CAMP SOUMAGAHARA, Japan—The Marine Corps is stepping up training in Japan for island-based conflict in the Western Pacific, putting it at the leading edge of a pivot by the U.S. to face the military challenge from China.
The Marines are preparing for a far larger and more sophisticated adversary than extremists in the Middle East and Afghanistan, the focus of their operations in recent years. China’s military satellites, cyberwarfare capabilities, use of artificial intelligence and narrowing gap with U.S. firepower make it what the Pentagon calls a “near-peer” rival.
At one of a series of recent exercises, a few dozen Marines faded into long grass after touching down in two CH-47 Chinook helicopters, followed by Japanese soldiers arriving in two Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. Their simulated mission: avoiding detection and recapturing a port on an island inside the range of much of the enemy’s missiles and artillery.
The exercise reflected a new emphasis on small, dispersed troop units and command centers, which are intended to be harder to locate and destroy. The simulation was one of the first to be directed from a command hub consisting of three armored vehicles that can be set up or moved in minutes and emit fewer traceable signals.
“We’re trying to get away from tents, from computer screens, because, one, it’s very stationary and, two, it has a huge electromagnetic signature,” said Lt. Col. Neil Berry, commander of the third battalion of the Eighth Marine Regiment, based in Camp Lejeune, N.C.
China’s emergence as a military force has brought a new focus at the Pentagon on updating strategies and training plans. Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said recently that China’s rise is the single most important security challenge to the U.S., and that the Chinese military was on a path to parity with the U.S.
Figuring out how to deal with China is one of the biggest early challenges for President-elect Joe Biden. On Friday, the Senate passed into law a defense bill that includes more than $2 billion of funding for military operational and strategy initiatives aimed at countering China.
Beijing says its military rise is peaceful. It hasn’t commented on the recent series of Marine Corps exercises in Japan but has previously called U.S. and Japanese drills in the region provocations.
“I don’t think China has any intention to occupy islands,” said Zhu Feng, an international relations and security scholar at Nanjing University in China. “How can China achieve development? It’s not by military adventurism.”
Dakota Wood, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, D.C., said the landscape has been fundamentally changed by China’s development of advanced weapons such as hypervelocity missiles, unmanned systems and robotics.
“All of these things are dramatically different than what the [U.S.] military has had to deal with in the past three decades,” he said.
The U.S. and its allies worry about possible challenges to the “first island chain,” a long string of territory from the Japanese archipelago through Taiwan and the Philippines to the South China Sea. Armed Chinese coast guard ships sailed near a group of Japanese-held islets in the chain more than 1,100 times in 2020, the highest annual frequency since a dispute over ownership flared up in 2012. Under a security treaty, the U.S. is committed to help defend Japan.
Taiwan has boosted its military budget following China’s suppression of a pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. Beijing has conducted military exercises near the self-governing island.
To give the Marines a bigger role in any maritime conflict, the service’s commandant, Gen. David Berger, is pursuing closer integration with the Navy and ways to support its control of the seas.
In exercises with the Navy’s Japan-based Seventh Fleet in October and November, Marines and Japanese soldiers simulated the seizure of two islands near Okinawa in southern Japan. They practiced installing mobile artillery rocket launchers that could be used to target enemy ships.
Gen. Berger has requested Tomahawk cruise missiles to give the Marines a more powerful weapon to use against ships, although this year’s defense budget doesn’t include funding for the missiles.
Brig. Gen. Kyle Ellison, deputy commander of the Third Marine Expeditionary Force, based in Okinawa, said the Marines were experimenting with ways to work across a wide battle space with dispersed troop units in coordination with the Navy, as well as with Japan’s own Marine-like Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, which was created in 2018.
“That’s not easy, it’s complex, and it takes practice,” he said. “We’re doing that every day.”
An annual computer-simulation exercise by the U.S. and Japan in December included work on coordinating dispersed Marine Corps command-and-control centers during a conflict.
While splitting up Marines into small, self-contained units is intended to make them harder to find and target, military leaders acknowledge it will make them more vulnerable if they are located because they will be within the range of many Chinese weapons. China has one of the world’s largest inventories of short- and intermediate-range missiles and is building its own equivalent to the Marine Corps.
—Chieko Tsuneoka contributed to this article.
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