Working II MEF Operations in Transition


By Robbin Laird

While reshaping how it will operate in the future, II MEF has to be ready to fight now. And to do so for 2nd and 6th Fleets as well as EUCOM. This means reshaping what it can do but to rework how it is integrated with the NAVY and the evolving joint force.

During my visit to II MEF at Camp Lejeune, I had a chance to discuss with the leadership at the MEF on the challenges of so doing and shaping a way ahead. I have also had the chance with my colleague Ed Timperlake in visiting Second Fleet, to discuss with C2F leadership the challenges of working a co-evolution with the USMC, and with the Nordics on what they view as the kind of force engagement by the Navy and Marines which dovetails most effectively into their own force transformation and reworking of European defense.  These are three trajectories in motion and the challenge is to work effectively ways to ensure convergence on effective approaches.

During my visit to Camp Lejeune, I had a chance to discuss the challenges of shaping the way ahead with Col. David S. Owen, the Assistant Chief of Staff for Operations (G-3) and LtCol Jon Erskine. For an enhanced focus on working with the U.S. Navy both officers have significant relevant experience. Among other aspects of his background, are several years of at sea experience with MEUs, and on carriers. With regard to LtCol Erskine, he was a Navy surface warfare officer who later became a Marine.

The current USMC Commandant has highlighted the importance of integration with the U.S. Navy as it focuses on the high-end fight. And to do so by finding ways for the Marines to operate in the weapons engagement zone or the WEZ. Another way to put this is to shape the ability of the Marines to operate as an “inside” force to support the “outside” force.

As the discussants at the Future Amphibious Forces, 2020 Conference last December put it, in working these kinds of issues the key question is both the strategic and tactical purpose of force redesign. As the moderator of the day, a noted former British General, highlighted at the end of the day, “We have had a very good conversation throughout the day about the future of amphibious forces.”

But as he also noted, the key challenge really was to sort through where one wanted to take those forces in terms of “what kinds of wars or conflicts were being prepared for or prioritized.”

His question underscored the core challenge facing any discussion of the way ahead for Maritime special forces or amphibious forces: What is their role in the high-end fight?

What is their role in crisis management?

And how related are the answers to these two questions?

Put another way, focusing on amphibious forces and their future quickly takes one into the realm of warfighting capabilities now, the next five years and the decade ahead.

In turn, the question is posed as well with regard to what capabilities are desired and for which concepts of operations to shape what kind of warfighting outcome?

In other words, there is no single force design which will easily embrace the range of options or be able to answer the question of prioritization for the warfighting approaches for the high-end fight.

As Col. Owen put it quite clearly in our discussion, “Above all, even if we are focused on enhanced naval integration, what we are really focused on is warfighting and how best to do it.”

It is clear that figuring out how the Marines can fight, survive and best deliver a desired combat effect while operating in the WEZ is challenging. As Col. Owen put it: “We need to figure out how best to operate within the WEZ. We have operated as MAGTFs, and MEUs and that entails bringing a force that is wholly. Capable. A MEU is a little suitcase of MEF-wide capabilities that can deliver scalable effects. It is a Swiss Army Knife. With a focus on the inside force approach, we are acting as an enabler for the joint or coalition force. How best to do so?”

One way to look at the force re-configuration is for a Marine Corps formation to operate, as Col. Owens noted, “to facilitate decisions in a larger kill web. For example, a Marine Corps Reconnaissance force could be part of a larger formation with tentacles which it extends to enable the force either through its own resources or tapping into other capabilities, such as the P-8.”

For LtCol Erskine, as a former SWO, he has very relevant domain expertise to work the problem of how Marines can contribute to a distributed kill web firing solution. He underscored the importance of working the sensor/shooter “mesh.” As he noted: “How do you connect any sensors on the battlefield to provide targeting quality data into a system and route it to the right decision-maker who has the authorities to either employ that weapon or coordinate it with other fire-decision authorities?”

If one is putting Marines inside the WEZ with strike weapons, those weapons clearly need to be integrated with the other services, to ensure that combat effectiveness is the outcome, rather than fratricide, negative impacts on the tactical situation or impacting negatively on the strategic crisis management decisions which need to be made as well in a conflict situation.

Marines in a kill web reconnaissance situation as an inside force might be aides to the process of finding targets and then passing those targets to the right shooter and use an asset they do not even own. As LtCol Erskine highlighted: “You could reach out to a JSF that’s in your engagement area, or you could reach out to a ship at sea or any aircraft flying through your airspace to pass the appropriate data for a firing solution. It may not even work for you as a Marine Corps unit.”

In effect, the goal is for the Marines to work with the joint and coalition force to shape a “fires network of things.”

For enhanced Navy and Marine Corps integration, clearly one challenge to be met is how to shape an integrated maritime campaign. How do you coordinate fires on land with fires at sea? As LtCol Erskine underscored the challenge: How do I provide those fires in support of the fleet from land-based capabilities and vice versa?”

As VADM Lewis put it in our discussions with Second Fleet, he put this challenge as one of enabling the fleet and the joint and coalition force to be able to operate either as supporting or supported elements dependent on the combat situation.  Shaping such a flexible combat capability is clearly a work in progress, and when where II MEF and C2F are key innovators in shaping a way ahead.

Featured Photo: U.S. Marine Col. David S. Owen is presented the Legion of Merit during a change of command ceremony for II MIG on Camp Lejeune, N.C., June 7, 2018. Owen relinquished his command of II MIG to Col. Jordan D. Walzer. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Caleb T. Maher)