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Marine Corps preparing for broader operations, more crises

Sep. 21, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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A pair of KC-130J Hercules with Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response prepare to refuel MV-22B Ospreys near the coast of Spain. The force provides crisis-response capabilities without relying on Navy ships. (Cpl. Michael Petersheim / Marine Corps)
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The Marine Corps is developing new units and partnerships across the globe as it shifts from fighting in Afghanistan to responding to a variety of crises and hostilities in other regions.

The plan calls for new initiatives in a variety of theaters, including the Pacific, Middle East, Africa and possibly South America, senior Marine officers said. That’s despite the U.S. military facing stiff federally mandated budget cuts that restrict training, maintenance and operations.

A sign of the times emerged in April, when the Corps deployed a new 550-Marine crisis-response force to Morón Air Base in Spain to be closer to volatile areas in northern Africa. A similar unit is in the works for the Middle East, said Lt. Gen. John Toolan, commanding general of I Marine Expeditionary Force, out of Camp Pendleton, Calif.

Details about the crisis-response force for the U.S. Central Command region are still being finalized, but it will be similar to the unit developed for Africa, Toolan said. That unit, commanded by Col. Scott Benedict, is a Marine air-ground task force with its own ground combat element, logistics support and aviation assets. It is built around a reinforced rifle company and supported by six MV-22 Osprey aircraft, giving it the ability to fly quickly for missions ranging from embassy reinforcement to humanitarian assistance. Another crisis-response force is coming for U.S. Southern Command, but it’s still uncertain how large it will be or when it will deploy.

None of the new crisis-response forces will rely on amphibious ships for support. The Corps has long billed its Marine expeditionary unit, deployed aboard Navy ships, as the nation’s premier crisis-response force, but the sea service’s long-term amphib shortage makes it impossible for the U.S. to keep a MEU in the Mediterranean Sea full-time.

Commandant Gen. Jim Amos told MEF commanders they must still be prepared to respond to crises, however, Toolan said. The new force for CENTCOM, he said, will rely heavily on forces from his command and have a headquarters in Bahrain, where the military already has a heavy presence within several hundred miles of Yemen, Iran, Iraq and other nations where violent extremism is present.

The crisis-response units fill a need, said Maj. Gen. Frederick Padilla, director of operations at Marine Corps headquarters.

“If we could, we’d put a MEU there,” he said of areas where emergencies arise. “But we can’t, so we’re putting special-purpose MAGTF crisis-response [units] out there. ... They’re forward-deploy­ed, and they can respond very quickly with a capability that will stave off a bad situation from getting worse.”

For larger missions, the Corps developed a one-star headquarters in Bahrain for Marine Corps Forces Central Command. Commanded by Brig. Gen. Gregg Olson, it gives the service a permanent command element in the Middle East that forces can fall under if military action is needed. It was called for in 2011 as part of the service’s broad force structure review.

“He’s right there, and the advantage to that is he is very familiar with the situation there, and he’s very familiar with all the players in the region,” Padilla said of Olson.

Preparing for crisis

Preparing for crisis means more to Marine commanders than establishing new units to respond in emergencies. The service has long prided itself on actively engaging with friendly militaries across the globe, building relationships it can rely on later when military action is needed.

The ongoing drawdown in Afghanistan has enabled the service to do more of that, and it plans to keep expanding in the future, Padilla said. In Japan, for example, the Corps’ Unit Deployment Program will expand again in October to include three infantry battalions that travel the Pacific and train with militaries in Thailand, South Korea, the Philippines and other nations. While the Corps always has desired to do so, its footprint on Okinawa will be larger than at any time since 9/11.

“The purpose of being in the Pacific is to be forward-engaged,” Padilla said. “To know the area so that when there is a crisis out there, we’re not trying to leverage our understanding of an environment and our relationships with the locals on the fly. We’re leveraging relationships and an understanding that we already have.”

The Corps plans to have its forces in the Pacific distributed in more locations than before 9/11, with some 5,000 Marines eventually based in Guam, and 2,500 in Australia on a rotational basis. That’s in addition to the 31st MEU, which continues to deploy from Okinawa and travel the region. That will allow the service to respond to more events in the region in quick fashion.

The Corps also has reconfigured its MEUs to respond in more locations, something highlighted by the recent hostilities in Syria. When the U.S. was on the brink of a military strike there in August, the 26th MEU, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., was distributed among three ships in the Middle East that were hundreds of miles apart. The amphibious assault ship Kearsarge was in the United Arab Emirates and the amphibious dock landing ship Carter Hall was off the coast of Africa in the Seychelles, each nearly a week from the Syrian coast in the Mediterranean. The amphibious transport dock San Antonio was in the Gulf of Aden, however, and began steaming through the Red Sea and Suez Canal in case Marines were needed.

Toolan said that is likely to continue happening, meaning commanders must carefully distribute equipment among the ships. Big-deck amphibs like the Kearsarge, for example, once carried nearly all of a MEU’s helicopters, but it is now necessary to split them up, Toolan said. Marines also used Navy helicopters within the past year to conduct quick boarding missions of small vessels in the Suez Canal, he said.

In Africa, the Corps will examine how best to configure its forces, Padilla said. Two units — Special-Purpose MAGTF-Africa and SPMAGTF-Crisis Response — have forces devoted to the region. The former deployed in 2011, establishing headquarters at Naval Station Sigonella in Italy and fanning across Africa in small teams to train friendly forces. Early this year, however, it also was tapped to provide security at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli. That is no longer the case — the crisis-response force took on that assignment after it deployed — but Padilla said it is likely the units will eventually be combined under the command of one colonel.

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