In my last column I laid out the reasons why the Marine Corps’ current strategy is trivial. It focuses on a war with China that is unlikely to happen, and in which the Marine Corps would be only a player, adding a handful of anti-ship missiles to the surplus we already have. (After the first 48 hours, both sides’ surface warships would be either sunk or in port.)
The question is, can we devise a better alternative? I think we can, to the advantage of the Marine Corps and the country.
The starting point immediately presents a challenge: the Marine Corps’ strategy must fit within the national strategy, and the national strategy is defective. It focuses on a war with China that is highly unlikely because both the U.S. and China are nuclear powers. Any direct engagement of conventional forces would contain a high risk of escalation to nuclear war. The side losing conventionally would be under immense political pressure to redeem the situation by going nuclear. Both sides know this, and if an incident between their respective armed forces does occur, they will both be attempting to contain it. The real story here is that our national strategy is a budget strategy, not a strategy for the outside world. However, it contains an opportunity for the Marine Corps, one I will address shortly.
The Marine Corps needs a strategy that bows to the war with China nonsense but also looks beyond it. The brief I would create would go something like this:
The Marine Corps recognizes that war with China is the most dangerous situation America faces, but also that it is unlikely. Should such a war occur, it will be of critical importance to prevent it escalating to the nuclear level. To that end, the most powerful but least risky strategy for the United States is a distant blockade of China. China depends on massive inflows of resources. The Navy/ Marine Corps team can block the seaborne flow and can do so at distances from China where the Chinese armed forces cannot project power. That means we can do it without firing a shot — a tremendous advantage in a conflict where preventing escalation will be literally a matter of life and death for both countries.
Within the strategy of a distant blockade that must be enforced with minimal violence, the Marine Corps offers critically important capabilities. These include:
- Stopping and boarding ships to inspect their cargoes and papers to determine whether they may pass or not. Boarding ships is a traditional Marine function, and the Corps’ work to develop non-lethal weapons and tactics can minimize the risk of casualties.
- Isolating Chinese overseas bases and ports controlled by Chinese companies. The Navy would blockade such bases and ports from the sea while Marines did so from the land, normally with the consent of the locals but if necessary without it.
- Establishing local bases for our own ships enforcing the blockade. Those bases will need protection from their landward sides.
- Maintaining a “fleet in being” threat to take Hainan island. Taking Hainan would require direct engagement and could only happen after prolonged fighting had reduced Chinese anti-ship capabilities to a minimal level. But the loss of Hainan would be such a dire blow to the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy that it could not ignore a Marine Corps prepared and ready to take it. The threat alone would tie down substantial Chinese forces and also move Beijing toward wanting a quick settlement of the conflict. (Marines can add more examples of what the Corps can contribute in a conflict that must not escalate.)
At the same time the Marine Corps must be prepared for important roles in a conflict with China, it must also be ready to fight and win wars with non-state enemies around the world. In the Marine Corps’ view, such conflicts are less dangerous than war with China but more likely. Climate change, mass migration and state failure will create happy hunting grounds for non-state entities that for a variety of reasons regard the United States as an enemy. We dare not merely sit and wait for them to strike.
The Marine Corps is the obvious servicer to specialize in containing these “Fourth Generation war” or “non-trinitarian” threats. Doing so requires strategic mobility, which in turn means a ground force must be married to the sea. The Marine Corps has a long history of involvement in such conflicts, going back to the sands of Tripoli and the banana wars of the early-to-mid 20th century. Marines have been working to understand war with non-state opponents and how to win it since the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. (The first field manual for 4GW, the K.u.K Austro-Hungarian Marine Corps FMFM-1A, was produced around 2005 by a seminar made up mostly of Marine officers, and Lt. Col. Greg Thiele USMC is the co-author of the Fourth Generation Handbook. If the Marine Corps wants to pick up these works and use them, we will not object, and I’m confident both the Admiralty in Pola and His Imperial and Royal Majesty Kaiser Karl will give their permission.
Specific Marine Corps capabilities that are necessary for fighting non-state threats include:
- Punitive expeditions
- Not relying on airpower, which results in civilian casualties and major destruction of civilian assets, but meeting our enemies eyeball-to-eyeball while protecting the local civilian population. In both Iraq and Afghanistan over-reliance on air power brought strategic-level negative outcomes. (Again, I’m sure HQMC can give more examples.)
In conclusion, the Marine Corps can make important contributions in a potential conflict with China, contributions that serve strategic requirements to minimize violence and thus avoid escalation. At the same time, it can be the nation’s first responder for the type of conflict most likely in the 21st century, conflict with threatening non-state entities.