Allies, Partners and Marines in the Indo-Pacific: The Challenge of Building Effective Deterrent Forces


By Robbin Laird

In my interview with Lt. General Rudder, the Commander, U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Pacific (COMMARFORPAC), he clearly outlined the way ahead for the Marines in the Pacific and identified a number of challenges to be faced and met to shape that way ahead. During my visit to MARFORPAC in August 2021, I had a chance to discuss those challenges with a number of staff members in the command.

One of those challenges is working effectively with allies and partners in shaping an effective deterrent strategy and ensuring that coherent warfighting capabilities can be leveraged in times of crisis.

I had a chance to discuss the partnering challenges with the MARFORPAC team responsible for working those challenges.

I met with Mr. Rich Hill, G-5 International Affairs Branch Head, Maj Zach Ota, G-5 NE Asia Desk Officer, Maj Dylan Buck, NE Asia Desk Officer, Mr. Justin Goldman, TSC Plans Specialist and Mr. Scot Hasskew, TSC plans Specialist.

This is an impressive team and we had a wide ranging discussion of allied and partnering issues in the region.

Because of my engagement with the Australians as a Research Fellow with the Williams Foundation, and because the Marine Corps Rotational Force-Darwin had just been set up when I was last visiting MARFORPAC in 2014, we discussed the Australian relationship at length.

But we also discussed the tapestry of change in the Indo-Pacific as the Chinese reached out with both their economic and military power deep into the Indo-Pacific as well.

The team articulated a key point underlying the Marine Corps approach in the Indo-Pacific.

They are focused on working with allies and partners from the standpoint of crafting approaches to operations and not just taking a U.S. built template and incorporating allies into that template.

As one participant put it: “We use our training exercises to experiment with what particular allies or partners wish to do, and to work through how we can build that into an effective coalition warfighting capability.”

With the concern about what is referred to as “gray zone operations” by adversaries, deterrence delivered through interactive training throughout the region is a key focus of USMC activity in the region.

Training is a weapon system, and no more so than in shaping the ecosystem for combat operations in the Indo-Pacific through training with partners and allies.

A key point which emerged from the conversation was how training as a weapon system actually shaped joint coalition warfighting capability.

The argument went like this: The Marines are training with partners and allies throughout the Indo-Pacific and through these efforts are shaping distributed survivable and agile network of training areas with partners and allies.

This, in essence, creates combined joint task forces of varying sizes and varying locations that are scalable and agile.

And by exercising through the various training events, one is creating a deterrent effect.

By working throughout the entire geographical areas of the Indo-Pacific, the Marines are able to operate from multiple vectors, which is a core strategic focus of the Marines in the Indo-Pacific today.

A key element of innovation in the Indo-Pacific is working through a way ahead for coalition amphibious operations, from ships to the shore, from the shore to the sea and shaping distributed and flexible combat clusters throughout the region. 

We discussed how ARG-MEUs coming from CENTCOM through the Indo-Pacific both on the way and on the return have been part of the training regimes.

But clearly, a renewed emphasis on building amphibious task force capabilities in the Indo-Pacific is required going forward, but not simply in terms of the U.S. Navy and the USMC but broadening the efforts to shape coalition wide amphibious task force capabilities.

We spent much of the time discussing the Australian relationship with the USMC.

In my view, there is a significant evolution of Australian strategy underway and how that evolution crosscuts with how the Marines work their own relationship in the Pacific can provide a powerful stimulus for shaping effective deterrent forces in the region. (I wrote this prior to the announcement of the Royal Australian Navy’s nuclear submarine force which clearly underscores this point!)

MV-22B Ospreys assigned to Marine Rotational Force – Darwin conduct air movements from East Arm Wharf to Royal Australian Air Force Base Darwin, NT, Australia, April 14, 2021. Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 363 and Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 367 joined MRF-D and are prepared to respond to crisis and contingencies in the Indo-Pacific region alongside the Australian Defence Force.  (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Micha Pierce)

In part it is about the evolution of MRF-D in the future.

How do the Aussies and MRF-D expand how they work together and with what focus?

If the Australians focus significant attention on shaping distributed but integrated forces from Western Australia to their first island chain (the Solomon Islands), that area of operation which encompasses significant interaction with the partners in the region, provides a very innovative and significant area in which the Marines can themselves work their cross-cutting innovations.

For example, bringing the newly formed Marine Littoral Regiment into an area of operations from Western Australia to the Solomon Islands and building out relationships with the Australian Army as that force rethinks its role in the region would drive significant cross-cutting operational changes important for both the Marines more widely in the Pacific and the Australians in reshaping their own defense capabilities.

I introduced another idea which we discussed but I am not holding the team responsible for my own conclusions.

There clearly needs to be an area to hold regular coalition amphibious task force training.

This is no longer limited to operating as a greyhound bus delivery of capability ashore, the amphibious task forces of today are radically different and more capable in working the full spectrum of operations.

It might make sense for the Aussies to sponsor an annual amphibious task force training exercise.

It would be bilateral at its core but of course, India, Japan, South Korea, and others who have capability to be tested in the 21st century concepts of operations for an amphioxus task force could engage in this ongoing combat learning and innovation effort.

The Marines face a challenge with regard to allies and partners and training which should be recognized as well. The Marines have built an integrated force capability which can deliver Marine Corps combat capability where needed.

If the Marines go down a path of redesigning their force only to fit uniquely into a U.S. Naval joint force integration package via a hyper-specialization focus, they become less useful to the kind of force integration which allies, and partners are engaging in to deal with the current and evolving Indo-Pacific defense threats.

But it is clear: the USMC in the Indo-Pacific will be most effective when it can integrate effectively with partners and allies throughout the entire gamut of operations from gray zone to higher levels of conflict.

Featured Photo:  Soldiers of 5th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment embark a US Marine Corps MV-22B Osprey for an Air Mobile Operations during Exercise Koolendong 2021. Credit:Australian Department of Defence. August 20, 2021.