MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. ― One vulnerability that will likely test the Marine Corps’ future warfighting plans the most is not its major near-peer competitor weapons systems in a one-on-one fight.
What it is is the explosion of low-cost technology from cyber to drones to rockets that deploying Marines will most likely be the first to face while deployed.
During a panel here this week at the annual Modern Day Marine Corps Military Expo, national security experts weighed in on the irregular warfare concerns that the Marines and others will face that reach beyond the conventional near-peer fight being envisioned by Pentagon planners.
While Russia and China pose security concerns, said Dave Markov, with the Institute for Defense Analyses,“I am personally more concerned about who these two great powers are arming.”
What Markov and others outlined in the Wednesday panel showed how a combination of tech advances and loose rules on distributing military technology put out by Russia, China and even allied countries, poses threats by advancing the capabilities of rogue states, violent extremist organizations and others.
He noted that Russian defense manufacturers, for example, “don’t care about intentions, only about capabilities.”
That leads to expanded capabilities among the recipients of that tech.
And major arms providers worldwide are reducing weapons development and production cycles to better compete in the commercial space.
China has focused efforts to “spinning on” commercial applications for the military tech that its government creates, Markov said.
Even low-tech solutions find a home in efforts that would disturb U.S. interests.
David Knoll, a nonprofit research and analysis organization and fellow panelist noted how the Chinese government has used its fishing fleets.
They can simply take decades old fishing boats, load them down with metal to provide more weight and use them to ram and even puncture the hull of a ship, as they did a few years ago against the Vietnamese Navy, he said.
Markov rattled through a list of advancements he’s seen in recent years at a number of international events.He categorized them in the following areas: offensive, defensive, force multipliers and tech that enables future capabilities.
For offensive developments he noted new “tactical missiles in a box” basically a way that smaller militaries can call fire from a shipping container-sized devices.
Multi-role ballistic missiles are now being used to also counter air defense platforms. Advanced jet fighters are cheaper and more available to smaller nations. The addition of hypersonics and even tactical-level hypersonics will create challenges.
On an even lower spectrum of offense the general increasing of tactical munitions, from loitering to precision anti-tank to trajectory-correcting multiple launch rocket systems and artillery systems mounted on mobile platforms such as the French-made CAESER, which puts a 155mm howitzer on a truck.
Defensively, non-great power nations are able to enter the space domain by using low earth orbiting satellites and satellite-launching missiles carried by aircraft. Simple changes like day/night camouflage and realistic decoys or simulants to confuse detection systems used by the United States also help.
Adversaries have more unmanned ground vehicles to emplace that look like large combat vehicles. Scattered around they can soak up resources and confuse analysts.
Active Protection Systems for armored and non-armored vehicles make militaries more capable in urban fights, which were doctrinally avoided by many because of their resource-intensive nature.
And Internet-addressable “smart mines” on both land and sea are giving adversaries a way to deny access on the cheap.
The force multiplier section incudes networked sensors and shooters, vertically and horizontally integrated national, coastal, ground, air, sea and undersea, he said.
Ubiquitous, smart electronic warfare platforms are jamming the communication space.
Russian camouflage signature reduction and mutlispectrum camouflage netting to throw off detection are being made by China.
As far as future capabilities, some developers are resurging the “airship concepts,” which allows for cheaper continuous surveillance. Also, nations are rediscovering the value of wheeled platforms over tracked for less maintenance, more mobility and better urban capabilities, he said.
And Knoll doesn’t think that these threats are receding, in fact the irregular aspects will likely take up more attention than they currently do, just in a more complex and subtle form.
“If we end up in the high end fight, irregular warfare will be a part of that,” Knoll said.
Some of that goes beyond the tech, too.
For example, the Russia Wagner Group is basically a “government in a box” operating in Libya. It’s not just a traditional mercenary formation operating kinetically, its also conducting influence operations to get its leader friendly to Russian interests in power.
And through such types of military contractors both Russia and China can have access to other nations’ infrastructures across the world, he said.
The panel was asked what current platforms need to be abandoned to better focus on both near-peer and future irregular warfare threats.
Nora Bensahel, senior fellow, Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said that planners continue to think of platforms as outdated when the adversary can meet or exceed their capabilities.
While that has been a reasonable way to understand the timelines of certain platforms, it is no longer sufficient, she said.
For example, a perfectly developed, expensive platform could be quickly frustrated or rendered irrelevant with a flood of inexpensive, massed autonomous systems in the arena.
The asymmetric adversaries will just look for cheaper ways to negate U.S. tech advantages, she said.
Knoll was more critical, saying that U.S. industrial manufacturing methods won’t easily let go of systems or processes they’ve found profitable and that will hold back innovation.
“China is more willing to go where tech leads them,” Knoll said. And for that reason, they likely have an edge in developing and deploying unmanned platforms.
But for the West, “well entrenched legacies that like to keep getting money for doing what they’re already doing, it’s much harder to move away from manned platforms.”
Markov also zeroed in on small, cheap and multiple unmanned platforms as where the United States needs to push.
He added that cheaper munitions are also key.
“I’m also worried about munitions overmatch,” he said. “My concern is the reloading. Some systems are getting so expensive.”
That lies in the U.S. requirement that each munition be able to do everything, anytime and anywhere.
But for adversaries, they care more about cheaper volume munitions that can do one thing at a specific time, he said.
Either way, the problem of both irregular tactics, and the weapons being deployed, lingers for Marines.
“You’re going to see it proliferate because it works,” Knoll said.