U.S. Marines Can Beat The Chinese Navy—But Only If The Marines Stay Hidden

U.S. Marines Can Beat The Chinese Navy—But Only If The Marines Stay Hidden

U.S. Marines Can Beat The Chinese Navy—But Only If The Marines Stay Hidden

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You’re a U.S. Marine Corps colonel commanding a battalion hiding out on an austere island outpost in the South China Sea, a few hundred miles northwest of The Philippines.

Tension is increasing between the United States and China as Beijing claims more and more disputed territory in the western Pacific. War is imminent. Your battalion is set to play a key role in the U.S.-led campaign.

But only if you can stay hidden.

You’ve got long-range anti-ship missiles, radars, surveillance drones, some air-defenses to protect the missiles and sensors plus a few companies of infantry to guard against Chinese landing forces.

Your battalion’s job is to detect Chinese warships, report their location to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command then harass the vessels with missiles, all while coordinating with other American outposts and preparing, on short notice, to hop to another island.

It’s a dangerous plan, but it just might work—provided you can avoid detection. China has more ships, planes, and troops in the area than the United States does. If they spot you, you’re in big trouble.

Just how you avoid detection while also staying in touch with other units and your headquarters is of utmost importance to the U.S. campaign. Rarely has so much depended on the ability of a few young Marines to use a radio.

That’s the subject of a fascinating essay by Brian Kerg, a Marine Corps officer currently serving as the fleet amphibious communications officer for U.S. Fleet Forces Command. “The high risk assumed by inside forces makes signature-management a paramount requirement for success,” Kerg wrote for The Center for International Maritime Security in Washington, D.C.

Marine forces possess an array of radio systems, but just one type meets the needs of a secretive island outpost. “The high-frequency band is the premier option,” according to Kerg. “Communications systems using frequency bands higher than HF remain easily detectable; in concert with their low footprint, rapid set-up, and network flexibility, HF radios are the most viable candidate for successful signature management.”

But there’s a problem. “Even HF in normal operating modes is likely to be detected if the location and direction of propagation are being scanned by current [direction-finding] systems at the time of transmission.”

Kerg recommends Marine units brush up on a tried-and-true method of using HF radios with stealth. “HF-Low Probability of Intercept is a tactic that rapidly varies the power output and frequency of HF channels used to transmit, greatly reducing the likelihood of detection. With appropriately trained personnel, certain maritime communications systems are currently capable of employing HF-LPI.”

The problem, Kerg explained, is that “no training standard currently exists by which to prepare naval communicators to use this technique. Whether HF-LPI is employed or not, and how well it might be executed, is completely at the discretion of individual ship and unit commanders.”

That has to change, according to Kerg. It’s the first step in making the Pentagon’s new strategy for the western Pacific work. But it’s not enough. After mastering HF-LPI, U.S. military forces need to bolster island outposts’ stealth with additional measures.

“Eventually, inside forces will have to increase their signature when they employ their fires systems for the purposes of achieving deterrence, and when this time comes, signal integrity will trump the need for signature concealment,” Kerg wrote. In other words, your battalion needs to light up the electromagnetic spectrum in order to target a passing Chinese destroyer with an anti-ship missile. There’s no way around it.

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Agency is working on new communications systems that are more jam- and interception-proof than current radios.

The Protected Forward Communications program, for one, “would protect not only external communications from an [outpost] to higher headquarters—for example, the order to fire from an [outpost] at an enemy ship—but also internal communications and signals, such as the signal for a system to fire from an operator within the EAB, and signals from a sensor that would guide ordnance onto target.”

The stakes couldn’t be higher for American maritime forces. The Pentagon has a strategy for countering Chinese expansion into the China Seas. But that strategy depends on widely-spread, stealthy forces being able to communicate—secretly—with each other, their missiles and their headquarters.

“The critical vulnerability,” Kerg stressed, “is signature management.”

 

This article was written by David Axe from Forbes and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@industrydive.com.

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