America’s New Island Fighters Are Preparing for Conflict—a Stone’s Throw From Taiwan

ITBAYAT, Philippines—The U.S. and Philippine marines arrived in waves on this little island nearly 100 miles from the southern tip of Taiwan. A platoon clutching automatic rifles and machine guns sprang from Black Hawks and took up positions around the airfield. In a whirl of hot air and dust, Chinook helicopters lowered dozens more men.

They unloaded fuel cans, sacks of ready-to-eat meals and cases of medical supplies, small drones and satellite-communications gear—everything they would need for a three-day stay.

If their ride had continued north, they would reach Taiwan in less than an hour.

This was a military exercise, the guns had no ammunition and the Javelin missile launcher had no missiles. But the marines were preparing for a real-world conflict, fine-tuning a strategy they see as critical to fighting China in its neighborhood—from strings of islands close to it.

This terrain is meant to be in their wheelhouse.

They belong to the 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment, created two years ago as part of a sweeping redesign to better prepare the U.S. Marine Corps for great-power rivalry after decades of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Wall Street Journal flew out with them to Itbayat—90 minutes by helicopter from the nearest large Philippine island—and island-hopped to remote Philippine military sites they were operating from during the drills.

In a conflict, these marines would move forward—as far and as fast as possible—with missiles and radars. They would fan out in small groups across islands and coastlines. Then, they would keep moving so that China’s missiles, sensors and drones wouldn’t find them.

The adversary would have to “expend an awful lot of resources to figure out where we are and what we’re doing,” said Col. John Lehane, the commander of the 2,500-strong Hawaii-based regiment. “We complicate his decision-making.”

In practice, it isn’t that easy to do.

Operating in austere, far-flung locations presents lots of problems. Some islands have sizable runways but others have only small helipads. Remote coastal areas aren’t always connected by roads wide enough to move radar systems and missile batteries. The marines need small ships to maneuver but don’t have them.

In war, threats would be everywhere, making it harder to bring them supplies. China has a formidable arsenal of missiles, as well as drones of all shapes and sizes. And it has an advantage—fighting in what it considers its backyard, in the vicinity of its naval fleet, military bases and an extensive surveillance network.

Part of the marines’ goal is to bog down China in the early stages of a conflict, buying time for other U.S. forces to get in place. From the front line, they would get a close-up picture of the battle space using sensors and small drones, and fire missiles to destroy Chinese ships or send back targeting data to U.S. and allied warplanes or ships to strike.

america’s new island fighters are preparing for conflict—a stone’s throw from taiwan

These smaller, more nimble units would act as a 21st-century littoral cavalry, said Benjamin Jensen, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies who teaches at the Marine Corps University.

“The ideal case is that you have these fluid forces that are flowing up and down the first island chain, so you’re constantly forcing [China] to look for you,” he said, referring to a stretch of territory from Japan to Taiwan, the northern Philippines and the South China Sea. That would impose a “tremendous tax” on China’s intelligence network, he said.

“Every sensor China tasks to look for a Marine Corps littoral regiment is a sensor that isn’t tasked on another target,” Jensen said. “You want them to go on wild-goose chases.”

To do that, these marines need to square some circles.

Travel light while still being lethal. Get food, fuel and missiles across sprawling island chains. Gather tons of information about the enemy’s movements without giving away their own.

And do all that up close to China, where turning on a radio or a radar could make them a target.

Over the past two years, the 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment has trained on Hawaiian islands, simulated combat in California and made four trips to the Philippines. They are rehearsing tactics to communicate while remaining hidden, such as creating a lot of noise in the electromagnetic spectrum to confuse enemy forces, or drawing attention to different aspects of the formation that might or might not be something.

Racks of servers are being replaced by equipment the size of laptops, and 3-D printers are making repair parts. “We are continually refining the balance between what is the lightest package I can put there to reduce the logistics burden while still making sure that it is combat credible and able to fight,” Lehane said.

‘Seeing it, taking pictures of it’

During the recent exercises in late April and early May, several small teams flew to three tiny islands scattered across the strategic Luzon Strait.

Their presence signaled that the island-hopping marines were getting out, with their allies, to the places from where they might fight Chinese forces someday.

“We do assessments on the islands all the time,” said Lt. Col. Mark Edgar, who helped oversee the exercises. “Everything from what those airstrips can support to what a port can support to what a beach can support.”

They tracked how many gallons of fuel they were burning. They landed helicopters on fields, or “hasty landing sites.” They purified water from a creek using a portable system.

For three days on Itbayat, home to 3,000 civilians, they camped out in an abandoned building near the airstrip. They sent out patrols to the local town, which would be a potential source of food and water in a crisis, and to the ports. They measured roads and bridges to figure out what vehicles they could bring, and pushed up to the island’s north, which faces Taiwan, for a closer look.

america’s new island fighters are preparing for conflict—a stone’s throw from taiwan
america’s new island fighters are preparing for conflict—a stone’s throw from taiwan

A different team went further to Mavulis, a tiny speck of land at the northern Philippine frontier, just 88 miles from Taiwan. They linked up with the small rotational detachment of the Philippine military—no civilians live there—and went fishing together. They learned, in planning for the trip, that they couldn’t land Osprey aircraft on the island. Out on patrols, they discovered that mountainous paths that looked walkable on satellite images were in fact not.

“Nothing replaces putting a marine on the ground and actually looking at that terrain,” said Edgar. “That’s where we learned the most, what we call physical reconnaissance: which is just being there, seeing it, taking pictures of it, understanding it.”

They are also learning what they really need and don’t have: ships to move marines and their gear between islands or from one point on the coast to another. Without them, the marines are constrained by rugged terrain, small bridges and narrow roads, and dependent on helicopters, which are more visible and carry smaller loads.

Plans to produce the ships are delayed and construction hasn’t begun.

China’s ‘defensive bubble’

The littoral regiments face two problems, said Mark Cancian, a former colonel in the Marine Corps. First, resupplying missiles at austere locations inside China’s “defensive bubble” in a conflict would be hard. Cancian, who ran a wargame last year that featured island-hopping marines, said the risk was that after a few useful strikes, they would run out.

Access was the other hurdle, he said. Manila would likely welcome the marines if a fight broke out in the South China Sea, where it faces direct threats from Beijing. But whether it would do the same to help the U.S. repel a Chinese attack on Taiwan is much less certain.

america’s new island fighters are preparing for conflict—a stone’s throw from taiwan

The Marines have two littoral regiments—one in Hawaii and one based in Okinawa, Japan. A third regiment is pending.

Cancian said the marines would be most effective if they were already in position at the time that hostilities erupt, giving the Japan-based regiment an advantage because they have the ability to move down the country’s Ryukyu Islands that stretch southwest to Taiwan, he said. The Hawaii-based marines might have to fight their way in.

That regiment is spending more time in the Philippines. They arrived in April for the recently concluded exercises, called Balikatan, and will stay through June when they participate in another set of drills. By then, many of them will have clocked as many as five of the past 14 months in the Philippines.

That increases the chances they’ll be around if a crisis erupts.

Holding a foot in the door

The alliance between Manila and Washington is stronger than it has been in decades. The U.S. doesn’t have bases in the country, but it has an agreement giving it access to Philippine military sites to upgrade facilities on them. Washington struck a deal last year to expand that access to four more, taking the total to nine.

If China moved to invade Taiwan, American forces would want to shift some U.S. warplanes to these sites. The idea would be to disperse U.S. aircraft across an array of bases and even civilian airfields in the region to make it harder for China to target them and to provide the U.S. different avenues for strike, said Becca Wasser, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security who runs wargames.

The marine littoral regiments, meanwhile, would mobilize to try to restrain the Chinese fleet within the first-island chain, Wasser said. That is, block them from moving outside the first-island chain and from threatening American forces attacking from further back.

The marines would also aim to counter China’s “anti-access” strategy aimed at locking down the area and making it too dangerous for U.S. forces to come close to Taiwan.

“We hold our foot in the door so that the door can’t be slammed shut for the rest of the joint force and that puts us at risk potentially,” said Lt. Col. James Arnold, who heads the 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment’s anti-air battalion. “That’s why we’re working every day on tactics that would allow us to do that effectively and survivably.”

america’s new island fighters are preparing for conflict—a stone’s throw from taiwan

Write to Niharika Mandhana at [email protected]

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