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Corps tackles tough Afghanistan preparations

Dec. 21, 2009 - 10:15AM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 21, 2009 - 10:15AM  |  
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Ten weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Marine Corps led the invasion of Afghanistan, sending leathernecks in six CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters from a Navy vessel in the Arabian Sea over 400 miles into the heart of Taliban country.

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Ten weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Marine Corps led the invasion of Afghanistan, sending leathernecks in six CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters from a Navy vessel in the Arabian Sea over 400 miles into the heart of Taliban country.

It was the deepest insertion of Marines in the Corps' history, a complex Nov. 25 nighttime raid launched from the amphibious assault ship Peleliu. It led to the capture of a dusty desert airstrip and the buildup of U.S. forces in Kandahar province, where 1,000 more Marines landed within a week. Fraught with potential disasters helicopters being shot down, for example, or an aircraft collision occurring during aerial refueling the mission was hailed a success.

Eight years later, the U.S. stands at a turning point in the Afghanistan war and, once again, Marines will lead the way.

The U.S. plans to send an additional 30,000 troops, including 8,500 Marines, to augment the estimated 68,000 U.S. troops already there and secure a country best known for its lawlessness, unforgiving terrain and opium-producing poppy plants. U.S. forces are tasked with a counterinsurgency mission of not only striking insurgent strongholds, but also earning the trust of isolated villagers and the Afghan police and army, whom the U.S. plans to train to provide protection long-term.

"Counterinsurgency is not some mystery," said Gen. James Mattis, commander of U.S. Joint Forces Command, who led the initial invasion of Afghanistan as a one-star general. "It's complex, but it's very straightforward. The people are the prize, and you fight for the prize."

About 1,500 Marines and sailors with a task force headed by 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., was the first additional unit to deploy and is expected to arrive in Helmand province before Christmas. They will likely be followed in January by a second task force headed by Lejeune's 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, said Brig. Gen. David Berger, the director of operations at Marine Corps headquarters.

The units will join with the estimated 11,000 Marines assigned to Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan, the Marine air-ground task force currently in theater leading Marine operations from Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province.

The buildup to 19,500, expected to be complete as soon as April, won't be easy, however.

It will require U.S. Transportation Command to find room on planes and ships for all the necessary equipment and vehicles. It will demand a massive buildup of combat outposts, forward operating bases and other infrastructure, including at Camp Leatherneck, where thousands of Marines currently sleep in tents every night. And it will require close coordination with Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, who must decide the sequence in which he wants new U.S. forces to arrive.

The work is just beginning and it could take months to sort everything out.

Who's going, and when

The Corps began identifying surge units Dec. 7, as Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, met with hundreds of soon-to-deploy Marines at Lejeune.

Speaking in the base's theater, Mullen said the mission in Afghanistan has changed from hunting enemies to protecting the civilian population and developing Afghan security forces "as fast as we can," an element deemed crucial to the troop increase yielding positive results.

"We need, no kidding, a lot of people to understand a lot about the people, the culture," Mullen told Marines. "Put in the extra time because your job is absolutely vital. In the long run it's not going to be about killing Taliban. In the long run, it's because the Afghan people are going to put them out."

Make no mistake, though: The Corps will deploy a fearsome arsenal of weapons this spring. While 1/6's task force is considered its own deployment group and will join with existing Marine forces in Afghanistan, 3/6 will deploy as the first major element in Regimental Combat Team 2, comprising 6,200 Marines and equipment ranging from heavy artillery and tanks to amphibious assault vehicles and heavy haulers. The new RCT will join with RCT 7, which currently serves as MEB-A's major Marine ground combat element, giving the Corps twice the potency in southern Afghanistan.

Mattis said he has "no reservations whatsoever" that the U.S.'s new plan can be successful.

"The most important thing is that those troops going there be cohesive, be properly trained to the [counterinsurgency] mindset," he told Marine Corps Times. "Yeah, it's the right way to go. Now we have to make certain we carry out the president's intent."

The plus-up of forces in Afghanistan also will prompt the Corps to replace the MEB-A command structure in Helmand next spring with I Marine Expeditionary Force Forward. Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, commanding general of Camp Pendleton, Calif.-based 1st Marine Division, will take over for Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, current commander of MEB-A.

About 800 Marines are expected to deploy with I MEF Fwd., and three one-star generals will lead segments of Marine forces in Afghanistan under Mills in a command structure similar to what was common for years in Iraq.

Advance party forces in some of the units selected to deploy have already begun to flow into Afghanistan. Mills was in Afghanistan the week of Dec. 7, conducting assessments to make sure I MEF Fwd. will have access to proper facilities and equipment when additional forces arrive, Marine officials said.

"Our focus right now is making sense of how it's going to work and building those relationships that we'll need," said Maj. Heath Henderson, 1/6's executive officer. "Over the past few months, we've done a lot of aggressive sustainment training in a ‘be-prepared-to' scenario. The end result is that [1/6's Marines] are prepared, they're ready and they're trained to go."

The shipping bottleneck

A buildup of this nature takes time, patience and coordination to plan which is why, even now, the Corps still isn't certain when its units will deploy, when Mills and I MEF Fwd. will assume command, and when expanded combat operations and training missions with the Afghans will begin.

Senior military commanders have deemed it a priority to get 1/6 and 3/6 to Afghanistan, a move that would give the Corps an additional 3,000 Marines downrange by mid-January, Berger said in an interview at the Pentagon. But even the timeline for 3/6 is subject to change, he said, and things get considerably fuzzier after that.

"It's a function of all the other units that the military is moving there and where in priority that part of the force is," he said. "The transportation is something that TransCom has to drive. ... There [are] a lot of other pieces that are flowing at the same time."

A mix of Air Force and chartered jets will carry the items deemed critical or operationally sensitive, including armored vehicles, helicopters and ammunition. Other gear and vehicles will be shipped be sea and then convoyed into theater through Pakistan, said Air Force Gen. Duncan McNabb, TransCom commander. Landlocked and subject to harsh winter weather and rocky, bomb-infested roads, Afghanistan has numerous obstacles that must be overcome to avoid a bottleneck and get equipment to bases such as Camp Leatherneck.

About 50 percent of supplies are currently flowing into Afghanistan from Pakistan and 30 percent arrive from the north, said McNabb, speaking to reporters during a Dec. 9 meeting in Washington. But winter storms, ambushes and political upheaval all could lead to shipping routes closing, delaying the arrival of needed items.

A potential solution: The U.S. and Russian governments are negotiating to open Russian airspace to charter and U.S. military flights supplying Afghanistan, McNabb said. The polar route over Russia would allow chartered jets to travel nonstop from Chicago to Afghanistan, and let Air Force transports take on cargo at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., and refuel in Alaska. Wounded troops could fly directly to U.S. bases instead of stopping at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, and the nearby Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.

It isn't clear when the polar route will be cleared for regular missions, however, or how many flights will be allowed to use the route. So far, the Russian government has allowed only two C-17 Globemaster cargo flights to cross Russia, but McNabb said he foresees hundreds of flights eventually using the route each year.

Waiting for vehicles

One example of the current bottleneck is the fielding of mine-resistant ambush-protected all-terrain vehicles. With a blast-resistant hull, the vehicles are designed to provide MRAP-level protection for troops while offering more mobility than existing MRAPs a dire need in Afghanistan.

Wisconsin-based Oshkosh Corp. has delivered more than 1,000 M-ATV to U.S. forces, but only about 235 have been airlifted so far from Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., to the theater, McNabb said. A C-17 can fit three vehicles and a 747 can fit five, but the Air Force prefers using C-17s because it can take several hours to unload a 747, which doesn't have a cargo ramp, he said. So far, MEB-A has received about 80 M-ATVs, said Maj. Bill Pelletier, a spokesman for the task force in Afghanistan.

To address how best to divert vehicles and other assets to Afghanistan, Marine acquisitions officials are working closely with Marine Corps Logistics Command, based at Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany, Ga., to move as many 7-ton Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement trucks as possible directly from Iraq to Afghanistan, said Dave Branham, a spokesman with Program Executive Office-Land Systems.

Brig. Gen. Juan Ayala, commander of Lejeune's 2nd Marine Logistics Group, said about 4,800 pieces of equipment have been shipped directly from Iraq to Afghanistan since last spring, with most of them getting there by aircraft or via shipping routes through Pakistan. Marines under Ayala's command returning from Afghanistan have told him that the biggest concern there isn't that one particular kind of gear or vehicle is missing, but how long it takes to get everything where it is needed, he said.

"Iraq has a very good road network. It's got highways. It's got ports. The lines of communication are much better," Ayala said. "Afghanistan, the supply pipeline is limited because of the infrastructure. It's going to get better, but it's going to take a while. It's not a challenge we can't overcome."

In another example, MEB-A's requirements call for it to have 68 10X10 Logistics Vehicle System Replacement trucks, each capable of moving 50,000-plus pounds of supplies and shipping containers. It currently has 20, Branham said. As of Dec. 8, there were 27 additional trucks on a ship heading to the theater and 21 more vehicles being prepared for shipment at Space & Naval Warfare Systems Command in Charleston, where computer networking equipment and other gear is added to the vehicles.

Preparing downrange

At Camp Leatherneck, preparations are underway daily to prepare the forward operating base for the introduction of thousands of additional Marines. That means improving roads, parking, storage spaces, communications and power networks beyond "a baseline capacity," Pelletier said.

Currently, less than half of MEB-A's forces are based at Leatherneck, with Marines spread out at combat outposts spanning from Golestan in Farah province in the west to Khanashin, a southern district in Helmand that members of Lejeune's 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion seized control of with little trouble in July. MEB-A also has some aircraft and Marines to the east at Kandahar Airfield, Pelletier said.

As Marine forces flow into Afghanistan, commanders anticipate the size of far-flung combat outposts to grow, giving the Corps additional forces in more locations. Construction also is underway at Camp Leatherneck to increase its capacity from 10,000 troops to 14,000 by mid-spring, and the task force is in the process of moving its first Marines into hardened shelters, Pelletier said. Until now, Marines have largely slept in tents that accommodate up to 20 people.

The introduction of hardened shelters comes at a time when Afghanistan's temperatures and famously frosty winter weather are starting to take a turn for the worse. Southern Afghanistan's winters aren't typically as harsh as what the Army will see in the eastern part of the country, but in Farah and Helmand provinces, temperatures at night have begun to drop regularly below 40 degrees. January is typically considered even colder, and rain becomes more common, too.

Marines have begun to winterize forward operating bases and combat outposts in anticipation, making sure that they have enough tents downrange and that enough gravel has been put down on top of the sand on bases, Pelletier said.

"When it rains hard, that fine sand has a consistency like peanut butter. It might have seemed counterintuitive when daytime temperatures were still in the 90s," but it's necessary, he said.

Mattis, a counterinsurgency expert who has pushed the Corps to adopt new irregular warfare capabilities in recent years, said the U.S. made a strategic decision to focus on Iraq over Afghanistan in the last few years, but can still be successful facing the Taliban now.

"We are out to keep this democracy alive," he said. "I think the enemy will learn in the long run that our message is a lot stronger than the terrorist message."

Staff writers from reader">Trista Talton and from reader">Bruce Rolfsen contributed to this report.

Leading the fight

By spring, the Marine Corps will have an estimated 19,500 Marines in southern Afghanistan, and the Corps will stand up a two-star command structure headed by a forward headquarters unit from I Marine Expeditionary Force, based out of Camp Pendleton, Calif. A look at who will lead Marine forces:

Maj. Gen. Richard Mills

Expected billet: Commander of I MEF Fwd. and Marine forces in Afghanistan.

Current billet: Commanding general of Pendleton's 1st Marine Division.

Past assignments: As a colonel, Mills commanded the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, based out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., from August 2000 to June 2003. In that timeframe, the unit conducted combat operations in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, where it joined forces with Task Force Tarawa, fighting in Nasiriyah.

Brig. Gen. Joseph Osterman

Expected billet: Commander, 1st MarDiv Fwd.

Current billet: Commander of Pendleton's 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade and assistant division commander, 1st MarDiv.

Past assignments: As a lieutenant colonel, Osterman commanded 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, based out of Marine Corps Base Hawaii, when the unit participated in the initial invasion of Afghanistan. He also served as the commander of 25th Marine Regiment in Iraq in 2004 and as commander of Lejeune's Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, in 1991, when the unit deployed to Somalia.

Brig. Gen. Andrew O'Donnell

Expected billet: Commander, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing Fwd.

Current billet: Assistant commander of 3rd MAW, based at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif.

Past assignments: As a colonel, O'Donnell commanded Marine Helicopter Squadron 1 from June 2005 to June 2007. He is also a past commander of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 365, based out of MCAS New River, N.C.

Brig. Gen. Charles Hudson

Expected billet: Commander, 1st Marine Logistics Group Fwd.

Current billet: Commander general of Pendleton's 1st Marine Logistics Group.

Past assignments: From 2003 to 2006, Hudson served as chief of staff and commanding officer of Pendleton-based Combat Logistics Regiment 15. From 2006 to 2007, he served as chief of staff for U.S. Central Command's logistics directorate.

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