The US Marine Corps is developing a new concept of naval warfare to allow Marines to take South China Sea islands from Beijing in the context of a massive missile fight in the Pacific.
Marine Corps leaders at the Surface Navy Association’s annual national symposium told USNI News that today’s naval protocol wasn’t what the force was looking for to take on China’s Pacific fortress.
China has spent years dredging up the sea floor to build artificial islands in the South China Sea, an international waterway.
Despite promising never to militarize the islands and losing an international arbitration case concluding they did not own the islands, China has enforced de facto control over the vital shipping lane that sees trillions in annual trade.
U.S. Marines assigned to 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion observe the approach of amphibious assault vehicles (AAV) during well deck operations aboard amphibious transport dock ship USS Somerset (LPD 25). Somerset is participating in Exercise Dawn Blitz 2015 (DB-15).
(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Vladimir Ramos)
The US regularly contests China’s claims to these waters by sailing US Navy destroyers through the area, but China has increasingly responded with militaristic rhetoric and one Chinese admiral even calling for the sinking of US aircraft carriers.
Taking Beijing’s islands is central to those plans, US Marine Corps Maj. Gen. David Coffman said, according to USNI News.
Coffman said “integrated naval operations could be needed to take an island somewhere — natural or manmade,” in a likely reference to Beijing’s man-made South China Sea outposts.
“It certainly will be required when a great power competition pits a whale against an elephant, or maybe two elephants — a global maritime power, that’s us, against a regional land power hegemon with home-field advantage,” he continued, again referencing China as an “elephant,” or a land power that the US, a “whale” or maritime power would have to overcome.
“In that long war, maritime superiority is necessary but not sufficient for the whale to beat the elephant,” he said.
In other words, the US Navy and Marines can’t just win the fight with better sea power, they will also need to make landings.
But those landings will have to be made under a massive missile attack.
The amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) conducts flight operations near the island of Hawaii, July 30, 2016.
(U.S. Navy photo)
Can the carriers survive?
China recently deployed DF-26 “carrier killer” missiles to its northwest where they could sink US ships from outside the range of the longest-legged Navy platform.
The South China Sea now hosts a vast network of radars that experts say could be used to track and kill US naval aviation, even the stealth kind.
Additionally, a recent study that looked at carrier survivability at the Heritage Foundation revealed that China could likely muster up 600 anti-ship missiles and that a carrier strike group could likely only down 450 of those fires.
As a result, Coffman said the normal three-ship Amphibious Ready Group and the accompanying a Marine Expeditionary Unit on small deck carriers would no longer cut it.
Up gunning the fleet
The solution? Up-gunning the small carriers and including destroyers and cruisers in the battle formation.
“Every ship has to be a warship that can defend itself, have an offensive striking capability and be able to deal with the threats that are coming in, be it a cyber threat – so it needs a good network – or whether it’s a kinetic threat in the form of a missile that’s coming at it,” Lt. Gen. Brian Beaudreault said, according to USNI.
Beaudreault suggested putting vertical lauch cells on new US Marine Corps helicopter and F-35B carriers to handle incoming threats, essentially turning these amphibious flattops into aircraft-carrying destroyers in their own right.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.