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We cannot counter China’s ambitions without a global strategy

Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Caylen McCutcheon/U.S. Navy via AP
Aircraft from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and the USS Makin Island fly in formation past Nimitz in the South China Sea on Feb. 12, 2023. The 7th Fleet, based in Japan, said the Nimitz strike group and the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit have been conducting “integrated expeditionary strike force operations” in the South China Sea.

Defense officials and analysts acknowledge that China is no longer merely a regional power but a global power on the move. Its recent moves to restore diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and to broker a peace agreement between Russia and Ukraine, show that China intends to overshadow the U.S. in the international community. As well, through its massive Belt and Road Initiative, China has been extending its influence through the Sumatra Straits and across the Indian Ocean to Iran, Pakistan and beyond. 

These developments raise concerns across industries from defense to technology to finance, and the U.S. must make a swift and concerted effort to keep China at bay.

China’s expanding influence is not confined to a single geospatial plane. The country is working to establish dominance in areas of critical minerals, cyber technologies, global finance, transoceanic shipping, chip manufacturing and biotechnology. Many of these efforts are purposely designed to fill vacuums caused by U.S. complacency to create dependency and establish hegemony.

Despite much impressive rhetoric about China’s global ambitions, most U.S. actions still tend to focus on territorial China, as though it were merely a defensive, regional power. Nowhere is this more evident than in the much-ballyhooed Marine Corps modernization — essentially a divestment of global force-in-readiness capabilities to fund a stationary and relatively insignificant anti-ship missile force positioned in China’s front yard.

The Marine Corps’ short-sighted divestment of its general-purpose forces has been compounded by the Navy’s tepid commitment to amphibious shipping, including sufficient maritime prepositioning ships. A “strategic pause” in shipbuilding is not likely to create enhanced deterrence. Equally concerning is the Marine Corps’ shift in emphasis from requiring amphibious ships capable of operating in all climes and places to regional “shuttlers” that are slow, defenseless and, by Marine senior leaders’ own admissions, must run and hide when the shooting starts. Their mission is simply not survivable in an age of persistent geospatial surveillance.

So, why are some Washington policy analysts generating applause for this particular approach to Marine modernization? Does a small increase in the number of anti-ship missiles along the Pacific littorals — established as a modest complement to more robust Army, Navy, Air Force capabilities — really justify the loss of our nation’s expeditionary Marine Corps? Do we really want to become operationally dependent upon the presumed goodwill of host nations along the Pacific Rim, while surrendering the Marine Corps’ ability to deploy globally from U.S. Navy ships? The strategic question is not whether to modernize, but how to modernize. 

The Marine Corps promotional campaign feeds nicely into the techno-centric D.C. groupthink that sees all future warfare as a contest of long-range precision weaponry. To make the flawed concept even more appealing, Marine Corps leaders have said they will pay for this supposed modernization by divesting “legacy” systems, not by requesting additional funds, which is music to the ears of many in Congress.

But, from a national perspective, what do the Marine divestment-investment decisions really mean? For one, they mean the Corps has given up significant operational capabilities for largely unproven capabilities, many of which will not be available for seven or more years, if ever. This divestment of capabilities needed today is an unacceptable risk to national security, a risk apparently unrecognized by the Department of Defense.

These unwise decisions also mean that in adding a small percentage of more anti-ship missiles to the fight, the Marine Corps has seriously degraded its capabilities to conduct combined arms operations, a fundamental component of modern warfare. To support the organizational structure needed to create anti-missile units, the Corps has drastically cut needed capabilities in the rest of its operational forces.

These divestments also mean the nation and its allies lose the capability for a “from-the-sea” counteroffensive. Rather than investing in amphibious shipping and other forces to persist in an era of precision-guided munitions, the Marine Corps is surrendering its offensive, combined-arms capabilities in exchange for small, defensive and mostly isolated and unsupportable elements scattered across portions of the First Island Chain. The nation’s lack of a credible counteroffensive capability means aggressors are not deterred from “snatch and grab” operations. Consider both Vladimir Putin’s 2014 seizure of eastern Ukraine and the miscalculations of his current “special military operation.” Ukraine’s counteroffensive against Russian aggression reminds us of the importance of a counter-strike capability in deterring war.  The mere possibility of unmet objectives is a weak deterrent; it is the possibility of capable retaliation that deters. 

Conversely, the mere threat of precision munitions has caused the Marines to greatly degrade offensive fighting capabilities, thereby lowering both the deterrent threshold and the means which national leaders must have to counter enemy aggression.

Lastly, these decisions surrender global presence. Years of underfunding the Navy’s amphibious ship programs coupled with poor ship construction and maintenance programs have resulted in a smaller, less capable amphibious fleet. The result: inadequate global presence, especially in the Indian Ocean where China has made, and continues to make, significant gains in controlling critical sea lanes of communications.

The increasing disconnect between rhetoric and credible capabilities is risking a war we don’t want. Obviously, should deterrence fail, the U.S. and its allies need forces to stop and reverse Chinese aggression.

As was true during the Cold War, the contentions are most apt to occur on the peripheries, the very areas that have been under-resourced. If our national strategy does indeed include conflict prevention, we must invest in the deployment, employment and support of forces that can respond anywhere in the world across the spectrum of warfare and thwart Chinese aspirations of global hegemony.

Establishment of the House Select Committee on Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party is welcome; however, the committee needs to coordinate with the Department of Defense to undertake a major, bottom-up assessment of the force structures and capabilities needed to contend with China’s global and multi-domain aggression.

Paul McHale is a former U.S. House member, former assistant secretary of Defense, and a retired Marine Corps Reserve colonel.

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Charles Krulak, a career infantry officer, was last assigned as Commandant of the Marine Corps.

Tags China aggression U.S. armed forces

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