The Strategic Opportunities and Challenges for II MEF Transformation


By Robbin Laird

During late April 2021, I had the chance to visit II MEF at Camp Lejeune.

This command is a key part of the overall effort to reshape the working relationship between the operational Navy and the USMC to enable integrated operations.

The entire effort encompassed by Second Fleet, Allied Joint Force Command, 2nd Marine Air Wing and IIMEF constitutes a significant reshaping of how to fight the 4th Battle of the Atlantic.

For II MEF, such an effort provides both significant challenges and significant opportunities for transformation.

The significant challenge can be put simply: the US Navy is in the throes of significant change as it refocuses on blue water operations and fighting as a fleet.

This is a work in progress.

The USMC under the current Commandant is focused on reshaping to work with the Navy more effective in integrated operations, but doing so when the fleet itself is changing is particularly challenging.

And the strategic shift from the land wars to blue water expeditionary operations is very challenging as an entire generation of Naval and Marine Corps sailors and Marines and their officer have worked in support of COIN and not upon high end warfare.

At the same time, for II MEF there are significant opportunities as well.

The redesign of North Atlantic defense is coming at a time when the Nordic allies are committed to direct defense and to enhancing their own integration to deal with the Russian challenges.

Although IIMEF is not the epicenter for receiving new Marine Corps kit, with the exception of the CH-53K (it does not have F-35Bs as part of its organic fighting force, e.g.), it must find was to innovate with the kit it has and to find new ways to work with an evolving US Navy to sort through how to deliver combat effects from ashore and at sea in support of the maritime fight.

I had a chance to discuss those challenges and opportunities with the three-star IIMEF Commander, Lieutenant General Brian D. Beaudreault, a very experienced Marine who has worked with the core group of leaders who have stood up the innovation cluster from Norfolk through North Carolina to shape a way ahead for a more integrated USMC-USN effort in the Atlantic.

We started by his highlighting the command guidance he has received from the USMC Commandant.

As Lt. General Beaudreault put it: “Paraphrasing the guidance: tighten your lifelines with second and sixth fleet. As they Navy shapes itself to do distributed maritime operations, how do we help, and how do we reconfigure?”

One of the challenges clearly is working both with Second and Sixth Fleet, with C2F as the new kid on the block and Sixth Fleet reworking its efforts in Atlantic defense. There is a clear command issue which needs to be sorted out going forward which is important in helping the Marines to better integrate with Navy evolution. Second Fleet C2 authorities end with Greenland with 6th Fleet having C2 authorities after that point. But Vice Admiral Lewis is the commander as well of Allied Joint Force Command whose forces obviously extend beyond Greenland into the continent.

In my discussions in the command during my visit, this issues was raised several times and clearly this is a work in progress.

The reason this is especially important for the Marines as that (in my view), a key Cold War mission for the Marines was to get to Norway as rapidly as possible to reinforce their efforts against the Soviets. In those days, the Warsaw Pact geography gave the Russians key advantages in a conflict which they do not have in the new geography.

The Soviets planned in case of conflict, a German style operation against Norway and Denmark.

This is off the table as the Nordic integration of Finland, with Sweden, with Norway with Denmark, and out to the wider reaches of the Kingdom of Denmark, the Faroe Islands, and Greenland, with Iceland as the perimeter of this geographical reach of the Nordic region creates a new strategic situation and opportunity.

For the Marines, a key contribution to the maritime fight in the region is clearly to be able to operate afloat and ashore, and interactively between the two in providing key reconnaissance, key choke point capabilities and fires in support of the maritime maneuver force.

And at the outset, the new capabilities which the Marines are developing will be viewed by the Navy as complimentary to their capabilities, and will need to demonstrate to the fleet that some of their sea denial and sea control functions can be ceded to the Marines in time of conflict.

In effect, a chessboard is being shaped where the fleet interacts with air and land assets to create a 360-degree operational area from Florida to Finnmark.

And the goal as seen by Lt. General Beaudreault is to “leave no operational seams the Russians can exploit in times of conflict.”

A key tool set important to the reworking is clearly training and exercises.

Lt. General Beaudreault emphasized that what is occurring is a “refocus on scale” where the focus is upon the expeditionary strike force level, not at the MEB level. The C2 redesign efforts prioritized by VADM Lewis are a key part of how IIMEF is addressing how to shape the kind of distributed force capability which can deliver a more effective integrated force able to deliver the kind of crisis management and combat effects needed in the North Atlantic.

As Lt. General Beaudreault put the challenge: “What command and control arrangements do we need for a naval distributed force to be effective?” And as this being designed, tested and exercised how will the MEF be reshaped as a key partner in the maritime fight?

The recent testimony of the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency highlighted the central nature of the Russian challenge to the United States and its allies. For the United States, in many ways the most direct threat to our country comes from the forces operating from the Kola Peninsula.

This means that although China may be the pacing threat, warfighting and deterrence of the Russians is crucial. What this means is that experimentation to shape the integrated distributed force needs to reinforce combat capability and not have open ended disruption which reduces the ability to engage the adversary at his time and choosing.

What this means in turn is that there is a clear need to work with the kit that IIMEF has now and not a decade from now.

Part of this is re-imaging what the amphibious forces can bring to the maritime fight.

Part of this is focusing on how legacy assets like Hueys and Cobras can be retrofitted with anti-surface weapons and sensors.

Part of this is relaying on the central role which Ospreys can play in moving forces and support across the chessboard. In other words, modernization accounts need to keep abreast of how the Marines can support the kind of innovation underway with the fleet and the allies in the Atlantic.

In the Commandant’s focus on the Pacific, III MEF is prioritized. T

his leaves II MEF in the position to ensure that it can work more effectively with allies in support of the reshaping of the Marines role in the maritime fight.

As Lt. General Beaudreault put it: One of our lines of effort in the campaign plan is to deepen our ties with our alliance partners, and not just from an interoperability, I mean truly interdependence, and not just integrated, but interdependent.”

U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Brian D. Beaudreault, Commanding General, II Marine Expeditionary Force, returns a salute to U.S. Navy Sailors during Composite Unit Training Exercise (COMPTUEX) aboard the USS Iwo Jima on Mar. 17, 2021. COMPTUEX is a month-long training event designed to test the MEU’s capabilities against the full spectrum of military operations. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sergeant Mark E Morrow Jr)

And this clearly is happening with what Rear Admiral Betton, Deputy Commander of Allied JFC. Refers to as the “relevant nations.”  In our recent interview with Betton in Norfolk (I first interviewed him in Portsmouth when he as the first commander of HMS Queen Elizabeth) he underscored how the allied and U.S. efforts were blending and how that blending was central to the strategic redesign.

As Betton put it: “The U.S. is by far the dominant figure of NATO, but it’s not the only piece.

“And it’s not always just the heavy metal that is relevant. It’s the connectivity, it’s the infrastructure and the architecture that enables the 30 nations of NATO to get so much more than the sum of the parts out of their combined effort.

“But it’s particularly the relevant nations in the operational area and their ability to work together which is an important consideration.”

This perspective is certainly shared by Lt. General Beaudreault and is part of the focus on redesign of II MEF. He highlighted in our discussion their working relationships in recent exercises with the UK Royal Marines, with the French 6th Light Armored Brigade, operational working relationships in Norway, with the Canadians, with the Dutch, etc.

This is not just about exercising, it is about shaping an integratable force, and doing so is a key part of ensuring that Atlantic defense capabilities can be enhanced even while China is being focused on as the “pacing threat.”

We discussed some of the innovations being pursued by IIMEF.

One innovation is working a way ahead to be able to deploy fires ashore in support of the maritime maneuver force.

Currently, they are working with the HIMRS artillery systems and anticipate working in the near term with the naval strike missile, which of course, was developed by the Norwegians but is managed on the U.S. side by Raytheon.

A second innovation is working new ways to work C2 and firing solutions, and their work with 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg is an important part of this effort.

He noted that later this year, II MEF will be working with 18th Airborne Corps in support of a Navy large-scale exercise to work C2 enabled third party firing solutions.

Lt. General Beaudreault highlighted what he saw a key role ahead for amphibs in the Atlantic theater of operations.

The current force needs better C2 and as I focused on last year, integrating Vipers with Romeos onboard amphibs provide for enhanced sea control and sea denial options as well.

He argued that going forward with a new generation of amphibs he would like to see them have organic fire power to operate more independently.

This is how he put it: “We need more air defense systems, and we need more offensive striking capability out of an amphib with less reliance on cruisers, destroyers, in the future.”

In terms of next steps in working integration, he highlighted the importance of the role which the Marines can make to the maritime fight in terms of sensing.

He argued that a key effort will be to “refashion Marine Corps reconnaissance. What can we put on manned aircraft and unmanned systems to help extend the eyes and ears of the Navy?”

Expeditionary basing is being work as well to “help unlock naval maneuver from support of forces ashore.

“How can we best help support naval maneuver from our distributed forces ashore?

“And crucial to all of this will be our ability to change the C2 arrangements we have to be able for our forces to be either the supported or supporting capability in a blue water maneuver force.”

Such an approach which can be labelled as Naval-Marine Corps integration obviously involve integratability with Air Forces as well.

Notably, if the Marines do not have organic F-35s, they are relying then on Nordic air power which in the case of Norway and Denmark are F-35s.

With the re-focus as well on the High North and progress in Nordic integration, there clearly is a rethinking of what the USMC’s role in supporting a maneuver force in support of the direct defenses of Northern Europe through to the Baltics.

This is a major challenge and one driving the force design which IIMEF is undergoing in interaction with the changes occurring in Norfolk and the Nordics as well.

Lieutenant General Beaudreault, Commanding General, II Marine Expeditionary Force

Lieutenant General Beaudreault was commissioned in May 1983 upon graduation from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and was designated as an infantry officer upon completion of training.

His operational assignments include: Platoon Commander and Company Executive Officer, 1st Bn, 3rd Marines, Kaneohe Bay, HI; Assistant Operations Officer, Logistics Officer, Maritime Special Purpose Force Commander and G Company Commander, Battalion Landing Team 2/9, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (SOC), Camp Pendleton, CA (Operation RESTORE HOPE, Somalia); Inspector-Instructor, 3rd Battalion, 23rd Marines, Memphis, TN; Operations Officer, 31st MEU (SOC), Okinawa, Japan (Operation Stabilise, East Timor); Regimental Executive Officer, 1st Marine Regiment, Camp Pendleton, CA; Commanding Officer, Battalion Landing Team 1/1, 13th MEU (SOC)/ Expeditionary Strike Group One (Operation Iraqi Freedom); Commanding Officer, 15th MEU(SOC), Camp Pendleton, CA (Operation Iraqi Freedom); Deputy Commander, Marine Forces Central Command/Commander MARCENT (Forward), Manama, Bahrain; Commanded Task Force South in support of flood relief in Sindh Province, Pakistan; and Commanding General, 2nd Marine Division.

His Supporting Establishment assignments include service as Guard Officer, Marine Corps Security Force Company, Naval Station Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico and Director, Expeditionary Warfare School, Quantico, VA.

LtGen Beaudreault completed joint duty assignments as Ground Plans Officer (CCJ3-PP), Operations Directorate, US Central Command, MacDill AFB, FL; Deputy Director, Future Joint Force Development, Joint Staff (J7) and Deputy Director, Joint Training, Joint Staff (J7), Suffolk, VA; and most recently served as Director of Operations and Cyber (J3), U.S. Africa Command.

His professional military education includes the following: The Basic School; Amphibious Warfare School; US Army Command and General Staff College; Armed Forces Staff College; Naval War College (MA with Highest Distinction, National Security and Strategic Studies); Higher Command and Staff Course, UK Defence Academy; and Pinnacle, National Defense University.

Featured photo: U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Brian D. Beaudreault, commanding general, II Marine Expeditionary Force, discuss the upcoming Marine Air Ground Task Force Warfighting Exercise (MWX) at the Marine Air Ground Combat Center (MCAGCC), Twentynine Palms, Calif., Oct. 25, 2019. Beaudreault visited the training area to discuss the upcoming MWX at the MCAGCC with members of the 2nd Marine Division staff. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Nathan Maysonet).

For our report on II MEF which contains all of the interviews done during the April visit plus one from the December visit to 2nd Marine Air Wing, see below: