7 years, 5 months ago
The title of the Navy Times article is Amphibious ops to become default mode for MEUs, but the import is much larger than that. It’s more than just about MEUs. The Commandant wants to return to amphibious roots – generally.
Determined to get Marines directly involved with the fight against pirates and other threats at sea, the Corps is reinventing its seven expeditionary units.
Major changes, some already underway, will make the MEUs even more potent and versatile than they are now, equipping them with the latest weapons, gear and capabilities while ensuring they’re thoroughly trained to be the premier on-call first responders for any number of worldwide contingencies.
Officials want to shift their focus away from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — many MEUs have cycled through multiple combat tours during the past several years — and back to being “Soldiers of the Sea.”
A new policy issued in August updates the baseline MEU structure with new and future weapons systems and redefines its core capabilities to include 16 essential missions, along with special operations tasks already in high demand today. It’s the first big overhaul since Sept. 25, 2001, and touches on everything from pre-deployment training to the specialized skills Marines will need to get these jobs done.
“Amphibious forces are increasingly likely to be tasked with counterterrorism, counter-proliferation and counter-piracy missions,” Marine officials wrote in “Amphibious Operations in the 21st Century,” a doctrinal paper released earlier this year. “These will likely involve amphibious raids conducted for the purposes of destroying terrorists and their sanctuaries, capturing pirates or other criminals and seizing contraband, rescuing hostages or securing, safeguarding and removing materials to include weapons of mass destruction.”
Deployed MEUs serve as key “theater reserves” overseas, ready to respond to regional contingencies or crises. Each is designed as an air-ground task force with the capability to operate and launch missions at sea within six hours or operate ashore for a month before needing any resupply.
“A lot has changed in the last eight or nine years,” said Lt. Col. Thomas Impellitteri, MEU policy officer in the Expeditionary Policies Branch at Plans, Policies and Operations at Marine Corps headquarters. “We wanted to streamline the [mission essential task list] to make it basically say … this is what the MEU needs to do.”
MEUs will continue to be centered on battalion landing teams, and while the new policy outlines basic structure — still about 2,200 Marines composing air combat, ground combat and logistical combat elements, plus a special operations element — the MEU commander can tailor the force to fit his expected needs. Increasingly, there is a host of new assets from which to choose.
The 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, for example, left its home at Camp Lejeune, N.C., in May with the MV-22 Osprey, the first MEU ever to take the tilt-rotor aircraft on an overseas pump. Navy SEALs, once a routine component of amphibious ready groups, have largely disappeared, but the creation of Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command and the re-emergence of Force reconnaissance offer comparable capabilities.
The U.S. may not need to conduct a hostile amphibious assault on a foreign shore anytime soon, but an MEU’s ability to decimate enemy forces or, with help from the Navy, quickly dole out humanitarian aid in the aftermath of a natural disaster, preserves the Corps’ role among the services as the expeditionary force in readiness.
Moving forward, amphibious ops will be the MEUs’ default mode.
“As the generals are fond of saying,” said Col. David Coffman, who commands the 13th MEU out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., “if there’s a sword to be drawn at sea, shouldn’t a Marine be wielding it?” …
The MEUs’ aviation and ground mix also is in transition.
As the Corps modernizes its inventory with new equipment, such as the UH-1Y Super Huey, AH-1Z Super Cobra and eventually the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, MEUs will begin to look and operate differently.
“You basically have an entirely new [air combat element], platform by platform,” Coffman said. “We have to decide what that mix is like again.”
His 13th MEU was the first to deploy with the UH-1Y, providing an operational test as the fleet grows, but none of the current units training or deployed have a Super Huey aboard. The 22nd MEU has a squadron of Ospreys, but with several years to go before that aircraft arrives at West Coast bases, Olson’s 11th MEU left San Diego with CH-46E medium-lift helicopters as its aviation core.
Coffman wants to see the MEUs expand their ISR — intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance — assets, to include unmanned aerial systems. His battalion landing team had smaller drones, but adding systems such as the Scan Eagle would only strengthen intelligence gathering.
My commentary has been opposed to MEUs as they currently exist, as well as wasteful spending on the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. The Commandant wants to return to their expeditionary and amphibious roots, but against what enemy? If the enemy is a stable nation-state with the power and industry to deploy mines, and employ air ordnance and air power against the landing team, sending EFVs and LCACs would be disastrous. The U.S. is not prepared for the thousands of Marine deaths that would result from a conventional, full bore amphibious assault on a state even smaller than a near peer, much less a large and powerful near peer.
If the nation-state is unstable (or even essentially non-existent), then it’s unlikely that air artillery and air ordnance would be employed against an amphibious assault, and so the EFV is unnecessary. It’s not that the EFV design is not state of the art, but rather, that the art doesn’t match the need. But if I’ve been opposed to the EFV and the notion of full bore amphibious assaults, I have also advocated that the Marines be prepared to retool the Amphibious Assault Dock and air power and support to air-based landings farther inland.
That’s why, after seeing the maintenance problems with the V-22 Osprey in Iraq along with its inability to navigate the high elevations of Afghanistan, I have recommended that the U.S. Marine Corps not be so quick to retire its currently fleet of helicopters (Marines can fast rope from the CH-46 but cannot from the Osprey), and plan for a new fleet of helicopters. The Osprey can serve some functions (it’s faster and can fly higher and further), but cannot replace the helicopter (certainly not as a weapons platform).
But I have also recommended that the U.S. Marine Corps rethink how it does MEUs. The current practice of deploying entire Battalions of Marine infantry on board amphibious assault docks to float around the Mediterranean, Gulf of Aden and Persian Gulf for nine months so that pilots can get flight time, the Navy can get ship time and the Marines can waste time in every bar between here and there is worse that wasteful. It’s an immoral expenditure of U.S. tax dollars.
If there is actually a need for a Battalion of Marine infantry in some certain circumstance, e.g., fighting pirates, then a MEU should be deployed with very specific mission orders for landing, sea-based fighting, etc. But writing white papers about fighting pirates is one thing. Actually fighting them is another. I have previously mentioned that I interviewed one Marine Scout Sniper who had a pirate in his sights but refused even to ask for permission to fire because of ROE, and because “no one wants to deal with the lawyers.” Reality is not the same thing as white papers written by Lieutenant Colonels sitting in the Pentagon. We will finally have to deal with the issue of ROE or deploying MEUs to fight piracy is yet another waste of time and resources.
Next, I’m not convinced that training to utilize amphibious landing equipment (such as the LCAC) requires nine month deployments of entire Battalions of Marine infantry. There are better uses of Marine infantry than sitting them on board Amphibious Assault Docks awaiting deployment orders for forces in readiness that never come, and hasn’t come in decades.
It’s one thing to be amphibious capable, and entirely another to be amphibious obsessed. The future of the U.S. Marine Corps is to be a ready strike force, capable of deployment any time, anywhere, via any platform, with skills that cannot be duplicated otherwise. This might include an amphibious component, but the focus shouldn’t be only on amphibious operations.
So at least in part I disagree with the vision of the Commandant, and I certainly don’t support the use of infantry trained Marines to perform humanitarian missions. But I also strongly believe in resourcing the campaigns before us. The Marines have left Anbar, having done an extraordinary job in what I believe to be one of the most remarkable counterinsurgency campaigns in history. More than 1000 Marines were lost in Anbar. They will never be forgotten. For this fight to have been for the Army alone is inconceivable. It is equally inconceivable that Afghanistan would belong exclusively within the Army’s domain when so many Soldiers are so exhausted, and so many Marines are currently aboard Camps Lejeune and Pendleton planning for their next amphibious operation that in all likelihood will contribute essentially nothing to the security of the United States. I know that it shouldn’t be this way – and so does the Commandant.