Afghanistan Lessons Will Shape Marine Corps' Equipping Strategy
“We need to look at quick turnaround," says Maj. Gen. Richard P. Mills, who has been nominated for a third star and assignment as deputy commandant for combat development and integration. He is replacing Lt. Gen. George Flynn, who is moving from Quantico Marine Base to the Pentagon to take a position on the Joint Staff.
As head of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Mills will be responsible for doctrine, training and equipping of the force.
The weight of current and future equipment is a major concern, he says. "We’re putting a lot of weight on marines,” he says. He also will be looking into whether troops are being burdened with unnecessary gadgets that interfere with their missions.
“I want to ensure that we’re not over tasking our basic leaders — our lieutenants, our squad leaders and our platoon sergeants,” he says. “Are we giving them so much technology that we’re over tasking them and they can’t do their basic job, which is to lead in the firefight? We need to look at that very, very carefully to make sure that what we’re giving to him is absolutely essential to his task but allows him to focus on what he needs to do, which is lead his marines in combat.”
Speaking to reporters in Washington, D.C., May 5, Mills defended the Marine Corps' plan to boost its expeditionary and crisis-response capabilities. As commanding general of 1st Marine Expeditionary Force forward in southern Afghanistan, he sought extra troops for a key operation last summer to gain control of Taliban territory. A battalion landing team that was afloat in the Red Sea was dispatched to assist them.
“They were on the ground in a week,” he recalls. “Boom, they were on the battlefield in 10 days. I couldn’t have brought them back here from the United States in that kind of time. There’s a huge need for forward deployment.”
“I’m a huge believer in amphibious capability," he says. "It’s one we have to retain, and it’s showing usefulness across the board.” In Afghanistan, his assignment was to set security conditions in the southwest region to transition control over to Afghan forces. He relied upon troops from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit who are the time were operating off the coast of Libya conducting aviation missions. “I had MEU marines with me on the ground, both aviation and ground troops, in the middle of Afghanistan thousands of miles away. That’s the kind of flexibility that force gives you,” he said. “I think it’s critical we maintain them forward deployed. It’s a tool in everybody’s toolbox."
Mills says the Corps needs a mix of advanced amphibious and land-based armored vehicles. The Marine Corps is about to embark on the development of the Amphibious Combat Vehicle to replace its aging Amphibious Assault Vehicle fleet. The previous replacement program, the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, was canceled earlier this year because of rising costs. Marines need the amphibious combat vehicle and they need to integrate them with main battle tanks, says Mills.
Abrams main battle tanks, long thought to be obsolete, are still useful on the battlefield, Mills insists. He says he specifically requested tanks for his deployment.
“For a relatively small force of 125 individuals, I got 17 battle tanks, which gave me tremendous optics,” he said. That provided marines with valuable technology to "see the battlefield, and a precision weapon that could reach out to 3,000 meters and touch the enemy where I wanted to touch him in a very precise way,” Mills says.
In addition tanks gave marines mobility and protection from roadside bombs and improvised explosive devices. “I ran over four or five large IEDs we didn’t know were there — significant ones that I think would’ve opened up an M-ATV [mine- resistant ambush-protected all-terrain vehicle], for instance. The tank lost a tread and we replaced that immediately and the tank continued on its mission,” he says. The tanks gave the force a “huge” psychological edge, he adds.
Roadside bomb-resistant trucks such as the MRAP and M-ATVs are good vehicles, but they’re not "tactical" enough for day-to-day transportation and patrolling. Marines often prefer armored Humvees, Mills says. “You have to have cross-country mobility."
In the fight against IEDs, he says, "there is no silver bullet." The most important thing is training the individual marine on the equipment and on the techniques to identify an IED. “We have a 70 percent find rate now,” says Mills. He notes that he normally carries around a photo he took last summer at a bazaar in Afghanistan, where insurgents would lay strings or wires through the thick layer of dust on the ground to trigger explosive devices. To detect those bombs, a marine devised a tool that resembled a boat hook — a long piece of wood with a hook fashioned, in this case, from scrap metal. The marine would lean out into the dust, stretch the hook along the ground, and then reel it in slowly. “If you felt tension, you knew there was a wire,” says Mills. The picture was taken of that marine standing with his makeshift device alongside another marine holding the latest counter-IED technology.
Mills also has praise for U.S. special operations forces, who helped him in Afghanistan hunt down IED makers. When Mills’ forces raided a town bordering Pakistan, they found the makings of 2,000 IEDs that would have been dispersed and planted throughout the region. Marine special operations forces are very valuable in counterinsurgency missions, he says. They would fight their way in, meet with elders and begin to establish security by recruiting security guards and police from the local population. The Afghan intelligence service was also helpful, Mills says. “I was able to see into the mind of the opponent and understand what he was doing, the guidance he was getting from his higher officers,” says Mills.
Intelligence sharing among U.S. agencies has improved, he says, but he still believes there should be a centralized repository of information for all commanders to tap into.