At the heart of Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford's forward-looking strategy for the Marine Corps is a plan that would give each of the three Marine expeditionary forces different, if overlapping, specialties.
According to the commandant's planning guidance, released Jan. 23, the West Coast-based I MEF would prioritize major operations and campaigns, while II MEF, on the East Coast, would focus first on crisis response at the Marine expeditionary brigade level. The Japan-based III MEF would remain "regionally oriented" as the first response force for all operations in the Asia-Pacific region theater and would be designated a standing joint task force headquarters for U.S. Pacific Command.
This plan runs parallel to Dunford's strategy to align each geographic combatant command, responsible for joint missions across the globe, with a tailored Marine Corps element able to respond to regional crises. This will call for revamped general officer assignments and changes to the organization and manning of their staffs, said Dunford said.
"The desired end state is the effective employment and support of assigned, allocated, and apportioned Marine Corps forces," he wrote.
As new as this approach may seem after 13 years of war that saw I and II MEF headquarters rotating in and out of the same combat zones, it's really a move "back to the future," said retired Lt. Gen. Jan Huly, a former deputy commandant for Marine Corps Plans, Policies and Operations.
"Back before 9/11 … that's kind of the way MEFs were oriented," said Huly.
I MEF has long been tied to major operations in the Middle East, Huly pointed out. The West Coast MEF oversaw Marine Corps operations in U.S. Central Command until 2012, when MARCENT became a separate three-star command. Meanwhile, II MEF, with its three Marine expeditionary units, has often taken the lead on more finite interventions and aid operations. Further establishing the distinct identities of the two MEFs was the "single battalion concept," introduced in 2014, which moved West Coast and East Coast units into distinct deployment patterns, with East Coast Marines deploying to Europe or Africa and West Coast units to the Middle East, missions and operational tempo permitting.
Dakota Wood, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and former strategic analyst for the commandant of the Marine Corps, said the strategy gave the MEFs the opportunity to invest in more specialized training and to build key relationships with geographic combatant commanders.
"You really need to understand the place where you're going," he said. "These regions are so big that you can't just be equally expert in all areas of the world."
The plan also dovetails with the Marines' renewed focus on regional crisis response, augmented with two new land-based special purpose Marine air-ground task force units activated in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Finding new ways to be regionally available around the globe for urgent missions helped the Marine Corps to reaffirm its niche within the U.S. military, Wood said.
"That's what the combatant commanders are really clamoring for," he said. "The Marine Corps has [in the past] filled that need with units that are, by culture and training, suited to this expeditionary, relatively light footprint. I think it just reconfirms what their cultural identity has been for a long time."