U.S. Marine Expeditionary Unit Provides ‘In Extremis’ Support

By Harold Kennedy

Poised to cruise into the Mediterranean Sea in early October is the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), one of a handful of U.S. military organizations designed to permit the United States to intervene in almost any international crisis within as few as six hours after notification.

For the next six months, the 26th MEU—pronounced “me-you”—will be the “911 force” on call in an 82-nation area surrounding the Mediterranean, said the unit’s commander, Col. Andrew P. Frick.

The deployment is routine. A MEU is almost always on patrol in the Mediterranean.

While deployed, Frick said in an interview at Camp Lejeune, N.C., a MEU has to be ready to handle a wide variety missions in a huge, volatile region stretching from the eastern Mediterranean, down the west coast of Africa.

The 2,200 men and women of the 26th—fresh from a grueling 26-week training program—are “well prepared for a full range of operations,” he said.

In all, Frick explained, the Marine Corps has seven MEUs, three on each U.S. coast and one on the Japanese island of Okinawa. With rotating deployments, the East Coast MEUs maintain an almost-constant presence in the Mediterranean, he said, while the others do the same in the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans.

During its tour, the 26th will sail from port to port on a three-ship U.S. Navy Amphibious Ready Group. This ARG, as it is called, includes an amphibious assault ship, USS Bataan (LHD-5), and two transports, USS Shreveport (LPD-12) and USS Whidbey Island (LSD 41). Such ships are designed to lay off of a troubled area of the world and insert combat forces ashore by helicopters, amphibious assault vehicles, conventional landing vessels and hydrofoils known as landing craft air cushion, or LCACs.

While deployed, the MEU will participate in half a dozen exercises with forces from friendly nations, while remaining prepared for real-life operations. These can run the gamut, including humanitarian assistance in natural disasters, embassy evacuations, hostage rescues, recovery of downed pilots from hostile territory, peacekeeping and traditional combat, said Maj. Gen. John F. Goodman, commanding general of the 26th’s parent organization, the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, or MEB. During its current deployment, the 26th MEU is likely to be asked to perform one or more of these missions, Goodman said.

“In every six-month deployment that I have had anything to do with, it has happened, in one way or another,” he said.

During one deployment in 1999, for example, the 26th provided security for Kosovar refugees in Albania, then bombed military targets in Yugoslavia, and served as the first U.S. peacekeeping unit to enter Kosovo. Just weeks later, it supplied humanitarian assistance to earthquake victims in Turkey.

“We are the tip of the spear, the first to go in,” Frick said. If the MEU needs reinforcements, he explained, the 2nd MEB can provide them with relative speed.

“These units are able to provide ‘in extremis’ capability to U.S. military commanders and ambassadors around the world,” said Maj. Gen. Martin R. Berndt, commanding general of the II Marine Expeditionary Force, headquartered at Camp Lejeune.

A MEU consists of a reinforced battalion of fully equipped ground-combat troops, a mixed squadron of helicopters and fighters, and a support element with 15 days of supplies for operations ashore. (See related story) During the current cruise, the 26th includes:

MEUs operate much like athletic teams, whose coaching staffs remain permanently intact, while athletes change each season, Frick said. The MEU’s command element serves as the coaching staff for the combat and combat-support units under its supervision. The subordinate elements serve with the MEU for one year, including six months of training and six of deployment.

At year’s end, the combat and combat-support units will be released, and the command element will receive new personnel and begin training them to deploy.

The training is divided into “crawl, walk and run” periods of increasing intensity for individuals, small units and the entire MEU, Frick said.

Training began in March at the Little Creek Amphibious Naval Base, Va., with a planning workshop for MEU and ARG staff members.

In April, the MEU’s BLT practiced live fire at Forts A.P. Hill and Pickett, also in Virginia. Then, the MEU boarded ships for a weeklong break-in cruise along the coast.

Marines and sailors practiced day and night ship-to-shore movements by surface vessels and helicopter, and deck landings by fixed wing and rotor-driven aircraft.

In May, Marines from the MEU spent several days at Marine Corps Air Station New River—right next door to Camp Lejeune—practicing helicopter raids. The emphasis was on speed, getting in and out before the enemy has time to react, Frick explained.

Then, in June, it was down to Jacksonville, Fla., for an urban combat exercise. In the heart of the city—while fascinated civilians watched from the sidelines—Marines fast-roped from helicopters, cleared a high-rise office building and launched patrols through streets and alleys.

July found the MEU back at Camp Lejeune, staging an amphibious assault. The mission was to secure “an embassy”—actually a site at the base’s urban-combat training facility.

During that exercise, a CH-46 helicopter crashed in the New River, which flows past the base, and three crew members died. The incident served “as a stark reminder of the inherent risks, not only of naval aviation, but of all that Marines and sailors are called to do,” Frick said.

Although the entire MEU was shocked by the deaths, the training schedule did not let up. In early August, it was off to the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, where the BLT stormed ashore to seize an airfield. The exercises were completed, but they were interrupted by protesters seeking an immediate cessation of training on the island.

The Bush administration has pledged to stop training on Vieques by 2003 and to move such activities elsewhere. Several possible new sites have been mentioned, only to have local residents quickly voice opposition.

One of those sites is Camp Lejeune itself, a 246-square-mile facility that sprawls along North Carolina’s Atlantic Seaboard between two seaports, Wilmington and Morehead City.

In August, however, the Onslow County Board of Commissioners—whose county surrounds the base—voted unanimously to have Lejeune removed from consideration. The resolution cited complaints about noise and damage from live-fire training.

The Marines countered that combined live-fire training is needed to reach an acceptable level of combat readiness. “The issue,” said Berndt, “is where do you provide a place for our people to bring it all together? You can do a lot with simulation, but eventually you’ve got to let them train with something that’s real.”

The 26th completed its training regimen in mid-August with a graduation exercise, designed to determine whether the MEU is ready to be designated “special operations capable,” or SOC. The exercise—known as SOCEX—sought to test the Marines’ ability as they conducted a series of concurrent missions.

“SOCEX is like the Super Bowl of MEU exercises,” said Frick. During SOCEX, he explained, the MEU’s performance is evaluated “very seriously” by Berndt and Goodman.

“On the whole,” the 26th “did extremely well” throughout its training period, Goodman told National Defense. “They had a couple of challenges, and they overcame them well.”

Goodman noted, in particular, how the MEU dealt with the deaths of the helicopter crew members. “To the credit of the MEU, they took the loss well,” he said.

Berndt and Goodman recommended that the 26th receive the SOC designation. This certification means that the unit is deemed able to conduct unconventional military missions in hostile or politically sensitive areas that would be beyond the capability of traditional organizations.

“We have some unique equipment and some special training,” Goodman said. “We’re not surgeons, but we can stop the bleeding and give first aid until better qualified help arrives.

“If there’s time and it’s important enough, bring in Special Forces or SEALs,” Goodman said. “If not, we can do the job, but it might get bloody.”

Topics: Amphibious, Aviation, Live Fire Testing

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