Strategic Airfield Seizure by Marines in the Philippines Challenges China

Marine littoral regiment (MLR)

The Marines were approximately a hundred miles from Taiwan’s southern tip when they seized an airstrip. They operated in Northern Luzon and the Batanes Islands, territories of the Philippines north of the mainland—strategic areas for a potential conflict with China.

The mission, known as maritime key terrain security operations (MKTSO), was a practice run for such a conflict but had real-world implications. It was led by elements of the Marine Corps’ newest Pacific-oriented unit: the Marine littoral regiment (MLR).

On April 30, three combined littoral reconnaissance teams, consisting of roughly 30 U.S. and Philippine Marines each, were flown by Army Chinooks and Black Hawk helicopters from a naval base off the mainland’s northern coast to remote islands.

Their mission was to reconnoiter the area using sensors, unmanned systems, and interactions with local communities, laying groundwork alongside their Filipino partners, where civilian maritime trade has faced increased aggression from China.

These units were joined by a joint-nation rifle company capable of seizing and defending key terrain in conflict. It was the first deployment of the 3rd MLR to Mavulis, the northernmost Philippine island with a military presence.

“The further we operate from the mainland, the more we demonstrate our capability to sustain operations independently,” said Maj. Robert Patterson, a company commander who led forces during the air assault on one of the northernmost Philippine islands, in an interview with Military.com.

air assault on one of the northernmost Philippine islands

The exercise marked a shift in the Marine Corps’ focus after 20 years in the Middle East, facing less equipped insurgent adversaries compared to its current “pacing challenge”—China.

Lt. Col. Mark Lenzi, commander of the 3rd Littoral Combat Team, emphasized the increased risk of conventional warfare. “Long-range missile strikes, loitering munitions, and enhanced sensing capabilities are some of the threats we face now,” Lenzi said. “We must adapt our tactics to avoid detection and targeting.”

Lenzi commands one of the MLR’s key components, the littoral combat team, which, along with an anti-air and logistics battalion, comprises nearly 2,000 Marines equipped for Pacific operations. This includes naval strike missiles, unmanned aerial systems, and radars, supporting the unit’s agile and dispersed nature. Missions like MKTSO showcase these characteristics, with Marines operating independently in remote Pacific locations.

“The strategic significance is our ability to deploy combat-capable forces anywhere needed, deterring adversaries or engaging in combat without constant withdrawal,” Lenzi said.

Missions like MKTSO

Marines on the mission brought limited supplies, a logistical challenge exacerbated by the humid climate. They carried water and used platoon water purification systems (PWPS), capable of producing up to 15 gallons of water per hour from local sources. Fuel and food were prioritized, with local community support for the latter, reflecting the MLR’s expeditionary nature.

While dispersed operations are not new for the Marine Corps, the environment is. The MLR, established in 2022, was deployed to the Philippines, a nation of multiple islands and tropical jungles, and a reinvigorated U.S. ally amid China’s disruptive actions.

Under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, U.S. troops rotate through nine Philippine military bases. However, for the MKTSO mission, Marines were sent to remote islands off the Philippine coast, near Taiwan and China.

Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, U.S

A crucial aspect of these operations is integrating the Philippine military, benefiting from their terrain knowledge, legitimizing community interactions, and preparing for potential conflict together.

Marine corporals and sergeants often led these efforts. Patterson highlighted the importance of squad leaders in understanding the community and environment through relationship-building.

“They knew they were some of the first U.S. forces on these islands,” Patterson said, referring to Itbayat, an island near Taiwan. “They felt very prideful and excited to do their job.”