The year ahead will be dynamic and action-packed for the newly merged Marine Corps Forces Europe and Africa.
The command, which merged in August to streamline operations and place a Marine commander in the theater of operations, is responsible for two of the world’s long-ignored but fastest growing flashpoints.
While both continents were put on the back burner for more than a decade as the U.S. waged a two-front war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russian saber rattling in Eastern Europe and Islamic extremism spreading across the Maghreb from West Africa to Somalia, has pushed both continents to the forefront of defense policy.
The landing of a Marine MV-22B Osprey on a Spanish ship in early September is just the first in a large number of exercises and operational tests Marines will see in the two regions over the next year. The Osprey, assigned to Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response–Africa, landed aboard Spain's amphibious assault ship Juan Carlos I on Sept. 9 in preparation for Exercise Trident Juncture, the largest multinational NATO exercise in more than a decade.
The exercise, which will include about 36,000 participants, will run Oct. 3 through Nov. 6. Marines and other NATO troops will put several new concepts to the test, including Ospreys operating off European ships as a way to keep Marine raid forces forward staged across the globe amid Navy amphibious assault ship shortages. They'll also launch a ship-to-shore operation in Spain, pushing more than 300 miles inland using light armored vehicles during a mock raid.
Those tests have broader implications for Marines operating in Africa as well. Marines with the Corps' crisis response force for Africa have traveled long distances from their home base in Europe to places like South Sudan to respond to embassy security threats and other emergencies.
To bridge that distance, the unit is continuing to explore the use of cooperative security locations, which are temporary forward bases about the size of football fields in Gabon, Senegal and Ghana. The CSLs give Marines a place where Marines can base gear and sleep while training African forces.
But if the sea basing tests are successful during Trident juncture, it could open the door to efforts to put Marine afloat near Africa. It would be a huge advantage to have Marines based at sea in or near the Gulf of Guinea, several officials have said, including the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit's commanding officer, Col. Robert Fulford. During a January speech made shortly after he returned from a deployment leading SPMAGTFCR-AF, he said it would help resolve difficulties associated with being too far from targets.
Lessons learned during large-scale exercises like Trident Juncture will also be used to inform efforts in the years ahead to revamp the Corps' post-war doctrine, Expeditionary Force 21, said Brig. Gen. Julian Alford who heads the Quantico-based Futures Directorate. Officials at Marine Corps Combat Development Command and Futures Directorate are working to update the document to include information on complex threats Marines could face in Africa or Eastern Europe.
Marines with the Corps' new Bulgaria-based Combined Arms Company will also begin training alongside military partners in the region. The unit, which falls under the Romania-based Black Sea Rotational Force and is equipped with tanks, artillery and light armored vehicles, was stood up to help assure Eastern European allies concerned about Russian aggression in the region.
"It's certainly our intent to convince the Russians and [President Vladimir] Putin to refrain from aggression and return to the community of peaceful nations," Brig. Gen. Norman Cooling, the then-deputy commander of Marine Corps Europe and Africa, told Marine Corps Times in June.