If U.S. Marine Littoral Regiments were to be deployed on the Philippines’ northern islands, they could use their potent missile systems in tandem with Marine regiments on Japan’s western-most islands to block Chinese warships from reaching Taiwan’s entire eastern flank.
The U.S. and Philippine militaries announced yesterday that they will hold their biggest joint military exercise since 2015 in April this year. The news comes only two weeks after the Philippines announced that it would expand U.S. access to Philippine bases, allowing U.S. troops to be stationed on four more sites than the current five sites. Manila says the joint exercise, called Balikatan, will see 16,000 troops from the two countries practicing war drills from April 24 to April 27.
These developments follow a thawing of relations between the two countries since the relationship reached a low point under the previous Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte. Duterte was voted out and succeeded in June last year by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who has signaled a willingness to work with the U.S. to improve security in the West Philippine Sea.
One of the reasons why the Philippines has grown closer to the U.S. is an increase in Chinese aggression toward Philippine bases and fishing boats in the West Philippine Sea and the South China Sea. China has built large military bases on a number of reefs in these waterways. In November of last year, the Chinese coast guard forcibly seized Chinese rocket debris being towed by the Philippine navy near a Philippine-held island. In December, Chinese militia ships were spotted swarming in the West Philippine Sea. In January, Chinese vessels drove Philippine fishermen away from a reef at which the Philippines has exclusive fishing rights. Just ten days ago, on February 6, an armed Chinese coast guard ship used a laser against a Philippine vessel, sparking expressions of concerns and support from Australia, Japan, and the U.S.
In addition to the mutual security benefits of the U.S.-Philippines deal, the U.S. also announced in January that it will give the Philippine military $100 million to buy new weapons. The new deal adds another $82 million that the Pentagon will spend on improving facilities at the five Philippine bases where U.S. troops are already stationed.
A Philippine defense official told the Washington Post that at least two of the new sites would be on the northern Philippine main island of Luzon. None of the five bases where U.S. troops are currently allowed to operate from are in this northern region. If U.S. troops were to be stationed on the northern edge of Luzon, they would be only 370 kilometers from Taiwan’s southern tip. From there they would be able to quickly deploy to the Philippines’ most northern small island, Itbayat. Itbayat Island is only 160 kilometers from Taiwan, which means that if a regiment of U.S. Marines were to be deployed there, their cutting-edge new NMESIS ship-killer missiles would be within range to hit any Chinese warships trying to maneuver around Taiwan’s southern tip toward the east coast of Taiwan during a theoretical invasion scenario.
If U.S. Marines would be allowed to launch missiles at Chinese warships and warplanes from Itbayat, they would form the southern part of a blocking force that would keep Chinese warships and warplanes away from Taiwan’s eastern flank during an invasion. The northern part of this blocking force would be U.S. Marine Littoral Regiments and Japanese forces stationed on Japan’s frontline islands — like Yonaguni Island, which is situated just 110 kilometers from Taiwan’s northern regions.
If China’s recently deployed area-denial missiles are as effective as China claims they are, the U.S. would not be able to position its aircraft carriers and warplanes close to Taiwan. In case China’s claims are real, the Pentagon is currently creating new Marine Littoral Regiments that can quickly be deployed to friendly islands around Taiwan when an invasion seems imminent. These new regiments are focused on mobility and feature lightweight weapons, drones and powerful missiles like the NMESIS anti-ship missile system.
Each NMESIS system consists of a remotely controlled robot truck fitted with two launch pods for Naval Strike Missiles. This highly sophisticated missile was developed by Norway and uses a jet engine to cruise at just under the speed of sound while flying and maneuvering just above the ocean for up to 185 kilometers.
While the Naval Strike Missile is considered to be one of the best ship killers in the world, critics say its 185-kilometer range makes it incapable of defending Taiwan from Philippine and Japanese frontline islands. To adequately defend Taiwan from invading Chinese warships, the systems would have to be located on Taiwan itself. However, if these systems were, for instance, to be deployed on Itbayat in the south and Yonaguni in the north, they would be able to destroy warships trying to round the southern and northern tips of Taiwan, thereby blocking Chinese warships from reaching Taiwan’s eastern flank, while also covering large parts of Taiwan’s eastern coastline.
In short, the growing relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines makes it feasible that the U.S. would be able to insert an area denial force on Philippine frontline islands like Itbayat, in addition to similar area denial forces on Japanese frontline islands like Yonaguni. In such a scenario, Chinese invasion plans would be made much more complicated, as these forces would block Chinese warships from getting to Taiwan’s eastern flank, while also blocking Chinese warplanes from operating in Taiwan’s southern and northern regions. This would force Chinese warships and warplanes to bottleneck in the Taiwan Strait, giving Taiwan’s own anti-ship and anti-air systems more opportunities to destroy Chinese ships and planes.
U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Theodore W. Ritchie, Image: Google Maps
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