WASHINGTON — The U.S. Marine Corps’ first unit designed to carry out new concepts of operations conducted its first exercise in the Philippines and is now preparing to start a range of experimentation and training events this year.
The service this spring formally transformed 3rd Marine Regiment into 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment, which will be organized and equipped in new and modern ways. The Corps already activated the 3rd Littoral Anti-Air Battalion under the regiment, and by this fall it will also have a combat logistics battalion and a littoral combat team.
Col. Tim Brady, who commands the 3rd MLR, said the new unit has much to learn about leveraging these battalions and a slew of subject matter experts at the headquarters level as it operates small units of Marines across wide swaths of maritime space to have an outsized effect on the enemy.
The experimentation began in early March, before the Corps formally redesignated the regiment. Last fall, the regiment conducted a service-level training event at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, California, where it was already “starting to conduct operations quite a bit differently than what a traditional infantry regiment would,” Brady said during a panel discussion at the Modern Day Marine conference this week.
In March, just weeks after the redesignation ceremony, a portion of the MLR shipped out from Hawaii to the Philippines for the exercise Balikatan. Brady told reporters that the terrain used this year was new for the annual exercise, and was meant to challenge the MLR and its Philippine counterpart as they eye new types of operations.
The Philippine Marine Corps stood up a coastal defense regiment that looks similar to the MLR, Brady said, and the American regiment was on hand for the activation of the Philippine regiment’s new shore-based, anti-ship missile battery, similar to the MLR’s littoral combat team.
During the exercise, the units operated out of the northern tip of Luzon, facing the Luzon Strait between the Philippines and Taiwan, rather than in the more conventional Subic Bay or Clark Air Base, farther south near Manila.
Brady said this exercise gave U.S. Marines a chance to review the expeditionary advanced base operations concept, which challenges them to move agilely among islands and coastal locations, performing missions and then moving again before they are spotted and targeted.
Similarly, the Philippine Marine Corps got a glimpse of its new archipelagic coastal defense concept, which was published last year.
Brady said at the conference panel that 3rd MLR will refocus on experimentation at its Hawaii home base this fall, after participating in the multinational Rim of the Pacific exercise over the summer. He said the Hawaiian Islands are an archipelago that mirrors the first island chain in the Pacific, and using a stern landing vessel — a civilian ship on contract from Hornbeck Offshore Services to serve as a surrogate for the future light amphibious warship — the MLR will be able to mirror flying into Subic Bay and then moving north into Northern Luzon or Itbayat Island as part of expeditionary advanced base operations.
“What we’re doing in the state of Hawaii is providing us that opportunity to train and experiment with the vessels that will move from island to island,” he told reporters.
As an example, he said the Marines might move from Oahu to the big island of Hawaii on the stern landing vessel, then conduct operations at the Pohakuloa Training Area. While ashore, their stern landing vessel won’t stay at port; it will go back out to sea and move around for its own survivability. During that time, Brady suggested, the ship could help the regiment ashore by retrieving spare parts, ammunition or other supplies.
Brady also said the experimentation plan includes more than testing out the stern landing vessel. First, there’s the organization of the MLR and its capabilities.
For example, he said during the panel presentation, how many personnel from the littoral combat team are needed to establish an expeditionary advanced base that can launch Naval Strike Missiles at an enemy ship? How many Marines from the littoral anti-air battalion and the combat logistics battalion need to support that effort? How many expeditionary advanced bases must work together to create an entire force package for the mission at hand, and what aircraft are needed to move that force package?
Additionally, he said, the littoral anti-air battalion brings capabilities that an infantry regiment has never had: ground-based air defense using the Marine Air Defense Integrated System and the Medium Range Intercept Capability, air surveillance and early warning, the ability to track the direction of incoming fires, and establishing forward arming and refueling points for other Marine or joint force aircraft.
Brady said the MLR would have to learn more about these capabilities and how to best employ them as part of the new regimental construct and in support of new concepts.
Second, the colonel said, early experimentation would look at how to net sensors and effects together to make decisions faster and more resilient — and to identify what systems are properly talking to each other versus where the joint force must invest in further digital interoperability.
Brady said this experimentation would include kinetic effects like the Naval Strike Missile, but he made clear it would also include that which might happen well before the Corps decides to fire, including aspects of signals intelligence, information operations, space and cyber.
The new regiment and its subordinate units will be fully stood up by February 2023. Lessons learned from training and experimentation will inform transformation of the next MLR, which will come from the Okinawa-based 12th Marine Regiment, an artillery unit. The regiment will transform to 12th Marine Littoral Regiment in fiscal 2025.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.