Libyan rebels, Somali pirates, Osprey tiltrotors, and a long, long time at sea: The future of the Marine Corps post-Afghanistan can be seen in what you might call “Yoda and Bart’s Great Adventure,” an extraordinary ocean journey that began a year ago Friday.
This Yoda and Bart aren’t fictional characters, but the radio call signs of two helicopter pilots. Navy Capt. Steven “Yoda” Yoder commands Amphibious Squadron Six, a three-vessel unit led by the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan, basically a small aircraft carrier. Marine Col. Eric “Bart” Steidl commands the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, a force of 2,250 Marines who travel with their own small air force. Loaded with a MEU – pronounced “mew” – an amphibious squadron becomes an Amphibious Ready Group, or ARG – pronounced the way it looks.
ARG may also be the first sound Yoder and Steidl uttered when they were told on March 3, 2011, that their units were going to deploy just 20 days later – more than three months ahead of schedule — to replace the USS Kearsarge ARG/26th MEU in supporting NATO air operations over Libya.
“Our predeployment training cycle was cut short 106 days,” Steidl said at a joint briefing he did with Yoder this week at the Potomac Institute, a think tank with a strong Marine Corps bent. The Bataan ARG/22nd MEU went to sea with its marines and sailors certified as proficient at only one of 12 Mission Essential Tasks which, by regulation, they should have been trained in advance to do. Deploying in a MEU, moreover, was a new experience for most of Steidl’s marines. “We focused initially on shipboard safety,” he said. “Maybe a hundred marines had been on a ship.”
After a decade of land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – where nearly 10 percent of the active duty Marine Corps is still deployed – the Marines have gotten away from their historical mission. ARGs carrying MEUs have continued to roam the globe to provide U.S. “presence” and respond to humanitarian, diplomatic and military crises, but a lot of younger Marines haven’t had the experience of a “float.” With the war in Afghanistan winding down, though, Marine Corps leaders plan to return to their past to ensure their survival in this age of trillion dollar deficits and threatened defense budget cuts equally large.
Presidents from Andrew Jackson to Harry S Truman have tried to abolish or shrink the Corps or merge it with the Army. To stay alive, the Marines have had to stay unique. They did that in the 20th Century by making amphibious assault their specialty. Today, though, having conducted only a handful of small assaults against hostile shores since the Korean War, the Marines emphasize their broad range of amphibious capabilities.
What adjustments to their equipment and training the Marines might need to preserve those capabilities under President Obama’s new military strategy, with its emphasis on Asia and the Pacific, is a hot topic among experts. They may learn a lot by examining the deployment of the Bataan ARG/22nd MEU last year. Its 321-day duration fell just eight days short of the record set in 1973 by the aircraft carrier USS Midway for the longest U.S. Navy deployment since World War II, but the deployment probably represents what future ARG/MEU participants can expect in several respects:
– The Bataan ARG, which included the landing dock ship USS Whidbey Island (LSD 41) and the amphibious transport USS Mesa Verde (LPD 19), sailed off the coast of Libya for about six months, standing ready to dispatch CH-53E helicopters or MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft to recover downed aircraft or crews in Libya, send in AV-8B Harrier fighter jets to strike targets, or provide humanitarian assistance. They also helped re-establish the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli.
– For much of the deployment, the ARG was “disaggregated” – split up – with one or two of the ships taking detachments of marines with them to perform duties in the Gulf of Aden and Persian Gulf. What’s more, in contrast to routine “split ARG” operations, the arms of the disaggregated Bataan ARG operated in different seas under their own detachment commanders and reporting to different fleet commanders. On Sept. 11-12 of last year, for example, the Mesa Verde was in the Mediterranean off the coast of Libya while the Bataan was on call to evacuate civilians from troubled Yemen and the Whidbey Island assisted Combined Task Force 151, a multinational task force combating Somali pirates. But there are limits to disaggregation: “The sum of the parts does not equal the whole,” Steidl said. “There are capabilities that we can’t break in half.” The ARG’s four CH-53 helicopters, for example, had to stay together to share parts, equipment and mechanics.
– The Bataan ARG sailors and marines conducted 16 joint exercises or smaller events with allies from 10 countries spread across three geographic combatant commands – European Command, Africa Command and Central Command. The events ranged in size from a major amphibious landing exercise with Spanish armed forces to a single AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter pilot talking to other Cobra pilots in Bahrain. Yoder said he could see the benefit of working with allies – another imperative in Obama’s new military strategy – during the anti-piracy duty the Whidbey Island pulled in the Gulf of Aden. “When the Germans and the U.S. aircraft show up overhead of a ship that’s being pirated, it was very quick; within five minutes, they could come to terms on who was going to do what and what the other force was going to do,” Yoder said. “The more we interoperate with our partners, the better off we will be.”
– Having 10 MV-22s as the ARG’s primary rotorcraft paid dividends because the Osprey has roughly twice the speed and five times the range of the CH-46 helicopters the Marines primarily bought it to replace. “That MV-22 really unhinged the ship from being off the coast,” said Steidl, a CH-46 pilot himself. “Our operational reach was, on any given day, 300–plus miles from the ship to the objective area, whereas with the old CH-46, we were about 75 miles.”
– Yoder and Steidl agreed that if they could add one primary piece of equipment to the ARG/MEU arsenal it would be an “amphibious UAS” — an unmanned aircraft system equipped with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sensors. Such a UAS should be flexible enough to be flown from the deck of any of the ARG’s ships and controlled either from them or from a ground control station that could be deployed ashore with marines, they said.
Add it all up and the Bataan ARG/22nd MEU deployment, like the just-completed Bold Alligator amphibious assault exercise and Expeditionary Warrior wargames, shows that reach, versatility, flexibility and the ability to work seamlessly with allies are key as the Marine Corps goes back to its future.