U.S. Marine Corps in Review

By Lieutenant Colonel John C. Berry Jr., U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)

Well before that expansion was complete, however, Marines were participating in the largest offensive operation in that country since 2001. Operation Moshtarak —Dari for “together”—began in early February and involved 15,000 Afghan, American, British, Canadian, Danish, and Estonian troops. The mission was to drive the resurgent Taliban out of the poppy-growing areas of Helmand Province and rapidly establish a replacement economy and credible governance, thus separating the enemy from its source of revenue and from the population.

As had happened in Iraq in 2004 when tasked to take Fallujah, the Marines drew what was widely regarded as the toughest nut to crack: the town of Marjah. Allied commanders were straightforward in describing Marjah as the test-bed for the new campaign design. It is an 80 square-mile area with an estimated population of 70,000 to 80,000. Although the Taliban had been driven out in 2001, subsequent years of ineffective local officials, corrupt and sometimes brutal police, and inadequate resources left residents distrustful of their government. At the same time they were terrified of the Taliban, who regained control in 2008.

Unlike Fallujah, where the flight of noncombatants facilitated the unencumbered destruction of a cornered adversary, operations in Marjah prioritized partnering with Afghan forces and officials to safeguard and win over residents. Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, commander of 2d MEB, told his forces: “The population is the prize—they are why we are going in.” 3 Operation Moshtarak therefore involved tighter rules of engagement dubbed “courageous restraint.”

The Marine Corps concept of partnering went beyond merely working in cooperation with Afghan units. A more integrated approach was put into place wherein Marines and their Afghan counterparts were paired at every echelon within ground combat units—living, eating, training, and operating together as cohesive units. The capabilities of the Marines and the cultural and geographic knowledge of the Afghans meshed into a unified force that was far more effective than separate units operating side-by-side.

As those combined units cleared an area, they were to be followed by civilian administrators and police, described by General McChrystal as, “a government in a box, ready to roll in.” 4 Under the Taliban’s ruthless domination, Marjah’s schools and media outlets had been shut down, civil liberties had been trampled, and the illicit drug industry had flourished. The Afghan government expressed determination to reverse those conditions. Lieutenant General Mohammed Karimi, deputy chief of staff, Afghan National Army (ANA), explained, “We want to show people that we can deliver police, and services, and development.” 5

The first phase of Operation Moshtarak involved coalition forces establishing blocking positions to surround and isolate the town. The second phase began in the early morning of 13 February with ground and helicopter-borne assaults by more than 4,400 soldiers of the ANA, 3,000 Marines, almost 1,000 British troops, and several hundred U.S. Army personnel.

The main Marjah assault force consisted of 1st Battalion, 6th Marines (1/6) and 3d Battalion, 6th Marines (3/6), partnered with ANA troops. Both battalions had recently deployed to Afghanistan as part of the surge and operated under the command of Regimental Combat Team 7. Exploiting Marine Aircraft Group 40’s vertical envelopment capability, rifle companies landed behind Taliban defenses to seize key intersections, buildings, and bazaars in the town. Those companies continued to attack from inside town while other companies attacked from outside positions. Company A, 2d Combat Engineer Battalion effectively countered the exceptionally high concentration of mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) encountered. The assault units were able to avoid established crossing points and exploit cleared lanes through the minefields thanks to the engineers’ employment of portable aluminum bridges, Assault Breacher Vehicles, and rocket-propelled line charges. By the end of the first day, the assault force had secured 11 of 13 objectives and killed an estimated 100 Taliban.

The tactical surprise and spectacular results of the first day, however, soon gave way to the daily grind of counterinsurgency—consolidating gains, conducting extensive patrolling, ferreting out an elusive enemy, building partner capability and capacity, and ultimately improving security and stability. Rather than engaging in a stand-up fight, the remaining Taliban employed sniper and IED attacks in an attempt to wear down the Marines and their ANA partners. The IEDs also limited freedom of movement among residents, thereby curtailing economic development. Furthermore, the Taliban conducted retaliatory attacks against residents who cooperated with the Coalition, with punishments ranging from beatings to beheadings.

Over time those tactics, which stood in such contrast to the restraint exhibited by the combined Marine/Afghan units, began to sway the population in the Coalition’s favor. Extensive patrolling eventually yielded useful intelligence. When firefights erupted residents pointed out Taliban positions. In a society that insulates women from men outside the family, the addition of Female Engagement Teams to foot patrols opened access to a large and influential segment of the populace.

Progress was slow, however, as the “government in a box” did not always live up to its billing. Members of the Afghan National Civil Order Police lacked adequate training and equipment and did not speak the local language, Pashto. As a result, the Marines recruited local men into the Afghan Uniformed Police and put them through eight weeks of law enforcement and paramilitary training. Additionally, the Marines trained local defense forces, who improved security in their own neighborhoods via armed patrols.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge was convincing farmers they could maintain a livelihood producing something other than poppies, thereby destroying the opium trade the Taliban used for funding. Coalition members were keenly aware that enforcement of the ban on poppy production, which had not been consistently done elsewhere, would be a key measure of the campaign’s success. Civil affairs officers established the Marjah Accelerated Agricultural Transition Program, which distributed seeds for wheat and vegetables, along with fertilizer, to thousands of farmers.

The long-term endeavor of counterinsurgency continued through the spring and summer months, with replacement and additional units expanding the capabilities in-country. On 12 April 2010, Brigadier General Nicholson and 2d MEB relinquished command of Marines in Afghanistan to Major General Richard Mills and I MEF-FWD. The original assault battalions for Operation Moshtarak were also relieved, with 1/6 turning over its area of operations to 2d Battalion, 6th Marines in July and 3/6 turning over to 2d Battalion, 9th Marines in the late summer.

Gradually, perhaps imperceptibly to those involved, the situation stabilized. By the end of September the changes became more obvious: IED and sniper attacks had plummeted; roads had been cleared, markets reopened, and mosques and schools had been rebuilt; school attendance had risen dramatically; people were back to work and walked the streets largely without fear or incident. On 29 September senior Afghan government officials met with Marjah residents. “Months ago, you couldn’t move from one position to another without the threat of small arms fire,” observed Second Lieutenant Joel Detrick, “Today, we had the provincial governor walk these grounds, touring the area, because of the improvements made here.” 6

As things calmed down in Marjah, other Marines were picking a fight in the Sangin District of Helmand. On 20 September 3d Battalion, 5th Marines (3/5) began pushing into previously uncontested areas. As they did, the level of violence and casualties rose commensurately. Major General Mills noted that “Sangin is a key crossroads, the last place where the insurgent can grow, harvest and process poppy. . . . It is the last bit of important terrain in Helmand, and he is fighting hard to hold it.” 7

How hard? By the end of December 3/5 had been in hundreds of firefights and suffered more than 20 Marines killed and 100 wounded, while inflicting even heavier punishment on the enemy. “Sangin is a straight-up slug match. No winning of hearts and minds. No enlightened counterinsurgency projects to win affections,” reported Bing West, a journalist and Marine combat veteran of the Vietnam War. “Instead, the goal is to kill the Taliban every day on every patrol. Force them to flee the Sangin Valley or die.” 8

Assuring Littoral Access: Military Engagement and Crisis Response

Even as Marines were battling the Taliban in Afghanistan, others were coming from the sea to conduct numerous military engagement and crisis response operations worldwide. The most publicized of those began shortly after the start of the year. At 1653 on 12 January, Haiti suffered a magnitude 7 earthquake that toppled or damaged more than a quarter-million buildings, killed nearly 250,000 people, injured another 300,000, and left 1.3 million homeless. 9

The international community responded immediately, but relief efforts were hampered by extensive damage to Haiti’s already inadequate infrastructure. The U.S. Air Force quickly put the Port-au-Prince airport back in operation, landing 100 flights a day, a significant achievement considering that the field—when it had a functioning control tower—normally handled just 30-35 flights a day. Unfortunately, roads that were damaged or blocked made distribution problematic, leading to frustration, looting, and violence. 10

Haiti was tailor-made for the capabilities resident in an amphibious ready group/Marine expeditionary unit (ARG/MEU). Those include flight decks and helicopters/tilt-rotor aircraft, well decks and landing craft, engineer equipment and ground transportation, command and control systems, and medical facilities. Perhaps most important, ARG/MEUs also provide a skilled and adaptable team to employ those capabilities. Using the sea as maneuver space, they have the inherent mobility to move where needed and project relief supplies directly to distribution points ashore. ARG/MEUs are also self-sustaining—they don’t tax an already overburdened delivery system for food, water and shelter. Fortunately, two ARG/MEUs and an additional amphibious ship were quickly dispatched to Haiti as part of a larger U.S. naval effort.

The 22d MEU assumed duty as the global response force following its 4 December 2009 return from a seven-month deployment to the Fifth and Sixth fleets’ areas of responsibility, where it had participated in a variety of engagement activities, conducted maritime security operations, and delivered the first MV-22 Ospreys to Afghanistan. The day after the earthquake in Haiti Colonel Gary Brandl, the commanding officer, was ordered to deploy 22d MEU as part of what would become Joint Task Force-Haiti (JTF-H) for Operation Unified Response . The MEU quickly embarked in the three ships of the USS Bataan (LHD-5) ARG and sailed for Haiti, arriving on 18 January. Also arriving on the 18th was a fourth amphibious ship, USS Gunston Hall (LSD-44), which diverted from a planned mission.

The newly established JTF-H staff anticipated that the Marines would land and conduct shore-based relief operations. Once the inherent capabilities of the ARG/MEU were explained, however, a more sea-based approach was adopted. That allowed other JTF-H assets to focus on Port-au-Prince while the mobility and operational reach of amphibious forces were used to cover devastated areas west of the city, especially those that were remote or difficult to access. 11

Additional resources supported Operation Unified Response as the magnitude of the crisis became evident. The 24th MEU, commanded by Colonel Pete Petronzio, had been scheduled for a seven-month deployment to the Fifth and Sixth fleets’ areas of responsibility. The USS Nassau (LHA-4) ARG/24th MEU departed as planned on 20 January but diverted to Haiti. Arriving on 23 January, their participation in Operation Unified Response (through 8 February) included the first use of Ospreys in a humanitarian assistance mission. Additionally, in the following weeks the maritime prepositioning ships USNS 1st LT Jack Lummus (T-AK-3010) and USNS PFC Dewayne Williams (T-AK-3009) provided additional sea-based support.

The Bataan ARG/22d MEU’s humanitarian assistance efforts continued until 27 March, when Operation Unified Response transitioned from an immediate life-saving action to a longer-term recovery mission. The participation included a variety of activities performed in partnership with the United Nations, U.S. Agency for International Development, non-governmental organizations, and Canadian and Spanish military forces. Working with the World Food Program, the ARG/MEU delivered more than 3.2 million pounds of bulk food. In independent operations, it delivered: nearly 560,000 liters of bottled water and 195,000 gallons of bulk water; more than 1.6 million pounds of rations; approximately 15,000 pounds of medical supplies; and conducted more than 1,500 separate humanitarian missions, with 618 involving rotary wing sorties. 12

Four months later a major natural disaster struck on the other side of the globe, prompting another multi-ARG/MEU response. Between 27–30 July, record-breaking monsoon rains caused massive flooding in Pakistan. One region recorded more than 10 inches of rain in one 24-hour period; approximately one-fifth of Pakistan’s total land area was under water. By one estimate, the floods caused more than 1,700 deaths and nearly 3,000 serious injuries, while destroying more than 1.89 million homes. 13 Pakistan’s government believed more than 6 million people had been displaced. Meanwhile, the disaster threatened to complicate the security situation in the northwest part of the country by diverting Pakistani forces from battling the Taliban, thereby giving the insurgents the opportunity to conduct alternative relief efforts and increase poppy production as an alternate crop in devastated agricultural areas.

Given the foregoing, on 12 August the USS Peleliu (LHA-5) ARG/15th MEU began humanitarian assistance operations in partnership with the Pakistani armed forces, which were responsible for coordinating military support to the Pakistan flood relief operation. Because of the press of competing, simultaneous operations, the “split-ARG” approach that has become increasingly commonplace was used. The 2010 deployment of the Peleliu ARG/15th MEU provides a good illustration of how forward-postured amphibious forces are employed in a distributed manner to conduct a range of military operations.

The 15th MEU, commanded by Colonel Roy Osborn, departed San Diego in May on board the USS Peleliu , Dubuque (LPD-8), and Pearl Harbor (LSD-52). From 19-26 June those elements of the MEU embarked in the Peleliu and the Pearl Harbor conducted Exercise Crocodilo in Timor Leste. Engagement activities included field training with the Timor-Leste Defense Forces and the International Security Forces from New Zealand and Australia as well as port security operations training with the Timorese Maritime Police. U.S. personnel provided health services to 1,173 citizens of Dili and participated in a community relations project at the Santa Bakhita Orphanage.

As those events were occurring, other elements of the MEU in the Dubuque conducted Marine Exercise 2010 with Indonesian marines. The engagement events included: amphibious assault, jungle warfare, and urban warfare training; medical and dental civic action projects; and rebuilding a long-abandoned three-room school in Banyuputih. From 13-17 July, the Peleliu —this time paired with the Dubuque —and the associated elements of 15th MEU conducted a series of security cooperation events with forces from the Maldives. That included maritime interception/visit, board, search and seizure operations, amphibious training, and on-board navigation, damage control, and engineering training. Concurrently, MEU forces in the Pearl Harbor conducted a similar series of security cooperation events with forces from Sri Lanka. Additionally, members of the 15th MEU Female Engagement Team worked with female members of the Sri Lankan navy and air force. 14

Even after they were committed to humanitarian operations in Pakistan, the Peleliu ARG/15th MEU continued to execute multiple concurrent missions. From 26 August–2 October, for example, the MEU’s AV-8B Harriers flew 312 combat sorties from the big deck in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. The sorties included the first operational drop by any naval aircraft of 500 lb. GBU-54 laser Joint Direct Attack Munitions.

Meanwhile, the Dubuque was 1,500 miles away conducting freedom of navigation operations in the Gulf of Aden and Somalia Basin as part of Combined Task Force 151. At approximately 0500 local time on 9 September, 24 Marines from 15th MEU’s Maritime Raid Force recovered the Antigua-Barbuda-flagged, German-owned M/V Magellan Star and liberated its crew from nine pirates who had seized the vessel a day earlier.

While those events were unfolding, the 26th MEU, commanded by Colonel Mark Desens, had deployed aboard the USS Kearsarge (LHD-3) ARG a month early to reinforce relief operations in Pakistan starting 16 September.

When the humanitarian operations concluded in early November, the Peleliu ARG/15th MEU had one more mission to execute before sailing for home. From 6-9 November it provided sea-based support to the U.S. Secret Service during the presidential visit to India, once again illustrating the non-doctrinally bound utility of amphibious forces.

Events in Haiti and the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility may have garnered more attention, but amphibious forces in the Pacific were by no means standing idle. The 31st MEU, under the command of Colonel Andrew MacMannis, was conducting usual sea-based engagement activities in the Pacific when the Republic of the Philippines requested help after being hit by Typhoon Juan on 18 October. Already deployed to the area aboard the USS Essex (LHD-2) ARG in order to conduct Amphibious Landing Exercise 2011 , the 31st MEU was able to rapidly employ Humanitarian Assistance Survey Teams to quickly assess damaged areas. The storm destroyed an estimated 28,000 homes, affecting 600,000 people, and washed out roads, bridges, and crops. Working with the Philippine armed forces, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and non-governmental organizations, U.S. Sailors and Marines delivered food, water, tentage, and medical assistance to remote sites ashore. 15

While that disaster was not as extensive as others in 2010, it offers a significant force-planning insight: crisis response operations required the simultaneous commitment of three ARG/MEUs. Up until a few years ago, the United States maintained three ARG/MEUs constantly postured forward. Naval Operations Concept 2010 articulates the goal of returning to that status. 16 The events of 2010 appear to validate the wisdom of having that level of amphibious forward presence.

Title 10 Matters

During his tenure as 34th Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James T. Conway often expressed his concern that sustained operations ashore in Iraq and Afghanistan—and the nature of those operations—had caused the Marine Corps to increase the number and weight of its vehicles and equipment in a manner inconsistent with its amphibious character. His comment that the Marine Corps should not be “a second land army” was widely misconstrued by some to mean that the Navy-Marine team had not been conducting amphibious operations of late.

As aforementioned events attest, that is simply not the case. In fact, in the past 20 years U.S. naval forces have conducted in excess of 100 amphibious operations, more than doubling the Cold War rate of employment. 17 The vast majority of those operations were conducted by ARG/MEUs, however. In addition to the above-cited equipment problem, the ability to task-organize forces and execute larger amphibious operations has indeed atrophied. 18

To begin correcting that deficiency, General Conway and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead agreed to resume large-scale amphibious exercises; two were scheduled for 2010. The first, Dawn Blitz , was on the West Coast from 27 May–4 June. While the planning scenario involved a full MEB, the practical application of the exercise included just representative slices of the units that normally would be involved. Still, landing 5,000 Marines from seven amphibious ships was a larger undertaking than any practiced since before 9/11. The second event, Bold Alligator 2011 , was on the East Coast on 11-17 December using computer simulation, with 450 Sailors and Marines from Expeditionary Strike Group 2 and 2d MEB controlling 20 ships and an 11,000-man landing force from response cells afloat and ashore. 19

The summer months also brought changes in assignment, both anticipated and unexpected, for some to the Corps’ most senior officers. In July, General James Mattis, highly regarded as the epitome of a warrior-scholar, was nominated to lead U.S. Central Command. That unexpected change came as part of a shake-up that occurred when a Rolling Stone article’s portrayal of the command climate under General McChrystal resulted in his swift retirement.

More directly important to the Marine Corps, General Conway—a charismatic leader who had presided over the expansion to an active force of 202,000 Marines amid two ongoing combat campaigns and a host of lesser contingencies—neared the end of his tenure as Commandant and completion of 40 years of service. Speaking to the Marines’ Memorial Association in August, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates praised the Corps’ recent operational accomplishments while echoing General Conway’s desire to re-assert its naval, expeditionary character:

General James Conway, the commandant, has noted that we have a generation of officers and Marines that are combat-hardened, but may never have stepped aboard a ship. . . . I have therefore asked Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and the Marine Corps leadership to conduct a thorough Force Structure Review, to determine what an “expeditionary-force-in-readiness” should look like in the 21st century. I directed them not to lose sight of the Marines’ greatest strengths: a broad portfolio of capabilities and penchant for adapting that are needed to be successful in any campaign. The counterinsurgency skills the Marines developed during this past decade, combined with the agility and espirit honed over two centuries well position the Corps, in my view, to be at the “tip of the spear” in the future, when the U.S. military is likely to confront a range of irregular and hybrid conflicts. 20

General Conway established a Force Structure Review Group (FSRG) and provided the initial guidance for its exploration of the Marine Corps’s future size and capabilities. On 22 October he relinquished his position to General James F. Amos. The office of Commandant is the oldest of all the service chief positions, dating to 1798 by law and 1775 by tradition. 21 More so than members of the other armed forces, Marines view their top leader as the personification of their Corps—“tribal chieftain” may be an apt description. Always attuned to their own history, Marines were quick to note that General Amos’ appointment was a milestone event: the first aviator to become Commandant. While interesting, that was not viewed as particularly radical, given how thoroughly ingrained the air-ground team concept is within the Corps.

Building on the foundation laid by his predecessor, General Amos guided the FSRG work to completion and gained approval from Secretaries Mabus and Gates. The FSRG results included an active duty end-strength of 186,800 Marines. In publishing the results, the commandant emphasized that the new force structure “is not simply a reduced version of today’s Marine Corps nor is it a reversion to the pre-9/11posture.” 22

He described it as a “strategically mobile, middleweight force [emphasis in original] optimized for forward-presence and rapid crisis response . . . light enough to leverage the flexibility, volume, and capacity of amphibious shipping, yet heavy enough to accomplish the mission.” General Amos noted that the Corps “will also explore options for employing Marines from a wider variety of Navy ships, seeking more integrated naval solutions” to the geographic combatant commanders’ requirements. He emphasized that the Marine Corps must be able to exploit “the carrying capacity of maritime prepositioning and the speed of strategic airlift.” 23

Ultimately, the new force structure is designed to provide a Marine Corps capable of five inter-related tasks: conducting military engagement; responding rapidly to crisis; projecting power; conducting littoral maneuver; and countering irregular threats. 24

In 2010, then, Marines successfully accomplished a wide array of operational tasks—from engagement to crisis response to combat. Simultaneously the Marine Corps conducted a seamless leadership transition, solidified its role as America’s expeditionary force in readiness, and identified the way ahead for the future.

1. GEN James F. Amos, 2011 Report to Congress on the Posture of the United States Marine Corps, pp. 1 and 7.

2. HQMC Media Branch News Release, 7 December 2009.

3. Dexter Filkins, “Afghan Operation is New War Model,” (The New York Times News Service, 12 February 2010).

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. 1LT Alex Lim, “Marjah officials note progress, weakening insurgency in Marjah,” (RCT 1 Press Release, 29 September 2010).

7. Rod Nordland, “Violence Flares Anew in Southern Afghanistan,” ( The New York Times , 11 December 2010).

8. Tony Perry, “Marines pay a price trying to secure an Afghan hot spot,” ( Los Angeles Times , 22 January 2011).

9. According to the U.S. Geological Survey website accessed 28 March 2011, the official estimate is 222,570 people killed, 300,000 injured, 1.3 million displaced, 97,294 houses destroyed and 188,383 damaged; see http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/recenteqsww/Quakes/us2010rja6.php#summary

10. Damien Cave and Deborah Sontag, “Rescues Beat Dimming Odds in Haiti but Fall Short of Need,” ( The New York Times , 17 January 2010).

11. Author’s discussion with COL Brandl, 5 May 2010.

12. 22d MEU Public Affairs, “22nd MEU Completes Mission with Operation Unified Response,” (22d MEU press release, 24 March 2010).

13. Singapore Red Cross, “Pakistan Floods: The Deluge of Disaster,” (15 September 2010).

14. Female Engagement Teams consist of two or three female Marines specially trained to interact with the female populace within a given operating area.

15. LCPL Tyler C. Vernaza, “31st MEU aids isolated Philippine towns after Super Typhoon Juan devastates area,” (31st MEU press release, 23 October 2010).

16. GEN James T. Conway, ADM Gary Roughead, and ADM Thad W. Allen, Naval Operations Concept 2010 , (Washington, DC: U.S. Government, 2010) p. 30.

17. LTGEN G. J. Flynn, Amphibious Operations in the 21st Century , (Quantico, VA: 18 March 2009), p. 3, and Naval Operations Concept 2010 , p. 61.

18. Flynn, p. 7.

19. Expeditionary Strike Group 2 Public Affairs Office, “Bold Alligator 2011, revitalizing amphibious force,” (press release, 9 December 2010).

20. Robert M. Gates, “George P. Shultz Lecture,” (San Francisco, CA: 12 August 2010).

21. The office of Chief of Staff of the Army was established in 1903, while the office of Chief of Naval Operations dates to 1915. Major Samuel Nicholas was appointed the senior officer within the Continental Marines on 28 November 1775 and by tradition is considered the first CMC; Lieutenant Colonel William Ward Burrows was the first officer to assume that title by law, on 12 July 1798.

22. GEN James F. Amos, Reshaping America’s Expeditionary Force in Readiness: Report of the United States Marine Corps 2010 Force Structure Review Group , (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 15 March 2011), p. 7.

23. Ibid., pp. 2-3.

24. All of these terms are defined in joint doctrine with the exception of littoral maneuver, which is defined in the Naval Operations Concept 2010 as “the ability to transition ready-to-fight combat forces from sea to the shore in order to achieve a position of advantage over the enemy.”

Lieutenant Colonel Berry, a former enlisted Marine and infantry officer, retired from the Marine Corps in 2002. He is an avid student of U.S. naval history and a regular contributor to Proceedings .


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