New Tools for New Threats

The US Marine Corps’ strategic realignment towards the Asia-Pacific could see the corps investing into new EW capabilities as a riposte to the PRC’s advancements in the electromagnetic spectrum.

The US Marine Corps is reorienting its focus to near-peer rivalries in the Asia-Pacific. Its electronic warfare capabilities will need to follow suit.

Published this March the US Marine Corps’ (USMC) Force Design 2030 study details how the corps will reorient its posture from focusing on violent extremism in the Middle East and Central Asia, a core mission since the attacks on New York and Washington DC on 11th September 2001, towards its increase emphasis on near-peer competition and the Asia-Pacific. As the document states, the USMC is returning to its core role of projecting power in the littoral. Drafted by the commandant of the USMC General David Berger, it stipulates a significant redesign of the corps’ order-of-battle which will see the creation of new Marine Littoral Regiments (MLR) and a reconfiguration of Marine Expeditionary Units (MEU), the air-ground task group built around a USMC infantry battalion. The specifics of the MLR are still being finalised, reports note.

Current Capabilities

Force Design 2030 posits that the core currently has deficiencies in Electronic Warfare (EW) capabilities, alongside high-endurance/long-range Unmanned Aerial Vehicle-based ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) and ground-based air defence assets. The USMC deploys three specialised EW units in the guise of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Radio Battalions. These are responsible for collecting SIGINT and support the Marine Corps’ 1st, 2nd and 3rd Marine Expeditionary Forces.

The main platform used by the radio battalions for the collection of Communications Intelligence (COMINT) is the Lockheed Martin AN/MLQ-36A Mobile Electronic Warfare Support System which is a housed in a General Dynamics LAV-25 series eight-wheel drive amphibious armoured vehicle. Although not publicly revealed, the AN/MLQ-36A is thought to be capable of collecting COMINT across Very and Ultra High Frequency (V/UHF) wavebands of 30 megahertz/MHz to three gigahertz. The telescopic mast on the AN/MLQ-36A could facilitate the collection of communications intelligence at ranges of up to 12 kilometres (7.5 miles) at sea level, although this would obviously increase if the vehicle was on high ground.

The primary targets for the AN/MLQ-36A are hostile V/UHF communications networks. The AN/MLQ-36A works closely with other USMC EW assets employed in the radio battalions such as the BAE Systems AN/ULQ-19(V)1/2 communications jamming system which covers a 20MHz to 80MHz waveband, generating 250 watts of spot and barrage jamming power. This is used in a vehicle-borne configuration mounted on a LAV-25 series platform, and as a manpack. The baseline AN/MLQ-36 was upgraded to AN/MLQ-39A status, greatly enhancing its direction-finding capabilities. Twelve examples of the original equipment were reportedly delivered in 1987, with three platforms equipping each radio battalion.

Pacific Challenges

Given its age, the AN/MLQ-36A will need to be replaced over the next ten years. This initiative could form part of a wider overhaul of the USMC’s land EW posture as outlined in Force Design 2030. Although there is only one reference to enhancing the corps’ EW capabilities made in the document, Colonel (rtd.) Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, think tank based in Washington DC, and an expert on the USMC, believes that “this is the first step in a long journey.” He expects that we may hear more about the USMC’s enhancement of its EW capabilities in the coming years: “It may well be that the Marines do more analysis and refines its context in terms of steps taken to enhance that capability.” Despite the small reference to EW, Col. Cancian does expect electronic warfare to be a significant focus of the USMC as it moves its strategic posture towards the Asia-Pacific: “The implications of this strategic approach would seem to imply more emphasis on electronic warfare.” He expects that this will reflect the investment the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is ploughing into military technology, particularly regarding enhanced communications and radar, and her use of such capabilities as a non-kinetic means of hassling US allies in the Asia-Pacific.

On 23rd April Agence France Presse reported that a warship from the People’s Liberation Army Navy had illuminated a Philippines Navy vessel with a fire control radar during a routine patrol by the latter in the West Philippine Sea. Meanwhile, the South China Morning Post reported on 18th April that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was planning to harness so-called sixth-generation (6G) cellular technology for military applications. 6G does not yet exist but would see wireless communications offering data speeds of up to one terabyte per second, latencies of one microsecond and the use of artificial intelligence for spectrum management.

While news of the PLA’s plans for 6G seems little more than a statement of ambition at present it does indicate the trajectory regarding battlefield connectivity for the PRC’s armed forces. This is something that the USMC will have to contend with both at the doctrinal and platform levels. The tantalising interest shown in EW conveyed by Force Design 2030, and future efforts to replace assets like the AN/MLQ-36A will be important steps in this direction.

by Dr. Thomas Withington