Hawaii is at the center of an ambitious plan to give the Marine Corps a 21st century reboot that will lead to a leaner force that moves faster and strikes harder as tensions with China intensify in the Pacific. 

Over the summer, members of the 3rd Marine Regiment at Marine Corps Base Hawaii became the first “Littoral Regiment,” which will provide the blueprint for the new standard Marine combat unit. 

The new strategy also envisions closer coordination of operations with the Navy and other military branches to bring fewer troops and more firepower to the front lines.

“That will involve a lot of testing, training, exercises and operational experimentation involving air, naval and Marine Corps units,” said Carl Schuster, an instructor at Hawaii Pacific University’s Department of History and International Studies. “Hawaii is optimally located to become central to that effort.”

US Marines Amphibious Assault Vehicle rolls onto the sands at Pyramid Rock, Marine Corps Base Hawaii. Kaneohe Hawaii. 30 july 2016
The Marine Corps is reorganizing its entire force, starting with a regiment on Oahu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

Oahu is home to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, the nerve center for all U.S. military operations in the region. It’s the military’s largest area of operations and the one the Pentagon considers its “top priority theater” for the coming decade.

The restructuring is in large part the brainchild of Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger, who previously oversaw Marine Corps Forces Pacific at Camp Smith in Aiea and did a brief stint as the commander of Marine Corps Combat Development Command before former President Donald Trump appointed him the top Marine in 2019.

“The Island of Oahu presents unique opportunities for the Marine Corps to train with our sister services, all of which have a presence on the island in a proximity closer than anywhere found in the continental United States,” said 1st Lt. Colin Kennard, a spokesman for the Marines in Hawaii, in an emailed statement.

The new littoral regiment will build up over the next three years to about 1,800 to 2,000 troops, mostly assembled from units already based in Hawaii and considerably smaller than the 3,400-strong 3rd Marine regiment.

However, leaner units won’t mean a smaller Marine presence in the Pacific. Over the next decade the Marine Corps is relocating thousands of Marines from the Japanese island of Okinawa to other Pacific islands — including as many as 2,700 to Hawaii by 2030. 

“The new concepts are being implemented into the current training cycle to maintain readiness and promote a seamless transition,” the Marine spokesman said.

Marine veteran Anthony Spadaro, who retired last year as the top enlisted service member at INDOPACOM, said in a telephone interview that Berger’s vision is a natural evolution of military policy in the Pacific born from years of discussions among military planners both in Hawaii and the Pentagon.

“The Marine Corps needs to be the lead service on this,” he added. “We’re small enough to get on the ground and work with partners.”

Back To The Sea

While the transformation has an eye toward the future, it’s also in many ways a return to the past. “In effect it is a technological and tactical upgrade and advancement on the Marine Mobile Advanced Base Force Concept of World War II,” said Schuster.

During that war, Marines took part in “island hopping” campaigns that defined fighting in the Pacific as troops pushed out from bases in Hawaii across islands, reefs and atolls occupied by the Japanese military. Marines went ashore to capture positions, clear out Japanese forces and set up artillery and supply points to support the Navy’s efforts at sea.

But for the last two decades the Marines have been fighting very different battles in long, drawn out wars against insurgents in Iraqi deserts and Afghan mountains. “We kind of lost our identity in all these years of Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Spadaro. 

The Marine Corps already has begun the process of getting rid of all of its tanks, which Spadaro said are poorly suited for fighting on islands and coastlines — as well as for non-combat missions like humanitarian natural disaster response. 

In their place, the Marines intend to invest more heavily in new aircraft, drones and portable anti-ship missiles they can bring to shore. Last year Berger said he even envisions Marines conducting submarine hunting operations from shore.

“They can set up quickly, control the air and sea space around them and provide a temporary or standing support base for follow-on naval or other forces,” said Schuster.

Provisional Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Hawaii (PMEB-HI) is made up primarily of III Marine Expeditionary Force units based in Hawaii and The Japan Ground Self-Defense Force members were conducting the landing with Company E, Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion as they head towards Pyramid Rock Beach. Kaneohe, Hawaii. 30 july 2016
The Marine Corps reorganization is meant to make troops move lighter and faster to take on island fights. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The reorganization is geared toward preparing the Marines for possible confrontations against the Chinese military as tensions mount in the Pacific, especially regarding the disputed South China Sea — a critical waterway through which at least one third of all international trade moves.

The Chinese military has stationed troops on disputed reefs and built more than two dozen artificial islands — some with landing strips — to consolidate their position. The Marines’ new strategy seems tailored in part to fight over these disputed islands and reefs.

Critics argue that moves like getting rid of tanks and emphasizing anti-ship and sub operations could leave Marines vulnerable in land battles, erode the aggressive culture of Marines’ infantry and that transformation will be costly and time consuming.

“When you look at this new structure the focus is on the aviation and the artillery, not the infantry,” Mark Cancian, a retired Marine officer said in July during a webinar hosted by the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation. “The focus of the infantry now, is to protect the artillery — a very defensive orientation and I think over time that will become part of the culture.”

Schuster says he largely embraces the plan but shares some of these concerns — and he wonders if Berger is essentially repurposing the entire Marine Corps exclusively for missions in the Pacific.

“All of the naysayers in the Corps want the old days,” said Spadaro, who argued the Marines have to adapt. “We’ve been really good at ‘fighting the last war,’ and this is a plan that doesn’t fight the last war.”

‘Unique Training Opportunities’

As relations sour between China and its neighbors around the South China Sea, Beijing has sought to extend influence in Pacific Island nations. China has made inroads in the Solomon Islands and just south of Hawaii in Kiribati after they agreed to sever diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

In December, Berger and the commandants of the Navy and Coast Guard unveiled their new “Tri-Service Maritime Strategy” calling for closer coordination of operations between the branches.

“Returning to a Fleet Marine Force concept means working more closely and more often with the Navy,” said Schuster. “For Hawaii, that means training opportunities in Hawaii waters and at the training areas on the Big Island.”

In October, a Hawaii-based Marine Osprey, which has the characteristics of both a helicopter and a plane, dropped off supplies for the Navy’s submarine USS Henry Jackson. 

US Army and US Marines participate in joint training at Pohakuloa Training Area, Hawaii island. September 24, 2020
U.S. Marine forward artillery observers during a joint exercise with U.S. Army troops at the Big Island’s Pohakuloa Training Area in September 2020. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

In a larger land battle, the Marines may also need to work closely with the Army and the Air Force, which are themselves training for battles that look very different than the ones they’ve fought over the last two decades. 

Oahu-based Marines have been training with soldiers on Oahu and the Big Island’s Pohakuloa Training Area to learn how to use helicopters and artillery from each branch, coordinate operations and transport troops and equipment for each other if need be.

Spadaro said they also will likely be traveling around the region to train and build partnerships with other countries.

“A lot of the real training we’ve got to do is going to be away from Hawaii,” he said.

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