USMC to get back to its expeditionary roots


Everyone get back on the boat!
Corps to get back to its expeditionary roots

By Kimberly Johnson - Staff writer
Posted : Monday Feb 11, 2008 22:31:59 EST

The Corps is creating a new pre-emptive strike force unit that will put more Marines back aboard ships.

The plan, which includes creating new Security Cooperation Marine Air-Ground Task Forces, is a road map for how the service plans to fight future irregular wars and was reportedly signed off on by Commandant Gen. James Conway the week of Jan. 28.

For Marines, it means new advisory missions on top of existing requirements. And for sailors, it will mean a steady reliance on the amphibious fleet.

In recent years, with Marines committed to a long-term presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Navy’s gator force has, at times, deployed without Marines on unique missions, such as chasing pirates off Africa or using a big-deck amphib as a floating health clinic in Asia.

But that may soon be adjusted under the new operational concept, known informally as “The Long War” brief.

The emerging “long war” will put new demands on the Corps, Conway said in the report.

“Paramount among these demands will be the requirement for Marines to train and mentor the security forces of partner nations in a manner that empowers their governments to secure their own countries,” he said.

Based on threat assessments projected through 2015, Marines face a spectrum of operations, the report said: stability and support; small wars and counterinsurgency; humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and nation-building; peacekeeping operations; combating terrorism; counterproliferation and nonproliferation; combating drug trafficking and crime; and non-combatant evacuation operations.

“There will be fewer high-spectrum combat operations that require our Marines to bring the full force of our combined arms capabilities to bear,” according to the report.

Under the “Long War” plan, Marine expeditionary units will continue to be the “vanguard” first responders of the Corps. The Corps also will forward-deploy more Marines in the Western Pacific through a combination of permanently forward-based forces and forces sourced through the re-establishment of the Unit Deployment Program.

Central to Conway’s plan is the creation of the new units — the SC MAGTFs — to handle the building of partner-nation capacity, including requirements for civil-military operations and training less-developed military forces, the plan said. The unit will be “‘eyes forward’ in areas not previously accessible to U.S. military forces,” and will be used as an operational reconnaissance asset capable of taking on some special-operations missions.

Makeup, staffing
It will be made up of ground, logistics and aviation combat elements, and standing SC MAGTFs will support Africa, Southwest Asia and South America.

The SC MAGTFs would be staffed with officers and noncommissioned officers educated in specific micro-regions and Marines who are native speakers of the languages in the region.

“Among these changed practices is the implementation of a regional focus for units that source this new capability [SC MAGTF],” according to an introduction signed by Conway. “Through this initiative, changes to manpower policies will enable the development of linguistically adept, culturally aware units for training foreign military forces across the globe.”

The plan underscores the Corps’ naval roots — a sensitive subject for Conway, who recently lamented that many of today’s young Marines have remained landlocked.

“We now have a generation of men and women who do not have a complete understanding of what expeditionary is,” he said to reporters Feb 1. “That people now believe that three square meals a day courtesy of KBR and a cot is expeditionary, that is just not true in most of the environments where we would expect to find ourselves in the early going of a contingency.”

It’s back to the blue-green team.

“In the future, more Marines than ever will be deployed aboard Navy and potentially Coast Guard shipping,” the report said.

The new initiative comes as the Corps works to get the deployment cycles back to normal, the report said. The Corps’ 27 active-duty infantry battalions — up from its current 24, a goal to be realized under its ramp-up to an end strength of 202,000 by 2011 — would allow forces to operate on a 1-to-2 deployment-to-dwell ratio. Under the scheme, nine battalions would be forward-deployed at any one time — three with Marine expeditionary units, three forward-deployed on Guam and Okinawa, and three SC MAGTFs — while 18 conducted full-spectrum training.

“This increase in deployment-to-dwell rotation cycle combined with the Marine Corps’ growth in force structure will result in the ability to train to full spectrum operations while projecting Marines to locations across the globe where they can provide the most lasting effect,” the report said.

Bob Work, a former Marine officer and now senior defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said the new operational concept for the Marine Corps will mean plenty of work for the Navy’s amphibious fleet.

“The Marines are thinking really hard about getting back into the naval expeditionary mind-set. Right now, they just don’t have a lot of slack to do it,” he said. “The amphibs are not going away.”

As a more detailed vision of the “soft power” elements in the new Maritime Strategy, released in October, the SC MAGTF is similar in spirit to the Navy’s “global fleet station,” a ship or group of ships deployed to a specific region with embarked local-language speakers and training cadres.

The most recent GFS set sail in mid-October when the Little Creek, Va.-based dock landing ship Fort McHenry steamed for the west coast of Africa to serve as a floating “partnership station,” building relations with the militaries and civilians in the nations of the strategically important Gulf of Guinea. It was joined recently by the High Speed Vessel Swift.

According to the 52-page “Long War” document, “mission success” for continually forward-deployed Marines will rely on available transport via naval forces.

“More than ever before, our linkage with the Navy must be firm and based on shared understanding and vision,” it states. “The Marine Corps must maintain its Naval roots to shape the environment and effectively deter adversaries.”

New missions
Those new sorts of missions are similar to a new Marine/Navy configuration proposed by Frank Hoffman, a former Marine officer and who is a national security analyst for the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies based in Arlington, Va. In an article for the May 2007 issue of Marine Corps Gazette, titled “Rethinking Naval Forward Presence,” Hoffman called for a new mix of forces in the post-Sept. 11 world order.

“I just don’t see the need to employ these ships on a day-to-day basis in the way the Navy is doing,” he said in an interview. “The Navy is not suffering with the same operational tempo so they are spitting out the same deployment rotations.”

While the new Marine concept may provide greater definition in similar future scenarios, the recent past has shown creative uses for “green-free” amphibs.

In May, the amphibious assault ship Peleliu steamed from San Diego on a floating four-month humanitarian assistance and civil affairs mission throughout Southeast Asia called “Pacific Partnership.”

Before being decommissioned in 2007, the amphibious assault ship Saipan deployed in August 2006 with only an embarked Navy helicopter detachment as an “expeditionary action group.”

For Norman Polmar, a long-time naval analyst and author, the versatile amphibious ships should be deployed, but with a good purpose. He takes issue with the Peleliu deployment last year on a medical mission, saying that’s the job of the hospital ships such as Comfort and Mercy, not a “first-line warship,” he said.

Further, swift and deadly surface combatants such as cruisers, destroyers and frigates are ideal for catch-all “maritime security operations,” he said, so if the gators are deployed, give them something else to do.

“Maritime security operations are simply a ship going into an area to do surveillance and patrol,” Polmar said. “But a 40,000-ton LHD with a crew of 1,000 sailors doesn’t do maritime surveillance and patrol.”
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