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As the Corps rolls out its latest concept of operations — Expeditionary Force 21 — the service must overhaul predeployment training to prepare Marines for future challenges of unpredictable missions in parts unknown.
“One of the things we have to get back to is our ability to train properly and not use a formatted method for training — a cookie cutter approach as it were — for getting people ready to go on deployment,” said Brig Gen. Bill Mullen, director of the Capabilities Development Directorate, during an April 9 panel discussion at this year’s Sea-Air-Space Exposition in National Harbor, Maryland. “ The forces that we were delivering as a service had to have certain capabilities and things were moving very, very quickly.
“That drove us to one model for preparing that I don’t think was very effective and unfortunately led to some habits that were less than desirable.”
Through EF-21 the Marine Corps is resetting itself for rapid crisis response where units as small as companies may be expected to operate anywhere across the globe without support for days or even a week as a larger force gears up for support. But, after more than a decade of predictable large-scale operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the service needs to refocus on preparing Marines for the unexpected, Mullen said
The “unexpected” here denotes everything ranging from scooping up diplomats at a besieged embassy, to full-scale amphibious operations in the lead up to a larger land war. To be clear, through EF-21, the Corps imagines itself as leaner, more agile, able to deftly accomplish smaller crisis missions, while retaining capability to put a Marine expeditionary bgrigade on an enemy beachhead.
That mission not only requires a comprehensive overhaul of equipment, it requires a training overhaul.
With operations in Afghanistan nearing an end, predeployment preparations will be tweaked in the months and years to come. While Mullen did not offer specific examples, changes that have already been made to training offer a preview of what is likely to come.
For example, in the fall of 2012, Enhanced Mojave Viper, the predeployment exercise created in 2005 for all Marines deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan was overhauled to reincorporate pre-9/11 training. The 35-day-long evolution was renamed Integrated Training Exercise and revised to include a combined-arms exercise like the one Marines conducted before the global war on terrorism kicked off. ITX began focusing on midrange military operations that were smaller than major combat operations, but bigger than small insurgencies.
With EF-21 focusing in large part on rapid crisis response over long distances by leveraging aircraft rather than amphibious ships, workups could be tweaked further to include training tailored to small security operations.
Missions could also include medium- or large-sized operations like securing coastal airstrips or bases, and even full-scale seizures of large swaths of land. But in either case, lead elements would likely be small and widely dispersed.
Today’s enemies have weapons that can fire from hundreds to thousands of miles away. That requires Marines to operate from greater distances in many situations, said Maj. Scott Cuomo, director of the Infantry Officer Course at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., where young officers are being taught to operate independently until larger forces can respond. That can also limit the size of the force they’re able to put on the ground immediately.
“Between 100 to 200 Marines will be the first wave in,” Cuomo told Marine Corps Times in early April. “And that force is going to have to fight by itself for — in what Expeditionary Force 21 lays out — potentially three to seven days that [it’s] on the ground.”
The mission, along with the time spent without direct support, requires more morally, mentally and physically capable Marines, Cuomo said. And Expeditionary Force 21 lays out the plan for operating in those more austere, forward-based conditions.
For that reason, training will likely emphasize shaping tougher, fitter Marines necessary for dispersed and dismounted operations, rather than vehicle-borne operations out of forward operating bases like many of those conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Frankly, working off of forward operating bases and from vehicles lends to a relatively sedentary lifestyle. We have to get away from that. We have to be fast, austere and lethal and that means fit,” Mullen said. “I’d say we are fairly fit right now, but we can always be better.”
The nature of operations on the small end of the scale is exemplified by recent operations in South Sudan. The recently created Special-Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force Crisis Response flew 4,200 miles in January from its base in Morón, Spain, to support the evacuation of embassy personnel threatened by violent unrest in Juba.
The 550-strong unit leveraged four MV-22 Ospreys and the refueling capabilities of two KC-130J Super Hercules aircraft to travel large distances quickly. Those sorts of operations are challenging because they are less than ideal when compared to the traditional use of amphibious ships, said Brig Gen. Matthew Glavy, assistant deputy commandant for aviation, who also participated in the panel discussion. But, the advantage is speed and reach.
“In the old days, you had to wait for the amphibs, you had to embark on the amphibs and you had to move to the objective,” Glavy said.
The ships offered a lot of power and remain key to the service. He described everything done without an amphibious ship as “sub-optimized.”
“But with that said, we have to be the right force, at the right place, at the right time. We are not going to cry in our beer. The ability to maneuver is powerful,” he said.
Marines must now be able to execute an operation “from one parking lot or field, to another parking lot or field” hundreds or even thousands of miles away, he said.
EF-21 and the increased reliance on aircraft rather than ships is highlighted by humanitarian relief efforts carried out in the Philippines following a typhoon that devestated the country in November. Marines forward deployed to Manilla, which was spared the destruction seen in other regions, were able to quickly move goods hundreds of miles to stricken areas.
“If you don’t have the capabilities the [combatant commander] wants, you are not relevant,” Glavy added.
But short notice to deploy anywhere from Juba to Manilla means Marines must be prepared for unforeseen contingencies.
“We have to get back to the ability to train our folks to deal with just about any kind of possibility that is out there because it is not exactly like peace is breaking out in the world today,” Mullen added. “And the problems that are out there are pretty wicked. So we have to emphasize also how we educate our Marines and how we get them thinking to deal with all the problems that are out there.
“One of the guys that I admire greatly is Brig. Gen. Tom Gowdy, who says training prepares you for certainty, things that you know you are going to have to do. Education prepares you for uncertainty. There is a heck of a lot of uncertainty out there, and that is not going to change.”
Mullens comments suggest changes to training could extend beyond predeployment workups to include classroom lessons. The Marine Corps has made movements in recent years toward teaching junior Marines cultural and language skills, a trend that is likely to continue.
Staff writer Gina Harkins contributed to this report.