“As the British confronted the possibility of invasion during the summer of 1940, military planners faced an obstacle that seemed unbelievable in a nation that had been threatened so many times in the past. They had no doctrine for defending against an amphibious landing.”
– Theodore Gatchel, At the Water’s Edge
In 1940, as Great Britain truly grappled with the possibility of a Nazi invasion, the nation still had not settled on a doctrine to defend against an amphibious landing. As Washington and Taipei consider the possibility of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the two nations — working with other countries in the region — would be wise to learn from British failings to plan for the worst and jointly work together to come up the means to defend the island.
China and Taiwan are roughly separated by 100 miles of water. Thus, to forcefully annex Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China would most likely have to conduct a cross-strait amphibious invasion. Even an all-out effort by the people of Taiwan cannot guarantee the island’s defense. Taiwan’s partners in the region will significantly increase the likelihood of a successful defense by rapidly and cohesively assisting Taiwan militarily. Accordingly, the 2022 National Defense Strategy clearly identifies China’s “coercive activity towards Taiwan” as the “pacing challenge” for the Department of Defense. Alliances and partnerships were identified as the “center of gravity” for the strategy, and these partnerships were conveyed as America’s “greatest global strategic advantage.” Lastly, the strategy prioritizes “deterring aggression, while being prepared to prevail in conflict” in the Indo-Pacific region.
Despite the severity and urgency of this recognized threat from China, however, the United States, Taiwan, and key partners lack a unifying doctrine to counter an amphibious invasion. U.S. military doctrine “constitutes official advice” from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and while there are joint doctrines for combatting terrorism, counterinsurgency, and counterdrug operations, no joint, multinational counter-landing doctrine exists. A counter-landing doctrine would better align the military capabilities of Taiwan, the United States, and close partners such as Japan, the Philippines, and Australia. Additionally, a counter-landing doctrine would facilitate a rapid and cohesive military response by regional partners to repel an enemy invasion from the sea. Finally, the successful implementation of a counter-landing doctrine and its downstream effects would better deter an amphibious invasion of Taiwan. While key allies and individual services within the U.S. military are developing concepts and capabilities to deter a Chinese invasion, a common counter-landing doctrine would bridge theory and methodology while amplifying the effects of these approaches to improve deterrence.
Three Reasons for a Counter-Landing Doctrine with Allies and Partners in the Indo-Pacific
Without a common doctrine, military forces may not be able to respond with sufficient capabilities, cohesion, and time to deter or defeat an adversary invasion. While competent commanders and staffs could determine the necessary conditions for a successful counter-landing operation given sufficient time, the proximity of the Chinese threat to Taiwan may not afford the time to make such decisions. Additionally, the absence of a counter-landing doctrine forfeits the opportunity to deliberately inform the development of critical counter-landing capabilities during a period when the balance of force is rapidly changing in the Indo-Pacific. Furthermore, the lack of these benefits associated with a counter-landing doctrine weakens deterrence of a cross-strait invasion of Taiwan. For these reasons, a counter-landing doctrine should be developed and rehearsed with key partners.
Reason 1: Unifying Efforts and Resources for the Priority Challenge
A joint, multinational counter-landing doctrine provides a foundation for developing and integrating the defense capabilities of key militaries across the western Pacific. The Taiwan Navy and Marine Corps, the Japan Self-Defense Forces, the Philippine Marine Corps, and the Australian Defence Force are modernizing their forces and concepts to meet the growing threat from China. As Gen. David Berger implored, “[H]ow can we help [allies and partners] get there faster?” A counter-landing doctrine could provide a common approach to multilateral command and control, supporting relationships, information sharing, and battlespace frameworks to defend against a Chinese amphibious invasion.
While key militaries in the region are already developing concepts and capabilities to conduct sea denial and counter an amphibious landing, the hub-and-spoke network of alliances in the Pacific makes the U.S. military a key integrator of these multinational capabilities. Taiwan’s Navy, which includes its Marine Corps, already fields indigenous Hsiung Feng anti-ship missiles and is procuring U.S.-produced mobile Harpoon Coastal Defense Systems. Japan’s civilian and military officials increasingly recognize that a “Taiwan crisis would be a Japan crisis” and are improving maritime interdiction capabilities on Japan’s Southwest Islands off the coast of Taiwan. The Philippines’ BrahMos supersonic anti-ship missiles in their newly-formed Coastal Defense Regiment reflect a prevailing approach towards maritime security in the western Pacific. Australia’s recent $3.5 billion maritime defense procurement also indicate a growing recognition that deterrence and homeland defense is best achieved in the littorals. If properly integrated, these counter-landing capabilities offer the United States an enduring advantage over a potential Chinese amphibious force.
Several services within the Department of Defense have also developed separate and distinct future operating concepts that that aim to achieve the objectives of the 2022 National Defense Strategy. The U.S. military, however, should seek to unify these disparate concepts to counter the pacing challenge in the western Pacific. Lt. Gen. Eric Wesley, the deputy commanding general of the Army’s Futures and Concepts Center, stated that operations in the Pacific “have to be able to rapidly integrate all domains in order to achieve overmatch,” and that “[W]e think we need a solid description of how the joint force sees that fight going, and I think that is the next significant effort the services should get after.” Vice Adm. Stuart Munsch, deputy chief of naval operations for operations, plans and strategy, added that the military must reach a “degree of integration you have never imagined before,” to include space and cyber domains “that we traditionally don’t think about that need to be brought in.”
China has invested in its maritime forces and, as Thomas Shugart has written about, a large number of civilian cargo ships that could also support an invasion. Given the disparity in deployed forces, countering China’s maritime force will undoubtedly require marshaling the efforts and resources of numerous partners, and these partners can no longer afford an approach that lacks a common focus, foundation, and guidance.
Service operating concepts are often associated with unique acquisitions programs that often lack joint integration and interoperability. Multi-domain capabilities have changed the character of war, which has been historically divided between air, land, and sea domains. While future concepts account for multi-domain operations, no doctrine exists to leverage joint and multinational assets to counter a Chinese amphibious invasion across these multiple domains. The doctrine would focus training and acquisitions to achieve a joint capability against China’s most dangerous course of action to annex Taiwan. The U.S. military should seize this opportunity to internally align concepts and unify defense acquisitions.
Reason 2: Facilitating a Rapid Military Response Within Existing Policy
Although the National Defense Strategy clearly articulates the challenges and priorities of deterring China’s aggression towards Taiwan, policy considerations limit the scale and scope of military cooperation between many of Taiwan’s closest partners. Within these limitations, however, militaries in the region are counting on a common defensive doctrine to help deter an invasion. Rehearsing the tenets of a counter-landing doctrine with allies and partners in the western Pacific would increase the effectiveness of existing defense capabilities, decrease the time needed to respond to a cross-strait invasion of Taiwan, and ensure that the U.S. military is prepared to respond to executive orders.
With “official advice” from the Joint Chiefs of Staff codified in doctrine, combatant commanders could unleash the full potential of each U.S. military services’ evolving concepts and capabilities to counter amphibious operations. While the need for this doctrine is most acute in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, all geographic combatant commands could benefit from such a unifying approach. By defining the roles, responsibilities, command relationships, support relationships, and battlespace frameworks of a notional counter-landing operation, combatant commanders can more effectively rehearse the employment of multinational forces to integrate mutually supporting capabilities, decrease response times to likely crises, and thereby increase deterrence.
Reason 3: Integrating Deterrence Through Doctrine
Deterring conflict and defending allies in the Indo-Pacific has remained a consistent objective in successive U.S. defense strategies. The 2018 National Defense Strategy directed the Department of Defense to “[defend] allies from military aggression,” and the updated 2022 strategy expands on this objective by directing the department to “act urgently to sustain and strengthen deterrence.” Both documents overwhelmingly prioritize China as America’s “most consequential strategic competitor.”
Given that China’s joint force can generate more combat power in the Indo-Pacific than the United States alone, some contend that Beijing is no longer deterred by unilateral U.S. demonstrations of force. As former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis stated, deterrence is achieved when the enemy decides. A counter-landing approach applied by a network of allies and partners would reinforce like-minded partners’ strongest advantage over China’s defense forces.
In this context, two sub-regions in the Indo-Pacific highlight the ongoing efforts of U.S. allies and partners to deter China: the East China Sea and maritime Southeast Asia. In both sub-regions, U.S. allies and partners are building capabilities to counter increasingly aggressive Chinese actions. The collective sea control capabilities of the United States and its allies and partners in the region present a credible challenge to China, but the military’s collective sea denial capabilities offer an advantage over China’s military.
Case Study 1: East China Sea
The preponderance of allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region have had to deal with China making aggressive claims to disputed territory in the East and South China Seas. China also declared an extended air defense identification zone in 2013. This zone overlaps two-thirds of the East China Sea and requires foreign aircraft to report flight plans, maintain radio communications with China, and keep transponders on. It also overlaps with the air defense identification zones of Taiwan, Japan, and the Republic of Korea. These countries have experienced a rapid influx of Chinese military incursions into these zones with military aircraft, the Coast Guard, and the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia.
The United States and its allies and partners have predominantly responded to the incursions by alerting naval and air assets and by conducting freedom of navigation missions. These operations, however, are costly, vulnerable to threat weapons, and create a dilemma between readiness and responsiveness. Additionally, some scholars increasingly question the ability of these response missions to change Chinese behavior. Counter-landing operations could more effectively and efficiently demonstrate the capability and resolve to defend against aggression.
Japan consistently observes air and maritime threats by Russian, Chinese, and North Korean incursions into its sovereign territory, yet it has responded by concentrating its military strategy on ground forces that support integrated defensive maritime fires. Japan has surged intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets into the vicinity of the Senkaku sea lanes to improve situational awareness. China’s aerial incursions prompted 851 responses from the Japan Air Self-Defense Force in 2016, an increase of nearly 800 percent since 2001. The Japanese military has postured more personnel and hardware in its southwest islands in the East China Sea and in 2018 established the 2,100-strong Japanese brigade with the mandate to “defend — and if necessary, retake — Japanese islands that could be targets of invasions.” As Sheila Smith observed, Japan has also built new (and has reinforced existing) intelligence facilities on the islands of Yonaguni and Miyakojima that are approximately 70 miles east of Taiwan to monitor Chinese air and maritime forces.
Japan’s six surface-to-ship missile regiments have the greatest capability to defend key maritime terrain in the first island chain. Japan’s Ministry of Defense recently approved an upgrade with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries that reportedly extends the Type 12 anti-ship missile’s range from 200 kilometers (124 miles) to 900 kilometers (559 miles). With this range, Japanese forces could interdict maritime assets operating near the Senkaku or Sakishima Islands while being employed from the mainland. Such assets could create even more of an operational dilemma if they deployed to Japan’s most southwest islands that lie 70 miles off Taiwan’s coast.
A joint, multinational counter-landing doctrine would provide a foundational framework on which to rehearse a counter-landing operation in the western Pacific. Improved intelligence sharing, coupled with well-timed counter-landing rehearsals, would strengthen recognized air and maritime boundaries. The recent bilateral announcement to transition the 12th Marine Regiment on Okinawa to a Marine Littoral Regiment reinforces the opportunity and need to align the efforts of Japanese and American forces on the Southwest Islands. Wallace Gregson even calls for the United States and Japanese forces to create a “Standing Combined Maritime Joint Task Force” in order to test and develop counter-landing capabilities and techniques. Rehearsing rapid deployments to key maritime terrain in the first island chain would enhance credibility and capability and communicate a unified approach to counter Chinese aggression.
Case Study 2: Southeast Asia and Oceania
A counter-landing doctrine would also strengthen a multinational approach to challenges around and near the South China Sea. Beginning with the seizure of Scarborough Shoal in 2012, China has intimidated regional partners as part of a “broader pattern of destabilization and coercive People’s Republic of China behavior that stretches across the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and the Line of Actual Control.” U.S. allies and partners in maritime Southeast Asia and Oceania continue to withstand this Chinese aggression across all elements of national power, and a counter-landing doctrine would bolster their efforts and effectiveness.
After a brief period of attempted rapprochement, the Philippines is once again enduring an intense campaign to force its acquiescence over sovereignty of possessions in the South China Sea. In May 2021, 287 vessels of the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia violated the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. In November 2021, three Chinese Coast Guard vessels fired water cannons on Filipino supply vessels intended for Second Thomas Shoal, blocking their access.
China’s intimidation campaign has reinvigorated Filipino efforts to bolster its maritime security. These initiatives include the development of the Philippine Navy’s Active Archipelagic Defense concept and the Philippine Marine Corps’ Archipelagic Coastal Defense Concept, which articulates how Philippine Marines will be “integrated in naval, joint, and inter-agency operations” in a maritime fight. In a tangible commitment to these concepts, the Philippine Marines established its Coastal Defense Regiment in 2021 and recently signed a $368 million contract with India for three batteries worth of BrahMos coastal defense cruise missiles to equip this new formation. The 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment recently participated in Exercise Balikatan with the Coastal Defense Regiment during its inaugural deployment to northern Luzon. A counter-landing doctrine would enable the U.S. Marine Corps to more effectively compliment and cooperate with this key ally in future engagements of increasing complexity.
Similarly as in the Philippines, Australia is resoundingly responding to Chinese coercion by developing concepts and capabilities commensurate to the growing threat. Through a 20-year Force Structure Plan, the Australian Defence Force seeks to better maneuver forces in the littorals, field long-range precision fires in the maritime domain, and increase interoperability with key allies such as the United States and the Philippines. Australia’s much-anticipated Defense Strategic Review may potentially accelerate this change in the Australian Defense Force. A counter-landing doctrine could provide the common foundation to develop capabilities with these allies in the western Pacific. Furthermore, existing multilateral exercises provide opportunities to rehearse counter-landing operations and employ corresponding capabilities to better deter Chinese aggression.
Across the region, key allies are strengthening their resolve and optimizing their forces for fighting in the littorals. Japan is buttressing their Southwest Islands to resist capture, and the Philippine Marine Corps is preparing to defend their coasts with coastal defense cruise missiles. Simultaneously, the Australian Defence Force is undergoing generational reform to thwart threats in the first and second island chain. Now, it is America’s turn to maximize the competitive advantage of our allies and partners by coalescing these concepts and capabilities under a cohesive doctrinal framework.
It has been nearly 80 years since like-minded partners established the defensive network in the Pacific that underpins today’s regional security. Allies and partners remain critical in competition and conflict, and many continue to develop sophisticated and advanced technologies to defend their territory. A common counter-landing doctrine would capitalize on the innovation in Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, and Australia, amongst others.
The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, in coordination with counterparts from key allies and partners, should promulgate a multinational counter-landing doctrine as soon as possible to better unify efforts and resources for the most dangerous contingency. Military services, especially in the United States and the Indo-Pacific, should then use this doctrine to inform the development of organizational capabilities. Geographic combatant commanders, especially the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, should concurrently rehearse counter-landing operations on key terrain alongside allies and partners to refine techniques and procedures, iteratively inform service acquisitions, and improve responsiveness to an amphibious assault. There is also great opportunity to apply a counter-landing doctrine in Europe, where Sweden and Finland’s pending accession to NATO offers more than an additional 4750 miles of coastline from which to deter further Russian aggression. Collectively, these activities will improve a multinational force’s ability to thwart an enemy amphibious force from their ports of embarkation to debarkation near friendly shores — and thus better deter potential adversaries from launching such an invasion.
Using this doctrine as a foundation, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command should then integrate these mutually-supporting capabilities through planning, common command and control procedures, and rehearsals that counter China’s most dangerous course of action. The lessons learned from these activities should then inform the development of capabilities across all interested organizations. The United States has an unprecedented opportunity — and an urgent requirement — to stitch together counter-landing concepts and capabilities across the Indo-Pacific region.
Dylan Buck is an infantry officer and a regional affairs officer currently serving on the Northeast Asia desk at Marine Corps Forces, Pacific. He received his undergraduate education at the United States Naval Academy and a graduate certificate from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and holds master’s degrees from both the Georgetown McDonough School of Business and the Naval Postgraduate School.
Zach Ota (@zach_ota) is an infantry officer and a regional affairs officer currently serving on the Australia and Oceania desk at U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Pacific. He is a recipient of the Lieutenant Colonel Earl “Pete” Ellis award for visionary approaches to expeditionary warfare.