When the US Marine Corps (USMC) recently conducted a small-scale landing on Peninsular Malaysia’s South China Sea coast, a regular feature of the bilateral Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training exercise, they were carrying a torch for what Marines have been doing in the Western Pacific for over 70 years.
As the USMC fleshes out its Pacific rebalance, it is also a straw in the gathering wind of amphibious development as regional states ramp up their capabilities and tensions intensify in the South and East China seas.
The Western Pacific littoral is predominantly archipelagic and peninsular. Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines collectively comprise 30,000 islands, astride strategic chokepoints. Amphibious capabilities in this most maritime of environments means more than mere operational modality: It needs to be grasped as a strategic imperative and a critical enabler for defense cooperation.
Amphibious forces will feature prominently whether the objective is power projection, territorial defense, stabilization operations, humanitarian assistance or even internal security. The revival of regional interest in amphibious warfare has been somewhat lost in the noise over China’s blue water ambitions and anti-access, area-denial strategy. Yet China has also been nurturing its amphibious forces.
The recent trend among US allies and partners in the Western Pacific to revitalize their amphibious capabilities may be more “happy coincidence” than concerted strategy. It nonetheless presents a strategic windfall for the US in terms of leveraging new capabilities and interoperability. Critically, the networking aspect of amphibious capability also helps to enmesh US security relationships.
Japan and Australia are moving rapidly toward establishing an Army-based amphibious force that will give them independent mobile capability broadly analogous to a USMC Marine Expeditionary Unit. The geographic advantages are obvious, given the anchoring coverage they can provide within the first and second island chains. Both are treaty allies, train regularly alongside forward-deployed US Marine units and interact increasingly with each other.
Australia’s amphibious force will be based around two new 27,500-ton Canberra-class LHD amphibious warfare ships, the first due to be commissioned this year, able to embark a force of 1,000 troops, 110 vehicles and several helicopters. Japan’s amphibious capabilities are further advanced, though self-constrained by its constitutional restriction on collective self-defense.
However, these reins are easing and the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force demonstrated in late 2013 that it could independently deploy an amphibious flotilla, based around its flat-topped DDH helicopter destroyers, to the Philippines. Japan’s planned acquisition of the V-22 will add versatility to the force.
South Korea and Taiwan have long maintained marine corps forces. South Korea has the region’s largest, at 27,000. South Korean marines are primarily oriented toward repelling aggression from the North, though the acquisition of a second Dokdo-class LHD and their own aviation wing later this decade will do much to improve mobility and increase options.
Taiwan’s marines have been downsized from 16,000 to 9,000 in recent years and are one of the few regional forces trending in the opposite direction.
Amphibious capabilities are force multipliers since they require jointness to work. In forging US maritime partnerships with Army-dominated militaries in Southeast Asia, the amphibious ethos helps break down interservice rivalries and redirects defense resources. The USMC’s long years of working with Philippines and Thailand marine counterparts have not yielded obvious progress in force development, but Malaysia is standing up a new marine-type unit under its Joint Force Headquarters. Cooperation with the USMC appears set to grow as Kuala Lumpur hedges against Chinese expansionism.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), too, has been steadily keening its amphibious capability. Numerically quite small, at 12,000 troops in two brigades, the PLA Marines are upgrading their equipment, including four 550-ton Zubr LCACs from Ukraine. Type-081 LHDs, estimated at around 30,000 tons, are likely to begin entering service from 2018. The PLA additionally maintains a large reserve of amphibious-capable troops.
Rounding out the regional picture, the US Marine Corps has completed its post-Afghanistan transition to concentrate on expeditionary “core business.” MARFORPAC, based in Hawaii, with 86,000 Marines under its command, is the natural choice to lead amphibious outreach within its geographical and functional areas of comparative advantage. However, this lead is no longer assured since the US Army unveiled its Pacific Pathways initiative, under which composite Army units will rotate around Pacific nations. Pacific Pathways has been criticized as a potentially expensive duplication of Marine Corps functions.
A Washington Post article in late 2013 predicted an Army “turf battle” with the Marines. If so, the Army appears to have stacked the odds in its favor by installing a four-star general at US Army Pacific, outranking MARFORPAC among the PACOM component commanders.
Apart from the obvious risk of duplication, there is also a question about the signal this sends to allies and partners, whose value to the US depends in no small part on managing their own interservice rivalries. ■
Graham is a senior fellow, Maritime Security Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.