WASHINGTON — With the U.S. military locked in on what it sees as a long-term competition with the People’s Republic of China for ascendency in the Indo-Pacific region, two services seeking to pivot away from heavy ground conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are looking toward missiles as a ticket to relevance in a potential future conflict.
The U.S Marine Corps and U.S. Army are both working toward fielding long-range strike and anti-ship missiles to hold Chinese targets at risk within the first and second island chains. Both have talked about putting supplies, gear and forces forward to be able to rapidly respond in a crisis, and both are actively discussing sacrificing older equipment and upgrades for current equipment to help pay for the modernization they need.
The expectation in the Pentagon, however, is that the military will see flat defense budgets at best going forward. Some defense watchers argue that limited resources means gets the funding may depend on whose concepts carry the most weight among defense planners. Others, however, believe a potential China problem is big enough that there are plenty of missions to go around.
Previously, long-range strike was the domain of the Navy and Air Force from carriers, vertical launch missile tubes on submarines and surface combatants and from land-based fighters and bombers. But the demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty has opened up long-range, ground-based fires as a means of countering China’s capabilities in that area — China was not a party to that treaty, and U.S. Pacific Command for years bemoaned as unfair the advantage the treaty gave the Chinese in the theater.
Gen. David Berger’s plan for the Marine Corps seeks to change the force from a land-heavy force to a light, primarily maritime force that can fight, maneuver and threaten Chinese forces inside the South and East China seas, and has said he wants to do it at no extra cost. Part of that plan: divest fully from tanks, and cut the number of tube artillery batteries from 16 to five. For that trade, the Marines are looking to massively grow the number of mobile rocket batteries from seven to 21.
In addition, the Marines are adding both the Navy’s new anti-ship Naval Strike Missile and its Tomahawk missile to its ground-based fires quiver, in order to threaten Chinese ships.
But the Army is also getting into the strike game, and has made long-range precision fires its top modernization priority.
The service is working toward a 2023 fielding of its Precision Strike Missile, which will have a range of as much as 550 kilometers. (The minimum range prohibited under the INF Treaty was 500 km.) The service is also working on a new seeker to be able to target ships, which should be fielded by 2025.
In a 2019 interview, the Army’s lead on long-range precision fires, Brig Gen. John Rafferty told Defense News that as much as 750 kilometers or further was possible.
The Army is also working toward fielding its Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon in a battery by 2023, which will be shot from a road-mobile launcher.
In August, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said the Army, like the Marine Corps, was ready to make cuts to existing capabilities in order to make its future investments a reality.
“We know we need long-range precision fires, that is our number one priority and so we are developing hypersonic capability right now,” McConville said. “One of the things that we are taking a look at is how we divest, and this can be a challenge as you look at some of these systems we have that some would like us to continue to purchase.”
“We’re basically lining ourselves up for the ’23 program where you will see a much more aggressive effort,” McCarthy said. “The choices are going to get bigger and tougher, but that’s necessary” as modernized programs begin to be fielded, he said. “That will force us to make harder calls with legacy systems that will have to be forced to end their service life.”
The focus on Pacific-focused capabilities is a matter of the Army reading the writing on the wall, but it doesn’t mean they are necessarily trying to steal missions from the Marine Corps, said Dakota Wood, a retired Marine officer and analyst at The Heritage Foundation.
“The services are always trying to prove their relevance,” Wood said, adding that as "The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan start to wind down, the next big bogie is China. And, so, the cynic might say that the Army is just trying to invent missions because they do not want to lose budget share, lose their prominence among the services.
“But I think it’s more accurate to say that you have a service full of military professionals who want to make sure the country is defended. So, they’re looking for where the next challenge might be. And if you are called up to perform a mission in the Indo-Pacific, you have to get that right. The cynic might say they’re just trying to maintain relevance, but the advocate would tell you they’re just doing what they are supposed to do.”
But to some, both the Marine Corps and the Army are starting the blur the lines between traditional roles and missions played by the services. In comments to Breaking Defense, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, who heads the Mitchell Institute think tank, said that the Army’s pursuit of long-range strike was bad for the force.
“It’s ridiculous, to be quite candid. It is encroachment on roles and missions,” Deptula told Breaking Defense. “The fact of the matter is the services need to adhere to their core competencies. And the United States Army reaching out to develop weapon systems that operate at thousand-mile range truly is encroachment.”
“While some people have said: ‘well, you know, it’s nice to have a variety of different capabilities’ — well, sure, in a world where you’ve got unlimited budgets,” he said.
But others find that kind of service protectionism to be misdirected. Eric Sayers, a former aide to former Indo-Pacific Commander Adm. Harry Harris who is now a vice president at Beacon Global Strategies, said the services should actively be competing for missions.
“I find it encouraging that we’re at a place now where these services are competing for the best ideas to contribute to a role that traditionally the Air Force and Navy have played in the theater,” Sayers said.
Ultimately the services will probably end up fielding complementary capabilities, Sayers said.
“The Army will have a larger footprint and have more types of munitions and at a longer range,” he said. "I think if it’s the Marine Corps, we’re talking more mobile, expeditionary capabilities at shorter ranges between 500 and 1,000 miles. I could see the Army having a longer-range anti-ship missile, a ballistic missile and maybe a land-attack missile: Overlapping capabilities.
“That’s the kind of thing we should be encouraging: Not having the same capabilities but complementary capabilities with varying ranges and missions.”
Tom Karako, a missile defense expert and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed that the mission will likely end up being shared.
“The problem set that we face from major powers is disproportionately missile rich, and the real question at issue isn’t whether one service or another service does long-range strike the best,” Karako said. "It’s a question of how serious we are about implementing the new joint concept … which includes all the services being able to defend themselves and strike deep.
“[Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. John] Hyten has articulated this on multiple occasions, and a lot of the inter-service rivalry here seems to be stuck in the roles and missions conversation of 60 years ago, rather than thinking about how we can seriously adapt for the future,” Karako added.
“It may end up making a lot of sense for long-range strike to be shared among multiple services, rather being one particular service’s rice bowl.”
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News. Before that, he reported for Navy Times.