Rather than heavily investing in expensive and exquisite capabilities that regional aggressors have optimized their forces to target, naval forces will persist forward with many smaller, low signature, affordable platforms that can economically host a dense array of lethal and nonlethal payloads.

By exploiting the technical revolution in autonomy, advanced manufacturing, and artificial intelligence, the naval forces can create many new risk-worthy unmanned and minimally-manned platforms that can be employed in stand-in engagements to create tactical dilemmas that adversaries will confront when attacking our allies and forces forward. Stand-in Forces will be supported from expeditionary advanced bases (EABs) and will complement the low signature of the EABs with an equally low signature force structure comprised largely of unmanned platforms that operate ashore, afloat, submerged, and aloft in close concert to overwhelm enemy platforms.

Stand-in Forces take advantage of the strategic offensive and tactical defense to create disproportionate result at affordable cost. Because they are inherently resilient, risk worthy, inexpensive and lethal they restore combat credibility to forward-deployed naval forces and serve to deter aggression. Stand-in force capabilities are much better optimized to confront physical aggression and malign behaviors with physical presence and nonlethal payloads, empowering allies with the ability to defend their own national territory and interests.

The Marine Littoral Regiment is the new kind of unit that will fight within the range of massed missile strikes. It will do so by creating those unsinkable guided missile cruisers that General Berger calls expeditionary advanced bases:

Expeditionary Advanced Based Operations (EABO)

EABO complement the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations Concept and will inform how we approach missions against peer adversaries. As we move beyond concept to implementation, we must recognize that EABO is not a “thing” – it is a category of operations. Saying we will do EABO is akin to saying we will do amphibious operations, and as with amphibious operations, EABO can take many forms.

EABO are driven by the aforementioned adversary deployment of long-range precision fires designed to support a strategy of “counter-intervention” directed against U.S. and coalition forces. EABO, as an operational concept, enables the naval force to persist forward within the arc of adversary long-range precision fires to support our treaty partners with combat credible forces on a much more resilient and difficult to target forward basing infrastructure. EABO are designed to restore force resiliency and enable the persistent naval forward presence that has long been the hallmark of naval forces. Most significantly, EABO reverse the cost imposition that determined adversaries seek to impose on the joint force. EABO guide an apt and appropriate adjustment in future naval force development to obviate the significant investment our adversaries have made in long-range precision fires. Potential adversaries intend to target our forward fixed and vulnerable bases, as well as deep water ports, long runways, large signature platforms, and ships. By developing a new expeditionary naval force structure that is not dependent on concentrated, vulnerable, and expensive forward infrastructure and platforms, we will frustrate enemy efforts to separate U.S. Forces from our allies and interests. EABO enable naval forces to partner and persist forward to control and deny contested areas where legacy naval forces cannot be prudently employed without accepting disproportionate risk.

EABO enable the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps to partner and persist forward despite adversary long-range precision fires, a necessary reaction to adversary force development initiatives. However, our ambitions are more aggressive than preserving status quo options, and we seek to restore the strategic initiative by establishing a disruptive and highly competitive space where American ingenuity can capitalize on the new capabilities that naval forces will exploit to deter conflict and dominate confined seas. The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps do not seek to merely “discern the future operating environment,” but are determined to define the future character of maritime conflict, so that naval forces will deter or fight from a position of enduring advantage. Inevitably, EABO will evolve in implementation into a wide array of missions, with an equally wide assortment of force and capability combinations required to support them.

Success will be defined in terms of finding the smallest, lowest signature options that yield the maximum operational utility. We must always be mindful of the ratio of operational contribution to employment cost. We will test various forms of EABO against specific threats and ask ourselves whether EABO contributions to the joint force are worth its logistics and security burden. This ratio should always be more favorable than other joint force options contributing a similar

To date, our wargaming has focused on a limited set of scenarios; thus, we will need to expand our analysis across more scenarios to better inform our force design efforts. As in earlier design initiatives, such as sea basing, we are going to build a force that can do EABO opposed to building an EABO force. This distinction is important because our fundamental design principles are independent of EABO. A force composed of highly capable tactical units that can perform combined arms operations at all echelons, enabled by organic air and logistics is a force that can perform EABO – if provided tailored capabilities and training. Determining the exact nature of this specialized training and equipping will be the focus of our EAB implementation actions.

Three years after this planning guidance was published, replacing the 3rd Marine Regiment with a new littoral regiment became one of those “EAB implementation actions.” While sad in a nostalgic sense, this looks promising in terms of innovation. Focusing on the future is one of the most difficult things for military institutions to do given their preference to plan for the last war. General Berger deserves credit for providing strategic foresight to his service that is hard to find at the Pentagon.

Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of We were winning when I was there.