CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — The Marine Corps’ largest warfighting command changed hands on Wednesday as Lt. Gen. Lewis Craparotta took the helm of the 50,000-member I Marine Expeditionary Force from Lt. Gen. David H. Berger.
The command turnover, witnessed by the commandant, Gen. Robert Neller, and a large contingent of general officers and retired commanders, comes at a busy time for MARFORPAC and I MEF.
Both commands are in the midst of major training events notably the multinational 2016 Rim-of-the-Pacific naval and maritime exercise in Hawaii that, for the first time, includes a busy Southern California component as several international countries including Mexico, Chile and Canada train with Marines and sailors.
Two weeks ago, Lt. Gen. John Toolan, commander of Marine Corps Forces Pacific, hosted senior military leaders from 22 countries for a five-day U.S. Pacific Command Amphibious Leadership Symposium in San Diego that included a day observing ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore logistics training at Camp Pendleton. Parallel but in concert somewhat with RIMPAC, the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory and I MEF are conducting a Marine Air-Ground Integration Exercise in Southern California, which runs from July 26 to Aug. 6. It incorporates an ongoing, year-long experimentation with operational concepts and technologies including autonomous vehicles, mini unmanned aerial vehicles and lightweight power generation for the future force in a dispersed battlespace — Enhanced MAGTF Operations, EF-21 — that involves the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, with the 1st Marine Division and the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit command element.
As many as 10,000 Marines from I MEF units are deployed for training, presence and operations in various theaters including in the Middle East. They are among some 37,000 Marines currently deployed worldwide today who, as Neller said, “assure our friends and they deter our adversaries.”
Berger, who will take the helm of Marine Corps Forces Pacific in Hawaii, led I MEF when former commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford tasked the force with taking the Marine Corps’ lead as the primary, principal MEF warfighter. Dunford, in his planning guidance, wanted I MEF to focus on maintaining “proficiency in major operations and campaigns,” as well as provide forces to meet the global demand.
In that process, Berger “asked a lot of hard questions that began to get back to what we needed to get back to, which was fighting as a MEF,” Neller told the crowd. “Not fighting the way we have been fighting the last 15 years… but in a way where we have to think in a different way, like how we might taken on an adversary who is very different from the adversary we’ve had for the last 15 years.”
So Berger ordered up training exercises and drills that included more realism and scenarios with near-peer, credible threats and more disruptions meant to push and challenge him and his staff and commanders to tackle issues like outer facility security, network breaches and loss of communications as it refocuses on conducting high-end, major combat operations in the uncertainty of future operations and a high-tech threat environment. “He’s the one who first turned off SIPRNet, turned off the network and said, OK, what are we going to do now?” Neller said. He’s shared those lessons “and made the Marine Corps a better warfighting organization, which at the end of the day is what we’re all about.”
And I MEF will remain focused on the Pacific and the Middle East. “There are different problems, different crises” in each theater, Berger said, speaking with USNI News with Craparotta following the ceremony. “His challenge, as mine, is: Can you be prepared, like the commandant said, to deploy anywhere in the world against any kind of threat, from small to big? We have a broad spectrum of challenges that we have to prepare for.”
Craparotta, for his part, kept his remarks brief. “I’m the new guy,” he quipped during the hour-long ceremony. But I MEF is very familiar ground: The veteran infantry officer, who also had led 2nd Marine Division (Forward) in Afghanistan, has commanded several units including 1st Marine Regiment and most recently headed the Corps’ premier Marine Air-Ground Task Force Training Center ground at Twentynine Palms, Calif. That recent posting positions him well for leading the MEF, he said, adding ” I know where the commandant wants us to go so we can leverage those and get some great opportunities.”
Berger is heading west, replacing Toolan at the helm of MARFORPAC, headquartered at Camp H.M. Smith in Hawaii. Toolan, in his ceremony remarks, addressed the more than 800 Marines representing I MEF’s subordinate units in formation on the large parade field at Camp Pendleton’s mainside headquarters area. “You’re doing a great job in the Pacific today as we look to strengthen our security posture in the Pacific, as well as take care of ISIS/ISIL in the other part of the world,” he said. “You’re doing a great job. Keep up the good work.” Toolan, who preceded Berger as I MEF commander, will be retiring to end a 40-year military career.