The recent upsurge of Islamist violence in Libya, Mali and Algeria should put to rest any assertion that Al Qaeda is a spent force. Equally important, it underscores the value of agile, mobile and integrated response forces to deal with an unpredictable security environment. As France is learning in Mali and the U.S. found out in a number of crisis response situations, it can be very difficult to deploy and sustain significant ground and air forces rapidly into places with limited infrastructure. If French forces had not already been present in countries bordering Mali and were not given overflight rights by Algeria, the response to the Islamist offensive would have been much slower and less effective or even rendered impossible. In addition, it is very difficult to respond appropriately and speedily to the range of crises confronting the West without standing formations that are organized, trained and equipped for such events.
Fortunately, the U.S. military has such specialized formations with the inherent capability to respond rapidly to a spectrum of crises ranging from the outbreak of conventional conflict to amphibious raids, special reconnaissance, terrorist incidents, non-combatant evacuations, humanitarian disasters and even partnership training opportunities. I am referring to the Sea Services’ team known as the Marine Expeditionary Unit/Amphibious Ready Group (MEU/ARG). The MEU portion of the team consists of a reinforced infantry battalion supported by additional command and control, logistics and aviation elements. To these can be added Marine Force Recon, SEALs, engineers, medical personnel and intelligence specialists.
The ARG half of the combined capability typically consist of three ships — a LHD, LPD and LSD — which not only provide transportation for the MEU’s air and ground elements but can serve as a sovereign base at sea with advanced medical care, intelligence capabilities and support facilities. LHDs offer enormous mission flexibility with their well deck, huge medical capability, self-protection, and large internal volume for equipment, water, fuel, supplies and repair facilities. The large LHD and LPD amphibious warfare ships allow the MEU/ARG to deploy with its own air force consisting of MV-22 Ospreys, AV-8B short/vertical takeoff and landing fighters (to be replaced by the F-35Bs) and AH-1W attack, UH-1N utility and H-53E heavy lift helicopters. The MEU/ARG is unique in the world not only due to the breadth of its capabilities and its overall flexibility but because of the close working relationship that exists between the Marine Corps and Navy elements. Each deployment is preceded by a six-month joint training cycle.
MEU/ARG teams provide theater commanders with a highly mobile and responsive force. They have proven their value repeatedly in the conflicts and crises of the past two decades. On 25 November 2001, the 15th MEU conducted an amphibious assault over 400 miles into the Afghan city of Kandahar. This same unit also participated in the initial stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Since then, MEUs have repeatedly deployed to both countries. During the 2011 conflict in Libya, MV-22s and AV-8Bs from the LHD-3 Kearsarge successfully rescued two downed airmen. MEU/ARGs have responded to humanitarian crises and non-combatant evacuations more than 300 times over the past fifty years.
Most recently, the 24th MEU/Iwo Jima ARG operated in the Mediterranean, Red and Arabian Seas providing theater security cooperation and forward naval presence, conducting Maritime Security Operations and serving as a crisis response force for theater commanders. If events had gone from bad to awful in Mali, this is the force that probably would have been called on to conduct the evacuation of U.S. personnel from that landlocked country’s capital. With the support of a couple of Marine Corps KC-130 tankers to refuel MV-22s, the 24th/Iwo Jima could have done it.
The demand for MEU/ARGs consistently exceeds the supply. Currently, the available force structure (seven MEUs and 33 amphibious warfare ships) allows only three MEUs to be available at a time; one on the East Coast, another on the West and a third in the western Pacific. Until fairly recently, the Pentagon deployed two MEU/ARGS on each coast. A decline in the number of large deck amphibious warfare ships forced the reduction from five to three available formations. Current shipbuilding plans have the size of the amphibious warfare fleet falling further, to as few as 28 ships. Given the uncertain nature of the global security environment, the inherent flexibility of the MEU/ARG construct, the decline in U.S. overseas presence and the pivot to Asia-Pacific, this is dumb. The single smartest strategic move this administration could make would be to increase the number of large deck amphibious warfare ships — more LHDs, continuing production of LPDs, an enhanced ship to replace the aging LSDs and a new Mobile Landing Platform — to 38 which is the number the Navy and Marine Corps both say is necessary to meet the level of demand.