The U.S. Marine Corps is fully embarked on transforming itself into a new agile force focused primarily on fighting China in the Pacific. A major part of this shift is shedding its heavy armor and other units not suited for this combat theater and new strategy.
The other part is a renewed focus on ‘island-hopping’ to counter the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in the heavily defended South China Sea (SCS).
Veteran naval writer Gidget Fuentes describes the Marine Corps’ new concept of expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO) in US Naval Institute News (USNI) – “its forces disperse light, agile units with a small footprint over a wide area while working jointly with naval forces to counter and fight a credible enemy threat in a multi-domain contested environment.”
To develop this capability “disparate squadrons and battalions that often don’t train together must integrate to exercise as a Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF),” writes Fuentes.
Last month the Marines held a large-scale, three-week exercise – Summer Fury 2020 – in Southern California where 17 squadrons from the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW) joined with 1st Marine Division and 1st Marine Logistics Group units for training across southwest combat ranges. USNI News noted that the exercise’s training scenario simulated combat “operations across an expansive island region like the Indo-Pacific.”
USNI News added that the goals of this exercise were twofold: One was to deploy an integrated MAGTF to conduct EABO, and two was to “increase aviation operational proficiency with realistic, relevant training…”
To simulate the long distances between islands in the Pacific reported USNI News, the “3rd MAW pushed fighter jets, helicopters, Marines and combat equipment hundreds of miles… [while] aviation ground support Marines set up a series of forward arming and refueling points, or FARPs, to support the aircraft, and heavy-lift helicopters moved artillery guns – all missions that helped project combat forces and stretch the MAGTF’s operational reach.”
In a recent interview, reported USNI News, wing commander, Maj. Gen. Christopher Mahoney, said:
From there … you’re penetrating into badness. How are you going to exploit that distance? You exploit with adapting your capabilities and being quick about it. So – get in the door when they ain’t looking – and then go. And then ultimately, in our business, you’ve got to destroy something.
You exploit, whether it’s distance, whether it’s the electromagnetic spectrum, whether it’s penetrate [sic] the geo-political environment. Then you need to destroy – in most cases – and that’s what we do.
Summer Fury 2020 also included using fifth-generation F-35 stealth fighters to lead long-range strikes that helped bring the threat level down for follow-on forces, noted USNI News. The long-range strike isn’t one the squadron often gets to do, said Maj. Robert Ahern, an F-35C pilot, especially in a scenario “simulating where we have a forward runway or island with fuel and other logistical support and extending the reach beyond that provided by an expeditionary or naval strike group.”
On the ground, Marines established FARPs providing valuable logistics to the wing and other MAGTF units. General Mahoney explained:
It was less than 12 hours to set up the full array of tactical airfield fuel dispensing and the ability to safely arm the airplanes. We proved we could do it quickly and safely and do it operationally. … It’s all the little things that you have to do to exploit.
At the same time, Marine Corps attack helicopters also did live-fire missions with Navy MH-60 Seahawk helicopters, reported USNI News. “That talks to the close-in fight. It talks to the gray-zone fight, if you will, and certainly naval integration,” Mahoney said. “They’re exchanging data. They did simulators together, they did academics. … So that was really cool to see.”
Exercise Summer Fury 2020 just showed how seriously the Marines are taking their new ‘Island-Hopping’ mission. It also showed how they are honing their skills to aggressively take the fight to China in the Pacific – if the need arises.