From the Philippines, Haiti, Nicaragua, and countless South Pacific islands, to Vietnam, Grenada, and Panama, the U.S. Marine Corps has been in the business of jungle warfare a long time. Despite this storied history, however, decades have passed since the Corps has gone to war in the jungle. Recent combat operations have been in the arid deserts of the Middle East and Central Asia. That may soon change.
The battlegrounds of the future likely will be the mountainous tropical islands of the western Pacific. With the construction of military bases on coral reefs in the South China Sea and other aggressive actions, China has demonstrated its intent to dominate the region. To secure its national security interests and assuage strategic vulnerabilities, it must control the sea lanes of the western Pacific, making the entire region fertile ground for conflict.
The Sea Services recognized this and developed an operational concept known as littoral operations in a contested environment (LOCE). It notes:
Armed with increasingly formidable sea denial capabilities, future adversaries may be capable of controlling choke points, holding key maritime terrain, or denying freedom of action and maneuver within the littorals by imposing unacceptable risk to forces at ever increasing ranges. Additionally, some potential adversaries are attempting to expand their sea denial capabilities into the ability to achieve sea control.1
In response to the challenges identified in LOCE, the services developed the expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO) concept:
The EABO concept espouses employing mobile, relatively low-cost capabilities in austere, temporary locations forward as integral elements of fleet/JFMCC operations. . . . They may also control, or at least outpost, key maritime terrain to improve the security of sea lines of communications (SLOCs) and chokepoints or deny their use to the enemy, and exploit and enhance the natural barriers formed by island chains.2
Since the publication of LOCE and EABO, a debate has sprouted within the Sea Services on how to address and overcome these challenges. This debate has featured the employment of surface ships, submarines, aircraft, missiles, and artillery to counter adversary actions. However, one important aspect has been missing: In the event of open hostilities, expeditionary advanced bases will need to be seized and defended, perhaps forcibly. This means infantry operations. What might these look like?
Character of the conflict
The EABO concept states, “In the event of crises, EABO can be employed in support of task forces maneuvering into the area to seize the initiative.”3 Imagine that a sudden commencement of hostilities triggers a scramble for key terrain. This will have many operational implications.
First, speed will be essential. Marines will need to be projected quickly to seize these areas. In the western Pacific, important terrain likely will be far forward, sending Marines to the edge of their operational range. In addition, many areas may need to be secured, requiring forces to be sent to multiple places simultaneously. Operations therefore will be distributed and necessarily will require projecting Marines by air assault, more specifically, by MV-22.
By nature of air assault operations, what Marines will be able to bring with them will be severely limited. They will board aircraft on board ships and bases with only what they can carry on their backs. If the area is contested, it may be too dangerous to bring in resupply aircraft right away, so Marines on the ground may have to last on their own until a modicum of control is established.
It will take time for heavy equipment to reach them, if it is even sent to their location. In such a distributed campaign, large gear may be sent to only a few critical spots. Some heavy equipment such as tanks may not be used at all, as there may be no way to get it ashore or no use for it given the restrictive nature of the terrain and environment.
Many of the islands in the western Pacific are covered by mountains and jungles. This harsh and unforgiving environment will hamper Marines even if no enemy is present to oppose them. Heavy foliage, swamps, and rugged terrain make roads rare in the jungle, especially on sparsely populated islands. Most supplies will have to be moved by air and on foot.
The harsh terrain also will limit the number of places where landing zones and expeditionary airfields can be sited and artillery positioned, unless ground is cleared. But clearing will take engineering equipment and time—time to get the equipment to where it is needed and time to complete the work. In a distributed campaign with multiple advanced bases and a finite number of engineering assets available, it might be a significant length of time before areas could be cleared.
The heavy foliage and thick canopy typical of this region can block radio waves and satellite signals, restricting radio communications and GPS navigation. Limited visibility could hinder the ability to observe and call for fire on the enemy and employ indirect-fire weapons such as mortars, which can only shoot where there is nothing overhead, as well as the ability of units to move quickly. This will create combat conditions characterized by direct-fire engagements at close range. It will be a series of meeting engagements and ambushes, attacks on and defenses of the advanced bases that each side covets.
What It Means for Marines
In this environment, U.S. Marines will have little choice but to operate in small units—platoons, squads, and even fire teams. They will operate forward for extended periods and will have to move light, since they will be living out of their packs. Every pound they carry will be solely to sustain them and enable them to fight. To be able to move quickly and silently and maneuver on their enemies, they will jettison heavy body armor. Mission-type orders based on clear commander’s intent will maximize their effects in this distributed and communications-degraded environment.
These tropical wildernesses are some of the harshest conditions Marines will operate in. The jungle is hot and humid. Weapons will rust, electronics will short out, gear will fall apart, and skin will rot. There are dangerous reptiles, insects, fungi, and diseases. Conditions are enough to drive a person mad, even when not being actively hunted by an adversary.
The jungle will require high standards of Marine infantrymen. To survive and win, they must be:
• Experienced in navigating overland in rugged terrain without the use of GPS
• Highly proficient in the art of camouflage and concealment
• Imaginative and resourceful in the practice of fieldcraft
• Proficient in close combat with direct-fire weapons
• Skillful in the application of small unit tactics, techniques, and procedures in ambushes, counterambushes, and patrolling
• Knowledgeable in first aid for both environmental and combat-related wounds
• Physically and mentally tough
• Extremely disciplined, from noise and light discipline, to reapplying camouflage and improving their position, to constantly cleaning weapons to ensure they work when needed
• Trusted by both their superiors and fellow Marines
The jungle will demand much of Marines, but it will demand even more of their leaders. Leaders must keep their Marines disciplined and sharp, which will keep them alive. There will be no place for weak leaders and undisciplined units in the jungle.
Though infantrymen will be sent in to seize and defend the key terrain the advanced base is built on, they will not be the only Marines who must live up to these high standards. In this distributed campaign, there may not be enough infantry to seize and defend every base. Artillerymen may have to seize and defend their positions; air wing Marines may have to seize and defend their forward arming and refueling points; logistics Marines may have to seize and defend their logistic nodes; communications Marines may be alone in their retransmission sites; and so on. Every Marine must be prepared to fight and endure in this environment. Every Marine must be a professional warrior.
The jungle takes no side. The enemy will face the same challenges as U.S. troops. Victory will come down to whichever side is the most proficient, disciplined, resourceful, tough, and well led. The victor will be the side that is better trained and more prepared. After all, survival of the fittest is the law of the jungle.
Editor’s Note: A fictionalized version of this article was entered in the 2020 Fiction Essay Contest, cosponsored by the Naval Institute and CIMSEC, and published by CIMSEC as “In the WEZ,” cimsec.org/?s=WEZ.
1. U.S. Marine Corps, “Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment.”
2. U.S. Marine Corps, “Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment.”
3. U.S. Marine Corps, “Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment.”