Despite much discussion of and emphasis on “naval integration” in recent years among the Sea Services, most Marines and Navy personnel are generally unaware that these efforts have already taken hold. The U.S. Sixth Fleet recently created the newest of these; indeed, right now inside Sixth Fleet Headquarters in Naples, Italy, a Marine general officer and task-organized staff are deployed to command and control (C2) an amphibious ready group (ARG), a Marine expeditionary unit (MEU), and reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance (RXR) forces. In its first 30 days of deployment, this organization—known as Task Force 61 Naval Amphibious Forces Europe/2d Marine Division (TF 61/2)—has led a combined joint exercise, planned operations for the ARG/MEU team in multiple locations throughout the theater, and accelerated the operationalization of the Marine Corps’ concept for stand-in forces. TF 61/2 provides the fleet commander with a purpose-built C2 capability designed to respond to crises across multiple combatant commands while also representing and advancing the Marine Corps’ Force Design 2030 efforts.
In April 2021, the Commandant of the Marine Corps tasked II Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) and the 2d Marine Division to “accelerate experimentation with maritime, multidomain reconnaissance constructs and activities to enhance the ability of the Stand-in Force to dominate the information environment, sense and make sense of the situation, and win the recon vs. counter-recon competition.” In response to this tasking, II MEF and 2d Marine Division, working with Sixth Fleet, created the initiative now known as Task Force 61/2. As II MEF and 2d Marine Division operationalized the Commandant’s guidance, the Division participated in Marine–special operations forces (SOF) integration exercises, Navy-informed fire-support exercises, Large Scale Exercise 2021, and a series of division-driven littoral exercises. The culmination of this vision came in March 2022, when Sixth Fleet established TF 61/2 under Task Force 61 Naval Amphibious Forces Europe to synchronize C2 of deployed Navy and Marine Corps amphibious forces and advance the integration of Marine Corps capabilities in the Sixth Fleet area of operations (AO).
A Proven Naval Force Construct
In many ways, TF 61/2’s organization is based on a proven model within the U.S. Fifth Fleet—Naval Amphibious Force, Task Force 51/5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (TF 51/5). Similar constructs were employed during World War II but have been largely underused until recently. In May 2016, Naval Forces Central Command (NavCent) and Marine Forces Central Command (MarCent) signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to integrate the staff of CTF 51 and 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) with the objective of creating an integrated structure that could strengthen partnerships with both naval and special operations forces, enhance interoperability with joint and regional coalition partners, and serve as a joint task force headquarters for the Commander of U.S. Central Command.
TF 51/5 employed ARG/MEU and special Marine air ground task force (SPMAGTF) forces throughout the Fifth Fleet area of operations in support of a wide range of operations that spanned the competition continuum, from combat operations in the southern Red Sea to extensive theater-wide security cooperation activities. In August 2021, TF 51/5 was deployed to lead a joint task force consisting of TF 51/5 personnel and joint enablers to conduct the noncombatant evacuation operation in Afghanistan. TF 51/5 provides an excellent template for naval amphibious force integration that can be modeled in other geographic combatant commands. While a Marine general officer leads TF 51/5, either a Navy flag officer or Marine general officer could lead TF 61/2, ideally rotating each year or based on the needs of the supported fleet commander.
The Need for Task Force 61/2
Commander, U.S. Sixth Fleet, recognized the need for a TF 51/5–like capability. This came because of a confluence of events including a demand from Sixth Fleet, Force Design 2030 tasks, and the II MEF and 2d Marine Division RXR initiatives. The RXR force began forming relationships and creating opportunities in Sixth Fleet more than five months prior to TF 61/2’s establishment. Other task forces in the theater, including CTF 65 (destroyer squadron), CTF 67 (maritime patrol squadron), CTF 68 (expeditionary operations) and CTF 69 (submarine squadron), welcomed RXR and began applying Force Design concepts to advance naval warfighting. The addition of TF 61/2 to provide C2 over naval amphibious forces in the European Command and Africa Command theaters gave RXR forces an advocate in the fleet headquarters to open doors, coordinate efforts, tie initiatives together, and fuse operations in support of service and fleet objectives. With TF 61/2 in place, integrated naval warfighting and advancements in Force Design 2030, including RXR, have been accelerated and expanded. In the short time TF 61/2 has been working for Sixth Fleet, the task force has commanded elements interoperating with an expeditionary sea base (ESB) ship in support of Africa Command operations, activities, and investments, an Ohio-class guided-missile submarine in the Mediterranean, an Arleigh Burke–class guided-missile destroyer, numerous military-to-military training events, and a multinational exercise in Iceland. All the while, these events have occurred in the contact layer in a theater focused on the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine.
Exercise Northern Viking 22
Within the first month of deployment, TF 61/2 executed C2 of air, surface, antisubmarine, and land-based operations as part of Northern Viking 22 in Iceland with a forward-deployed staff. These operations ranged from ship-to-objective maneuver by air and surface platforms; visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS); establishing a forward arming and refueling point (FARP); constructing counter-IED and EOD demolition ranges, evacuating control-center operations, and shock-trauma platoon training. The exercise force was comprised of Marines and sailors from the Kearsarge ARG and 22nd MEU; 22nd Naval Construction Regiment; P-8s from CTF 67; U.S., German, Norwegian, and French warships; UK Royal Marines; and the Icelandic Coast Guard. Concurrently, the remaining TF 61/2 staff continued integrating with other task forces and RXR units in theater and stateside from Naples.
Northern Viking 22 allowed TF 61/2 to demonstrate the ability to deploy a task-organized commander’s coordination cell (CCC). This cell is equipped with small form-factor C2 systems, simulating a deployment in support of crisis-response tasking from Sixth Fleet. The CCC concept also gives II MEF a 4,700-mile head start in case of crisis or conflict to deploy and employ fleet Marine forces as TF 61/2 could serve as a lead C2 element for follow-on MEF crisis response operations in support of overall joint force maritime component commander and geographic combatant command objectives. The flexible employment of C2 nodes from the CCC at Northern Viking 22 to the TF 61/2 headquarters in Naples is an example of the small signature forces required to distribute across the theater for assured C2, enhanced span of control, and posture appropriately to support fleet commander and joint force requirements.
The Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD-3), front, the German Type 124 guided missile frigate FGS Sachsen (F-219), middle, and the French F70 AS Anti-Submarine Frigate Latouche-Treville (D-646) conduct a photo exercise during Northern Viking 22, 4 April 2022. U.S. Navy (Jesse Schwab)
Employing Stand-in Forces
TF 61/2 has employed stand-in forces executing reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance missions designed to support the fleet and joint force. These forces provide a range of options to support the fleet commander and enable employing larger fleet Marine forces. RXR forces come equipped with littoral mobility capabilities, maritime surface search radars, small unmanned aircraft systems, and suites capable of communicating over the horizon and across the joint force. They will often use equipment organic to other task forces, warships, and submarines when integrating with adjacent CTFs. Missions include operational preparation of the environment, amphibious reconnaissance, maritime domain awareness, and strike coordination. Unique relationships with allies and partners—fostered through periodic or annual theater security cooperation exercises—can provide additional littoral mobility resources, access to key terrain, and a natural tie-in to organizations such as NATO.
As the Marine Corps prepares for the future, TF 61/2 has identified that taking advantage of existing systems and capabilities within the MEF gives TF 61/2 the tools needed to sense, make sense, and not be sensed inside the adversary’s weapons engagement zone. TF 61/2, led by an admiral or general, provides a fleet headquarters with planning, coordination, fusion, and C2 of missions in support of the fleet, joint force maritime component commander, and European Command during a major conflict. Sixth Fleet has expertise in submarines, surface, and air warfare, but TF 61/2 fills a gap in the littorals, completing the recognized maritime picture. II MEF and Sixth Fleet have created an opportunity for the Navy, Marine Corps, and geographic component commander to capitalize on with a forward-deployed Marine headquarters to C2 assigned naval forces during a time of increased risk and conflict in Europe.
The advancements made in a short period to increase naval warfighting and RXR have been accelerated and enhanced by general or flag officer presence and a task-organized staff being physically in the fleet headquarters and establishing personal relationships through daily interaction. While Marines can and will continue to surge forward in crisis, it remains a challenge to surge trust, access, relationships, or influence. To plan and employ these stand-in forces, a flag- or general-level staff integrated with the fleet headquarters is a critical enabler.
In the Commandant’s Planning Guidance, General Berger poses that as a force, “We should ask ourselves—what do the Fleet Commanders want from the Marine Corps, and what does the Navy need from the Marine Corps?” These are not rhetorical questions, and TF 61/2 has sought and attained answers during its deployment. TF 61/2 has charted a path to providing a ready, joint task force headquarters for crisis response that expands the possibilities of existing options. The task force naval amphibious force construct has demonstrated its utility in crisis response and maritime domain awareness through the C2 of stand-in forces, executing the RXR mission. The TF 61/2 construct assures fleet maneuver, serves as an appropriate accelerant to Force Design 2030 initiatives, and will set conditions for employing fleet Marine forces in the littoral contact layer.
There is widespread recognition within the Sixth Fleet headquarters that this construct will prove vital to naval warfighting in the event of conflict. In a short period, TF 61/2 demonstrated the utility of such an organization—both as a headquarters and a stand-in force. The opening iteration of TF 61/2 has initiated momentum in support of Force Design 2030 initiatives and provided II MEF and Sixth Fleet with increased warfighting capabilities while fostering a productive relationship among the Sea Services. TF 61/2’s actions to date as a forward deployed task force headquarters have fully integrated it into a fleet headquarters operating in an active and complex littoral contact layer. TF 61/2 is not a permanent organization and future iterations will be on-demand, episodic, or permanent depending on the fleet commander’s requirements and Navy and Marine Corps needs.