In the Middle East and Central Asia, the US Marine Corps is one of the main US expeditionary deployed throughout the region. Lieutenant- General Robert B Neller, Commander of the Marine Corps Forces Central Command (MARCENT) spoke with Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe about the function of MARCENT, the responsibilities that the command entails, the status of MARCENT engagement programmes with countries throughout the region, and the situation in Afghanistan, especially the phased handover and withdrawal of US Marine forces.
Would you please describe what role MARCENT has within CENTCOM?
US Central Command (CENTCOM) is a US joint regional combatant command that brings together the US Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine and Special Operations components to support commanders in the CENTCOM area of operations (AOR). MARCENT is the Marine component command for CENTCOM.
Back in Desert Storm in 1991, component commands were still in their infancy and the Marine Corps realized they needed to pay more attention to component tasks. During Desert Shield/Desert Storm we dual-hatted the Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) Commander as the Marine Component, and we found that there were too many issues at the component level that occupied the MEF commander and his staff and distracted them from focusing on the conduct of operations.
So, when Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) commenced in 2003, Lieutenant General Hailston, the Marine Forces Pacific Commander, was also designated as the MARCENT commander. He deployed a staff to Bahrain to lead all Marine component operations for OIF. At the time, I was Director for Operations at the Marine Corps Headquarters in Washington, D.C. and my observation was that having a separate headquarters handle the component responsibilities for CENTCOM was extremely effective and allowed the MEF commander to lead and focus on war fighting operations. In 2004-05, the Marine Corps decided to change back to having the Commanding General of I MEF dual-hat again as the MARCENT Commander and it stayed that way until September 7, 2012, when it was decided that MARCENT would be a separate command and the Commanding General of I MEF would no longer also command MARCENT.
The MARCENT job is to meet the combatant commander’s requirements and support deployed Marine units. On some occasions, MARCENT directly commands and controls Marine forces, while on other occasions such as in Afghanistan, it supports the commander of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) who has operational control. In such cases, MARCENT is still involved in the Title 10 activities, namely, contingency planning, theatre security cooperation, and command and control opportunities for the Marines all year round.
Give us an overview of a standard day for you as commander of MARCENT and the scope of your responsibilities.
I’ve been here a couple of days past four months in Tampa, Florida, where the MARCENT headquarters is co-located with Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base. I usually travel 10 to 12 days a month in the CENTCOM AOR, but in those days I don’t always go to Afghanistan. We have 161 people deployed in our forward headquarters in Manama, Bahrain, co-located with the CENTCOM naval component. Our forward headquarters is able to operate and work in the same region and time zone as our forward deployed Marine forces. The forward staff also has the capability to deploy to any contingency within the CENTCOM AOR and operate as the nucleus of a joint task force headquarters for the CENTCOM Commander. They also help maintain our engagement with the nations in the region by getting to know them better.
When I’m in Tampa, I usually start the morning talking to the intelligence officer. At 8 am, the principal staff officers update me on any issues that may have emerged in the last 24 hours and on anything I may not have read by then. We have a couple of detailed weekly briefings with the staff from Bahrain and engagements with CENTCOM one or two days a week. In the afternoon I spend a lot of time reading. I try to educate myself on the history and the context of the countries we are engaged in, and there is a huge amount of information that’s very complicated for a Westerner to understand. But it’s important to read all that to better understand what’s going on. The standard day is never the same. That’s what makes it interesting.
Tell us about MARCENTs theatre reserve force and how it is deployed.
The 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) is the CENTCOM Commander’s theatre reserve force. The MEU is comprised of three amphibious ships formed into an Amphibious Ready Group (ARG)-a large deck amphibious ship and two smaller amphibious ships. The current MEU is the 15th MEU, which is one of seven Marine Expeditionary Units currently in existence in the United States Marine Corps. The Marine Expeditionary Unit is a Marine Air-Ground Task Force with strength of about 2500 personnel. The MEU consists of a command element, a reinforced infantry battalion, a composite helicopter squadron and a logistics combat element. The 15th MEU is currently based out of Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California with headquarters in Camp Del Mar.
The MEU provides a rapid contingency response capability. It is not a large force but has the twin advantages of rapid manoeuvrability – to come in quickly, do what it needs to do and leave – and the ability to move throughout the AOR taking advantage of the sea as a manoeuvre space. The MEU, when it arrives, can stand off the coast and provide humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, embassy reinforcement, and contingency support without having to establish permanently onshore, which can sometimes cause issues with the sovereignty of a host nation. The MEU does have the capability to put forces ashore and sustain operations there, if needed.
What can you tell us about MARCENT’s programmes with Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan?
There is an Office of Security Cooperation in Iraq that coordinates training opportunities with the Iraqi military since the US withdrew all forces at the end of 2011. We have not engaged with the Iraqis although they have participated in some naval exercises in the Gulf in the last year.
More Marines were sent to Yemen last September to reinforce the US Embassy during the period of increased violence and protests. Marines are still there conducting this mission.
The United States, and particularly the Marine Corps, has a long-standing historical relationship with the Royal Saudi Navy, so they are a key partner for MARCENT in security cooperation. MARCENT keeps a small group of Marines there to facilitate, coordinate and assist the Saudis with their training. Recently, one of the 15th MEU warships conducted an exercise with Saudi Marines called ‘Red Reef’, which allowed the MEU to both exercise its force and work with our Saudi partners.
Back in 2011 in Egypt, US Marines were involved in the reinforcement of the US embassy just south of Tahrir Square. We continue to monitor the situation in Egypt, but haven’t engaged much with their military. That said, CENTCOM has conducted, in the past, a very large exercise with Egypt called ‘Bright Star’ through the years. It didn’t happen last year because of the political unrest there. There is some discussion about putting ‘Bright Star’ back on the exercise schedule, but we have to see how that plays out.
The Marine Corps has been facilitating training with the Jordanian armed forces. The Jordanians are part of the 40 or so coalition nations that operate in Afghanistan, specifically in Helmand. The Jordanian Army have been great partners in supporting the Marine regional command. We have a training cadre there of about 20 guys right now. One of our highest priorities is to remain engaged with the Jordanians and work with their army and naval forces.
To what extent does MARCENT engage with Central Asian countries?
The Marines have some contact and events with the ‘Stans’ but not much on theatre security cooperation. It’s definitely not as substantial as our contact with say the Gulf Cooperation Council nations.
Is MARCENT involved in any engagement with Pakistan at the moment?
No, not right now, but we’ve had a few opportunities to engage with their officers in the past couple of years. Pakistan does have a small naval infantry. There may be an exercise coming up where we might do some training with them. Pakistan also has a defence cooperation team that engages with the United States, but the problem is that we have many priorities and limits to our capacity. Certain nations currently have a higher priority, and we don’t want to spread ourselves too thin – not that Pakistan isn’t important. I want to go there but it’s not a high priority right now.
Finally, in the wake of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, what is MARCENT’s relationship with the country given the separate command structure?
There is currently no other separate command relationship within the CENTCOM AOR that is similar to the command structure in Afghanistan. The MEU, which is the most recognisable Marine force capability, is also generally not under Marine Component OPCON within a geographic combat command. The MEU is a naval force by design and a maritime naval force by mission. So when it is in the CENTCOM AOR, the MEU is under the operational control of the naval component of CENTCOM, Commander 5th Fleet.
MARCENT is not involved in actual operations in Afghanistan, but we monitor and track developments over there. So the time we spend on different tasks varies from section to section. The logisticians on the G4 probably spend more than half their time on Afghanistan, the intel guys less than a quarter of their time, and the ops guys about a third of their time. For me personally, the logistics of the force structure and the numbers that drive the movement of the gear in Afghanistan take a quarter of my time. The rest is spent equally on potential contingencies, theatre security cooperation with partners, and whatever pops up during the day.
We at MARCENT act as a liaison between the Marine Corps Headquarters—which provides the Marine forces—and CENTCOM. We also coordinate the deployment and redeployment of Marine forces to the AOR. With regard to the Marine Headquarters in Afghanistan, we ensure they understand the mission; are properly manned, trained and equipped prior to deployment; are supported while they are deployed; and eventually redeploy upon completion of their rotation.
Right now, our biggest task is redeploying equipment back to the United States. There is a lot of our equipment in Afghanistan. We have gone down from 20,000 personnel to about 7000 in just a year, which means a significant redeployment of equipment that includes mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles (MRAPs). Our bases, forward operating bases, and patrolling bases have to be either turned over to the Afghan Security Forces (ANSF) or torn down or de-milled. All the equipment has to be sorted and brought from different parts of Afghanistan to the ports, cleaned and put on ships back to the United States in an acceptable state. We have to make sure we leave behind no hazardous material or anything that can be turned into weapons by the Afghan insurgents.
We are working through an organisation in Afghanistan that focusses solely on collecting and transporting such equipment. Our Marine logisticians, who are a pretty flexible and innovative group, have distinguished themselves in planning the move out of Afghanistan. Redeploying large amounts of equipment and personnel is a problem not just for us but also the Australians, Brits, French, Germans, Spanish, Italians, Georgians and Poles etc. People sometimes forget how large and varied the coalition forces are in Afghanistan.
We did this thinning process in Iraq, too. As a Marine, you try to leave the place better than you found it, so that’s part of the mandate: to get our gear back, get full accountability, bring back the stuff that still has value and utility, properly dispose of the stuff that is no longer of use or has been partly used, and transfer to the host nation forces stuff they can still use. This is occurring on a daily basis in Afghanistan and will continue potentially into post-December 2014. We’re working very hard with the security forces in Afghanistan, the service headquarters, and the transportation command to stay ahead of the game and get our gear out as the force continues to downsize there.
As our forces in Afghanistan have reduced, the Afghan security forces have become bigger. Initially, there were very few Afghan police or security forces in Helmand Province compared to the Afghan Army soldiers. But now, there are more than 15,000 soldiers in Helmand and over 12,500 local police. That was the plan of our campaign – create a secure environment, let the local forces take over, and for us to fade away. We are more of adviser-based force training, supporting and overseeing local forces in Afghanistan rather than a force with its own organic manoeuvre-based operations.