The Marine Corps’ new littoral regiments will be equipped with robot trucks carrying potent anti-ship missiles, but critics say the missiles won’t have the range to support Taiwan effectively.
Over the last few years, China has developed and deployed many different types of long-range precision-guided missiles. These include thousands of anti-air and ground-attack missiles, as well as hypersonic anti-ship ballistic missiles with large warheads that have been dubbed “carrier killer” missiles.
Due to this game-changing development, the U.S. now has to plan around the fact that it might not be able to move its warships and warplanes within hundreds of kilometers of Taiwan, if a conflict erupts over the Taiwan issue. One of the solutions to this challenge is the U.S. Marine Corps’ plan to create Marine Littoral Regiments that are optimized to be pre-positioned on Japan’s Ryukyu islands as close as 110 kilometers from Taiwan.
Such units would be deployed to these small islands when a Chinese invasion of Taiwan seems imminent, to bolster Japanese defenses of these islands and to use powerful ship-killer missiles to strike at Chinese ships out at sea. The idea is that these units would “stand in” and dig in before the conflict starts, rather than rush in after Chinese forces have already invaded the most strategically valuable of these islands.
To attack ships, the new units will be provided with multiple Navy Marine Expeditionary Ship Interdiction Systems (NMESIS). Each NMESIS system consists of a remotely controlled truck fitted with two launch pods for Naval Strike Missiles. These highly sophisticated missiles were developed by Norway and use a jet engine to cruise at just under the speed of sound while flying just above the ocean for up to 185 kilometers. The advanced sea-skimming abilities of these missiles, together with their relatively stealthy design, make them hard to detect by radar. They are also programmed to maneuver sharply in order to avoid anti-missile systems as they approach the targeted ship.
The fact that these potent missiles and their launch systems are mounted on a small truck means that they can easily be transported on and off amphibious landing ships or aircraft. Once on land, they can quickly be moved to optimal hiding and firing positions. These trucks are remotely controlled, to keep their operators safe in case the trucks are targeted by enemy missiles. The Marine Corps says ground-based launchers have proven to be hard for enemies to find and target in past wars, and the NMESIS “brings a high level of survivability inside the enemy’s weapons engagement zone.”
From an island like Japan’s Yonaguni Island, which lies just 110 kilometers from Taiwan, the Marines would be able to use the 185 kilometer range of the Naval Strike Missile to hit ships in Taipei Harbor as well as ships maneuvering in the ocean up to 10 kilometers beyond the harbor. They would also cover a large part of the ocean northwest of Taipei, while reaching targets as far south as Changbin on the eastern coastline of Taiwan.
If such Marine units were positioned on a few of the Ryukyu islands, their NMESIS system’s missiles would overlap to reach any ships trying to break through this island chain into the Pacific, including the 220 kilometer gap between Miyako and Okinawa, called the Miyako Strait.
Critics of the plan say that recent wargames have proven that reinforcements for such littoral units would be destroyed if they tried to get to Japan’s frontline islands after the conflict had started. That’s why it makes sense to deploy these troops before the conflict starts, and an obvious additional solution would be to make sure they have enough supplies to last them through the crucial initial phases of the conflict.
But the critics also found fault with the way the new units would be armed, when compared to traditional Marine units. Retired Marine Lt. Gen. P.K. Van Riper is part of a group of retired Marine officers who believe the restructuring of the Marine Corps — a project called Force Design 2030 — will make the Marine Corps incapable of doing its job. The new plan is to create “lighter” and more “expeditionary” regiments of roughly 2,000 troops by cutting out tanks and most artillery cannons in favor of light weapons and high-tech missile and drone systems.
Van Riper says the new units would lose many of the combat abilities that only tanks and cannons can provide, like protected fire support, indirect fire support, flare positioning for night maneuvers, prolonged disruptive shelling, and positioning of smoke shells to create smoke screens for infantry maneuvers. The fear is that the smaller new units would not be able to close with the enemy and win the type of drawn-out battles that is foreseen in theaters like Korea, if a wider conflict does break out.
Most of the criticism is aimed at a perceived loss of sustained combat capabilities in the type of large-scale battles that Marines fought in previous wars and might very well face in future wars. However, this new type of regiment would work well on small frontline islands close to Taiwan, such as Yonaguni Island. Most of these islands are small and would not permit large-scale combat tactics, while they are also close to Taiwan and can thus employ the NMESIS system’s Naval Strike Missile to attack Chinese ships as they maneuver around Taiwan’s northern and eastern flanks.
If the Marine Corps could also pre-position such a unit on a Philippine island like Itbayat Island, just 160 kilometers south of Taiwan, it would cut off China’s naval access to Taiwan’s eastern flank completely, forcing Chinese warships to take very long and dangerous routes around the northpoint of Japan to get to this coastline.
Critics of the NMESIS system say its Naval Strike Missiles cannot reach into the Taiwan Strait off Taiwan’s western coastline, where most of China’s warships would be maneuvering during a hypothetical invasion. The Marine Corps admits that to defend Taiwan’s western flank, NMESIS-fielding units would have to be situated on Taiwan itself. However, even if these missile systems are not deployed on Taiwan they could still deter Chinese warships from getting to Taiwan’s eastern coastline — if deployed to strategic islands of both Japan and the Philippines. This would take a big burden off Taiwan’s defenders, while also creating a bottleneck for Chinese warships in the Taiwan Strait. Such a bottleneck would slow down Chinese operations and create more opportunities for Taiwan’s own anti-ship weapons to inflict heavy losses.