San Francisco Chronicle

Marines prepare for a Pacific Island fight in California

- By John Ismay

TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. — Sitting around a plastic folding table in a dusty tent, a half-dozen officers of the Hawaii-based 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment took a very short break from days of fighting on little to no sleep.

The war, they said, was going well.

The unit, newly created and innovative in nature, was facing its toughest test yet — a 10day mock battle across Southern California, where a series of military bases played the role of an island chain. Although outnumbere­d by the regiment it was fighting, the team from Hawaii had an edge.

The team was built to fight on islands and along coastal shorelines, the “littoral region” in military parlance. It had also been given special equipment and the freedom to innovate, developing new tactics to figure out one of the service's highest priorities: how to fight a war against Chinese forces in their own backyard, and win.

Although far from the ocean, the base at Twentynine Palms offers about 1,200 square miles to train, more than all of the Marine Corps' other training bases combined. Days ago, the two sides were dropped off here about 12 miles from each other. Then it was time to fight.

No live ammunition was used, but that was essentiall­y the only rule. Evaluators alongside them graded everything they did, assessing hits and misses and pulling troops out of the action when they had been “killed.”

Over the next two years, the new unit will have a relentless schedule, with about four or five times as many exercises as most infantry regiments. Its next big test will be in the Philippine­s in April.

The Marines anticipate a very different kind of battlefiel­d in the future than those of the post-9/11 wars. Today, enemy and civilian spy satellites alike fly overhead and anyone turning on a small radio or cellphone can be targeted with long-range rockets and missiles.

“We have to unlearn the way that we were trained,” said Gen. David H. Berger, the service's top general, noting that 20 years ago, infantry Marines in the field typically called their commanders via radio on the hour every hour. “You have to have an incredible amount of trust when you haven't heard from your Marines for several days.”

The exercise is essentiall­y a life-or-death version of hide and seek, with far-flung military bases in California — at Barstow, Camp Pendleton, Twentynine Palms and an outpost on San Clemente Island about 70 miles offshore from San Diego — all standing in for an unnamed Pacific island chain.

With America's relations with China deteriorat­ing over Beijing's actions — most recently because of its aggressive moves on Taiwan, its attempts to intimidate Japan, its violation of U.S. airspace with a spy balloon and its support for Russia's invasion of Ukraine — the mission of preparing for a potential future conflict in Pacific island chains was important enough that about a half-dozen generals, including the Marine commandant, came to see the results of the exercise for themselves.

“Each year they are expanding their deployment­s,” Berger said of the Chinese naval forces in an interview. “Not only in terms of the complexity of them, but also the distances they cover.”

China's navy, Berger said, was now taking a page from the U.S. Navy, operating in strike groups, with destroyers and other warships escorting an aircraft carrier.

The littoral Marines may serve as spotters who pass along the position of enemy forces to U.S. warplanes, ships or submarines to attack. Or, the Marines could take those shots themselves.

They are learning how to place networked sensors that monitor tiny fluctuatio­ns in the electromag­netic spectrum — from walkie-talkies, radars and other transmitte­rs — to find enemy troops, using classified surveillan­ce technologi­es previously available only to three-star generals.

To fight in that part of the world, Berger created the 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment as a fighting unit unlike any other. Instead of having three infantry battalions of roughly 800 Marines each, it has one — the other two are ideas borrowed from much larger task forces: an anti-aircraft battalion that is testing new weapons and tactics, and a logistics battalion.

The unit includes a communicat­ions section more than 50% larger than that of a typical regiment, including several chief warrant officers with combat experience from Marine Forces Special Operations Command.

Those specialist­s introduced the other Marines to new ways of thinking as well as technologi­es developed for covert operations — bouncing signals off layers of the atmosphere or using directiona­l beams of infrared light that are difficult to detect, in short bursts carrying large amounts of digital text.

Military planners assume that any potential future battle with China may take place in what the Pentagon often refers to as the “first island chain,” which includes Okinawa and Taiwan down to Malaysia as well as the South China Sea and disputed islands in the Spratlys and the Paracels.

The “second island chain” includes the Philippine­s, going from Tokyo to Guam to south of Palau.

The Marines' new reality boils down to this: If you are emitting radio energy, you can be detected by the enemy. If detected, you can be located and seen.

If seen, you can be targeted and killed.

Resupply across islands hundreds or even thousands of miles apart, Berger said, may not be something the Marines can count on. They may have to purchase food and fuel from the people who live there, desalinize ocean water to drink and use only enough munitions to do the job.

To that end, Marine officers going through basic training in Quantico, Virginia, are now learning how to capture and kill animals such as rabbits to eat — a skill usually taught only to service members at high risk of capture, such as aircrews and special operations troops.

“The idea is you're deploying with your Marines as self-sufficient as possible,” Berger said.

In the end, the 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment remained in control of its terrain and had fended off its opponents — which it considered a victory.

All of the work done so far in Hawaii and California will soon benefit a new unit, the 12th Marine Littoral Regiment, which military leaders have said will be establishe­d in Okinawa in 2025.

That unit, based in Japan, will be the closest to the island chains stretching many thousands of miles across the Pacific, which could become battlefiel­ds once again.

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