USMC Marine Expeditionary Units become “marine” again
Source: Navy Times
Amphibious ops to become default mode for MEUs
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?”
Fighting pirates and more
In February, Camp Lejeune’s 26th MEU sent a detachment of Marines to the Gulf of Aden, where they manned a makeshift brig for suspected pirates aboard the Military Sealift Command supply ship Lewis and Clark. Such interaction is only going to grow.
The new MEU policy expands Marines’ role in maritime interception operations, which include counterpiracy missions, security patrols, hunting for drug and weapons smugglers, enforcing international laws and seizing ships or platforms.
Marines assigned to MEUs will conduct more ship boardings — known as VBSS, or visit- board-search-seize — including noncompliant hostile boardings. The recent rise in high-profile pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden and elsewhere off the coast of eastern Africa, including the Somali pirate takedown of the U.S.-flagged ship Maersk Alabama in April, has given new urgency to the mission. The 13th MEU was called to help plan that operation.
“I was not called on to solve that problem. I was the supporting effort. [Special operations] forces solved that problem,” Coffman said, referring to the SEAL team that swooped in dramatically and rescued the Maersk Alabama’s American captain, who had been taken captive by a band of pirates.
Such missions, he said, are an important niche for expeditionary amphibious forces. “We can’t sit idly by and let legally flagged commerce fall to pirates. That is ridiculous,” he said. “We cannot sit idly by and watch civilian mariners be captured or killed. We are going to be in those places, because that’s what we do for a living.”
Is there room for spec ops?
Despite the new requirements, MEUs won’t be getting any additional personnel to fill the VBSS mission. In the past, that job was handled primarily by a Maritime Special Purpose Force consisting of recon and Force recon Marines. MarSOC has changed the game, though it’s still unclear how spec ops Marines will fit into the equation.
The new policy calls for MarSOC to provide 84-member Marine special operations companies — or MSOCs — to plan, train and deploy when needed as part of the MEU. It says also that those Marines should support missions involving direct action, special reconnaissance and foreign internal defense, but it stops short of mandating it.
The 11th MEU, for example, left Camp Pendleton in late September with no MSOC and no boat-raid company in the battalion landing team. However, “we are deploying with a VBSS capability,” said Col. Gregg Olson, who’s commanding the MEU during its six-month pump. He has pulled together a boarding force, taking a rifle platoon and a command-and-control team and partnering them with helicopters.
When a Marine spec ops company joins a MEU for its workups, certification and deployment, the unit is considered special-operations capable. Eventually, Impellitteri said, MEUs will operate with other commando forces, not just MarSOC units. But without a strict requirement for an embarked MSOC, ongoing demand for Marine special operators elsewhere makes it less likely MEUs would automatically deploy with one. The new policy doesn’t explain what will fill that gap.
Help could come with the resurgence of Force reconnaissance, giving MEU commanders a platoon of experienced recon men who could join with the battalion landing team’s division recon platoon to conduct and support missions similar to those that are tasked to an MSOC. The next three MEUs scheduled to deploy — the 24th, out of Camp Lejeune, and the 15th and 13th, out of Pendleton — will test the concept to re-establish that boarding capability. But, Coffman noted, “the jury is still out on exactly how we’re going to pull it all together.”
More airframes, firepower
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.
During its workups, the 11th MEU equipped its AV-8B Harriers with Litening pods, advanced airborne targeting and navigation systems that feed live video to a raid force. It also experimented with balloons as surrogate satellite relays, Olson said.
Soon, too, more MEUs will deploy with advanced ground weapons systems, including M777 lightweight 155mm howitzers and 120mm towed mortar Expeditionary Fire Support Systems, though the new guidelines don’t mention the high-mobility artillery rocket system, which has replaced artillery cannons in some batteries.
A basic MEU will have a platoon of four tanks, although the 31st MEU, based in Japan, would take six combat rubber craft instead, along with more utility vehicles and up-armored Humvees and trucks. Some MEU commanders have deployed without Abrams tanks, but Olson, who’s served with four MEUs in his career, won’t leave home without them. When he led 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, to Iraq in the spring of 2004, those tanks provided extra firepower against hardened insurgent targets entrenched in Fallujah. After that, “I’m a firm believer that there’s plenty of problems that can be solved with an M1A1 battle tank,” he said.
So how will the Corps integrate all these pieces? In short: new training.
Officials are revising the MEU’s pre-deployment program, last updated in January 2001. In September, Training and Education Command held the first meeting to rewrite the standards. The revamped program could be done by the spring, Impellitteri said.
Details are sketchy at this point, but here’s a basic outline of what you can expect. For starters, each MEU will form its command element one year before it is scheduled to deploy and begin training with its elements using the MEU’s standard 26-week workup schedule before getting certified and deploying.
There are three critical at-sea periods in which MEU Marines learn to operate in sync with the Navy and conduct the range of MEU amphibious missions. Olson and the 11th MEU melded its at-sea periods with ground and long-range from-the-sea operations. MEUs, he said, “have got to be ready to do both and be ashore for 15 days.”
From there, Marine officials have a lot to sort out and several questions still left to answer. Among the most obvious: How do you train for ship-boarding missions, and who gets to do it? The new guidance leaves that up to the commander.
“It’s going to be tough,” Coffman said. “A commander’s going to have to get them … on a specialized track to learn boarding skills and shooting skills. … It ain’t [done in] three days.”
Officials must also decide whether to revamp or do away with urban training exercises — known as TRUEX — and whether to require standardized theater-specific training. Regular battalions deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan have been required to complete Mojave Viper, the monthlong battalion-level exercises at Twentynine Palms, Calif., but MEUs have no such requirement.
There are no easy answers. No two pumps are the same, said Olson, a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq combat tours now on his sixth deployment with a MEU. “A lot depends on what the circumstances are into which you deploy,” he said.
“Every float has its own personality. You go to different places, you do different things — some are more oriented on training, some are more oriented on real-world operations.”
In 2001, the 15th MEU — with Olson as the operations officer — left the West Coast and wound up in Kandahar, but the call to combat doesn’t always come. It’s something commanders are mindful of when a half-year spent training for combat leads to six months of training foreign forces, visiting foreign ports or, of late, patrolling for pirates and terrorists.
“That’s MEU roulette,” Coffman said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen. But you’ve got to do it in the crappiest of conditions, in the middle of the night off the ship somewhere in the ocean in a place you’ve never been before, and you’ve got to get it right the first time.”