The Marine Corps' mission in Eastern Europe is rapidly evolving in the face of Russian saber-rattling, according to the outgoing commander of the Romania-based Black Sea Rotational Force.
The unit's latest deployment was the busiest ever and saw a shift in training of European allies away from counterinsurgency operations. Instead, they're practicing towards conventional combat, amphibious raid operations,s off of NATO ships; and will stand up a new company-sized unit in October complete with the impending presence of a new combined arms company that will put leatherneck tanks and artillery, said Lt. Col. David Fallon, BSRF's commanding officer
It puts Marines in Russia's backyard and is just one way the U.S. is working part of U.S. efforts to reassure allies of our commitment to mutual defense, he said. That is critical given recent developments in the region.
"Our future chairman [of the joint chiefs of staff] and commandant is saying the biggest security threat as a nation is Russia," Fallon said. "I think you can predict with near certainty we will have a continued presence there as long as that remains so. Just in talking with our Eastern European allies and partners, it is very reassuring to them that our highest decision makers are clearly focused on this part of the world."
That focus will include a shift in training partners from counter insurgency operations to conventional combat, a new presence of tanks and artillery in Bulgaria, and more amphibious operations off of allied-vessels.
Fallon echoed recent comments by Brig Gen. Norm Cooling, the deputy commander of Marine Corps Forces Europe and Africa, who cited the first ever deployment of MV-22 Ospreys to Romania in late May to participate in Exercise Platinum Eagle, as evidence of an our increased commitment to a region spooked by Russian saber-rattling and intervention in places like Ukraine.
"If it is of concern to our allies, it should concern us because of our Article Five obligations," he said, referring to the NATO agreement under which U.S. forces are obligated to respond to an attack on one of our allies. "Ideally, Russia is not an adversary – if it turns around in Ukraine and gets back to their end-of-Cold-War democratic transition to peaceful capitalism."
That renewed Cold -War-style emphasis, and the Marines saw Black Sea Rotational Force pick up several training missions across like emphasis on Eastern Europe with exercises like Platinum Eagle has resulted in an ever-increasing op tempo. Over the past six months, BSRF 15.1, under they completed ing nine major exercises and 46 military-to-military engagements. That is compared to just six exercises and 22 military-to-military engagements, during the previous rotation.BSRF 14.2.
The next rotation of Marines will be even busier. They already have seven scheduled iteration, BSRF 15.2 which is now recently deployed, has already scheduled 7 exercises, and 45 military-to-military engagements, with the possibility of more possible in the months to come.
Here's how the Black Sea Rotational Force mission But beyond volume of exercises, BSRF is evolving and maturing to meet the new rising threat in Eastern Europe.
The new iteration of Black Sea Rotational Force, which arrived in Eastern Europe in July, BSRF 15.2, will for the first time includes about 150 Marines that will be based in new combined arms force based in Bulgaria., consisting of about 150 Marines forming t The Combined Arms Company, which like the rest of BSRF, is manned by Marines on a six-month rotational basis, will include members of 2nd Tank Battalion; 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion; 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion; Combat Logistics Battalion 6; and 1st Battalion, 10th Marines.
The unit is also equipped with four Abrams main battle tanks, six light armored vehicles and three howitzers.
The new force will be in place and ready to operate by the start of October. That is among the most notable changes to BSRF, Fallon said, because it introduced a whole new spectrum of operations to their military-to-military training. Having tanks, armor and artillery at the Marines' BSRF's disposal means they'll not only serve as a deterrent, but allows those in Marine armor and artillery specialties to swap best practices with allies' troops in the region. — all while can teach allies, learn from them and establish interoperability in new areas that demonstrate and strengthen the service's specialty in combined-arms warfare.
"This is a very significant step in the BSRF evolution when you talk about regional instability," he said. "And it certainly sends a clear message to our partners that we are all-in."
With Bulgaria bordering the Black Sea, a body of water also bordered by Russia, the Marines at armor will be still just a few hundred miles from the embattled Crimean peninsula.
Equally significant is a shift in the type of training Marines are engaging in with European allies as highlighted by a shift in the our long-standing cooperation with Georgian forces. Marines trained Georgians in counter insurgency operations for the better part of a decade as they routinely deployed to Afghanistan in support of U.S. efforts there.
This year, however, during a two-week multinational exercise called Agile Spirit, Marines focused on large-scale, conventional, defensive and offensive operations that included not just Georgian troops, but also Romanian, Bulgarian, Latvian and Lithuanian soldiers.
"Going back to the point of regional instability, wWe were getting them to transition more towards a conventional force where they can provide for their own sovereignty and security instead of routing out insurgents during COIN operations in Afghanistan," Fallon said.
The Marines with Black Sea Rotational Force can learn a lot from those engagements as well, he said, because since the militaries in the region are highly skilled. Fortunately, he added, honing interoperability and familiarization is the primary challenge — not basic skills.
"The level of training and professionalism these European Union nations possess is not rudimentary," he said. "...They are professional and we frequently learn as much from them as them from us. We are not redoing their concepts of employment. We are working to know their [tactics, techniques and procedures] and they need to know ours if we every have to operate side by side."
The latest iteration of BSRF also differed in its emphasis on shipboard operations, with Marines training aboard operating off allies' vessels. Against the backdrop of shortage of U.S. amphibious assault ships shortages, Marine leaders have said Marines could train and operate aboard hip has identified the use of NATO ships by Marine forces as one way to overcome shortfalls.
BSRF seized the opportunity to develop that concept, Fallon said. During Exercise Baltic Operations BALTOPS 2015, a training event exercise held in June from June 7 to 17, Marines partnered with the British, Swedish, Polish, Latvian, Danish and Finnish troops to conduct ship-to-shore assaults off of allied vessels.
Specifically, Marine forces were based on the British amphibious assault ship Ocean, from which they conducted a number of amphibious operations.
There was nothing in particular that was easier or more challenging in operating off a British ship, Fallon said, but the experience did provide the service with insight into its foreign ship basing initiative.
"It certainly is a topic of conversation in the Marine Corps right now," he said. "This was an opportunity, I think, for us as a service to field test some of those concepts, identify some of those challenges and begin working some of those solutions."
Later tThis fall, Europe-based Marines will further pursue the concept by testing MV-22 Osprey flights from aboard Italian, Dutch, British, Spanish and French ships. Putting Marines aboard allies' ships could help the service respond more quickly to main goal is to devise plans to better offset the Navy and Marine Corps' amphibious ship shortage that Cooling said has limited Marines' ability to quickly respond to crises in Europe and Africa.
The common and most important thread that ties each of past and future exercise together was interoperability and familiarity with each nations tactics, techniques and procedures, Folling said.
"I think in all these exercises whether ship board or land based, interoperability remains a challenge we have to continue to work to address," he said. "Like BALTOPS, anytime you are going to operate with an ally or partner, you must address interoperability of command and control infrastructure, radios, security clearances – ID those challenges up front and find workable solutions."