WASHINGTON — The 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment that arrived in the Philippines this spring for the annual Balikatan exercise was nearly unrecognizable from last year, leaders say.
The 3rd MLR, a unit crafted as part of the ongoing Force Design 2030 modernization effort, is meant to carry out the new Stand-In Forces operating concept, which calls for small U.S. Marine Corps units to pair with allies in the first island chain, which stretches from Japan’s East China Sea islands through the Philippines. This would allow the units to operate there on a regular basis as well as provide sensing and shooting capabilities while remaining stealthy.
When the unit first attended the 2022 Balikatan exercise, it had recently been redesignated and did not have all its subordinate commands in place. Col. Tim Brady, the regiment’s commanding officer, said that year’s drill marked 3rd MLR’s first chance to leave its Hawaii home base with a skeleton crew of a couple hundred Marines and operate in the South China Sea.
“It was our inaugural deployment: beginning to get into the first island chain, develop our relationship with the Coastal Defense Regiment of the Philippine Marine Corps, and begin our development of our tactics, techniques and procedures,” he said in a May 22 interview.
This year, however, 1,300 Marines from a fully established 3rd MLR showed up at the exercise in April and sought to demonstrate their intended multidomain role in a joint and combined fight.
After an initial live-fire training phase, the littoral regiment conducted a series of air assaults in the Luzon Strait to take control of three islands — Fuga, Calayan and Basco — and then use them as expeditionary advanced bases for sensing and shooting.
During the coastal defense live-fire phase and then the littoral live-fire phase, during which forces sank an old Philippine amphibious ship, the regiment’s littoral anti-air defense battalion provided air defense and air domain awareness, working as an enabler for the rest of the force to find targets and synchronize fires.
Col. Darryl Ayers, the operations officer for 3rd Marine Division, which commanded the forces at Balikatan, said the exercise demonstrated the role 3rd MLR was meant to fulfill: operating inside China’s weapons engagement zone; conducting sea control and sea denial operations if conflict begins; and setting the conditions for larger, follow-on actions by the joint and coalition force.
The littoral anti-air defense battalion, he said, can provide sensing, air defense, and air command and control.
“You disperse them in northern Luzon, you identify what areas you can cover and where you need to focus your efforts with regards to identifying threats, identifying targets and then identifying what you need to take out those targets,” Ayers said in a May 17 interview.
The forces under the littoral combat team, which includes a medium missile battery, infantry forces and combat engineers, “provide security for the force, but they also provide a … fires capability with regard to the future of the ROGUE NMESIS,” an unmanned anti-ship missile launcher the Marine Corps began procuring this year.
He also said the littoral logistics battalion proved it can sustain the regiment for about 30 days during independent operations, depending on the specifics of the activities.
At Balikatan, Ayers said, the regiment was able to disperse these capabilities into small units fighting from multiple advanced bases across the theater, and then aggregate the full regiment when needed.
Enabling allies and joint forces
The 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment has grown in size since last year, and its subordinate units are fully redesignated, but Brady said the biggest change has come in the Corps’ understanding of how to leverage the MLR to support a higher headquarters, to enable joint forces, and to work with allies and partners.
Since last summer’s participation in the massive Rim of the Pacific exercise, Brady said the regiment signed up for four major events.
In the fall, the MLR participated in the Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center’s rotational training event with the Army’s 25th Infantry Division. This event in Hawaii helped the regiment refine its tactics for working under a joint force land component commander, and allowed Marines to serve as a stand-in force while setting the conditions for incoming land forces.
Weeks later, in a Fleet Battle Problem event with U.S. Pacific Fleet, the regiment paired with a Marine expeditionary unit embarked on a Navy amphibious ready group for the first time, operating around the Hawaiian Islands as a stand-in force and managing a fictitious crisis until follow-on maritime forces could flow in. This allowed 3rd MLR to refine its tactics for working under a joint force maritime component commander.
In February and March, the unit attended a service-level training exercise in Twentynine Palms, California, which included the first-ever Marine littoral regiment training event. Brady said this allowed the regiment to work as part of a larger stand-in force under 3rd Marine Division as the intermediate headquarters, and hone its multidomain operations tactics. At one point, the regiment was operating from expeditionary advanced bases across the entire training area: San Clemente Island, Camp Pendleton, Twentynine Palms and Barstow in California, and Yuma, Arizona.
At the recent Balikatan exercise, 3rd MLR repeated that same type of operation — distributed groups operating from multiple advanced bases, all under the command of the higher headquarters at 3rd Marine Division — but applied it to a mission in the first island chain alongside allies and partners.
During all of these exercises, communication and connectivity have been key focus areas, Ayers and Brady said. For 3rd MLR to have the greatest effect on the battlefield, it must be at the heart of a joint and coalition web of sensors and weapons.
Brady said the series of exercises over the last year allowed 3rd MLR to work through this kill web first within Marine forces and then in the joint force. Brady said the unit is in the nascent stage of looping in allies and partners.
With the Philippines, for example, he said there are some remaining information-sharing agreements and cross-domain data-sharing solutions in the works.
As it relates to radars, sensors, radios, command-and-control tools, and more that 3rd MLR needs to send and receive data as part of this kill web — some of which exists in the Corps, and some of which is still in development and fielding under Force Design 2030 — Brady said: “We’re well on our way to having everything we need.”
Learning and executing
Though the regiment will continue to refine its tactics and bring in new gear, leaders say the unit is ready to take on real-world missions if called upon.
The unit is expected to reach initial operational capability by September, but Brady said he’s not focused on the formalities of initial operational capability and full operational capability.
“We are absolutely capable today, capable of fighting now today, which we just demonstrated in Balikatan 23. We have a task-organized unit, everybody is established, and we have the capability to move forward into the first island chain and execute expeditionary advanced base operations today,” Brady said.
Maj. Gen. Roger Turner, the Marine Corps’ operations division director, told Defense News this spring “they’re a viable force right now” regardless of the upcoming declaration of reaching an initial operational capability.
The 3rd MLR operating as a stand-in force “is viable against the pacing adversary, and we think it complicates their calculus, and we think it contributes to deterrence,” he said of China. After some “pretty significant changes to the Marine Corps,” Turner said the service is in the implementation phase of Stand-In Forces.
This comes as Turner says America’s Pacific allies and partners are growing increasingly concerned about China’s behavior in the region, with its maritime forces encroaching on other nations’ fishing waters, bullying their ships, and making other aggressive moves on the sea and in the air.
“That’s a massive undertaking to basically establish the stand-in force that stays with our partners and allies in the Western Pacific and builds their confidence, supports our alliances, builds partner capacity [at a time when] the aggressive behavior of the [People’s Republic of China] is driving people to us,” the general said.
The commanding officer said the regiment will adjust, and the Stand-In Forces concept will change, as would be the case for any new unit or concept. But by this time next year, the 3rd MLR will focus more on sustaining a near-permanent presence in the Philippines, as opposed to learning and experimenting.
The 3rd MLR will continue participating in two major annual exercises in the Philippines — Balikatan in the spring and Kamandag in the fall — but will also seek “other opportunities alongside the Philippine Marine Corps and inside the Philippines to get us to almost a 365-day a year presence at some level of capacity,” Brady said.
Ayers said some of the remaining learning relates to sustainment, the main area where the relationship between 3rd MLR and the Coastal Defense Regiment will come into play.
Ayers said the Marine Corps knew how to handle logistics in Iraq and Afghanistan, where it could build up an iron mountain in the desert and send out people and materiel as needed. Learning how to sustain distributed forces in the first island chain, where resupply routes are certain to be targeted by Chinese forces in a war, is still taking time.
“It takes a lot of working with the combined partners, the [Filipinos], the Japanese, the Koreans, to try and figure out how we do that,” Ayers said.
Though he praised the littoral logistics battalion’s work, he said 3rd Marine Division continues to look for shortfalls in 3rd MLR’s ability to sustain itself, and then to turn to Philippine forces for help solving those logistical challenges.
“That’s really the focus of the MLR, is getting them into the Philippines, getting them to have a persistent presence there — and not just for the security of the area, but also to continue to build upon the relationships that we’ve built over decades with the [Philippine joint forces] because it’s critical to the success of [U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s] mission out here in protecting the first island chain.”
Turner highlighted lift — the platforms that help small teams from 3rd MLR get to and move around within the Philippine island chain — as another area that will continue to undergo maturation. The Marine Corps is experimenting with stern landing vessels ahead of procuing a Landing Ship Medium vessel in fiscal 2025.
In the meantime, Turner pointed to the F-35B fighter jet, the MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft and the CH-53K King Stallion heavy-lift helicopter as tools increasingly applicable for 3rd MLR.
“Those platforms were envisioned to support our [Marine expeditionary unit], but then they also are super essential in the stand-in force capability because of the [aircraft] ranges,” he said.
Turner also gave a nod to the Ground/Air Task-Oriented Radar, which has changed since its original development to conduct air- and ground-search missions. Though G/ATOR was made for a traditional land campaign, “we’ve learned its applicability for the stand-in force. And what it can provide to the joint force is really special. We’ve made some changes to it.”
“Even though those programs and those requirements were written under a different conceptual way — because we were really focused on [amphibious ready group/Marine expeditionary unit operations], and we were really focused on joint forcible entry — a lot of that stuff was able to easily segue into the stand-in force.”
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.