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US Naval Expeditionary Forces a new feature of rivalry with China

Written by: (Contributed) on 30 March 2020


Moves by the US Marines Corps to establish Naval Expeditionary Units (NEUs) in the Pacific against China, have revealed military planning for real war scenarios. The ten-year military plan, which was unveiled in mid-March, is aimed at creating guerrilla-style operational groups for rapid deployment to strategic areas of the region.

The new US military plan has drawn upon earlier regional initiatives.

It is a policy Australia should refrain from joining as there is a great likelihood of being drawn into military hostilities, with little control over the initial planning.

A recent announcement from General David Berger, the US commander of the Marine Corps that the military were planning Naval Expeditionary Units (NEUs) for rapid deployment hostilities in the Pacific region can best be seen as a further step toward eventual real war scenarios. The NEUs have been planned for rapid movement between small strategically-placed landmasses every 48-72 hours, being moved by remotely piloted amphibious naval vessels. (1)

The announcement has followed concerns from the US military that their traditional bases were targeted by China's recent weapons and missile program. The Pentagon fears their command centres will be rendered non-operational following an attack and their main military GPS satellite system jammed. (2) They have therefore revamped their military planning to include operations under the direct line of missile fire with rapid access and egress onto small islands to avoid detection, more in keeping with classic guerrilla-style operations.

The announcement also coincided with a US military media release that it was planning to deploy miniature nuclear generators which 'could power a remote base'. (3) While the generators were planned for use as standby facilities should regular power grids be cut off, the so-called Pele project was also described as a 'safe, small, mobile nuclear reactor (which) would enable units to carry a nearly endless clean power supply, enabling expansion and sustainment of operations for extended periods of time anywhere on the planet'. (4)

The position adopted by the US has been the outcome of acknowledgement that the balance of forces is swinging heavily against the Pentagon. The rise of China as a serious social-imperialist competitor has been both significant and much faster than the US expected. Traditional war-games including Pacific Surprise and Ghost Fleet have focussed on the concern that 'the Marine Corps will not be in a position to be relevant in a clash with a peer competitor'; hence General Berger's new military plan 'to configure the corps to focus on the China threat'. (5)

The main aim of the NEUs will be to target China's navy before it manages to enter the main Pacific Ocean and follows the so-called Island Chain Theory (ICT), a largely discredited military plan from the previous Cold War. The military planning will draw heavily upon the extensive use of drones and other intelligence-gathering facilities. 'Targeting data' has been included in the military planning for transmission 'to air force and naval units further away, which would fire longer-range missiles'. (6)

The Pacific region is dotted with a large number of strategically-placed small islands, some of which are not inhabited. Others have become temporary home to fisher-folk. Historically the small islands have marked vital shipping-lanes and the ability of seafarers to gauge tidal movements and water depth. In recent times, however, serious diplomatic rifts have taken place following various US allies grabbing control of the islands for seemingly ulterior motives.

Several years ago, for example, the Japanese government quite unexpectedly announced the nationalisation of about 280 islands of a total of about 400 remote islands which served as markers for determining Japanese territorial waters. (7) The government in Tokyo was not even able to initially identify the owners of the islands, although it nationalised them on the basis they were 'important national territories'. (8)
Less than a week after the government announcement in Tokyo about the nationalisation of the islands, the country's education ministry issued plans to 'stipulate in teaching manuals that the disputed Senkaku Islands and Takeshima islets are our inherent territories'. (9) The educational ministry had taken on an overtly nationalistic political line; the two landmasses concerned are also regarded by Beijing as part of China's national sovereignty.
The developments form part of US-led military planning to use Japan as a northern regional hub for 'US interests', which have included the country attempting to negate its post-war pacifist constitution. Australia, likewise, has been developed by the same military planning as a southern hub, with extensive facilities for US troop rotations and joint training facilities.
The moves have coincided with similar problems on the Korean peninsula, where controversy over the sovereignty of a number of small islands dates to the unresolved outcome of the Korean War. Yeonpyeong island, for example, is situated in what the ROK and DPRK regard as contested areas of sea. A decade ago, it led to military hostilities between the two countries. Elsewhere, military planning for a naval base on Jeju Island for US-led operations with ROK counterparts, seriously backfired and resulted in an estimated 95 per cent of the inhabitants of the island opposing the US.
The recent US military planning for NEUs, however, has rested upon longer-term planning dating to the Obama period, where the presidential administration was responsible for re-opening regional facilities 'the US military either abandoned or was evicted from … decades ago'. (10) What was particularly significant about the re-opening of the regional bases was that the US showed no desire to re-occupy the massive bases of the past. The Pentagon wanted 'permission to operate from the old installations as guests, mostly on the temporary basis'. (11) 
Similar US-led military planning has also included the developments of sensitive facilities on Guam, in Micronesia, which has become a major hub for operations. It is also situated to the north of the sprawling Caroline Islands and the Ralik and Ratak groups of islands; hundreds of small landmasses, most of which remain under US sovereignty. Elsewhere, in the southern part of the Pacific, the Tuamotu Arch group of islands, many of which remain under British control, provide a strategic link into the elite Five Eyes intelligence body.
A major thrust of the renewed US diplomacy of the Obama period was directed toward concerns arising from China taking control 'of islands at the centre of a territorial dispute with Japan'. (12) The Pentagon was already planning to use the small islands as strategic locations for future hostilities with China and this saw high-level diplomatic initiatives take place between US Defence Secretary Robert Gates and his Japanese counterparts earlier in 2011. The diplomatic talks 'underscored deepening defence ties' and 'joint planning for regional contingencies … to boost their alliance'. (13)
Nowhere in the General David Berger military plan, however, has reference been given to two vital considerations: with China possessing a maritime fleet from the time of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) which was expanded during the reign of Emperor Zhu Di in 1421, China's knowledge of oceanography is likely to be far superior to that of US-led military planners, as their maps reveal. (14) The fact China established 21 bases across the Pacific to assist with their oceanography in the fifteenth century, would tend to indicate a very sophisticated knowledge of the region. (15) Secondly, the NEUs, as they hop from one strategic vantage-point to the next, will require effective signals facilities to both receive directives and forward intelligence, such equipment being relatively easy to monitor. On both counts, China's military remain very likely to gain the upper hand.
In conclusion it might be important to draw similar examples to the recent US-led General Berger military planning for NEUs to that of former Imperial Japan, in the 1930s. Imperial Japan's military planning included stealth and the clandestine fortification of many small islands across the region as future strategic assets. Some of the military facilities, including secret stores and arms caches, were only finally de-commissioned in the 1960s. The Pentagon appears to have adopted similar designs to that of Imperial Japan.
With both Australia and Japan being ever closer to US-led regional military planning the likelihood of both countries being drawn into real war scenarios is a distinct possibility:
We need an independent foreign policy!

1.     Marines retool to meet China threat, Australian, 24 March 2020.
2.     Ibid.
3.     Pentagon plans portable mini nuke power plants, Australian, 11 March 2020.
4.     Ibid.
5.     Australian, op.cit., 24 March 2020.
6.     Ibid.
7.     Japan to nationalise 280 islands, The Age (Melbourne), 10 January 2014.
8.     Ibid.
9.     Japan puts disputed islands on school curriculum, The Age (Melbourne), 13 January 2014.
10.   US eyes return to south-east Asian bases, The Guardian Weekly (U.K.), 29 June 2012.
11.   Ibid.
12.   US signs defence deal in Asia, The Guardian Weekly (U.K.), 2 May 2014.
13.   US, Japan move closer on defence concerns, Australian, 14 January 2011.
14.   1421, The Year China discovered the world, Gavin Marshall, (London, 2002), page 113; and, Appendix One, Chinese Circumnavigation of the World 1421-3, Synopsis of Evidence, pp. 494-595.
15.   Ibid., pp. 449-451.


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