In a war against China, tiny islands could become strategic strongpoints for the US military’s advance across the Pacific Ocean for the first time since World War II.

The Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Forward Base Operations concept, for example, calls for placing small numbers of forces on “a series of austere and temporary shore or shore locations,” according to a Marine Corps story d August 2021 explaining the concept. The story includes a diagram showing how the Marines would move from ships to islands using MV-22B Ospreys and CH-53 heavy-lift helicopters.

Once again, US troops could be called upon to land on East Asian islands if a war with China breaks out, Task & Purpose has learned.

But there are also several key differences between the island-hopping campaign of 1942 and 1945 and how the U.S. military would react to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, which is often cited as the most likely scenario that would trigger war between the United States and China. .

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Rather than invading and clearing islands such as Saipan and Tinian, US troops would likely set up airfields and air defense systems there and then defend those islands from Chinese air and missile attacks, said Dean Cheng, a Chinese expert from the conservative Heritage Foundation thinks reservoir in Washington, D.C.

“These are islands that aren’t even defended,” Cheng told Task & Purpose. “It’s an interesting way to think about it: island hopping, not so much storming the beaches of Iwo Jima as trying to keep an air base open,” Cheng said.

BEIHAI, CHINA – JANUARY 4, 2022 – Members of special operations forces train in beihai, north China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, January 4, 2022. (Yu Haiyang / Costfoto/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

However, US ships and troops would have to fight their way across the Pacific Ocean first, and they would likely suffer casualties along the way, Cheng said. Just to get from Hawaii to Guam, US forces would have to brave Chinese DF-26 intermediate ballistic missiles, air-launched cruise missiles, submarines and perhaps Chinese missile-armed merchant ships.

Chinese special operators could infiltrate Saipan and other islands before US troops land to provide reconnaissance, identify targets for missile strikes and even launch their own attacks on airfields to kill as many pilots and officials as possible. did he declare.

“The Marines have lost more aircraft and crew in Afghanistan to this attack on the airbase than in any fighting in the previous seven years,” Cheng said, referring to the 2012 Taliban attack on Camp Bastion, which killed two Marines, wounded 17 others, and severely damaged six AV-8B Harriers and one C-130.

During the Island Hopping Campaign of World War II, soldiers, Marines, and sailors had to crush Japanese resistance on a series of increasingly fortified islands.

The Marine Corps in particular faced tough fighting on Pacific islands such as Iwo Jima, where nearly 7,000 Marines were killed and another 20,000 were injured in the bloodiest battle in the world. Body history.

When Task & Purpose asked the commander of Marine Corps Combat Development Command in February how many American soldiers would be killed and wounded in a war with China, he said he did not expect the number of casualties to reach WWII levels.

“We won’t be doing an Iwo Jima anymore, that’s true – that needs to be clear,” said Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, who is also deputy commander for combat development and integration. “That’s not what we’re talking about.”

Inside the US military's modern 'island hopping' campaign to confront China
U.S. Marines of the 28th Regiment, 5th Division raise the U.S. flag on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima, Feb. 23, 1945. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal, File)

Instead, Marine Corps Commander Gen. David Berger’s plan to redesign the force calls for Marines to operate from expeditionary forward bases within range of enemy missiles and other tusks.

The term “Expeditionary Forward Bases” is intentionally vague so adversaries can’t be sure which forces are ashore and which are embarked on ships, according to a 2018 document from the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, Concepts & Plans Division on the concept. .

“Historically, forward naval bases have often been found straddling straits or on islands,” the paper said. “It is appropriate to assume that future EABs will be similarly located, but the forward expeditionary ‘base’ is deliberately ill-defined in terms of perimeter and specific geographic location. “Amorphous” is an apt description of how we want EABs to appear to our opponents. »

The Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations concept envisions a small number of Marines managing to operate undetected from islands, from which they can fire anti-ship missiles, gather intelligence and possibly coordinate long-range strikes from ships and planes, said Stacie Pettyjohn, director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Studies think tank in Washington, D.C.

Unlike World War II, Marines wouldn’t have to fight for the islands they used as bases, and they would likely land in small units such as companies rather than divisions, Pettyjohn told Task & Purpose . Nor would the Marines occupy the islands indefinitely.

Inside the US military's modern 'island hopping' campaign to confront China
In this photo provided by the US Marine Corps, US Marines walk away from a Japanese terrier after detonating it with explosives during the invasion of Saipan, Mariana Islands, July 1944. ( AP Photo/US Marines)

“They might want to be on an island for a while because they want to control that particular water or be able to continue to control it, but they would try to move around and make sure they’re hidden and hard to get to. control. target,” Pettyjohn said.

If the United States goes to war with China, the Marines could try to establish expeditionary bases in the Philippines or on the Ryukyu Islands between Taiwan and Japan, she said.

“They won’t be able to reach Taiwan itself, but these are choke points and gateways to the wider Pacific, where they might want to bottle up the Chinese fleet and make sure the PLAN [People’s Liberation Army Navy] does not go out to the high seas, where it could move to Guam, Hawaii and the West Coast, ”said Pettyjohn.

As the Marines consider how they might occupy the islands as part of a future military campaign, it’s clear they want to avoid comparisons with the Corps’ bloody slog across the Pacific during World War II.

“The historical comparison to the island-hopping campaign of World War II, while appealing, is inaccurate,” Marine Corps spokesman Maj. Jim Stenger told Task & Purpose. However, an August 2021 Marine Corps press release directly linked WWII island hopping to EABO, calling it a “modern island hopping campaign”.

“Force Design 2030 is an iterative process and through our learning campaign we are developing a host of capabilities that will support the Joint Force around the world,” Stenger said. “A future conflict will require a Marine Corps capable of conducting distributed operations, while sensing and making sense of the Joint Force operating environment.”

Expeditionary forward base operations are also part of the Marine Corps’ capabilities to support the entire U.S. military, including ready amphibious groups and maritime expeditionary units (MEUs), Stenter said.

“Going forward, MEUs will possess both traditional and expeditionary advanced base capabilities that can be deployed with non-standard amphibious ready groups,” Stenger said.

It should also be noted that there is a popular saying: history never repeats itself, but it often rhymes. In this vein, there are parallels between expeditionary forward base operations and World War II, if not the island-hopping campaign, in particular.

Navy strategy expert Steven Wills said he saw similarities between expeditionary forward bases and Marine Corps base defense forces on Wake Island and Midway in 1941 and 1942.

On Wake Island, for example, the Marines had 5-inch naval guns and a few planes to attack the Japanese, said Wills, a retired Navy lieutenant commander who is now with CNA, a research and development center. funded by the federal government.

“The Marines are now looking at an aviation component for expeditionary forward base operations and some sort of modern artillery component – in this case, surface-to-surface cruise missiles: one way or another, they can get into sea combat and sink ships, create strongpoints that an adversary’s sea forces would have to circle or engage,” Wills told Task & Purpose. “I think it’s a lot like those base defense forces that were created before World War 2. The Marines haven’t strayed too far from the legacy here, they just have more modern concepts and systems to go with it.

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