Marines with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit embark the amphibious assault ship Bataan in March 2011, bound for the 5th Fleet area of operations. Longer MEU deployments are becoming the norm. (MC2 Julio Rivera/Navy)
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Members of Marine expeditionary units have routinely experienced extended deployments during the past few years, and now a top Navy official says that’s unlikely to change anytime soon as fewer ships are available to fulfill needs around the world.
Indeed, the standard six-month deployment for U.S.-based MEUs has grown closer to eight or even nine months. Global unrest and budgetary constraints has Rear Adm. Brian Luther, the Navy’s director of plans and operations, seeing that as “the new norm,” he said Nov. 20 during an interview with Marine Corps Times’ sister publication, Navy Times.
“The six-month deployments will be the exception rather than the norm,” he said. “And the new norm now will be the seven-and-a-half-, eight-month deployments.”
On Nov. 5, the 26th MEU returned to Camp Lejeune, N.C., after about eight months away. Earlier this year, the 15th MEU returned to California following an eight-month deployment, as well. Last year, the 24th MEU spent nearly nine months deployed.
And, of course, after the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group, carrying North Carolina’s 22nd MEU, deployed three months early in 2011 to support NATO strikes against Libya, those Marines and sailors were gone for 10½ months — 322 days. It was the longest cruise in nearly four decades.
This trend excludes the 31st MEU, which is based in Japan, because it uses a different deployment model in which infantry and aviation assets rotate to Okinawa and join the MEU, Marine officials said. If there’s a scheduling issue with the ships, the MEU participates in exercises or operations without them.
Typically, Marines know how long their deployment will last before they leave the U.S., said Capt. Eric Flanagan, a Marine spokesman at the Pentagon. However, the Corps hasn’t officially changed the MEUs’ standard deployment length, he added, noting that while officials are attuned to recent trends, MEUs, like all forward-deployed units, must remain ready to respond to any mission with which they may be tasked.
“Over the past several years many deployments have extended beyond six months for a variety of reasons,” Flanagan said. “Some of the reasons were operational, meaning we needed additional coverage that an extended deployment provides, and some were based on ship scheduling [or] maintenance issues.”
When MEU pumps are extended beyond six months, Flanagan said, the Marine Corps is committed to adjusting Marines’ time at home — what’s known as dwell time — to maintain the service’s target 1-to-2 ratio. Ideally, Marine officials want personnel to spend two months at home for every month deployed.
Pre-deployment training, which lasts about six months, is not affected when deployment lengths change, Flanagan said.