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Littoral Warfare in the Indo-Pacific

Time to start thinking differently about the US Marines in Australia

Logistics Specialist Seaman Courtney Lucarelli, from Youngstown, Ohio, directs landing craft air cushion (LCAC) 21, assigned to Naval Beach Unit 7, to depart a beach as a part of a large-scale amphibious assault training exercise during Talisman Saber 17. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Sarah Myers/Released)

The US Marine Corps (USMC) is ushering in a new, transformative era in its doctrine, capabilities and organisation under the Force Design 2030 Initiative. On 3 March 2022, the USMC officially stood up its first Marine Littoral Regiment (MLR) based in Hawaii.  The 3rd Marine Regiment officially became the 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment, the first of three regiments envisaged to be operating by 2030, with the 4th and 12th Marine Regiments earmarked to become MLR’s based in Okinawa and Guam.

These changes hold important insights for US allies and partners and especially for how the Australian Army and Australian Defence Force (ADF) should think about high end military operations in the Indo-Pacific. At present the key USMC-ADF engagement comes through the Marine Rotational Force – Darwin (MRF-D). MRF-D’s mission is centred on designated expeditionary operation tasks, US-Australian interoperability and regional engagement, whereby it seeks to advance USMC warfighting concepts and enhance regional security, and demonstrate the strength of the US-Australian Alliance.

Restructuring the MRF-D to include these new USMC units and capabilities as they develop operating concepts and force experimentation provides the perfect platform for enhancing US-Australian defence engagement. Accelerated bilateral engagement was flagged under the new AUKUS agreement and in the 2021 Australia-United States Ministerial (AUSMIN) communique. Such a move would further expose the Australian Army and ADF to cutting edge developments as it goes through its own reforms in the face of similar challenges.  

The new USMC Regiments consist of approximately 2000 Marines organised in three main elements: Littoral Combat Team, a Littoral Anti-Air Battalion and a Littoral Logistics Battalion. The MLR is designed to be a core part of Expeditionary Advance Base Operations (EABO), which is key to the US Navy and Marine Corps’ Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE) concept.

With the USMC undergoing major reforms in both warfighting doctrine and operational structure, it is of great importance that the US supports key allies such as Australia to engage with these emerging concepts and the newly created MLR for a number of key reasons.

Firstly, this is part of the US military response to the ‘pacing threat’ from the PRC and the key to the US engagement in both developing and counter A2AD capabilities in the region in peer competitor warfare scenarios.  LOCE is a key part of the US Navy and USMC’s reorientation to fighting for and establishing sea control, a mission that was significantly downgraded at the end of the Cold War when the US became the sole superpower. The MLR’s are designed to be broken into small force packages of 75-100 Marines to operate in dispersed detachments throughout the Indo-Pacific. The units are trained and equipped to move seamlessly from sea to land and back again, with a focus on long range strike, anti-ship operations, surveillance, operating autonomous vehicles and degrading or destroying enemy A2AD systems.

Australia has also gone through its own strategic renaissance in the Indo-Pacific with the end to its ten-year warning time for conflict in the region. In the 2020 Defence Strategic Update Australian strategy shifted its focus to high end warfighting in the Indo-Pacific necessitating changes in ADF’s organisation, doctrine and capabilities that will drive closer engagement with the USMC and the US military more broadly.

Second – geography matters. The inclusion of the term ‘littoral’ into the title of the newly stood up USMC regiment is a direct signal as to the key terrain in which these units will be operating in across the Indo-Pacific. The USMC use a common definition whereby the littoral is comprised of “two segments: the seaward portion is that area from the open ocean to the shore that must be controlled to support operations ashore. The landward portion is the area inland from the shore that can be supported and defended directly from the sea.”

This definition can also be easily applied to Australia’s strategic geography, with its large shore-based population and its expansive coastal regions and offshore islands. Most significantly Australia is surrounded by a complex web of interlocking littorals to its north and north-east: the archipelagic states of Indonesia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Marshall Islands, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.  These archipelagic and littoral regions are of enduring value. As Nicholas Spykman argued in The Geography of Peace the ‘rimlands’ that stretch along the coast from Western Europe to India and then China are the world’s most critical geography. These littoral waters are the ‘circumferential maritime highway[s] which link the whole area together in terms of sea power.’

Third – The recent announcement of AUKUS and the US adoption of integrated deterrence as the ‘cornerstone’ of its Indo-Pacific Strategy places much greater emphasis on interoperability, and even integration. This drives a broad strategic need for the new USMC Littoral units to train in Australia. In addition AUSMIN 2021 outlined an expansive new force posture agreement, including a joint base and new exercises focused on high end warfighting. This is off the back of the US-Australia bilateral Force Posture Working Group re-established at AUSMIN 2020 and convened in May 2021 that endorsed enhanced air, maritime and logistical cooperation, with land cooperation focusing on ‘conducting more complex and more integrated exercises’.

The newly stood up MLR units with their array of emerging technologies and focus on experimentation would complement and greatly enhance both militaries objectives under this program.  Technological interoperability and force experimentation with new capabilities will be key to effectively developing integrated deterrence.

The new MLRs will depend on US Navy Marine Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System (NMESIS) for its long-range strike, the MQ-9A Reaper UAV for extended-range intel, surveillance and reconnaissance, and the Ground/Air Task Oriented Radar (G/ATOR) contributing to the communications architecture, with mobility provided by long-range unmanned surface vessels as well as light amphibious warships. The US and Australia continue to cooperate on developments in military drone technology, and in Talisman Sabre 2021 the 12th US Marine Regiment conducted a functions test at Australia’s Shoalwater Bay Training Area for the Ground Air Task Oriented Radar (G/ATOR).

The USMC ‘Ship Killing’ NMESIS is centred on an unmanned Joint Light Tactical Vehicle fitted with long range anti-ship missiles. This project remains in the trial phase but is set to become fully operational in 2023. The NMESIS project directly aligns with the current focus of the ADF to develop more long range strike capabilities including project LAND 8113 Long Range Fires and SEA 4100 Phase 2 Land Based Maritime Strike.  Under SEA 4100 Phase 2 the prime defence contractor Thales, in partnership with Kongsber Defence Australia, has proposed a Bushmaster anti-ship missile capability.  This is a single cab Australian Bushmaster utility vehicle fitted with a twin pack launcher for the Naval Strike Missile designed specifically to align with the USMC concept of operations for LOCE and EABO. More broadly, the emergence of these two USN/USMC concepts coincide with the Australian Army’s Littoral Manoeuvre project, LAND 8710 Phase 1, under which two separate fleets of landing craft and amphibious vehicles will be acquired to provide shore-to-shore, ship-to-shore, and over-the-shore manoeuvre and sustainment capabilities for Joint Force operations in littoral and riverine environments.

The launch of the initial MLR in Hawaii is an important evolution for the USMC and also for its Indo-Pacific allies such as Australia. The MLR and the EABO concepts dovetail with Australia’s strategic location, the importance of the alliance, and the shared vision of future interoperability. MRF-D mentions all of these aspects as core components in their mission statement.

If the US is serious about integrated deterrence it needs to better work with its closest allies and security partners like Australia as these new USMC littoral concepts and capabilities are further developed. With Australia’s vast regional training space and combine fire ranges, and as the southern anchor US ally in the Indo-Pacific, USMC MLR units rotating through MRF-D should be an immediate priority for both countries.

Material for this article was developed through a research project on archipelagic warfare funded by the Australian Army Research Centre.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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