TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. — Sitting around a plastic folding table in a dusty tent, a half-dozen officers of the Hawaii-based 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment took a very short break from days of fighting on little to no sleep.
The war, they said, was going well.
The unit, newly created and innovative in nature, was facing its toughest test yet — a 10-day mock battle across Southern California, where a series of military bases played the role of an island chain. Though outnumbered by the regiment it was fighting, the team from Hawaii had an edge.
The team was built to fight on islands and along coastal shorelines, the “littoral region” in military parlance. It had also been given special equipment and the freedom to innovate, developing new tactics to figure out one of the service’s highest priorities: how to fight a war against Chinese forces in their own backyard, and win.
Although far from the ocean, the base at Twentynine Palms offers about 1,200 square miles to train, more than all of the Marine Corps’ other training bases combined. Days ago the two sides were dropped off here about 12 miles from each other. Then it was time to fight.
No live ammunition was used, but that was essentially the only rule. Evaluators alongside them graded everything they did, assessing hits and misses and pulling troops out of the action when they had been “killed.”
Over the next two years, the new unit will have a relentless schedule, with about four or five times as many exercises as most infantry regiments. Its next big test will be in the Philippines in April.
The Marines anticipate a very different kind of battlefield in the future than those of the post-9/11 wars. Today, enemy and civilian spy satellites alike fly overhead and anyone turning on a small radio or cellphone can be targeted with long-range rockets and missiles.
“We have to unlearn the way that we were trained,” said Gen. David H. Berger, the service’s top general, noting that 20 years ago, infantry Marines in the field typically called their commanders via radio on the hour every hour. “You have to have an incredible amount of trust when you haven’t heard from your Marines for several days.”
The exercise is essentially a life and death version of hide and seek, with far-flung military bases in California — at Barstow, Camp Pendleton, Twentynine Palms and an outpost on San Clemente Island about 70 miles offshore from San Diego — all standing in for an unnamed Pacific Island chain.
China’s navy, General Berger said, was now taking a page from the U.S. Navy, operating in strike groups, with destroyers and other warships escorting an aircraft carrier.
The littoral Marines may serve as spotters who pass along the position of enemy forces to American warplanes, ships or submarines to attack. Or, the Marines could take those shots themselves.
They are learning how to place networked sensors that monitor tiny fluctuations in the electromagnetic spectrum — from walkie-talkies, radars and other transmitters — to find enemy troops, using classified surveillance technologies previously available only to three-star generals.
To fight in that part of the world, General Berger created the 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment as a fighting unit unlike any other. Instead of having three infantry battalions of roughly 800 Marines each, it has one — the other two are ideas borrowed from much larger task forces: an antiaircraft battalion that is testing new weapons and tactics, and a logistics battalion.
The unit includes a communications section more than 50 percent larger than that of a typical regiment, including several chief warrant officers with combat experience from Marine Forces Special Operations Command.
Those specialists introduced the other Marines to new ways of thinking as well as technologies developed for covert operations — bouncing signals off layers of the atmosphere or using directional beams of infrared light that are difficult to detect, in short bursts carrying large amounts of digital text.
Military planners assume that any potential future battle with China may take place in what the Pentagon often refers to as the “first island chain,” which includes Okinawa and Taiwan down to Malaysia as well as the South China Sea and disputed islands in the Spratlys and the Paracels.
The “second island chain” includes the Philippines, going from Tokyo to Guam to south of Palau.
The Marines’ new reality boils down to this: If you are emitting radio energy, you can be detected by the enemy. If detected, you can be located and seen. If seen, you can be targeted and killed.
Resupply across islands hundreds or even thousands of miles apart, General Berger said, may not be something the Marines can count on. They may have to purchase food and fuel from the people who live there, desalinize ocean water to drink, and use only enough munitions to do the job.
To that end, Marine officers going through basic training in Quantico, Va., are now learning how to capture and kill animals like rabbits to eat — a skill usually taught only to service members at high risk of capture, like aircrews and special operations troops.
“The idea is you’re deploying with your Marines as self-sufficient as possible,” General Berger said.
By the time General Berger arrived at Twentynine Palms, the colonel commanding the 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment had pulled his troops back from the other bases across Southern California for a final battle, using CH-53 helicopters and Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, just like he would if they were on actual islands. In a real conflict, he would move Marines around the Pacific via small ships as well.
The visiting delegation of Marine leaders had to stay in Camp Wilson, just outside the training area, and the only participants they could speak with were the majors and lieutenant colonels running backup command posts in off-limits areas guarded by concertina wire and armed Marines.
As the battle went on, tired and sunburned senior officers from the 7th Marine Regiment — who have been playing the role of the enemy — offered up an assessment of their foe from their reserve command post. Every time the other side sent up a small quadcopter — and it did so often — at least some of their Marines had to stop what they were doing to visually keep tabs on them or to shoot them down. Even unarmed drones made the leaders’ jobs more difficult.
The 7th Marines usually quickly overwhelm opponents here. Twentynine Palms is their home turf, but the unit from Hawaii were keeping them at bay.
They especially did not like their opponents’ “loitering munitions” — small attack drones that can fly over an enemy’s position, beaming back video surveillance, then head directly at a target so that a small warhead explodes on impact. They were proving effective in destroying high-value targets like armored vehicles and anything that looked like a command post.
The Marines from the 7th wished they had them too.
These Marines have been closely watching how combatants in Ukraine use such tiny drones and loitering munitions. When General Berger visited an air station in nearby Yuma, Ariz., the next day, a Marine fighter pilot said his unit was evaluating counter-drone technologies so that his fellow Marines wouldn’t one day “end up as TikTok videos” — a nod to the stream of videos on social media sites showing Russian troops being attacked by Ukrainian quadcopters dropping small grenades.
If called upon to fight in the Western Pacific, the Marines will likely also make use of their most capable drones: the MQ-9 Reaper, which can drop bombs and fire missiles but is most valued for its ability to beam back information.
In Yuma, Marines are flying the Corps’ first two Reapers, which can take off from runways just 3,000 feet long — which means smaller islands can host them, greatly expanding their reach and making it more difficult for a potential adversary to find their airfields.
The Marines’ version of the F-35 fighter, which buzzed overhead in Yuma, will be part of any future Pacific campaign as well. It can take off and land vertically, making it capable of launching airstrikes from even smaller islands.
At Twentynine Palms, the
colonels commanding both regiments scanned for any signal — anything — that could tip them off to their adversary’s location. So the Marines in the field hid themselves physically and electronically the best they could.
The littoral regiment occasionally broke cover to use one of its signature weapons for an island fight, a missile that can hit ships more than 100 miles away and is launched from the back of a small truck — easy to move, hard to detect.
General Berger said that many of those strategic points in the ocean, and many of the islands that can cover them, have already been identified and written into contingency plans by the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii.
In the end, the 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment remained in control of its terrain and had fended off their opponents — which they considered a victory.
All of the work done so far in Hawaii and California will soon benefit a new unit, the 12th Marine Littoral Regiment, which military leaders have said will be established in Okinawa in 2025.
That unit, based in Japan, will be the closest to the island chains stretching many thousands of miles across the Pacific, which could become battlefields once again.