WASHINGTON — The U.S. Marine Corps this week will officially stand up its first Marine littoral regiment, a linchpin of its plans to conduct small-unit expeditionary advanced base operations and to move high-end gear into and throughout the Pacific.
Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Eric Smith told reporters the 3rd Marine Regiment in Hawaii will on March 3 officially be redesignated the 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment. The MLR will be subdivided into numerous EABO units of about 75 to 100 Marines, each highly trained in and equipped for their particular mission area.
Some EABO units will conduct strike missions on land and at-sea targets; some will create refueling and logistics hubs; some will do jamming, deception, reconnaissance and more. But they’ll all look relatively similar as they come off a transport aircraft or small ship, making it tough for the adversary to identify them and understand what they bring to the battlefield — if the adversary can even see the small and mobile units moving around vast littoral areas.
These small units will bring with them some emerging technologies, which Smith said in the Feb. 28 media roundtable will be employed throughout the region as the units maneuver in and out of the First Island Chain for exercises and experimentation events.
Smith highlighted four key systems that would be coming to the Pacific, or were already there and would be moved around the theater to support EABO operations.
First is the Navy Marine Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System, or NMESIS, for long-range strike. The system consists of the Naval Strike Missile launched from the back of an unmanned joint light tactical vehicle. EABO units with the NMESIS would be able to conduct anti-ship strikes — or even gain sea control with just the threat of being able to target enemy ships — from beaches and straits throughout the region.
Second is the MQ-9A Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle for extended-range intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. This large UAV will help sense what’s happening in the region and pass its findings back to joint force commanders in the theater or even directly to Marines with the NMESIS to take immediate action.
Third is the Ground/Air Task Oriented Radar, or G/ATOR, as part of the communications architecture to enable data sharing among various EABO units and with the larger naval and joint force.
And lastly are two separate means of organic mobility: a long-range unmanned surface vessel the Marines would own and operate themselves, to move goods or potentially people around littoral areas, as well as the light amphibious warship the Marines would leverage in tandem with the U.S. Navy.
“Four good examples, concrete examples of the kind of capabilities we are working on — in some cases, have already — and now we just need to determine exactly where they should be laid down,” Smith said.
“Where the equipment is ultimately employed, is based — all that is going to be determined by the threat, where do we need it to be? These capabilities, whether they be lethal fires or communications or mobility, we will seek to place them where they can best be used to deter our adversaries,” he said.
The Marines will study where the new gear could be best leveraged, and then the service will conduct environmental and legal studies to ensure employment from any possible location is in keeping with local and host-nation regulations. Smith noted partnerships with host countries throughout the Indo-Pacific area were pivotal to the EABO concept, which calls on the small units to be constantly moving throughout island chains and beaches around the area to keep the adversary confused and unable to target them.
Smith said he must accomplish four things by the end of fiscal 2023: standing up the 3rd MLR, which will happen this week; moving additional KC-130J transport and refueling aircraft into the Pacific to boost the Marines’ organic lift capability; fielding the NMESIS in theater; and fielding the MQ-9A in theater.
That list of requirements “represents our ability to live, train and deploy in these small, disaggregated units” in the Pacific. A threat in the Pacific could pop up any time, Smith said, and the joint force commanders in theater could call on whichever EABO units they need based on the threat and have them ready to head out the door that day.
He argued this capability will have an immediate effect on adversaries like China, because China won’t be able to track the units’ whereabouts as they come and go and maneuver within the first island chain. And they’ll each pack a punch China can’t dismiss, he said.
Though not formally required to be fielded by the end of FY23, Smith said the Marines are in a good place with the G/ATOR radar, the LRUSV and LAW.
He said the Marines have a solid acquisition program for the radar, and G/ATOR units are already based in Okinawa, Japan, and have been used in events in Australia.
“Where we place them in the long run depends on where they’re most needed, but the capability has to be in the Pacific, and those G/ATOR radars are already in the Pacific,” he said.
On LRUSV, for which there is no program of record yet, Smith said the Marines have already experimented with a 33-foot rigid-hull inflatable boat and will continue experimenting with a 45-foot Metal Shark boat.
The Navy is farther along in getting to a program of record for LAW, with five companies doing concept design work for the Marine Corps and the service working hard to get acquisition funds into the Navy’s shipbuilding budget.
“In the interim, we’re using stern-landing vessels we are renting, leasing a vehicle through the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab to use as a surrogate,” Smith said. That vessel is doing experimentation work to refine the Marines’ size and beachability requirements, he said, ahead of the Marine Corps and Navy selecting a shipbuilder.
He noted the Marines may lease two additional vessels for experimentation, because “we don’t want to wait for the LAW to come online for us to then confirm — not come up with, but confirm — our concepts of operations.”
By the end of FY23, he said, the MLR would have some number of LAW surrogates at its disposal for testing and training.
Smith stressed this is only the start, and more types of units with more types of gear will be set up as China and other potential adversaries evolve their operations and capabilities.
“The MLR is the harbinger of things to come for us, both in the Indo-Pacific and in how the Marine Corps conducts business,” Smith said. “It is just the first step.”
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.