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The Basics: How the U.S. Marines Fight

U.S. Marines from Expeditionary Strike Group One, 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit wade ashore from a landing craft. US Navy Photo

U.S. Marines from Expeditionary Strike Group One, 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit wade ashore from a landing craft. US Navy Photo

The Basics is the new USNI News video feature in which our staff takes on fundamental concepts, jobs and missions inside the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard and breaks them down for those who might not be as familiar with the ins and outs of the Sea Services. This month we explain the building blocks of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Marine Air-Ground Task Force, with Col. Patrick Keane, the Deputy Director of the MAGTF Staff Training Program at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.

The MAGTF (pronounced MAG-TAF) is the soul of how the Marines organize themselves, from the 500 Marine special purpose units forward deployed in Europe, to the Marine Expeditionary Brigades (MEB) built around a 15,000 Marine infantry regiment, to the 40,000 strong Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF).

The idea is – under a single commander – any MAGTF is a self-contained
fighting force that can sustain itself with limited outside assistance far from home. “Expeditionary,” in Marine speak.

Expeditionary as a concept is important to the Marine ethos, as the force is structured to deploy from amphibious ships at sea to land on hostile shores with a minimal amount of equipment.

No matter the size, all MAGTFs share the same parts — the ground combat element (GCE), the air combat element (ACE), the logistics combat element (LCE) and a command element.

An equipment layout for a Marine Expeditionary Unit on a three ship Navy Amphibious Ready Group. US Marine Corps Graphic

An equipment layout for a Marine Expeditionary Unit on a three-ship Navy Amphibious Ready Group. The graphic includes Joint Light Tactical Vehicles which will enter the service in the next several years. US Marine Corps Graphic

The GCE “includes infantry, artillery, reconnaissance, armor, light armor, assault amphibian, engineer and other forces as needed,” according to the Marine’s 2013 Concepts and Programs. That includes the Marine’s M1-A1 main battle tank that lands onshore on Navy connectors, to the decades old Amphibious Assault Vehicles that swim themselves to the beach, to the Marines’ Light Armored Vehicles, heavy trucks and humvees.

The ACE handles “assault support, anti-air warfare, offensive air support, electronic warfare, control of aircraft and missiles and aerial reconnaissance.” Those missions are undertaken by aircraft like the tilt-rotor MV-22 Osprey, assault helicopters like the AH-1Z Viper, and strike aircraft like AV-8B Harrier and the F/A-18 Hornet fighters Marines fly from amphibious ships and aircraft carriers.

Rounding out the basic functions, the logistics element is responsible for getting Marines the “bullets, beans and bandages” they need for the fight, and the command element tells MAGTF where to go and what to do.

The start of the air-ground task force came with the introduction of the helicopter and resulted in the first MAGTF in 1953, Keane said.

A fundamental idea behind the force is MAGTFs are scalable – it can grow and shrink due to need – but still retains the basic elements inherent to the concept.

MAGTFs is also designed to be combined with other military units in large-scale joint operations, most often with their partners in the Navy but also the Army and the Air Force.

  • James Bowen


  • FedUpWithWelfareStates

    A model that has never been utilized “From the Sea,” & is as outdated, as it is improbable.

    Reality: The USMC promotes itself as a Sea-based expeditionary force, but in reality, is just another “Conventional Ground Force” tagging along on any & every U.S. Army mission…

    If the USMC absolutely refuses to adapt, then they will surely become irrelevant, no matter how many brain washed robots shout Semper Fi…

    • Cory Nettnin

      Technically the Army tags along with the Marines, since the Marines tend to get there first.

      Also, it’d be really hard to become irrelevant, at least in the eyes of the American citizens. There have been several attempts to disband and/or fold the Marines into other services and every time it’s happened there was a huge outcry from the citizens.

    • A-MTN-DUDE

      Irrelevant like the Second Battle of Fallujah?

    • Mike W

      A MEU is set up to be a rapid response force for any kind of threat. The Marines have adapted to modern warfare. The units are small enough and flexible enough to stage anywhere in the world within days. Other than their special forces units, the Army is still basically a large, cumbersome, antiquated force best used for major offenses. You are simply letting your ignorance and bias show.

    • Pissed off Vet!

      You sir, are silly, and small minded.

    • pismopal

      It is the army that is becoming irrelevant..not the USMC and it is not because of public opinion, it is because of the developing nature of warfare. Thank you for allowing this matter to be addressed.



  • SeaAngel1991

    No, it is never easy. Been there. Done that.

  • Ed L

    I remember a Reforger Exercise were the umpires had to stop the Marine Brigade twice. They kept over running the opposing force. As a retire Gator Sailor, we use to get a good laugh when Army units would come aboard for Amphibious training. Of course being in the Levant or Sea of Mara, to be expendable cannon fodder and outnumber. That was a not a task I particularly enjoyed. But in those days we use to get a destroyer and a couple of Frigates for protection. But had to rely upon our own air assets. As far as a tag along for with the Army. Well that can be contrive as a insult to the Amphibious Forces. Every Marine a Rifleman and Every Sailor a Fire fighter. And from what I understand that now a day. All Sailors are now trained with Small Arms and Crew Service Weapons. Back in my day we always had 30 or so sailors trained as naval infantry. We practice that too. Hated it when we come back off the beach. Sand everywhere. Marine Navy team, hit hard, fight dirty. Never Surrender, Away Boarders Away.