In strategy shift, Marines create new command posts for Africa, Americas
By Hope Hodge Seck
Big changes to the Marine Corps' command structure are coming this summer.
With the 2014 exit from Afghanistan last year allowing the Marines to emphasize presence and partnerships in Europe, Africa and the Americas, the Corps plans to create two new general officer commands, Marine Corps Times has learned.
In a transition expected to take place in July, according to Defense Department sources in the Defense Department, a dedicated one-star commander will be placed at Marine Corps Forces South, which is headquartered in Miami, and a two-star commander at Marine Corps Forces Europe and Africa in Stuttgart, Germany.
The one-star general at MARFORSOUTH will oversee all Marine Corps operations in the Caribbean and Central and South Americas. The two-star in Germany will oversee Marine operations in Europe and Africa, including that of the operations of Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Africa, which last year supported Ebola response efforts and participated in an emergency evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Libya. the Marines will place a dedicated one-star commander at Marine Corps Forces South headquarters in Miami, and install a two-star commander at Marine Corps Forces Europe and Africa in Stuttgart, Germany.
The new strategy will also allow for more intensive oversight of SPMAGTF-Crisis Response-Africa and a new rotational unit set to become active in Central America this summer. These special purpose units have become a cornerstone of the Marines' post-war strategy, which emphasizes crisis response missions across sprawling combatant commands.
Marine Corps officials confirmed the upcoming changes to Marine Corps Times April 23, saying an announcement from Headquarters Marine Corps making the news public was expected shortly.
To date, the commands have been overseen by generals who provide leadership remotely from other command headquarters.
Lt. Gen. Robert Neller, the head Commander of Marine Corps Forces Command, currently oversees commands Marine Corps Forces Europe from MARFORCOM's headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia. His deputy commander, Brig. Gen. David Coffman, commands MARFORSOUTH from the same location. And II MEF Commander Maj. Gen. William Beydler, the commander of II Marine Expeditionary Force based at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, jointly commands Marine Corps Forces Africa.
At MARFORCOM, this move will allow commanders to focus more fully on their primary missions, said Neller, who discussed the coming changes with Marine Corps Times.
"We continue to be the force generator, working with [Plans, Policies & Operations] and Headquarters Marine Corps, which also makes us a key playering in monitoring the readiness of the force, because you have to have a force that's ready," he said.
Defense officials say commanders for the new posts have already been identified.
Brig. Gen. Neil Nelson, now serving as chief of combined joint logistics for International Security Assistance Force headquarters in Afghanistan, has been nominated to receive a second star and will assume command of the newly created Marine Corps Forces Europe and Africa, sources say. Nelson has previously served as the commander of III Marine Logistics Group in Okinawa, Japan, and as the head commander of Training Command in Quantico, Virginia.
Brig. Gen. Neil Nelson
Photo Credit: Lance Cpl. Caleb Hoover/Marine Corps
Brig. Gen. Eric Smith, now senior military assistant to the deputy defense secretary of Defense, will become the first dedicated commander of MARFORSOUTH, officials with the command confirmed. Smith, a former commander of Regimental Combat Team 1 in Iraq and the Regimental Combat Team 8 in Afghanistan, also has brings to bear key regional experience in South America.
A former foreign area officer, Smith has served as the naval section chief at the U.S. Military Group in Caracas, Venezuela, from 2001 to 2003, according to his official biography.
Brig. Gen. Eric M. Smith, left
Photo Credit: Cpl. Tia Dufour/Marine Corps
With Smith's Spanish language skills and FAO experience in the region, Coffman said he was an ideal first dedicated commander for MARFORSOUTH.
"He has just a superb resume on every count," Coffman said. "My view is, they got it exactly right in terms of the right kind of guy: a Goldilocks solution."
While Marine Corps Forces Europe and Africa is more heavily resourced and MARFORSOUTH remains an "economy of force" solution in the region, Coffman said personal relationships are especially crucial in Central and South Americas. Having a commander on the ground in Miami, he said, will allow the Marine Corps to develop these relationships more fully, he said.
"You don't just show up when you need something, and you don't just show up in times of crisis," Coffman said. "To be engaged means you have to be present to win."
With the change in command structure comes expected increases to command staffs. For Marine Corps Forces Europe and Africa, which have long been operating from the same location and with the same personnel, albeit with different commanders, the structure shake-up will bring with it between 75 and 115 new active-duty staff billets, according to a defense official with knowledge of the planning said.
Coffman said MARFORSOUTH confirmed that the command also expectsed an active-duty staff buildup of about 25 following the installation of a new commander there in Miami, bringing total headquarters staffing to about 100 personnel. With about 72 active-duty staff members currently, the command has needed to augment its size with reservists in the past.
All these changes are spurred by the Commandant's Planning Guidance, published in January by Gen. Joseph Dunford. In the document, Dunford said the service Marines would set in motion a plan to provide each geographic and functional combatant command a "properly tailored and effective Marine component."
That strategy, he said, would bring withll it changes to Marine Corps general officer assignments and to the organization and manning of their headquarters staffs. Other headquarters elements around the Marine Corps, he said, would provide the staff needed for these realignments.
"The desired end state is the effective employment and support of assigned, allocated, and apportioned Marine Corps forces," Dunford said.
Officials confirmed to Marine Corps Times that the move was part of the commandant's strategy.
"The service position with regards to [Marine Corps force] componency roles and responsibilities has been adapted to ensure the Marine Corps continues to provide the GCCs with relevant forces to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing operating environment," said Mr. Tony Greco, the director of Advocacy, Transition, Fiscal and Personnel Division at the Capabilities Development Directorate within Marine Corps Combat Development and Integration, in a statement.
The emphasis on the two se global commands is even more pronounced in light of the Defense Department's push to reduce general officers and staffs across the services as they grapple with budget cuts. While the Marine Corps has by far the fewest generals of any service branch, its move to add general officer billets while others are scaling back speaks to the priority Dunford is placing on combatant command relationships around the world.
The move also highlights the attention and resources the Corps is devoting to its land-based crisis response units for certain specific combatant commands special purpose Marine air-ground task forces. The Corps Marines merged several of its Europe-based units last year to create SPMAGTF-Crisis Response-Africa, with the units' troops split between Morón, Spain and Sigonella, Italy. The Romania-based Black Sea Rotational Force, which conducts partnership training with Eastern European partners, also falls under the same headquarters unit.
Theis Marine Corps' presence in Europe was reaffirmed earlier this month when the Spanish government inked an agreement with U.S. officials to allow the Marines to remain at Morón for at least another year, according to reports from the Spanish newspaper El Pais.
Meanwhile, MARFORSOUTH is in the final stages of planning for a new rotational unit, SP-MAGTF South, to be headquartered in Honduras six months out of each year to assist with partnership training, humanitarian assistance and counter-drug missions. The 250-strong task force is expected to become active in June.