A Strategy That Squanders U.S. Marines' Greatest Strengths | Opinion

As we watch the unfolding development of a U.S. strategy in the Western Pacific designed to counter Chinese aggressive actions, we are reminded of the nation's strategy in the lead-up to World War II. Then, America dotted the Pacific with bases that were pre-emptively attacked by Japan. First hit was Pearl Harbor, and if Admiral Chuichi Nagumo had not gotten cold feet, a second wave attack could have knocked out the dry docks, maintenance facilities, fuel storage containers, and more. By luck our aircraft carriers were not in port, or the totality of the destruction would have taken years to rebuild and regenerate.

The Philippines fell, as did Wake Island. Midway Island was saved by the naval victory at sea and the Japanese quickly occupied the Western Aleutians. Guadalcanal was a near-run thing, saved by Admiral William Halsey's fleet and the tenacity of the Marines ashore. The Navy at Midway and off Guadalcanal allowed us to hold the few bases we had.

Why do we think today's strategy of island basing will be different? Undoubtedly, a war with China will open with missile strikes on our fixed bases. The best counter, it seems to us, is America's surface, subsurface, and air-launched cruise missiles. The mobility of these assets, plus any counter targeting and detection measures they can deploy, make these firing platforms more effective and survivable than island ground forces.

Exercises in the Pacific
Philippine and U.S. marines ride on boats during a beach assault exercise facing the South China Sea in San Antonio in the Philippines on May 9, 2014. TED ALJIBE/AFP via Getty Images

Is the best use of Marines in a conflict with China to disperse to small, isolated groups of so called "stand-in forces" on island chains, where they will be subject to the initial missile salvos? Are we wasting U.S. Navy fleet assets to protect them when these assets could be better used to engage Chinese forces? Assuming China will initiate a conflict to gain Taiwan and North Korea's Kim Jong-un would not miss the opportunity to exploit such an attack to strike South Korea, would a Marine combined-arms force not be better employed to quickly move to either of these locations, perhaps falling in on prepositioned equipment? That is of course if the Marines have any combined-arms forces left after "divest to invest" has gutted Marine combat power.

A Marine force in South Korea or Taiwan poses a challenge to any Chinese or North Korean invasion. One in Japan could as well. Quickly dispatching a powerful combined-arms task force to these theaters at the first signs of Chinese movements or during increased tensions, could serve as a greater deterrent than rushing to exposed islands. Amphibious and maritime prepositioning ships, plus land based prepositioned equipment, could shorten response times, as could pre-structured fly-in forces and forward-deployed Marine Expeditionary Units designed to marry up with the equipment. Does that bring back memories of what the nation had as late as three years ago and what the Marine Corps is foolishly discarding?

The United States is adding members to its Pacific alliance structure, as are the Chinese. Perhaps, like Ukraine, America can pre-emptively provide the missile systems and attendant training to these allies as their military commitments increase. The Japanese, South Korean, and others seem willing to increase defense spending to improve their military capability. Since they are already inside the Japanese defensive zone, or "first island chain," why can't they man the missile systems for which U.S. Marines are sacrificing much needed infantry, tanks, artillery, aircraft, and other essential combat equipment to acquire? A robust Marine Expeditionary Force, with combat power and sustainability that the Marine Corps has already divested or will soon divest, could close quickly at the first signs of Chinese or North Korean malign intentions.

Marines realized at the start of World War II that forward bases did little good beyond providing early warning or serve as speed bumps to attacks unless they could rapidly reinforce them at the first sign of impending hostilities. It took years to claw back in the Pacific after the Pearl Harbor attack. The Corps learned a lesson from that conflict and has had combined arms forces forward in the Pacific and on the West Coast ready to deploy ever since. The naval services built a robust amphibious fleet, a global Maritime Prepositioning Force, and powerful and highly trained Marine forces that could be married up afloat and ashore. Current thinking seems to discount the value of such capabilities as the forces and means to accomplish this are being dismantled, divested, "repurposed," and depleted. It might just change Chinese calculations or North Korea's adventuresome tendencies to see the units, exercises, and pre-positioning of equipment that could rapidly close a lethal combined arms force on their intended invasion objectives.

We realize that today's thinking is that technology has changed the "character of war." Really? We heard this before with the McNamara Line in Vietnam and "Shock and Awe" in Iraq. Technology has, no doubt, increased lethality, and information capability, but in the end, there will be a fight for control of ground and people. Million-dollar missile systems, drones, and space-based intelligence capabilities have not changed the character of war. They have made it tougher and must be added to the Corps' kit, but in the end, Marines will still have to close with the enemy.

General Zinni is a career infantry officer. His last assignment was commander of the United States Central Command.

Lieutenant General Howell is a career aviator and infantry officer. His assignments include commanding numerous ground and aviation units throughout the Pacific and commander of the Marine Corps Forces Pacific.

Lieutenant General Libutti is a career infantry officer. Awarded the Silver Star for actions in Vietnam, his assignments include Commanding General III MEF (Okinawa) and Commander, Marine Corps Forces Pacific

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.