As world events unfold, crisis response, security-force assistance, and counterinsurgency will become part of conducting expeditionary combat operations. In the near future, the United States will need forces that can deploy quickly and arrive at their destinations prepared to conduct sustained operations while transitioning subordinate units from crisis-response operations and security-force assistance—as well as U.S. Army, host nation, allied, and partner military forces—into combat operations. The Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) is the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) best prepared to conduct expeditionary combat operations and support sustained combat operations ashore. One MEB aligned with each combatant command can plan and conduct operations across the spectrum in a geographical combatant commander’s area of responsibility (AOR) and integrate all units in an AOR into a cohesive combat force. Along with Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs) and rotational forces (SPMAGTF), the MEB could be used to maintain the Marine Corps’ forward presence and relevancy in Europe’s new security environment.
Threats to NATO Allies
Georgia and the other Caucasus nations, while not NATO members, are located in a region of strategic importance to the United States and Europe due to the oil and gas from the Caspian Basin that transits throughout the area. The United States has expended huge amounts of political capital—and its companies large sums of money—to develop the southern energy corridor that bypasses Russia through the Caucasus and Turkey, an investment that must be defended. Georgia, in particular, has been a willing and strong ally in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But Russia’s recent actions—such as its use of hybrid warfare in the Caucasus, Crimea, Ukraine, and along the eastern border of NATO—are fundamentally changing the landscape of European security.1 Russia’s ZAPAD (West) series of exercises included a simulated nuclear strike on Warsaw in 2009, and its 2013 exercise was likely the largest post–Cold War exercise in Europe.2 The latter featured “Baltic terrorists targeting Belarus and Kaliningrad with an amphibious assault” and appeared “to be a deliberately misnamed surrogate for NATO.”3 These exercises demonstrated that Russia harbors hostility toward the West, NATO, and, in particular, our Baltic NATO allies. The pressure Russia continues to exert on Georgia after seizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia also portends future aggression along the littorals of the Black Sea.
Providing security against aggression toward Georgia would further assure its commitment to the United States and NATO. The U.S. Marine Corps must shed its decade-plus focus on counterinsurgency and prepare for hybrid warfare if the situation in Europe continues to escalate. Only the Navy–Marine Corps team would be able to arrive quickly enough with the appropriate combat power. The Marine Corps must be prepared to provide a reassuring presence, a training capability, and rapid reinforcement for deterrence or combat operations in regions of critical interest or countries in which the United States has security guarantees.
Europe’s new strategic landscape is tailor-made for an MEB. For the Marine Corps, the continent’s problems are reminiscent of the days when it was responsible for the reinforcement of NATO’s northern flank using an amphibious MEB, a fly-in echelon (FIE), and prepositioned equipment in Norway. In the future, operations in the European Command (EUCOM) AOR must be conducted by a standing MEB headquarters focused on Europe and the operational headquarters for all Marine Corps forces there.
The MEB headquarters would work under Marine Forces Europe if assigned to the Joint Force Land Component Commander or Naval Forces Europe/Joint Force Maritime Component Commander if deployed as an amphibious force. The EUCOM MEB would be rapidly deployable and focused on any contingency in the EUCOM AOR up to sustained combat ashore. The MEB would support U.S. policy with a range of deployment options and forces. The Marine Corps’ and other services’ forces in Europe, Marine Corps forces from the continental United States (CONUS), MEUs assigned as Landing Force 6th Fleet, and our NATO allies’ forces would build an MEB that would use its amphibious capability, prepositioned equipment, and expeditionary mindset to accomplish any assigned mission.
To counter Europe’s rapidly changing strategic landscape, the Marine Corps must build on two successful deployments in EUCOM’s AOR–Black Sea Rotational Force (BSRF) and the Georgia Deployment Program-International Security Assistance Force. BSRF should be expanded to a full battalion combat team called “Rotational Force Europe” (RFE) and deployed throughout Eastern Europe. MEB-EUCOM, the operational headquarters under Marine Forces Europe and the Marine Corps European Command Component, would be the MAGTF headquarters of RFE through a forward-command element in Europe and the MEB’s main headquarters in the United States. (This would be either the 2d, 4th, or 6th MEB, for clarity’s sake simply identified as the EUCOM MEB.) RFE would be based on a reinforced infantry battalion that included typical attachments such as a reconnaissance platoon, light-armored vehicle platoon/company, tank platoon, amphibious assault-vehicle platoon, and artillery battery. RFE would also include an aviation combat element (ACE) and a logistics combat element (LCE).
RFE’s headquarters would be at Romania’s Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base. It would leverage this developed location, its airfield, and its access to Black Sea ports to forward-deploy one reinforced company to the Baltic region, using Camp Adazi in Latvia or bases currently under development in Estonia. This company would move throughout the Baltic region for training from these strategic points. Meanwhile, a second reinforced company would forward-deploy to Vaziani, Georgia, to train with local forces, take advantage of mountain-warfare training in Sachkere, and participate in littoral operations along the Black Sea Coast. The third reinforced company— and the crisis-response component—would be at Mihail Kogalniceanu with the ACE, the LCE rear, and the RFE headquarters element. Each company would be postured to move throughout its area and work with NATO allies and Partnership for Peace members, provide rapid response in the event of a regional crisis, and support any operation that RFE, Landing Force 6th Fleet, or the EUCOM MEB might be ordered to execute.
Leveraging equipment from the Marine Corps Prepositioning Program Norway, the companies deployed throughout the AOR could be task-organized with light-armored vehicles, tanks, amphibious-assault vehicles, and artillery as required. Attachments to the RFE battalion could deploy with the infantry battalion; be identified and assigned to RFE (but remain in the CONUS) and come forward for specific training exercises; or come forward separately from the infantry battalion to train at U.S. Army–Europe’s premier and underutilized training facilities in Europe.
The EUCOM MEB’s assigned ACE would provide intra-theater mobility with two to four C-130 aircraft and a squadron of either MV-22 Ospreys or CH-53 Sea Stallions. The C-130s could be used to support RFE, a potential Rotational Force–Africa (RFA), and MEUs in the AOR. Additionally, a detachment of AH-1Z Vipers, UH-1Y Venoms, and AV-8B Harriers or F-35s could be assigned to RFE to provide a complete MAGTF prepared to respond quickly to any contingency, fight if required, and assist in the training of U.S. allies in Marine Corps air-ground operations.
Sixth Fleet, with two or three assigned amphibious ships—ideally landing platform docks (LPDs), or a mix of LPDs and landing ship docks (LSDs)—and several joint high-speed vessels (JHSVs) would support RFE and RFA. The LPDs could be used in traditional roles for transport and landings, or as an afloat forward-staging base. Because LSDs are the only U.S. amphibious ships that can enter the Black Sea, they must be included in any amphibious forward-deployed naval forces in the Mediterranean. The JHSVs would move forces throughout the AOR.
Countering a Russian threat to our Baltic and Black Sea partners would be a major focus of 6th Fleet operations and the EUCOM MEB. However, amphibious operations in the Black Sea can be difficult due to the Montreux Convention, which regulates the transit of naval warships. One solution could be having NATO purchase the two French Mistral-class warships originally contracted by Russia.4 Once acquired, these ships should be flagged as Romanian or Bulgarian naval vessels and manned by NATO crews. If the purchase of the first two Mistrals is not possible, the contract for the third and fourth ships must be assumed by NATO or the United States. Amphibious ships must become part of the NATO smart-defense discussion, with the focus on getting a viable NATO amphibious capability in the critical Black and Baltic Seas regions. At least one Mistral would be maintained in the Black Sea to facilitate expeditionary operations in that region by the U.S. Marine Corps and its NATO allies.
The deployment of RFE with reinforced infantry companies in key locations would posture the Marine Corps to continue the engagement cultivated by BSRF, incorporate a follow-on to the Georgia Deployment Program–International Security Assistance Force, and position Marine Corps forces with key European and Eurasian allies, and demonstrate U.S. support. Marine Corps forces in Georgia would provide deterrence and show commitment to the strong partner of the United States and NATO, facilitate our engagement with regional partners, and provide reassurance to the world that the oil and gas from the Caspian Basin would continue to flow along the southern energy corridor to Europe and Israel.
Meanwhile, MEUs in the EUCOM AOR would continue to provide the landing force for the 6th Fleet and conduct exercises with our allies and partners in the North Sea with Norway; the Baltic Sea with Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Sweden, and Finland; and the Black Sea with Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey. The MEUs would also fly U.S. contingencies into Georgia to conduct exercises with its forces and potentially the armed forces of Azerbaijan. Throughout EUCOM’s AOR, the MEU would exercise both compositing RFE forces into MEU operations and combat operations.
The EUCOM MEB headquarters would focus on the amphibious reinforcement of NATO along its strategic yet vulnerable flanks. The northern edge of NATO now not only includes Norway but Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. The MEB’s main mission would be to plan and execute the reinforcement of the northern flank of NATO via an amphibious/Marine Corps Prepositioning Program Norway operation. An MEB visibly prepared to reinforce our Baltic NATO allies would provide strategic deterrence in this critical region.
Another possible strategic mission for the MEB would be to reinforce or provide deterrence near the Black Sea, specifically, the Caucasus using an FIE and mostly commercial shipping for heavy equipment. Rail ferries transit the Black Sea from Bulgaria to the Port of Poti in Georgia, and rail links are a quick and efficient way to bring heavy equipment from Norway to Georgia. These two diverse missions on the flanks of EUCOM are essential.
‘Return to Core Competencies’
Threats to Europe’s security coincide with the reinvigoration of the MEB and “amphibiosity” in the Marine Corps. By focusing on the “seizing and defending of advanced naval bases or lodgments to facilitate subsequent joint operations” ashore, the Marine Corps must ensure its forces are trained, allocated, and positioned in the correct location to conduct the range of operations required, including being prepared and positioned to conduct combat operations.5 The need to start rotational force, MEU, and MEB training and deployments to the EUCOM AOR is strong and growing. Europe’s current environment is an impetus for the Marine Corps to return to its core competencies. Doing so demands a rigorous training and exercise schedule as well as continuous preparation for any aggression toward our NATO allies or lesser crisis that may occur.
An exercise schedule may look something like this: a full amphibious Marine Expeditionary Brigade Exercise (MEBEX) that composites an MEU with Black Sea Rotation Force and flown-in forces (Prepositioning Program Norway would equip the flown-in forces). Such training would occur once every three years. This MEBEX would focus on northern Norway and the Baltic Sea and conduct landings and subsequent operations ashore in both places. Exercising a composite MEB and using a fly-in command element, a MEU, and an aggregated RFE could take place in either the Baltic or Black Sea regions or other Eastern European locations. An MEU and an RFE company, possibly reinforced with a small FIE, could exercise in the North and Baltic Sea areas or in the Black Sea region and Georgia. If conducted in Georgia, the MEU personnel would fly in and move their equipment through the Black Sea via commercial shipping. If the Mistrals or other amphibious assets are purchased by NATO and flagged as a Black Sea nation’s warship, they could move the MEU assets.
A fourth option is to exercise the aggregation of the reinforced RFE and its use alone or in an enabling role for the MEB. Again, a fly-in command element and the use of prepositioning or additional heavy equipment is a possibility. Of course, all these options provide for the use of other U.S. forces, forces from the host nation, and additional NATO assets in a combined amphibious task force and a combined task force once ashore. These exercises would ensure that the Marine Corps remains interoperable with its NATO allies and that their amphibious doctrines remain compatible. Most importantly, they would provide strategic deterrence and flexible response options within EUCOM.
To facilitate the RFE, MEU, and MEB capability, fundamental shifts in how the Marine Corps organizes and deploys must take place. One would be the ending of East Coast units conducting unit deployments to Okinawa and mainland Japan, and instead focusing their combat power against the near-mid term strategic threat, Russia. Focusing one East Coast infantry regiment on Europe, another potentially on Africa, and the third on MEUs would allow the Europe-focused regiment to build substantial cultural and regional knowledge. The MEU regiment would be considered the swing force and tasked to operate in EUCOM/Africa Command AORs.
Reinvigorating the Force Structure
The Marine Corps’ force structure must be revisited. The current reduction in its combat power is counterintuitive to the situation in Europe. The Marine Corps must focus on the maximum amount of combat power that can be generated. A structure of at least 24 infantry battalions (27 are preferable) in 8 regiments, three artillery regiments of four battalions, two full tank battalions, at least three light-armored reconnaissance battalions, three reconnaissance battalions, and three combat engineer battalions must be retained. Disbanding the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command and integrating those forces back into the Marine Corps as well as streamlining headquarters elements and the training establishment can provide the additional support to maintain this force structure. Aligning a reserve infantry regiment to each active Marine division would provide an additional rotational base to maintain an enhanced presence in Europe as well as maintain the presence required in the Pacific.
To improve cooperation with the Navy and rebuild our ties with our sister service, the MEB forward-command echelon could be co-located with the 6th Fleet in Naples, Italy. This would enhance the synergy the two services bring to the warfighting arena. To support the increased emphasis on the Black and Baltic Seas, the U.S. Navy, in addition to the two or three amphibious ships already discussed, should support the increased European presence and amphibious mission with additional ships, specifically two or three mine-countermeasures (MCM) vessels, four or five littoral combat ships, and two to four additional destroyers. These vessels would be distributed into two squadrons: The Northern Squadron would cover the North and Baltic Seas, while the Southern Squadron would cover the Mediterranean and Black Seas. The MCM ships could join Standing NATO MCM Groups 1 or 2 and further integrate the United States into the defensive arrangements in the North, Baltic, Mediterranean, and Black Sea regions.
Our allies in the Black and Baltic Sea regions support an increased U.S. and, especially, a U.S. Marine Corps presence—not only for the deterrence value, but the opportunity to work with Marine Corps units. Regionally focused MEBs and rotational forces would allow the Marine Corps to prepare for the next fight, which will happen in the least-expected region and most certainly not be at a time or place of our choosing. A resurgent Russia bent on flexing its muscle in the former Soviet space and likely operating against the West along the flanks of the EUCOM AOR would require an immediate response. The Marine Corps must stay abreast of the rapidly shifting security situation throughout Europe.
1. NATO Deputy Secretary General Ambassador Alexander Vershbow, “A New Strategic Reality in Europe,” Speech at the 21st International Conference on Euro-Atlantic Security, Krakow, Poland, 4 April 2014, http://nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_108889.htm?selectedLocale=en. Ine Eriksen Soreide, “The Security Situation in Europe and the Future of NATO: A Norwegian Perspective,” Speech at the YATA-NOREC Conference, Oslo, Norway, 25 April 2014. Toomas Hendrick Ilves, “Security in Northern Europe after the collapse of the Helsinki Final Act,” Speech, Helsinki, Finland, 13 May 2014.
2. Stephan Blank, “What Do the Zapad 2013 Exercises Reveal? (Part One),” Eurasia Daily Monitor, vol. 10, no. 177, 4 October 2013, www.jamestown.org/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=41449&no_cache=1#.VSa-eCkXdhA.
4. Jeff Lightfoot, “Commentary: NATO Should Buy the Mistrals,” Defense News, 30 March 2014, http://archive.defensenews.com/article/20140330/DEFREG01/303300015/Commentary-NATO-Should-Buy-Mistrals.
5. Expeditionary Force 21, www.mccdc.marines.mil/Portals/172/Docs/MCCDC/EF21/EF21_USMC_Capstone_Concept.pdf.