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Marines chief says deterring China will take ‘everything in the cupboard’

Posted By on February 3, 2023 @ 06:00

Deterring an aggressive China will take creative use of all the art, science, diplomacy and other capabilities the United States and Australia can muster, says the general commanding the US Marines.

In a discussion at ASPI, US Marine Corps Commandant David Berger notes that ‘we haven’t been in a competition at this level since I was a kid.’

On the threat posed by China to Taiwan, Berger’s view is that it is going to take ‘everything in the cupboard’ to prevent a conflict. ‘When the other side has stated openly: “We will do this if they don’t voluntarily reintegrate with China, if Taiwan doesn’t come back, then we have no choice”, then we’d better look in the cupboard and bring out everything and make sure it’s meshed together. And then mesh all of our tools with all of your tools and figure out how to use all of that to prevent a conflict,’ Berger says.

‘If there’s art in there, science in there, a lot of diplomacy in there, we’ll need all aspects of it. We’re pretty capable. Both countries have done this before, and we will do it again. It would be hard to imagine that’s possible if we were starting from scratch, but because we’ve got 100 years working together this is all possible.’

Later Berger tells The Strategist the US and Australia must be able to deter a nation from carrying out damaging action, short of open warfare, in the so-called ‘grey zone’. There, conventional deterrence will not be enough because there’s not an open conflict, but there’s definitely a competition going on, he says.

‘I would agree with the notion that it’s much more than military and you have to have a clear understanding of what the other side’s goals are, and that they may make incremental advances, half a step at a time. Deterrence may be a calculus of how to prevent those half steps from happening,’ Berger says.

The general has just completed his second visit to Australia in less than a year and says that indicates how important the bilateral defence relationship is. You use your time where it matters most, he says, especially in a rapidly evolving security environment. The alliance is built on personal friendships and professional relationships that are not easily replicated, he says.

Because the US Marine Corps is inherently a joint force, it works with many elements of the Australian Defence Force. ‘I think we’re headed in the same direction in terms of reassurance of allies and partners in the region, and deterring the main challenges to both of our countries.’

With that comes modernisation which both countries are managing in parallel.

Berger’s sweeping redesign of Marine Corps war-fighting concepts has brought a strong focus on keeping maritime choke points open to allow commerce to flow freely, and to allow military forces to manoeuvre. ‘If you can’t manoeuvre through that, then you’re restricted,’ he says. A key marines contribution to the joint force is to keep control over such key terrain.

At an ASPI masterclass on space and national security last year, futurist Jeffrey Becker described a military mindset where things continue to be done in a certain way because they’ve always been done in that way. He said that imposed an inertia that could stop military organisations adapting fast enough to keep up with technological advances. Becker spoke of the need for the military to be open-minded to the advantages of, for instance, equipping small independent units with the latest communications, robotics, artificial Intelligence, laser systems, electric vehicles and the like to make them more lethal and mobile.

Berger says the notion of empowering small tactical units to give them an outsized influence will ‘absolutely matter’. It means giving such units increased training and capability at lower tactical levels than when he was a young officer—possibly moving those capabilities from battalion to platoon level.

‘So, the focus for us is not just the technical capabilities. It’s the training. It’s the marine himself or herself, the level of decision-making that they can have, the capabilities that we can deliver to them—and do they have the experience to make the right tactical decisions. That’s going to be the magic of it.’ The Ukraine conflict, Berger says, has demonstrated how much small unit leadership matters.

Berger says marines will operate forward to remain alongside allies and partners and will be mobile and difficult to detect and track. ‘We’re staying forward in a way that can paint a picture of what’s in front of us and hopefully prevent the other side from collecting [intelligence] against us.’ To survive, such units need to be able to lower their signatures, be mobile and operate alongside allies in a way that makes it difficult to target them and to discern what their intentions are. ‘The key is to do all that in an austere expeditionary environment.’

He says sophisticated equipment ranging from drones to surveillance devices and logistical tools that once existed in small numbers are now plentiful, and available at the squad level. ‘It requires a level of decision-making at a lower level that was held at higher levels before, but we’re plenty capable of that as long as we train in the way we’re headed right now.’

Australia will purchase the HIMARS mobile rocket launcher that has proved so effective in the hands of Ukrainian forces fighting the Russians. Berger says the ADF will find it particularly valuable when combined with a helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft to move it. ‘Long-range precision weaponry you can relocate quickly gives you a great advantage.’

On lessons to be learned from the Ukraine conflict, Berger notes that the war began when Russia invaded the east of the country and annexed Crimea in 2014. It has demonstrated, he says, that ‘logistics matters, small unit leadership matters, the ability to see the other side and understand what they are doing matters. The basics, camouflage, deception, tactical mobility, all that matters. The importance of information, who can gain an advantage in moving it and hiding it and distributing it matters. All those I think are going to be lessons learned that all our forces will apply.’

In terms of challenges the marines will face in future conflicts, Berger says a crucial one will be handling logistics, a priority that had not changed over 100 or 200 years. ‘You skip past that step, you know you’re in trouble. So, plan for logistics up front, especially in a region like this where there are large distances to cover over great expanses of ocean.’

Aside from that, says Berger, the close relationship between the US and Australia would be crucial in a conflict. ‘I think we have to work very hard at understanding each other’s capabilities and how they can complement each other, which is why we’re here—to get an update from the Australian Defence Force. Where are you now? Where are you headed? We have to understand both of our capabilities and how we can mesh them together in a complementary way.’

The roles of artificial intelligence and autonomous systems are still being determined, Berger says.

While some focus on autonomous weapons, other such systems could move supplies and transport patients. ‘If it can help us solve logistics, why would we not work hard on the application of autonomy to logistics at the tactical level?’

For two centuries, US marines have gone to war on ships and Berger says that is unlikely to stop despite the sophistication of weapons ranged against the surface fleet.

‘It’s not the end of ships, absolutely no,’ says Berger. ‘The art of it, I think, will be finding ways so that the ship, as part of a formation, becomes harder to track, harder to detect, harder to identify, and sometimes that’s as simple as getting lost in clutter.’

The US needs to work very closely with Australia to use and to protect space-based systems crucial to timing, positioning and navigation on operations, Berger says. ‘This this is an area of contest between nations where we have to figure out the rules of the road in advance and work very closely with Australia, the UK and other nations that have space-based capabilities in terms of how to protect, how to make sure that we preserve the capabilities we need.’

US and Australian forces will learn from each other on space-based command and control networks and share ideas on redundancy in systems to ensure there’s enough resilience built in to avoid a single point of failure.

And sometimes, he says, it makes sense to reveal a capability to a potential enemy as part of the process of deterrence. ‘You bet’.

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