scorecardNew US Marine units are taking position on 'key terrain' around Taiwan as tensions rise with China
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New US Marine units are taking position on 'key terrain' around Taiwan as tensions rise with China

Christopher Woody   

New US Marine units are taking position on 'key terrain' around Taiwan as tensions rise with China
LifeInternational6 min read
  • The US and Japan said in January that a Marine Littoral Regiment will be set up in Japan by 2025.
  • A Marine Littoral Regiment will also hold a major exercise in the northern Philippines this spring.

US Marine Corps units designed to fight on remote islands will soon take position close to Taiwan, reflecting preparations by the US and its allies for a potential conflict with China over the island that Beijing claims as part of its territory.

This month, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III announced that a Marine artillery regiment based on the Japanese island of Okinawa would be reorganized as a Marine Littoral Regiment by 2025 and be outfitted with "advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance" capabilities and anti-ship weaponry that is "relevant to the current and future threat environments."

That unit, the 12th Marine Littoral Regiment, is the second of three Marine Littoral Regiments planned for the Indo-Pacific region, the first of which was activated in March 2022 and is based in Hawaii. Within weeks of its activation, the 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment was participating in the US-Philippine military exercise Balikatan.

The exercise itself, held for the 37th time, "was nothing new," Col. Timothy Brady Jr., the regiment's commander, said at the Modern Day Marine conference in Washington DC in May 2022.

"What was new was the MLR was participating in it for the very first time as our inaugural deployment. What was also new was the key terrain that we actually operated in," Brady said.

In the past, Balikatan has taken place in the central Philippines, Brady said. "This time we were way up north, in Cagayan in northern Luzon, in areas like Aparri and ... looking more toward the Luzon Straits."

Brady's regiment will return to the Philippines in April for this year's Balikatan, which will be one of the largest ever and be based in Ilocos Norte, a province in northern Luzon overlooking the Bashi Channel, a strategically valuable waterway dividing the Philippines and Taiwan.

Marine Littoral Regiments' return to Luzon and future presence in Okinawa illustrate the US military's increasing focus on being present and able to operate in and around the islands off of China's coast, which US officials see as vital to thwarting any Chinese move against Taiwan and in the wider Pacific.

New threat, new force

The Marine Littoral Regiment is an element of Force Design 2030, a plan to restructure the Corps developed under Gen. David Berger, who took over as commandant in July 2019.

As part of that plan, the Corps has shed "heavy things" like tanks and refocused on naval expeditionary operations — a shift epitomized by the MLR, which is meant to be mobile and hard to detect when operating from austere locations in maritime areas during times of tension or conflict and capable of coordination with other forces.

The Corps is still refining the regiment's design but says it will be composed of 1,800 to 2,000 personnel and be "task organized" around an infantry battalion and an anti-ship missile battery and be able to support smaller units as they disperse and conduct missions like long-range anti-ship strikes, arming and refueling aircraft, air-defense operations, and intelligence-gathering.

The MLR is in keeping with the concept of "stand-in forces" that live and work within range of an adversary's weapons, like in Okinawa, and it reflects the Corps' emphasis on a new operating environment and a new threat — China's large, sophisticated military — after two decades of focusing on land-based operations against smaller, less capable foes.

"The current threats that are out there require you to be lighter, more mobile, and have a lower signature or you can't even start the fight," Gen. Eric Smith, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, said at a think-tank event in July.

The Corps has long used the Marine Air-Ground Task Force as its main formation. MAGTFs, as they're known, require organizing, training, and deploying air defense, artillery, infantry, and aircraft units, which can take weeks or months, Smith said in response to a question from Insider.

"You don't have six months when you have limited, unambiguous warning from a peer adversary, a pacing threat like China. You may have a number of days before you have to respond," Smith said.

The littoral regiment "must live, eat, sleep, breathe as a task-organized unit to be able to go tomorrow or tonight. That's the difference in a stand-in force, and that's exactly what 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment is designed to do and how they operated throughout Luzon" during Balitikan 2022, Smith added

During that exercise, Marines did amphibious landings in northern Luzon and trained with Philippine marines to conduct coastal-defense operations, including by providing "real-time targeting data" to High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems that were standing-in for the Corps' new Navy-Marine Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System, a mobile anti-ship missile launcher.

During a recent exercise in Hawaii, members of the 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment trained to defend a carrier strike group as it sailed through a strait by gathering data on and then firing a missile at an enemy vessel trying to block the strait — an experience the unit could draw on if it has to escort a carrier through the Philippine archipelago.

There could be similar drills during the upcoming Balitikan exercise, which will include operations on the islands of Fuga and Calayan off of northern Luzon and on Batanes in the Bashi Channel.

'Much clearer recognition'

Japan and the Philippines are both US allies, but they have stepped up military cooperation with the US amid rising tensions with China, which has clashed with both countries over territory in the South and East China Seas.

Japan's military has focused more attention and resources on its southwest islands, one of which is only about 60 miles from Taiwan.

China's military is a frequent presence around the Senkaku Islands, which Japan controls but China claims, and frequently sends ships and aircraft through Japanese islands surrounding the Miyako Strait in order to reach the Pacific Ocean.

Japan's emphasis on security, including increased defense spending, is driven largely by "much clearer recognition on the part of both Japanese officials but also the public that, sort of by definition, a conflict over Taiwan would impact Japan" because of the proximity of Japan's islands, Christopher Johnstone, Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said at an event Tuesday.

The missiles China fired over Taiwan and into Japanese waters after Rep. Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taipei in August "really brought this into sharp relief," Johnstone said.

The Philippines has longstanding tensions with China over disputed islands in the South China Sea, where Chinese vessels often confront Philippine ships, but Manila's concern about the impact of tensions over Taiwan is also growing.

A Chinese firm's attempt to acquire parts of Fuga Island in 2019 raised alarms within the Philippine military, which blocked the deal. The firm's ostensibly sought economic opportunities, but a Philippine military official told The Financial Times it "really is about Taiwan, to deny us, and in extension the US, the use of those islands."

Manila and Washington are also discussing expanded access to Philippine military facilities. During a visit by Vice President Kamala Harris in November, the US said they had identified new sites for projects under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which allows the US to build on Philippine bases and send troops for longer stays.

After high-level meetings this year — including a visit by Austin this week — "it's an open secret that there will be five new EDCA sites announced on top of the five that there already are," Greg Poling, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said at an event this month.

"Some of them will probably be in northern Luzon, where they clearly only make sense for a Taiwan contingency," Poling added.

Increased attention by the US and its allies on the waterways around Taiwan will be welcomed by many in Taipei, which faces more pressure from Beijing, including intensifying Chinese military activity around the island.

"For Taiwan, if we are talking in military terms, we are not terribly worried about issues or incidents to our north because the US-Japan alliance is right there. Every ship, every aircraft passing through the Miyako straight will be monitored," which is a vulnerability for China, Alexander Huang, the US envoy of Taiwan's main opposition party, the Kuomintang, said in November.

"But for the Bashi channel and the waters between Taiwan and the Philippines, that's the key, that's the problem," and is where China's military has been most active, Huang said. "So we would like to see a stronger US-Philippine collaboration or the increase of the Filipino capability."