If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the U.S. Marine Corps should be feeling good. Over the past five years, interest in developing “Marine-like” capabilities has expanded throughout the Asia-Pacific region, aligning with the Marines’ core competency—amphibious operations.
This trend potentially benefits the Marine Corps in several ways. It creates more useful partners able to conduct combined/amphibious operations and simultaneously draws allies and friends closer. It also builds partner confidence—not least in their own capabilities—and creates a web of unstated but practical alliances that complicates an adversary’s efforts to assert itself one-on-one against regional nations.
Amphibious development can jump-start the tactical and operational development of joint capabilities in partner-nation militaries. And allied amphibious forces can augment stretched U.S. resources. The U.S. Navy’s amphibious shipping shortfall is well known and unlikely to be rectified. However, add up Japanese, Australian, Republic of Korea (ROK), New Zealand, and other friendly nations’ amphibs, and the deficit is alleviated. The trend also ensconces the Navy–Marine Corps team as the most relevant force model in the region.
The Marine Corps has been gainfully employed in Asia for decades. Stability, access, and contingency-response capability derived from its presence and annual training and exercise scheme are invaluable. However, the Marines might also aim for a regional “amphibious architecture” composed of cooperative nations with capabilities that make them better able to defend themselves and be more useful partners.
Something also worth noting is that progress in the military-to-military area sometimes improves political cooperation. Thus, Marine Corps efforts to create a regional “amphibious network” could have strategic effects, rather than simply adding a tactical capability. This is particularly the case in grey-zone issues with China. When China pushes a nation, if the United States can respond with a multilateral amphibious exercise, it will send a message. But to do so, the Marines have to establish the relationships first. An exercise in the northern Marianas with Japan, Australia, and U.S. amphibious forces would transmit such a notice to China when it mucks about in the East China Sea. Even a humanitarian exercise in the South China Sea with Japan, the United States, India, Singapore, etc., would send yet another very pointed message.
Three Pillars and a Web
As one possible design among several, the following concept for a regional amphibious architecture might be viewed as three pillars and a number of “cross-bracing” relationships that form a complex web, strengthening regional security for concerned nations and bolstering the Marine Corps’ own position in the region.
Pillar Number One: Navy–Marine Corps amphibious forces covering the central and western Pacific and extending into the Indian Ocean as far as India.
Pillar Number Two: Japan’s newly formed amphibious force (effectively a Marine Expeditionary Unit [MEU]-plus) focusing on northeast Asia, but operating as far south as Australia and the Strait of Malacca.
Pillar Number Three: An Indian amphibious force (also a MEU-plus) covering the Indian Ocean, but occasionally operating in the South China Sea and sometimes as far north as Japan.
The relationship between the Americans, the Japanese, and the Indians should be a loose one and not described as a formal arrangement or an alliance. Doing so runs the risk of being criticized as an alliance designed to contain China, which it is not. Also, given India’s long-standing “nonaligned” foreign policy, any suggestion of such an alliance will be controversial domestically. Australia’s soon-to-be-operational amphibious force can enhance the U.S./Japan/India overlapping coverage. South Korea, New Zealand, Singapore, and others might also contribute in varying degrees with amphibious ships and marines as amphibious capabilities improve. It doesn’t matter whether amphibious troops are called marines. What does matter is that they are amphibious.
The Web, ‘Spoke to Spoke’
Some want to ultimately move away from the traditional hub-and-spoke relationship whereby the Marine Corps/Navy engages bilaterally (and sometimes multilaterally) with partners. Under hub-and-spoke, nothing much happens unless the United States is around. Such relationships are overdue and desirable to create the aforementioned cross-bracing, as amphib-capable nations engage and exercise with each other—in addition to anything they do with U.S. forces. A few plausible examples of amphibious forces linking up are Australia-Japan, New Zealand-Malaysia, Japan-India, and Indonesia-Philippines.
The Marines have been conducting amphibious-development activities in the Asia-Pacific region for the past 60-plus years. They have counterpart marines in a handful of nations, but it is debatable whether the U.S. Marine Corps has made as much progress as it should in creating amphibious-capable allies with whom it can operate.
Marine Forces Pacific and its main components—III Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) and I MEF—annually conduct a comprehensive training and exercise regimen that is the foundation of amphibious development in the region. These are valuable activities, and the overall scheme is well designed. However, one might suggest that nobody “keeps score” on genuine amphibious development. In other words, exercises are too often seen as an end in themselves—with the measure of success being a smoothly run exercise rather than a partner demonstrably capable of operating or fighting alongside U.S. forces.
Indeed, the Marines sometimes resemble the Harlem Globetrotters. Not unlike the Marines, the great trick-shot basketball team comes to town, puts on a good show, and then goes home. All in all, it’s an enjoyable event but leaves the locals little better at playing basketball. One might fairly consider the Cobra Gold Exercise in Thailand as an example. After 30-plus Cobra Golds, the Thai Marines (through no fault of their own) have not advanced much beyond a rudimentary amphibious capability. The long-running Balikatan Exercise with the Philippines has produced similar modest results in terms of an amphib-capable armed forces of the Philippines.
A Higher Return on Investment?
The exercises and engagements the U.S. Marines are currently executing are comprehensive and cover nearly the entire Asia-Pacific region—and get the priorities right. These provide good opportunities to practice, though there is always room for improvement. A recent example of how the long-standing exercise model can be improved is the T-AKE (dry cargo/ammunition ship) scheme, an imaginative effort to “operationalize MPF [maritime prepositioning force] shipping” that would provide both presence and amphibious-training opportunities beyond what the overstretched MEUs can provide. The Joint High-Speed Vessel has its place in this venue as well.
However, as noted, the Marine Corps’ exercise and training program in the region is not an end in itself—even though it is vitally important. What goes on during the 360 days of the year when a MEU or other Marine unit is not present matters just as much. Marines should be shaping the local environment to facilitate amphibious development in local militaries, with the exercises being a capstone opportunity for tangible capability improvement through practice. Once again, the exercises are fine. The Marines just need to do some other things that require few extra resources or budget dollars.
This is the missing link that will make exercises and engagement more productive. The Marine Corps makes the most progress when it has Marines permanently in a country. Otherwise, its presence and influence is sporadic and ephemeral. The Marines currently have liaison officers (LNOs) in Japan and Australia, and recently placed one in New Zealand to focus on amphibious development.
LNOs are not there to answer the mail and pass messages back and forth. Rather, they are to promote and explain the Marine Corps and to create more useful partners, able to participate in joint/amphibious operations. The LNOs’ ability to size up what needs to be done, to influence, and to produce results is paramount. It is obviously important to select the right officers for this work in terms of experience, temperament, and ingenuity. Relatively few officers are good at it.
The Marine Corps should endeavor to place them in as many countries as possible. To exert influence, one must be there. It is probably not a coincidence that Japan and Australia are furthest along in amphibious development and are also the two countries where U.S. Marine LNOs are on the ground. The ROK example bolsters this idea. The Marines have had a near-constant presence with the ROK Marines for decades. As a result, the Koreans are the most capable of U.S, Marine Corps allies—although they are too often tied to the Korean Peninsula.
A Marine-detachment scheme for the Asia-Pacific is also worth considering. Briefly, the plan calls for placing one or two Marine officers (and possibly a senior noncommissioned officer or two) in as many Asia-Pacific nations as will have them. This was done in Mongolia (of all places) several years ago and produced good results. As with all such ideas, it will be opposed in certain quarters. However, these barriers are not insurmountable with some effort and imagination.
Asia-Pacific Amphibious Potential, Country by Country
Japan has made rapid progress toward amphibious capability. It potentially has the equivalent of a couple of MEUs and a powerful navy and air force in northeast Asia—the region’s key terrain. Solidly linked with U.S. forces, the Japanese amphib unit is potentially able to engage with other nations now that collective self-defense has been relaxed.
Australia will have a rudimentary but effective amphibious force—first company-sized, then battalion-sized by 2017. The Australians could help relieve pressure on limited U.S. amphibious resources. The Australian amphib force has the potential to operate with Japanese and other foreign militaries.
India’s armed forces, with improved amphibious capability, can be influential in the Indian Ocean and nearby. The Indians also have good ties with Japan, Singapore, Vietnam, and other countries. Linking up Indian, Japanese, and American MEUs for exercises in the Indo/Pacific region is feasible.
The Republic of Korea has the ability to embark, land an amphibious force, and re-embark marines on their ships—and do so regularly. The U.S. Marine Corps has amphibious interoperability with the ROK’s and conducts landings with them annually. ROKMC (and Navy) need to be encouraged to operate off the peninsula more often.
New Zealand: Size doesn’t always matter. A one-ship New Zealand amphibious task force will be operational in a few years. It could potentially cover the Pacific islands and be a useful addition to partner-nation amphibious capability—especially operating with the Australians.
Malaysia wants an amphibious capability and has sought U.S. Marine Corps assistance. Ironically, a Malaysian amphibious force might lead to multilateral operations among ASEAN nations that ultimately deepen political links.
Taiwan: The Taiwan Marine Corps (TMC) has been cut dangerously, thus weakening Taiwan’s overall defense position—not least psychologically, as Taiwan’s best ground troops are eliminated. The TMC’s organization and purpose needs to be radically transformed into an emergency counterattack force—amphibious, but also ground/air mobile, from one end of Formosa to the other.
Singapore has a small amphib capability and is expanding with a new amphibious transport dock. It needs additional training and jointness, but it is a useful addition to regional amphibiosity and potentially influences other nations in this direction.
The Philippines’ marines have limited amphibious capability after decades of counterinsurgency and focus on ground operations. Nonetheless, if modest goals are set, a small but competent amphibious force for limited missions is feasible.
Indonesia: Its KORMAR (marine corps) is sizable, capable, and operates mostly in the vicinity of Indonesia. It is an important participant in multilateral exercises (especially ASEAN-focused) and useful for building “spoke-to-spoke” relationships.
Thailand: The Royal Thai Marines are capable of basic amphibious operations, but suffer from being part of the Navy in an Army-dominated defense establishment. An improved Thai amphibious capability might further ASEAN military cooperation—to include ASEAN amphib capabilities.
Maldives has a marine corps that plays an important role in protecting Maldivian territory and has a close relationship with the U.S. Marine Corps.
Sri Lanka has naval infantry and amphibious-capable army units. The Sri Lankans were savaged by human-rights groups after finishing off the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam a few years ago, but they can make a useful contribution to regional amphibiosity.
Timor Leste has the potential for a small marine capability, but it also offers an excellent place to establish a regional amphibious training center.
Cambodia has been making tentative efforts toward a naval-infantry capability for several years.
Vietnam has diligent but under-resourced amphibious forces and is potentially a key player in a regional amphibious network.
Tonga has had a small marine corps for many years.
Bangladesh: Rudimentary amphibious/riverine capability might be improved and employed locally.
Build Intellectual Support
“Amphibiosity” does not sell itself. It faces competition from air forces, submariners, surface-warfare types, and even ground armies—each offering easy victory if given enough resources. Amphibious capability needs to be promoted, both to specific countries and regionally. LNOs can do this, but a systematic sales effort is needed, to include the extensive “influence network” of think tanks, defense media, academics, etc. in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond (to include Washington, D.C.).
Toward this end, Marine Forces Pacific’s recently inaugurated annual regional amphibious symposium, known as PALS (Pacific Command Amphibious Leaders Symposium), is a step in the right direction. This event helps promote amphibious development, coalesce disparate activities, and also cross-pollinate regional militaries that are at different stages of development. It also helps establish the Marine Corps’ proper claim as the amphibious experts in the region.
U.S. Marines tend to focus on other marines or ground forces and pay relatively little attention to navies. As a couple examples, the Marine Corps should have attended both the Indian Ocean Symposium held in Australia and the Asia/Pacific Naval Symposium held in Shanghai in 2014. The Marine Corps made a specific effort to engage with Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force starting a few years ago, and it has paid off handsomely. This can be done elsewhere. Indeed, a regional amphibious architecture can only be created with full involvement of the U.S. Navy.
Once other countries’ amphibious capabilities come on line (Japan, Australia, and New Zealand will be the first, unless ROK Marines can be coaxed off the peninsula) we should encourage them to interact with the U.S. Navy–Marine Corps team—but also to link up with other countries, even if the Americans aren’t there. Singapore perhaps offers opportunities in this regard. Indonesia has a reasonable amphibious capability and conceivably could use it to engage more with neighboring countries. India theoretically could as well. This also potentially overcomes the serious shortfall in U.S. Navy amphibious shipping by making use of partner militaries’ amphibious ships. There is no reason Australian amphibs can’t integrate with a MEU/Amphibious Ready Group, or even with a Japanese amphibious task force. The possibilities for mixing and matching friendly amphibious forces are considerable.
Real Amphibious Interoperability
This is key for the U.S. Marine Corps’ future in the Pacific and is often overlooked. The only military with which it currently has solid amphibious interoperability is South Korea, although every exercise declares “enhanced interoperability” as a key objective. Interoperability in this case means whether U.S. Marines would be able to fight alongside another country’s military instead of preferring they sit in a corner until the hard work is done.
In the near term, Japan and Australia offer the best prospects for establishing genuine interoperability. This should be a priority, and the Marines would do well to measure progress (or lack thereof) rather than holding post-exercise barbecues and declaring success.
Such events would be the Asia-Pacific equivalent of Bold Alligator, the amphibious exercise held off the U.S. East Coast. The idea is to start small with a group of select (i.e., willing) countries doing something modest and build from there. A couple of options are to have a Southeast Asian/Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) focus, or something farther north—in the vicinity of Guam, for example—and involving the United States, Japan, Australia, and a few others. It will be necessary to differentiate this from Cobra Gold and to avoid an unwieldy exercise that people attend because everybody else is.
Exercise Rim of the Pacific, or RIMPAC, potentially offers a framework in which to hold amphibious drills, but such operations are only a small component of this massive program. It is best to be smaller and focused on amphibious operations. The Marines may consider starting as Bold Alligator did with a synthetic exercise. This is a low-cost “hook” to build interest, share ideas, and advance a common doctrine. It is perhaps also best sold initially with a heavy humanitarian-assistance/disaster-relief and light forcible-entry tone.
Bringing Guam/Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) training facilities to fruition—at long last—is important. Done right, it offers opportunities for conducting bilateral and multilateral joint/amphibious training that exists nowhere else in Asia. If Guam/CNMI becomes a reality, the regional amphibious development effort will advance much more rapidly.
Don’t Wait for the Phone to Ring
To make a regional amphibious architecture a reality, The U.S. Marine Corps should not be overly reticent and wait for a country to come and tell it what it wants. Most countries don’t know what they need in the first place. Size things up and tell them politely what they should do. And then help them do it. Just as important, do not be wedded to a rote “template” approach. Every country is different, and sometimes progress is most easily made by doing things the way U.S. Marines would not do them.
Ultimately, we should be pleased to see this newfound interest in amphibiosity—a capability ideally suited for the Asia-Pacific’s geography. However, given that the Marine Corps has been actively engaged in the region for over a half-century, one wonders why this movement is just now getting under way. It is hoped the Marine Corps will seize the opportunity to rethink its approach to amphibious development, do some things differently, and most important, start keeping score. Being busy is not the same thing as being productive when it comes to creating amphibious partners.