By Robbin Laird
My last visit to Hawaii and meetings with the MARFORPAC commander and his staff was in 2014.
In August 2021, I visited again and spent several days in the Islands, during which I visited both MARFORPAC and PACAF.
Since my last visit, what the Marines refer to as the “pacing threat” has gained enhanced momentum. The People’s Republic of China, both in policies and capabilities, have ramped up the threat and challenge envelope for the United States and its allies. The Russians are a Pacific power as well, and the direct threat posed by North Korea is an evolving one as well.
At the onset of my visit to the Marine Corps in Honolulu, I had a chance to talk with Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder, commander, U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Pacific. I have known “Stick” ever since he served as Deputy to the then-Deputy Commandant of Aviation, Lt. General George Trautman.
We started the conversation by focusing on how he sees the challenge facing the Marines in the Pacific.
This is how Lt. Gen. Rudder put it: “Our first challenge is about having the right force postured with the right capabilities.
“Our starting point is today’s posture, which for the most part is centered in Northeast Asia.
“Because of the vast distances in the Pacific, our additive challenge is being able to maneuver capabilities into places where you may not have a dedicated sustainment structure.
“Regardless, you have to be able to rapidly get there, set up, and operate using organic lift and logistics.”
The current Commandant of the USMC has highlighted the importance of the Marines being able to leverage their position as part of an “inside force” that is able to “stand in” and operate inside the adversary’s weapons engagement zone.
Lt. Gen Rudder underscored that part of the USMC current posture means, that on a daily basis, the Marine Corps must operate inside an adversaries threat ring.
“I think the key advantage for us is the daily posture of Marines in Japan and within ongoing partner operations in South East Asia.
“We are persistently in the first island chain ready to maneuver to seize or defend key maritime terrain.
“Continued integration with the joint force in Japan and in the Republic of Korea is critical within the context of any contingency.
“The question then becomes: what capabilities does the Marine and the Joint Force need to maneuver into the right tactical position to get the desired effects?”
When we published in 2013 our book on rebuilding American military power in the Pacific, we highlighted the strategic triangle of U.S. force generation and the strategic quadrangle for force employment.
Since we shaped this graphic, and since I last visited MARFORPAC in 2014, the Marines have reworked the force projection trajectories, and are in the process of making these trajectories realities to shape a more effective engagement force in the region.
Since 2014, the initial Marine Rotational Force in Australia (MRF-D) has deepened its cooperation with the Australian Defense Force.
And Australia has itself enhanced its joint force capabilities, including the introduction of the F-35 and an amphibious surface fleet and air/ground capability. The focus on operations in the direct defense of Australia and wider Indo-Pacific region creates significant and evolving opportunities for U.S./Australia interoperability.
Also, the Marines are building up their presence in Guam at Camp Blaz. This is the first new Marine Corps base since 1952.
As Seth Robson wrote in an October 1, 2020 article in Stars and Stripes about the standup of the base:
“The Marine Corps has activated a new base on Guam for 5,000 members of III Marine Expeditionary Force set to move there over the next five years from Okinawa, Japan. Camp Blaz, near Andersen Air Force Base, is the first new Marine installation since Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany was commissioned in Georgia on March 1, 1952.
“The Japanese government is funding $3 billion worth of projects for the Marines’ relocation, with the U.S. government spending another $5.7 billion, Navy Cmdr. Brian Foster, who is helping oversee construction for the Naval Facilities Engineering Command, told Stars and Stripes during a tour of the new base in February.:
“Only 1,300 Marines will be permanently stationed on Guam, with another 3,700 coming to the island as a rotational force in the same way a Marine Air Ground Task Force deploys to Australia’s Northern Territory to train each summer
“The formal establishment of Camp Blaz secures a Marine Corps posture in the region that is geographically distributed and operationally resilient,” the Marines said in their statement.
“Camp Blaz will play an essential role in strengthening the Department of Defense’s ability to deter and defend, and is also a testament to the strength of the U.S.-Japan alliance,” the Marines said.
This is how Lt. Gen. Rudder highlighted several opportunities for force projection.
“We are focused on shaping an effective posture that combines forward bases with rotational partnerships with key Allies.
“I have already highlighted how important our posture is in Japan. Employing Infantry and MV-22s from Okinawa and F-35s from Iwakuni (in southwest Honshu) we readily integrate with Japans Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade.”
“MRF-D plays a role as well. Six months out of the year, we rotate 2,000 Marines into Australia with ground forces, MV-22s, fires, and logistics capability.
“Now that the Australians are operating the F-35 and routinely exercising amphibious operations, we can work jointly on expanding high-end bi-lateral and multi-lateral operations.
“As a combined force, we have already increased the complexity of operations as recently demonstrated during Talisman Saber 21.”
“And as we build up and deploy greater numbers of forces to Camp Blaz, Guam, we will use this location as an additional posture location for 5,000 Marines and Sailors.
“All of these posture developments allow us to have various operational touch points from which one could aggregate force capabilities.
“With a combination of air and sea lift, we are designing a force with the ability to rapidly move into positions of advantage.”
We then discussed the evolution of fires which the Marines can bring to the Pacific fight.
With the end of the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) treaty, the United States can now build longer range conventional capabilities.
The Marines are looking to participate in this effort, and employ them from expeditionary forward bases well inside the adversary’s weapons engagement area.
The objective is to contribute to SLOC defense or be additive to offensive naval fires.
According to Lt. Gen. Rudder: “If we look forward in the not-too-distant future, we’ll have the ability to have land-based long-range fires, aviation fires, and persistent high endurance ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) with the MQ-9.
“We’ll be able to move those capabilities with KC-130s, MV-22s, or amphibious lift allowing us to project long-range fires forward anywhere in Asia, much like we do with the HIMARS (High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System) today.”
“HIMARS fits in the back of a KC-130 allowing rapid mobilization and insertion. We will exercise the same operational tactic with anti-ship capability. We want to project sea denial capabilities to cut off a strait of our choosing or maneuver into positions to create our own maritime chokepoint.
“As we saw with hunting mobile missiles in the past, having long-range fires on maneuvering platforms makes them really hard to hit. As we distribute our long-range fires on mobile platforms, we now become a hard platform to find.”
“Our desire is to create our own anti-access and area denial capability.
“For the last several years, we were thinking about the adversary’s missiles, and how they could be used to deny us access to forward locations. Now we want to be the sea denial force that is pointed in the other direction. Land based fires are perfectly suited to support naval maneuver.”
“We want rapidly to move by air or sea, deliver sea denial capabilities onto land, maneuver to position of advantage, deliver fires, maneuver for another shot, or egress by air or sea. We are training current forces on concepts for sea denial missions supported by maneuver of long-range fires. This is a key element of the naval integration.”
With a growing capability of joint sensor networks, the potential for more effective joint targeting is a reality.
As the joint force focuses on dynamic targeting, services are closely coordinating fires networks and authorities.
The advantage of land based expeditionary fires is that it provide persistence cover within an established air and surface targeting solution.
This is how Lt. Gen. Rudder characterized how he saw the way ahead. “We are completely integrated with naval maneuver and working hand and hand with the joint force. I MEF and III MEF have been operating seamlessly as three-star naval task forces astride Seventh and Third Fleets.
“During crises, I become the deputy JFMCC (Joint Force Maritime Component Commander) to the Pacific Fleet Commander.
“The MARFORPAC staff integrates with the PacFleet staff. Even during day-to-day operations, we have Marines at PacFleet planning and integrating across multiple domains. Should we ramp up towards crisis or conflict, we will reinforce our JFMCC contribution to ensure we remain fully prepared for all-domain naval force execution.
“This means that our anti-ship missiles will integrate into naval maneuver.
“We also aggressively pursue PACAF integration for bomber, fighter, and 5th Generation support.
“Daily, our F-35s are integrated into the PACAF AOC (Air Operations Center).
“We are focused on better integration to insure we have a common operating picture for an integrated firing solution.”
The USMC F-35s play a key role in all of this. Although there is a clear focus on enhanced integration with the U.S. Navy, the integration with the USAF is crucial for both the U.S. Navy and the USMC.
Lt. Gen. Rudder highlighted the role which USMC F-35s play in Pacific defense and force integration.
“We count on pulling fifth-gen capability forward in time of crisis. We are committed to having forward deployed F-35s conducting integrated training on a regular basis with our PACAF counterparts.
“We will also conduct integrated training with our Korean, Japanese, Singaporean and Australian partners. We are also training with aircraft carriers when they operate in the region. Notably, the USS Carl Vinson, the first U.S. Navy F-35C variant carrier.”
“And the F-35B has caught the operational attention of the rest of the world. The United Kingdom’s HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH is the largest fifth-generation fighter deployment ever conducted on an aircraft carrier. We are proud to be a part of that UK deployment, with a Marine F-35B squadron, VMFA-211, embarked and operating with our British partners. They are currently doing combined operations in the Western Pacific.
“We are excited to see the Italians operating F-35s off the ITS CAVOUR, and we hope by the fall of this year that we’ll be landing an F-35B on the Japan Ship IZUMO, as the Japanese look ahead to the purchase of F-35Bs. The South Koreans are considering going down a similar path, with Singapore also adding F-35s to their inventory.”
“Aside from shipboard operations, the F-35B can do distributed operations like no other combat aircraft.
“We can go into a variety of airfields which may not be accessible by other fighter aircraft, reload and refuel, and take back off again, making the both aircraft and the airfields more survivable.”
The Marines are the only combat force that tactically combine fifth generation with tiltrotor capabilities.
This combined capability is crucial for operations in an area characterized by tyranny of distance.
The MV-22 Ospreys can also carry a wide variety of payloads that can encompass the C2 and ISR revolutions underway.
And if you are focused on flexible basing, the combination of the two aircraft provides possibilities which no other force in the world currently possess.
But shortfalls in the numbers of aircraft forward create challenges to unleash their full potential for enabling the Marines as a crisis management force and enhance the Marine Corps contribution to the joint force.
The nature of distributed operations in the Pacific demands long range aircraft like the MV-22 to sustain the force.
The amphibious operating capability of the USMC becomes more significant as flexible basing and the enhanced capabilities which a family of amphibious ships could bring to the force.
This is how Lt. Gen. Rudder put it: “We can reconfigure our amphibious ships to take on many different assault functions. I think when people talk about amphibious assault, they have singular visions of near-beach operations. Instead, we need to think of our amphibious capability from the standpoint of our ability to maneuver from range.
“Rather than focusing on the 3,000 or 5,000-meter closure from ship to shore, I think about the 600, 700, 1,000-mile closure, with amphibs able to distribute and put people in place or to conduct resupply once you’re there.
“Amphibious lift, with its ability to bring its own connectors for logistics support, is increasingly significant for the operational force.
“In addition, we have to make sure that we’re able to close the force when lethal and non-lethal shaping has done its course.
At some point, you’re going to need to seize and defend land. We have two ways to tactically accomplish this mission, either by air or by surface assault. There’s no other way to get forces ashore unless you secure a port that has the space to offload and a road network to move ashore. Open port options are highly unlikely during crisis, thus amphibious lift is increasingly becoming more valuable for maneuvering forces in the maritime domain.”
The Marines are launching a new capability in the next couple of years, the Marine Littoral Regiment (MLR).
According to the MARFORPAC commander: “We are working towards initial operating capability (IOC) of the MLR in 2023. We want to demonstrate the maneuverability of the MLR as well as the capabilities it can bring to naval operations.
“Near term, we will work to exercise new capabilities in the region, such as loading the NMESIS (Navy/Marine Corps Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System) system on the KC-130s or LCAC for integrated operations with F-35s, MQ-9s, and other maritime targeting capabilities.”
In short, the USMC is in transition in the Pacific, and working towards greater interoperability with the joint force, notably, the U.S. Navy and the USAF.
Featured Photo: Lt. Gen. Steven R. Rudder, commanding general of Marine Forces Pacific (center), speaks to the Marines of Marine fighter Attacks Squadron (VMFA) 323 at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, June 21, 2021. VMFA-323 is currently conducting routine operations in U.S. 3rd Fleet. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Dominic Romero)