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The military has shifted its focus to technologically-advanced opponents


After two decades fighting insurgent forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has shifted focus to technologically advanced opponents, especially China. Leading the way is the Marine Corps, and that most traditional of forces has begun a radical transformation. Jay Price of member station WUNC reports from West Virginia.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: An experimental company of several dozen Marines has split up. They move quietly among steep mountainsides and heavy forest.


PRICE: Their targets are two fictitious missile launchers miles apart.


PRICE: An operation this size would normally require two companies. Second Lieutenant Jacob Kanak is a rifle platoon leader in the company. He says it's trained and configured differently. Among other things, the frontline leaders are more experienced. They can make more decisions on their own, so no need to potentially expose their location by using communications gear.

JACOB KANAK: So this is really showing how much space we can cover to accomplish a mission and be pretty much self-sustaining.

PRICE: Small, stealthy, widely dispersed units are at the heart of the Marine Corps' plan for retooling itself. Marine leaders say the rapidly evolving technology of modern warfare means units must be trained and equipped differently. They'll get precision long-range missiles that can sink ships, more drones and high-tech systems to evade detection. To pay for all this, the Marines are making major cuts, their hundreds of tanks already gone. They've begun shedding much of their traditional artillery - some of the cannons have already been sent to Ukraine - and there are planned cuts to the number of manned aircraft and troops. Much of this is aimed at the Pacific, a region that looms large in Marine history.





PRICE: But the nature of modern warfare means the Marines have to be ready to fight much differently than the force of nearly half a million that swarmed ashore in those massive World War II amphibious landings, and a different geopolitical adversary is forcing the pace of that change. General Eric Smith is the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps.

ERIC SMITH: We have other threats. We've got the Russians, North Korea, Iran, violent extremism. But we spent 20 years doing counterinsurgency, and the pacing threat of China was continuing to get better, faster.

PRICE: The pacing threat - a threat that forces you to speed up improvements or at least match an opponent. Smith is helping implement a blueprint for how his boss, the commandant, General David H. Berger, sees the future of modern warfare. The plan pivots the Corps away from being used as a general-purpose infantry, as it often was in Iraq and Afghanistan, and reemphasizes its traditional role as a ship-based force.

SMITH: We are, in fact, returning to our amphibious roots. We never lost them, but we may have lost focus on them.

PRICE: Berger has said it's too early to draw conclusions from the war in Ukraine, but for now, the Ukrainian successes against Russian convoys, tanks and ships supports the idea of small, widely distributed forces and precision long-range missiles. But his plan has its critics in the tight-knit community of retired Marines, including a host of former generals who oppose it. That fight has been waged for months on op-ed pages and at think tanks.


ROBERT WORK: And I started to think, how would I explain this to somebody who isn't a Marine?

PRICE: That's former deputy secretary of defense and retired Marine colonel, Robert Work. He was speaking about the proposed changes at an event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS.


WORK: This is a custody battle between the grandparents and the parents of a beloved child, and they have different views on how to raise the child.

PRICE: Critics say the retooling plan focuses too much on China and erodes the Corps' strength and flexibility. CSIS analyst Mark Cancian is himself a retired Marine artillery colonel. He supports some of the changes, but among other things, worries about the emphasis on China.

MARK CANCIAN: As far as a hedge, develop those capabilities, particularly for the Western Pacific, but also maintain capabilities for global contingencies.

PRICE: But Smith, the assistant commandant, said the changes will lead to a force that can fight wherever it's needed and fight better.

SMITH: We have a 100% track record of guessing wrong, at where the next conflict will be, and that's why the force design effort that is underway is so valuable and useful.

PRICE: He commanded units in Iraq and Afghanistan and says that this force design would have been more effective against insurgents.

SMITH: No adversary likes a small, lethal, low-footprint force who they can't track, who they have a hard time finding.

PRICE: And Smith says the Marines have little choice. They must make big changes because China and technology aren't slowing down.

SMITH: The threat is changing, the threat is advancing, and the threat is quite skilled. And if we don't take dramatic change, we will be left behind.

PRICE: And that's not a Marine tradition. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Kingwood, W. Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jay Price is the military and veterans affairs reporter for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC.