Marines' War-Fitness Program Targets Crisis Response

By Sandra I. Erwin
Like an overweight boxer seeking to get back into fighting shape, the Marine Corps is ramping up training focused on making units leaner and faster.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos and his predecessor Gen. James Conwayfor several years have fretted about the Corpslosing its edge as a sea-based rapid-response force and becoming a plodding, sedentary army.
The latest effort to shed fat and build muscle was an exercise in California this week where a brigade of 5,000 marines — most of them reservists — trained for how they would respond to a crisis that required them to show up on the scene quickly, but also bring enough equipment to sustain themselves for weeks or months.
Marine leaders believe this is the sweet spot that makes the Corps invaluable to the United States: It can serve as a “middleweight” force that brings more staying power than light infantry but can move much faster than Army brigades.
After two major ground wars, the Marine Expeditionary Brigade, or MEB, has seen its “contingency response” skills atrophy, said Maj. Gen. Melvin G. Spiese, commanding general of 1st MEB — based at Camp Pendleton — that participated in the Javelin Thrust 2011 exercise this week.
“The commandant sees a gap in our ability to respond to unplanned crises around the world,” Spiese said in an interview.
Marine Expeditionary Units, or MEUs, can rush to a crisis within hours, but they don’t bring enough equipment to stick around. A MEF, or Marine Expeditionary Force, has enormous resources, but can take weeks to mobilize. That gap in between will be filled by MEBs, Spiese said. This is how the Marine Corps believes it can fill a unique role in national security: A MEB could reach the scene of a crisis within 96 hours, set up a base of operations and keep chaos under control until the civilian leadership figures out how to handle the situation. “We really can be a force that buys time for decision makers,” Spiese said.
No other military service can do this, Spiese said. Special operations forces and MEUs can move quickly, but their capabilities are limited. Army brigades are not easy to transport. The Air Force drops bombs and leaves. The Navy can influence from the sea.
A MEB could deliver up to 15,000 troops, and based on the specific circumstances, could deploy tactical aviation, ground vehicles, infantry weapons, humanitarian and disaster relief supplies. To expedite deployments, a MEB would only bring essential equipment aboard its amphibious ships and would then cherry-pick what it needs from the Marine Corps’ three “maritime prepositioned force” ships that float in strategic areas on the world’s oceans. MPFs contain most of the heavy hardware that would conceivably be needed by commanders on the ground.
A MEB-like response, said Spiese, “would be very difficult to pull together through a joint force” of Army, Air Force and Navy units.
Spiese echoed Amos’pitch on behalf of several new weapon systems that they believe the Marine Corps will need to fulfill its role as the nation’s 911 force. What are needed, he said, are “capabilities coming from the sea” that can deploy from amphibious ships. That means: the V-22 Osprey,F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, cargo hovercraft and a fast swimming armored vehicle that can ferry troops to the shore.
Some of these programs, particularly the F-35B and a new amphibious vehicle, are now threatened by budget cuts and by criticism that they are both too expensive and easily replaced by other assets.
For the Marine Corps, Spiese said, vertical-takeoff aircraft are non-negotiable. “If we’re stuck with tailhook [Navy carrier-based] fixed wing aircraft, we’ve got problems. We lose flexibility.” High-speed vessels also are important, he said.
One area where improvements may be needed is communications and data networks. A MEB that shows up to support disaster-relief operations, for example, needs to be able to talk and exchange messages with other government agencies and NGOs. Non-military organization would have no interoperability with the U.S. military’s secure radio networks and computer systems.
In the Javelin Thrust exercise, 1st MEB’s communications staff set up open networks with commercial cell phones and Internet-enabled computers. This created difficulties for marines because they could not access data that they needed but reside in classified networks, said Maj. Cedric Lee, 1st MEB’s communications operations officer. “Reach-back capability into our existing networks is absolutely key,” Lee said in an interview. The problem is not unlike what the average person might face if his email could only be accessed from a local Outlook account, as opposed to being able to tap into Gmail or Hotmail from any computer that can access the Internet. “That’s the kind of reach-back we are talking about.” That option is not available to the military because of security restrictions that keep most of the data secluded in classified networks that cannot be accessed from unclassified computers.
The middleweight force also could use some help with electricity sources. Deployed units have to carryhuge loads of batteries in areas where there is no electric grid. “The battery loads associated with the equipment we have today becomes a logistical burden and shortens the time we can be away,” Lee said. Recent advances in renewable energy sources, such as solar powered battery rechargers, may eventually ease that burden, he said.
The limitations of the military’s communications systems is “one of the most poignant things that came out of this exercise,” said Lt. Col. Maura Hennigan, logistics operations officer for 1st MEB. Establishing reliable connectivity among all the segments of brigade “can be one of the most challenging things,” Hennigan said in an interview. Marine logisticians, for instance, rely on three different computer systems to manage supply requests, deliveries and transportation. Sometimes requests for supplies do not get through, she said. “Finding workarounds was part of the [Javelin Thrust] exercise,” she said. “If we can’t get on our systems, we find other ways around them, like Sharepoint or email.”
The Corps’ middleweight force also will have to figure out how to fight with less armor. The weight of today’s vehicle armor is a huge burden, Spiese said. Every Humvee truck now has been saddled with thousands of pounds of armor, and every unit in Iraq and Afghanistan was equipped with heavy mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) trucks to protect troops from roadside bombs. Those vehicles are not fit for crisis response, and overload the limited capacity aboard cargo ships, said Spiese. Armored Humvees stick out several inches more than they did before, so there is less room. The added weight means that the ship’s load often is maxed out before the cargo space is filled. “The vehicles have grown so heavy that we are hitting the weight constraints before we fill up the ship,” he said. “That really has complicated everything. … Even moving vehicles by C-130 and C-17 [aircraft] has become really problematic.”
Light trucks are available, but would only be used in “maneuver combat’ where the enemy would not know the locations of U.S. forces and would not have enough time to plant landmines or bombs.
Lt. Gen. George Flynn, former commander of Marine Corps Combat Development Command, lamented the weight of today’s equipment. “How did we get so heavy?” he asked. “The enemy made us heavier. … Just about everything we have procured is heavier than what it’s replaced.”

Topics: Expeditionary Warfare

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