A member of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, under the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, secures a beach alongside a Filipino marine during PHIBLEX 2012. Marine leaders are reinvigorating the MEB structure with renewed focus on the units as the country's crisis-response force. (Lance Cpl. Brianna Turner / Marine Corps)
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CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. The slowing pace of deployments to Afghanistan and resurgence in unit rotations to Asia-Pacific is helping to shape Marine expeditionary brigades, which the Marine Corps is counting on as its go-to crisis-response forces.
The MEB, as an entity, has had a yo-yo life in the Marine Corps, mostly existing as a headquarters element that organized forces to respond to a crisis or contingency. Most Marines probably didn't know it existed or what it was about.
But in the past year, the service has reinvigorated its three active-duty MEBs, formally standing up headquarters in Japan, North Carolina and California under their respective Marine expeditionary forces. Each MEB will deploy and lead Marines when the MEF commander gets the order to respond to a crisis.
The aim is to develop the MEB as a "middleweight" option between the Corps' smaller Marine expeditionary units and its larger MEFs. The force, which can range from 2,500 to 15,000 Marines, can include a mix of ground combat, combat logistics and aviation units, adjusted to a specific mission. On the West Coast, 1st MEB has identified and tasked its main elements: 1st Marines, Combat Logistics Regiment 17 and Marine Aircraft Group 16, said Maj. Gen. Melvin Spiese, the I MEF deputy commander at Camp Pendleton, Calif., who commanded 1st MEB until mid-December.
The subordinate units tapped for each MEB depend on the timing and the type of crisis. Marines in "dwelling" units, those back from an overseas deployment but not yet gearing up for the next one, may be tethered to a MEB. Units not tasked to the Unit Deployment Program, Marine expeditionary units or other rotations also may be assigned to an MEB. Those assignments will drive unit training, Spiese said.
"We train … very deliberately, progressively [and] cohesively," he said. "We've identified the force list that's [associated] with the MEB. It [then] becomes a bit of a menu, and we go in and pick from that. We know who those units are. We know [each] unit's level of readiness."
The MEBs "train to a wide variety of missions, predominantly at the high end," he said, "so it enables us to train across the range of military operations."
On the East Coast, the 2nd MEB at Camp Lejeune, N.C., which stood up in November, will draw forces from ground, aviation and logistics units within II MEF, but no specific unit is permanently assigned.
"If there was a crisis that required a [MEB] response … we would select units that would be task-organized to respond to that crisis," said Capt. Binford Strickland, a II MEF spokesman. Meanwhile, 2nd MEB, commanded by Brig. Gen. John Love, continues to develop, train and work toward being fully operational by 2015.
A different pace of operations and training exists in Japan, where 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade gives III MEF, which is supported by permanent and rotating units, the flexibility to respond quickly and deploy forces, most recently in a humanitarian aid and disaster relief mission in the Philippines. In December, the Corps designated 3rd MEB, commanded by Brig. Gen. Craig Q. Timberlake, as the "alert contingency MAGTF" in the Asia-Pacific region, which means it could deploy Marines within 24 hours.
MEBs are often misunderstood, commanders say.
"If someone were to ask us what a MEB is, part of our answer [would be]: ‘What do you want it to be?' It can be anything that it needs to be," Spiese said. "That's the beauty of how we build our task forces inside the Marine air-ground task force."
MEBs have earned accolades in pivotal operations, including the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the 1992 landing in Somalia for Operation Restore Hope, the 2001 assault into Afghanistan and the 2003 Iraq invasion.
"The MEB has always been relevant to [combatant commander] needs," said Brig. Gen. John Broadmeadow, 1st Marine Logistics Group commander and temporarily dual-hatted as the 1st MEB commander.
While each mission was different, "they were all centered around MEB-styled formations and MEB-styled operations," he said. "So it's proven to be adaptable."
The biggest challenge may be getting Marines, accustomed to 10 years of combat rotations, to think and train as part of an MEB.
"You've got to rehearse dealing with the unknown, rather than the known six-month [pre-deployment training], six-month deployment and dwell period," Broadmeadow said. The routine will be "much less regimented."
"It's getting Marines … used to dealing with environments that aren't well-defined," he added. "And that's going to be the challenge, shifting that mindset back into dealing with the chaos."
The deployable MEB
Getting the crisis-response force where it's needed is another matter. One option is to offload vehicles, equipment and supplies ashore from prepositioned cargo ships. The second is for the MEB to deploy on ships, like an MEU.
Getting those sea legs honed is a big mission for each MEB. "We really haven't been able to focus on those core competencies because of the rotations into Afghanistan," Broadmeadow said.
Marine Corps and Navy units will go to sea for the large blue-green exercises Dawn Blitz in California and Bold Alligator off Virginia to learn and sharpen those skills. The ultimate goal, Spiese said, is for an MEB to "be able to move, not quite on autopilot, but very smoothly and efficiently in responding to a crisis."
That means deploying to a theater and employing the force across the spectrum of operations, to include supporting U.S. civilian authorities in natural disasters and crises, Spiese said.
"We are probably further ahead than any tactical unit in the U.S. in that regard," he said. If a crisis arises, "we want to be in a position that, if it's bad, we're not guessing, we are moving efficiently and effectively."