2017-01-20 By Robbin Laird
We published our Pacific strategy book in 2013 and argued the need for a significant change in strategy.
“At the heart of an effective response will be shaping innovative relationships between the United States and its allies and coming to terms with ways to deflect Chinese expansion while at the same time working with China in shaping global prosperity.
The challenge will be to forge effective building blocks through partnerships, technologies, and organizational innovations that can provide a 21st century of security and defense in the Pacific.”[ref]Laird, Robbin; Timperlake, Edward; Weitz, Richard (2013-10-28). Rebuilding American Military Power in the Pacific: A 21st-Century Strategy: A 21st-Century Strategy (Praeger Security International) (p. 5). ABC-CLIO. Kindle Edition.[/ref]
Ironically, Donald Trump is being sworn in as the 45th President of the United States the same day (given the realities of the international date line) as the official welcoming ceremony for the F-35 in Japan held at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan.
U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, commanding general of III Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) and Maj. Gen. Russell A. Sanborn, commanding general of 1st Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW) provided the key remarks during the welcoming ceremony of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121 at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, Jan. 20, 2017.
I first met Lt. General Nicholson when he was stationed in Quantico.
It was a memorable and formative meeting in my career.
I remember the meeting particularly because I had brought a group of prominent defense journalists down to North Carolina for a set of interviews.
Yoshihiko Fukuda, mayor of Iwakuni City, speaks with U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, commanding general of III Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF), during the welcoming ceremony of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121 to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, Jan. 20, 2017. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Nathan Wicks)
One of the journalists had asked Nicholson what he thought about the possibilities of giving the MRAPS to the Iraqis for their own defense forces.
He noted he thought that was not possible and asked his officer in charge of maintenance during his last Iraqi tour to comment.
The answer was blunt: “I really do not know who bought these MRAPS but there are too many different types and are very difficult to maintain.
We would not give these to the Iraqis unless we wanted to undercut their defense capability.”
Given the hype which MRAPs were getting at the time, I thought for sure one of the defense journalists would jump on the story.
No one did.
Given that massive investment in MRAPS, somewhere north of fifty billion dollars with them rapidly becoming relics and collector’s items, the shift to buying equipment that will be around fifty years contributing to US and allied defense capabilities, like F-35s, is a good point for Trump to become President.
As a result of that visit with the folks I considered to be the cream of the crop of defense journalism, I decided to move out and shape a new defense website which would focus on what the warriors and industrialists were actually doing and to shape a venue where interviews from the doers could be highlighted.
In my review of the legacy of Secretary Gates, one of the issues which I highlighted was his emphasis on MRAPS.
Acquiring some MRAPs made sense but not the at least 50 billions of dollars expended on an asset with limited utility and with very little future contribution to the force. It was a very near term asset decision, not a decision taken with the overall evolution of the future force in view.
In 2007, it was clear that Secretary Gates was jamming massive MRAP investments down the throats of the services, in spite of the very clear position of many senior players that so doing would jeopardize the force to be deployed after Iraq.
According to the then Commandant of the USMC this made no sense.
There is no question that the vehicles save lives: The up-armored trucks with their V-shaped hull protect troops from all but the largest types of explosive devices, allowing them often to walk away from some attacks that they would not have probably survived in up-armored Humvees, which are far more common in Iraq.
Yet in and outside the Pentagon, the concern is that such heavy investment in the expensive vehicles this late in the game comes with a greater price. The fear is that the average $800,000-per-unit cost and 22-ton weight of some of the vehicles may undermine military missions beyond Iraq.
Even during the current counterinsurgency, insulating US troops from the local population in these vehicles runs counter to the kinds of tactics US troops are typically employing in Iraq.
Marine Commandant Gen. James Conway supports the MRAP and said Monday the program “was the right thing to do.” But thinking ahead, the Corps’ top general is concerned that his service’s traditional missions could be hindered by the costly and heavy truck that is virtually impossible to transport easily. General Conway also believes the truck is contributing to the Corps losing its “expeditionary flavor.”
“Can I give a satisfactory answer to what we’re going to be doing with those things in five or 10 years? Probably not,” he told a group Monday at the Center for a New American Security, a new think tank in Washington.
When the Marines ultimately leave Iraq – which could be sooner rather than later since they occupy one of the most secure areas there – they will effectively be saddled with the trucks if there is no mission that requires them.
“Wrap them in shrink wrap and put them in asphalt somewhere is about the best thing that we can describe at this point,” Conway said. “And as expensive as they are, that is probably not a good use of the taxpayers’ money.”
Commandant Conway was one of those military leaders who were often obstacles to achieving the Gates vision of the future.
The quote above made in plenty of time to avoid the cascading MRAP investments out of control was reflected within the operational commands of the USMC as well.
In Afghanistan, Gates was happy to reap the benefits of the Marines’ exceptional performance in Helmand, but he can’t resist inappropriately charging them with parochial service interests at the expense of the Afghanistan mission.
Only Helmand fit Conway’s conditions.
The Marines were determined to keep operational control of their forces away from the senior U.S. commander in Kabul and in the hands of a Marine lieutenant general at Central Command in Tampa.
The Marines performed with courage, brilliance, and considerable success on the ground, but their higher leadership put their own parochial service concerns above the requirements of the overall Afghan mission.[ref]Robert M Gates (2014-01-14). Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Kindle Locations 6155-6160). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.[/ref]
Before there was Helmand there was Fallujah.
And in Fallujah, the USMC emphasized integrated operations and a central role for their integrated MAGTF approach to defeat the adversary.
As Marine Corps historian Fred Allison noted about the Battle of Fallujah:
Although Air Force, Army, and Navy aircraft flew numerous strikes, in the final tally, at least 80 percent of the CAS strikes in November in Fallujah were delivered by 3d MAW aircraft, precisely and expeditiously.
Approximately 318 precision bombs, 391 rockets and missiles, and 93,000 machinegun or cannon rounds were sent down range by aircraft—in concert with over 6,000 artillery rounds and almost 9,000 mortar rounds fired.
There were no fratricides.
Lt. General Nicholson knows something about CAS versus the utility of MRAPS.
At the 10th Anniversary of Fallujah, Lt. General Nicholson was the guest of honor.
The Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Robert B. Neller, is calling 2016 “the year of reunions.” A video message for 25th Marine Regiment from Neller was played during the event. He thanked the service members for all they did in Fallujah and reminded them to continue to look out for one another.
“I am proud to say that I saw what you did out there, saw the sacrifices you made and I know how well you served, so thank you for that,” said Neller. “I know you are taking care of each other, staying in contact and helping each other get on with their lives.”
The guest of honor at the reunion was Lt. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, commanding general of III Marine Expeditionary Force. Nicholson was the commander of 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, in 2006, and deployed with 25th Marine Regiment to Fallujah. He spoke to the service members about how proud he was of their actions and how the difference they made will never be forgotten.
“There is a connection here that will be unbroken for the rest of your lives,” said Nicholson. “You are Fallujah Marines until the day you die. They will talk about you long after you are gone. The way we talk about Guadalcanal Marines and Iwo Jima Marines today, is how they will talk about you.”
It is in that spirit that he welcomed the Green Knights to Japan.
And in a second video provided by the USMC, the CO of the Green Knights, Lt. Col. Bardo, whom we interviewed in Yuma prior to his departure for Japan provides his perspective of the move from Yuma to Japan.
In our interview with Lt. Col. Bardo at Yuma as he prepared the squadron for departure, he underscored the importance of what the Marines were about to do, both in terms of providing close air support for Marine Corps operations as well as providing a new air-to-air capability for the force.
“CAS is considered doctrinally a function which operates only in a permissive air environment.
“We can expand CAS to deal with a much wider range of situations than when we would simply operate in a permissive air environment.
“And we can provide greater assurance to Marines as they deploy on the ground that we can deal with a much wider array of pop-up threats than we could do with legacy aircraft.”
And when he discussed the experience of the squadron at Red Flag he highlighted the air to air role as well.
This summer, the squadron sent planes to Red Flag and flew in a US-only exercise with the full panoply of USN and USAF aircraft, excluding the F-15s.
There the USMC flew its jets and were part of reshaping of air to air operations associated with the F-35.
Lt. Col. Bardo noted that there were many F-16 National Guard pilots who were there, some of which had flown with the F-22 but had not flown with the F-35.
They soon learned that you did not want to be an adversary but to leverage what the F-35 brought the fight.”
And most of all, he underscored the flexibility for the pilot in the ability to execute multi-missions with much greater proficiency.
“For the pilot, the ability to shift among missions without having to think sequentially about doing so is really a key strength of the aircraft.
“The airplane can think CAS and air-to-air at the same time and the pilot can then mix and match as the mission demands rather than having to think through the sequence of going from one mission set to the next.”
In short, the Marines have brought a new capability to the fight and with the dynamics of change in the Pacific they have come not a minute too soon.
Editor’s Note: For our Special Report which looks at the integration of the F-35B into MAGTF operations, see the following: