With new global threats emerging, especially in the Indo-Pacific, the Marines’ top commander sees a new kind of fight on the horizon that will need more unmanned planes and remote weapons and smaller infantry units that can swiftly respond, packing their own arsenal of surveillance drones and anti-aircraft missiles.
Commandant Gen. David Berger, on Monday, April 26, released an update on how the Marine Corps is doing in carrying out his 10-year vision to reorganize and modernize its troops and put the force on equal footing with technology for future conflicts.
At Camp Pendleton and Marine Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, legacy units such as tanks and bridge companies have been dismantled. Their heavy equipment, once useful for the Marines’ desert and mountain campaigns alongside Army forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, has less of a place in future conflicts that will need stealth and agility.
In their place, the West Coast-based 1st Marine Expeditionary Force will increase its long-range weaponry and put into use lighter and more mobile infantry battalions. The Marines’ aviation units will reduce their numbers of Ospery and helicopters in favor of more unmanned aircraft systems.
The changes — which take the Marines back to their amphibious roots partnering with the Navy — will make the force more competitive against the United States’ most likely future adversaries and more skilled in providing humanitarian and disaster aid around the globe, three of the Corps’ top strategists said in a recent roundtable discussing the commandant’s vision.
“Modernization helps our readiness, so we truly are the nation’s crisis response force able to deploy tonight,” said Lt. Gen. Eric Smith, who heads up the Marine Corps Combat Development Command and is the deputy commandant for combat development and integration. “The goal is a free Indo-Pacific and to make sure we are ready to respond to a crisis or conflict should that, God forbid, erupt in that theater.
“The commandant seeks to produce momentum so that in 2030 we are ready for a decade of uncertainty.”
The report describes the progress made in the last year, including investing in new equipment with diverse uses such as Amphibious Combat Vehicles, rocket artillery and mobile reconnaissance systems; refining organizational and unit structures; developing new tactics for a more amphibious environment; and bringing in more talent from Marine Reserve units, taking advantage of their civilian expertise in police, fire and emergency services, with commercial airlines and in the country’s universities.
Berger has been on a quest to equip the Marines to compete with countries that have similar emerging technologies and warfighting capabilities. Slow-moving tank units can’t meet the pace of new threats, he has said. Instead, he plans to make units smaller, lighter and faster.
“It is imperative that we comprehensively adapt our force to the demands of competition and conflict in multiple domains,” Berger said in his new report. “The intersection of threat, technology and a changing operating environment necessitate wide-ranging changes” to what the Marine’s expeditionary force provides the Navy and other branches.
And retaining more mature, well-trained Marines is part of that plan.
“You can’t accelerate maturity and experience,” said Smith. For example, shooting an artillery piece 100 miles away, “you want somebody who’s done that a couple times.”
The new plan calls for Marines who are more skilled and have a greater level of self-sufficiency and initiative. The military branch that typically skews the youngest, needs to retain more of its senior enlisted and high-ranking officers, officials said.
Recruiters, also, will be more selective, looking for more highly trained and multi-disciplinary Marines who will undergo more comprehensive training after boot camp.
Still, the Corps’ ranks are expected to drop from 186,000 to 174,000.
Among the changes to ground combat is the formation of Marine Littoral Regiments — smaller units of Marines that can quickly land on a beach, set up anti-aircraft missiles, fire upon their target and disappear without being sensed.
The concept isn’t new. During World War II, Marines were known for their successful island-hopping campaigns in the Pacific, including the battles of Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
But instead of using the islands as stepping stones toward a large final campaign, now they would be used for deploying drones and weapons that can perform reconnaissance or carry out strikes miles ahead, Brig. Gen. Eric Austin, director of the Capabilities Development Directorate, said. “If we’re 12 miles out, it puts us into a positional advantage to confront them or expose them.
“Geographic position is really important.”
Remotely operated reconnaissance technology will likely replace the Light Armored Battalions now used on the ground. For that, the Marines are looking at options for controlling air and ground robotics and provide reconnaissance.
“What form that takes is still unknown, that’s what we’re experimenting and war gaming with,” Smith said.
At Camp Pendleton and Marine Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, efforts to meet the commandant’s goals have been underway for several months.
Among the first units to be decommissioned was the 1st Tank Battalion based at Twentynine Palms.
The 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton has also let go of heavy equipment tied to the engineering companies who are tasked with building the bridges and landing strips needed to get troops to a fight.
While bridge building in the last 20 years was used mainly across land obstacles such as ravines, canyons or other impassable terrain, the Indo-Pacific region presents many areas with the potential for water obstacles.
Heavily armored equipment lumbering in carrying huge pre-fabricated metal bridges or docks doesn’t fit Berger’s vision for an agile force, so the combat engineers are learning to quickly build makeshift bridges from steel, wood and other materials on hand.
First Lt. Jared Swart, from the 7th Engineer Support Battalion at Camp Pendleton, recently trained a platoon of Marines at the Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport.
“Instead of being solely focused on bridges,” Swart said they are training now to be “general engineers.”
His trainees were tasked with repairing an old 19-foot-long bridge that couldn’t handle the weight of what the Marines needed to carry across. And they had to do it without the tank they would have once relied on to do the work.
“All engineers know how to assemble a standard bridge, but now that the tanks are taken away, we need to use different parts of our job,” said Cpl. Jose Puga, a 21-year-old, who oversaw a group of even younger Marines. “I went back and looked at older texts and did research. We had to know what parts to reinforce. We had to try out ideas, but do it safely.”
In the end, he and his Marines used pulley systems to move part of the bridge and do the repairs and add supports.
“We usually do bridges by pieces, like using Legos,” Lance Cpl. Carlos Pitones, 19, said. “This was metal and wood. But it didn’t stop us from getting it done. We got creative.”
It isn’t just heavy equipment the Marines are leaving behind in their evolution. Weapons are changing too.
The 11th Marine Regiment, a Camp Pendleton artillery unit, will be among cannon units across the Marines that will replace its Howitzers, limited to a range of about 18 miles, with rocket artillery and naval strike systems that can reach more than 100 miles. The 1st Marine Division tried out some of these long-range weapons in Iraq in 2008, and because of that one of the regiment’s battalions already uses these weapons.
Recently, they trained using mobile rocket systems, loading them onto a cargo plane that landed in a makeshift landing zone where they quickly unloaded the weapon, fired and retreated before they could be detected.
Infantry battalions are also being trained on a new arsenal of weapons and equipment.
“We need to train infantrymen to operate on more weapons systems,” said Brig. Gen Benjamin Watson, commanding general of the Marine Corps’ Warfighting Laboratory. “We’ll have an armory of many weapons and you pick weapons situated to the mission, as opposed to having a single-threat Marine that can answer to one weapon.”
Now that Berger’s vision has been run through simulation after simulation by the Marine’s warfighting labs and tacticians, this last year has been about putting what’s been on paper into action with units across the Corps testing his ideas in the real world.
“We’re looking for feedback from commanders to young Marines,” said Major Joshua Benson. “We want to know does it work for them on the ground, sleeping under the stars. We’re not scared to be wrong; if we are, we’ll adjust.”
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