When the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s command element leaves home later this year for the Middle East, it will deploy without its usual complement of ships and amphibious force of Marines.
Instead, the 15th MEU command element will land in the region to lead the next iteration of Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command, marking the first time the task force is led by a MEU commander. The seven previous SPMAGTF-CR-CC rotations to the U.S. Central Command region were led by colonels who commanded regiments in the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
“For the Marine Corps, this is a great fit for our ability to custom build an air-ground task force and forward deploy it somewhere,” Col. Jay M. Holtermann, the 15th MEU’s commander, told USNI News in a recent interview. As SPMAGTF-CC-CR, Holtermann will head a force that provides CENTCOM and its Task Force 51/5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade with a capability to quickly respond to crises and contingencies in the region. That includes ongoing combat operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
Compared to a seagoing MEU, the SPMAGTF-CR-CC “is just a different kind of complexity, just in terms of the way the force could be engaged,” Holtermann said. Core missions for SPMAGTF-CR-CC rotations include crisis-response and tactical recovery of aircraft or personnel, which also are among essential missions of a MEU.
After the 2012 attacks on U.S. diplomatic compounds in Benghazi, Libya, the Marine Corps established the first of several land-based, special-purpose task forces organized, trained and deployed to respond to crises and provide requested military forces where needed in the U.S. Central Command and U.S. Africa Command regions.
According to I MEF: “This forward unit has become an integral part of Operation Inherent Resolve, providing kinetic and non-kinetic strike capabilities, aviation logistics support to operations across CENTCOM, as well as participation with partner nations’ security forces to conduct combined military training, and strengthening partner capacity within the region.”
Holtermann took over as 15th MEU commander on June 21. But for this next rotation, he will command a task force of about 2,400 Marines and sailors, about the same size as a standard, ship-based MEU. “The amphibious nature of the MAGTF is de-emphasized,” he noted, as the task force focuses on responding to contingency operations called for by CENTCOM anywhere in the region.
The 15th MEU’s command element personnel will experience a different deployment than what a typical, sea-going MEU sees. “We will be much more like a ‘Dirt Det,’ where we arrive and the command element has an established headquarters,” he said. So his primary responsibility is to ensure “we are able to hit the ground running and provide all of those functions that a command element has got to provide once there.”
A MEU and a SPMAGTF aren’t dissimilar; in fact, the Marine Corps long has organized and deployed its MEUs as air-ground task forces trained to respond to contingencies as a ready reserve combat force for regional combatant commanders. “We are going to be that land-based MAGTF, where we still need to be able to plan…and execute command and control. Those functions need to take place be it from the ship or from a forward-deployed location in the Middle East, so there’s so much parallel there,” said Holtermann, a veteran helicopter pilot who flew in the initial landing into Afghanistan with the 15th MEU in late 2001.
“If we need to execute for a tactical recovery or isolated personnel or a downed aircraft, we have the capability. We will have resident ability to project power in a crisis-response situation. You look at ways Marines have been employed in the past, and you look at our current operation requirement… it’s almost limited by your imagination and by the size of the force,” he said. Task force units also will join in Theater Security Cooperation and exercise support with regional military partners and provide security forces if needed for ongoing operations in CENTCOM.
Much like commanding a MEU, he noted, “identical is our requirement to keep our eye on the aim point, and the aim point is that this command element needs to be highly proficient and highly trained at planning and executing command and control.” That includes ensuring interoperability with subordinate units and other forces and agencies in the region and exercising command and control over long distances. “As a Special Purpose MAGTF commander, I’m going to be interested in ensuring that when our aircraft are beyond line of sight, way over the horizon, we are still able to exercise some command and control,” he said.
Unlike a MEU, which trains and deploys the command element together with its subordinate ground, aviation and logistics combat elements, the SPMAGTF will lead subordinate units, some already in the region and others flowing in after the command element arrives. Those rotations overlap the command element’s usually by several months in the desynchronized deployment scheduling.
For example, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, has been training for the deployment. “They’ll be on deck before we will,” said Holtermann, who met with leaders and visited the battalion while its Marines were doing combat drills at the Infantry Immersion Trainer at Camp Pendleton. “They are proceeding to meet their (mission essential tasks) in order to be an effective infantry battalion forward, but they are doing it generally independently of what the command element is doing.” The infantry battalion will rotate with 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, currently part of SPMAGTF-CR-CC 18.2.
Those desynchronized rotations also can change the task force’s capabilities, particularly with tactical aircraft. For example, the current task force has an air combat element with F/A-18 Hornet fighters with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 115, but VMFA-115 is slated to transfer authority to VMA-223, an East Coast AV-8B Harrier jump jet squadron, he said. “So it’s incumbent upon them and their leadership to do an assessment of the change in capabilities and then determine the best fit of capabilities against the task,” he added.
This summer, Holtermann flew to the region with some of his staff to meet with the existing command element and subordinate elements. The 15th MEU command element last month kicked off its pre-deployment training program with internal planning exercises and the Rapid Response Planning Process (R2P2) training with Expeditionary Warfare Training Group-Pacific in Coronado, Calif. This past week, the command element conducted a command post exercise “designed build on skills developed during R2P2 and further prepare the command element to rapidly and effectively employ crisis response assets across the region,” 2nd Lt. Tori Simenec, a 15th MEU spokeswoman, told USNI News.
The capstone event will take place during TALON-EX at the upcoming Weapons Tactics Instructor course in Yuma, Ariz. It will focus on six missions including non-combatant evacuation (NEO) and humanitarian air and disaster relief (HADR), plus a final exercise that will showcase five functions of Marine aviation. “It’s tax our staff,” Holtermann said, “and it’ll tax all of us to think on our feet.” The final certification exercise will follow.
The assignment comes amid the typical downtime the Marine Corps’ U.S.-based MEUs have between the cyclical rotation of shipboard deployments with Navy amphibious ships. The 15th MEU is one of three West Coast MEUs at Camp Pendleton that rotate and deploy with San Diego-based ships as part of amphibious ready groups. The unit had arrived home in February after a seven-month deployment overseas with the USS America ARG. It’s previous MEU/ARG deployment was in 2015 with the USS Essex ARG.
“We’re proud to be that slice of the MEF that gets to go forward and execute,” Holtermann said of the SPMAGTF assignment.
MEUs, long touted for being the flexible, responsive, “9-1-1 force” at sea, over the years have seen their rotations and deployment cycles vary due to overseas requirements and ship availability. The at-home “dwell time” for command elements can shrink or stretch shipboard rotations. Some MEUs deployed by air or spent the deployment with their subordinate elements far ashore during heightened combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Currently, the 13th MEU is operating in the U.S. Central Command region as part of the Essex Amphibious Ready Group. Subordinate units that will deploy next with the 11th MEU, which earlier this year completed an overseas deployment with the Makin Island ARG, already are wrapping up their unit pre-deployment training ahead of their shipboard training.