SEOUL, South Korea â€” U.S. Marines in Japan are reversing their traditional mission from invading beaches to defending them.
Symbolizing a changing strategic environment, the Okinawa-based 12th Marine Regiment was rechristened the 12th Marine Littoral Regiment in a ceremony last week. The renaming reflects a more profound shift away from the Corpsâ€™ customary role in the Indo-Pacific as a seaborne force that storms enemy coasts. The 12th Marine Littoral Regiment, the second created by the service, looks suspiciously like a Marineâ€™s historic nemesis: a coastal artillery unit.
The name also reflects technological shifts in warfighting and littoral combat. It takes advantage of what U.S. strategists say is Chinaâ€™s Achillesâ€™ heel in the superpower rivalry for friends and influence in East Asia.
After decades of determined expansion, Chinaâ€™s Peopleâ€™s Liberation Army Navy now approaches the U.S. Navy in muscle. The 2023 , which assesses multiple dynamics, rated the Chinese navy just behind the American fleet. The U.S. Navy patrols a global beat while Chinaâ€™s naval forces are heavily concentrated on the tense, heavily trafficked waters off the countryâ€™s coast.
The Chinese navy has its challenges, particularly as admirals ponder their highest priority: the long-term fate of Taiwan. The communist regime of President Xi Jinping has vowed to one day bring the island democracy under Beijingâ€™s control. Any naval move to blockade Taiwan or prevent U.S. and allied forces from coming to Taipeiâ€™s aid in the event of an armed clash would mean leaving the safety of Chinese coastal bases and entering the open Pacific.
The primary routes to the open sea are channels dominated by Japanâ€™s Ryukyu Islands and the Philippinesâ€™ northern island of Luzon, part of what strategists collectively call the â€śFirst Island Chain.â€ť
U.S. ground forces are stationed in both areas. The ceremony on Wednesday showed that American commanders are aware of the transformed regional dynamic.
â€śWeâ€™re proud to be here in the First Island Chain and a force prepared to respond to contingencies wherever and whenever required,â€ť Marine Col. Peter Eltringham, the regimentâ€™s new commander, at Okinawaâ€™s Camp Hansen.
The Marine Corps established its first littoral regiment in Hawaii last year. The third is scheduled to deploy in the Indo-Pacific theater by 2030.
The Marinesâ€™ littoral regiments have a different mission from the set-in-stone beach-defending forces of old. They will operate as mobile, island-hopping forces.
According to the Corpsâ€™ , a littoral regiment comprising 1,800 to 2,000 Marines is designed to be an agile force that can forward-deploy multiple stealth infantry teams and anti-shipping missile bases. It boasts integral surveillance and air defense assets.
As commanders envision in a hypothetical clash with China, the littoral Marines could move quietly onto an island along the Pacific archipelago, scout out enemy forces and reveal their positions to nearby U.S. aircraft, ships or submarines. The Marines also have new capabilities to take out enemy assets.
Gen. Yasunori Morishita, chief of staff of Japanâ€™s Ground Self-Defense Force, attended the Wednesday ceremony, signaling how important the Marine unitâ€™s evolving mission is to Tokyo.
For all their military value, U.S. troops on Okinawa are unpopular. Longtime prefecture Gov. Denny Tamaki routinely complains of culture clashes, environmental damage and crimes committed by American service members. To ease the burden, the two countries agreed in 2012 that some 9,000 of the 19,000 Marines on Okinawa would relocate to Guam.
Chinaâ€™s expansive and aggressive regional stance under Mr. Xi changed the calculus. In January, U.S. and Japanese senior ministers agreed that the 12th Marine Littoral Regiment would remain in Okinawa.
Japanâ€™s military also is reposturing. Formerly tasked with defending the northern island of Hokkaido against Russia, Japanese forces are now focused on fortifying islands south of Okinawa. Missile bases are rising, most notably on Yonaguni, the Japanese island closest to Taiwan, and Mikayo, which dominates the deep-water Miyako Strait.
Japan converted an infantry regiment to marine duties in 2018. Recent exercises have focused on recapturing an island seized by enemy forces.
Under Gen. David H. Berger, the recently retired commandant, the Marine Corps undertook a sea change in mission to reflect the new strategic environment and the different challenges posed by China compared with past adversaries.
The Marines earned a peerless reputation for amphibious combat across World War IIâ€™s Pacific theater, including an assault on Okinawa. It maintained its crack status on standard infantry operations in Korea and Vietnam, though some Army colleagues criticized the heavy casualties in some missions.
With China now asserting itself across the Indo-Pacific, the combat boot is on the other foot. U.S. Marines are taking on far more preventive and defensive duties than in the past.
An officer from Britainâ€™s Royal Marines said modern surveillance and weapons systems make beach invasions potentially even bloodier than in World War II. The war in Ukraine has highlighted the importance of data-networked, satellite-guided, long-range artillery power.
The conflict has also taught lessons about denying an adversary control of coastal areas. Moscowâ€™s once-vaunted Black Sea fleet has retreated from Ukraineâ€™s coast and is now shifting units from Crimea after taking heavy losses from Ukrainian missile strikes.
â€śUkraineâ€™s success â€¦ is all the more remarkable as the country does not currently have a functioning navy,â€ť the Atlantic Council said in October. â€śInstead, Ukraine has relied on daring commando raids along with a combination of domestically produced drones and long-range cruise missiles provided by the countryâ€™s Western partners.â€ť
• Andrew Salmon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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