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Operation Noble Fury – how the US marines plan to fight China

Written by: (Contributed) on 29 October 2020


A recent media release from the US Defence Department about regional defence and security provision and a so-called battle plan, Exercise Noble Fury, has revealed a changing military strategy. Pentagon planning would now appear to be concentrating upon rapid deployment from temporary military facilities based on remote outposts to attack China's armed forces.

In recent years the US Defence Department has also pushed Island Chain Theory (ICT) as a dominant factor with military planning. The theory, however, was largely discredited during the previous Cold War although it has been used in recent times to attempt to encircle and contain China's rising influence across the vast region by preventing access and egress to areas of the region. Military planners would now appear to have been upgraded ICT for other uses, with far-reaching implications for Australia.

In early October the US Noble Fury military exercise saw more than a hundred marines flown to a remote Japanese island, Iejima, near Okinawa in the East China Sea as part of  'expeditionary advanced base operations'. (1) The covert operation had the specific aim of enabling US-led military planning to use remote islands and atolls to attack China's warships and missile sites on the basis of guerilla-style actions whereby rapid deployment would be accompanied by equally rapid egress from theatres of war. It was noted during the early stages of the exercise the marines also 'captured' a suitable landing strip.

Exercise Noble Fury then included long-range artillery rocket systems being flown by night onto Iejima, assembled and made operational for a 'notional attack'. Within minutes after the attack the equipment had been dismantled, placed back on board a plane and exfiltrated to another island and different location for a repeat rapid deployment operation.

It is, perhaps therefore, no surprise to find ICT has been used by the Pentagon in recent times as a basis for regional military planning; long lines of small landmasses possessing geo-strategic significance are used for demarcation of sensitive areas. The military plan holds that China's rising regional influence can be held back behind the island chains to prevent their ready access to the main part of Oceania, including Australia and New Zealand. Other significant factors now, however, appear to have to be considered.
The commanding officer of Noble Fury, General David Berger, was also noted for being responsible for scrapping all maritime tanks and heavy weight artillery equipment in favour of lighter systems which could be used for rapid deployment, adding weight to the statement 'Noble Fury was a new-style exercise', and, 'part of a new fighting blueprint for the US marines that is expected to be fully operational by 2030'. (2) The light, quick and powerful operation, alongside close integration with the Navy, is seen by Berger as the key for the Marine Corps' ability to fight China.

A number of other developments can, perhaps, be best seen in that light.

When Japan nationalised about 280 remote islands in 2014, for example, an official diplomatic statement from Tokyo announced they were 'important national territories', although nothing further was specified at that time. (3) The development was, however, accompanied by Japan re-interpreting Clause Nine of its pacifist constitution to enable the country's armed forces to join US-led military exercises.

Similar problems arising on the Korean peninsula include the northern DPRK recognition of the official Military Demarcation Line which is an extension of the 1953 armistice line, while the southern ROK has recognised the Northern Limit Line drawn by the US. This demarcation has effectively denied the DPRK access to a twelve-mile maritime boundary accepted under international law, which has led to numerous diplomatic rifts over small landmasses.

Elsewhere, other countries including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, all have territorial claims to numerous small landmasses in the South China Seas.

It is, therefore, important to note that the recent Noble Fury military exercise, was a typical operation detailed by the Defence Department consisting of 'marines … firing … rockets and missiles at designated targets before escaping by helicopter to another island'. (4) The changing military strategy will also include small units spread across the region 'on captured uninhabited islands and atolls in time of conflict' and has far-reaching implications for countries across the Indo-Pacific region. (5)

Remote landmasses, with contested territorial claims, would appear to have been ear-marked by the Pentagon as geo-strategic assets for future temporary use at time of real-war scenarios.

It is significant to note throughout the duration of Exercise Noble Fury the marines were kept in direct contact and their actions co-ordinated with signal-intelligence from warships based elsewhere which, in turn, were connected to ground-based permanent facilities. (6)

The developments rest upon other military planning with a strong emphasis upon Australia and military facilities including Pine Gap. The Avalon 2019 International Air-show publicity, for example, contained several references about intelligence facilities designed to 'see deep' into the region, together with the ability to 'strike deep', when required. (7)

Elsewhere, it was noted the Australian Defence Forces had enhanced air mobility with the acquisition of ten C-27J Spartan air-lifters designed to provide 'much greater flexibility in moving personnel and cargo to remote locations, whether across northern Australia, or into the Pacific and PNG'. (8) Reference to PNG was also accompanied by planning for the Lombrum naval base on Manus Island to become a major military facility which has also included a neighbouring air-field.

It is important to note in the 2012-14 period, the US also re-opened numerous military facilities across the region, for what was stated as 'rotational presence' and the ability to operate on the temporary basis from outlying facilities, if, and when, required. (9) Many of the facilities are also inside the arc which swings from Pine Gap in Australia to Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and Guam in the northern Micronesian part of the Pacific, both having been upgraded as major hubs for US-led regional military operations.

Australia has been placed in a front-line position with these developments; senior US Air Force officials have already been quoted as stating northern base facilities were ready for 'complete interoperability' and were regarded 'a valuable strategic asset by the US in its military planning'. (10)

Australia could easily be drawn into a regional real-war scenario following a military decision taken in the Pentagon

We need an independent foreign policy!

1.     US marines move fact to 'shoot and scoot', Australian, 22 October 2020.
2.     Ibid.
3.     Japan to nationalise 280 islands, The Age (Melbourne), 10 January 2014.
4.     Australian, op.cit., 22 October 2019.
5.     Ibid.
6.     Ibid.
7.     A gap to close in next-generation defence, Avalon 2019 Special Report, Australian, 26 February 2019.
8.     Spartan lifter could be ADF's first gunship, Australian, 26 February 2019.
9.     US eyes return to south-east Asian bases, The Guardian Weekly (U.K.), 29 June 2012.
10.   Strategic alliance in north enthuses visiting US chiefs, Australian, 22 August 2019.


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