WASHINGTON, February 20, 2017 – In a dangerous, nuclear world, the US Marine Corps and America’s Navy are making an epic effort to ensure global security and stability and to protect nations’ economies.
While Americans wake up free each day, a young Marine trains for combat in a hot and humid jungle, a sailor sacrifices daylight in an engine room to ensure his ship of 5,000+ runs without a glitch, a Marine commander establishes priorities, manages the risks, and leads his Marines and sailors to handle any military crisis worldwide in a matter of hours.
We live in a time when our enemies are keeping pace with the US to modernize and expand their forces, uncomfortably able to threaten US military dominance and might. Freedom of the seas and air is at perpetual risk. A perfect storm hovers over US ships, sailors, and troops on the world’s oceans as they assure naval superiority and unfailing protection.
On watch are the USS Carl Vinson Strike Group, carrying 7,500+, and the USS Makin Island, part of an Amphibious Ready Group (ARG), carrying more than 1,100 Marines of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). Chaos reaps power from the unguarded, so all are primed to deter, defend, fight, rescue, de-escalate, counter aggression and coercion, and serve humanity.
(Image captions: USS Carl Vinson conducts flight operations in the Pacific. U.S. Navy photo MC2 D’Andre L. Roden; Secretary of Defense Ash Carter addresses Sailors on USS Carl Vinson. Photo Jeanne McKinney; USS Carl Vinson conducts live fire exercise. U.S. Navy photo PO3 Matthew Brown; F/A-18E Super Hornet prepares to launch from USS Carl Vinson. U.S. Navy photo MC2 D’Andre L. Roden; Guided missile cruiser, USS Lake Champlain, destroyer USS O’Kane, and USS Michael P. Murphy conduct a simulated strait transit. U.S. Navy Photo by PO3 Class Sean Castellano)
The Department of Defense (DoD) has its storm radar on evolving security challenges and threats, and has executed the ‘Asia-Pacific Rebalance of Forces’ – a three-step strategic plan.
The trouble with storms – they can erupt anywhere, at any time.
In September of 2016, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter briefed sailors on the USS Carl Vinson, Naval Air Station North Island. He outlined three phases of the rebalance. Phase one began five years ago, “DoD quantitatively and geographically enhanced the US military’s force posture in this vast region.”
The second phase, launched last year, he stated as “qualitative improvements to force posture…and modernizing, advancing defense relationships to reflect regional change and new opportunities.” It also included, “sending our best people…and assigning our most advanced capabilities to the Asia-Pacific.”
Rebalance phase three would be to cement and build upon the progress of phases one and two.
“This region, with half of humanity, half of the world’s economy, is the single most consequential region for America’s future – and indeed the world’s,” said Carter, stressing, “the Asia-Pacific remain a place where every nation can rise and prosper.”
In an eye-opening delivery, Carter outlined five major evolving challenges for global security. They include countering prospective Russian aggression and coercion, making sure China, as they rise up, behaves non-aggressively, toughening defense and deterrence forces against North Korean nuclear and missile provocations, in the Gulf – restraining Iranian aggression and malign influence and accelerating the defeat of ISIL, protecting Middle East friends and allies.
Carter noted, “People can’t have all the other things that make life meaningful if they’re not safe.”
To every branch of US armed forces, he offered praise for their contributions to security since World War II, “populations are growing, education has improved, freedom and self-determination have taken hold, economies are becoming more interconnected, and military spending is increasing.”
Yet winds of instability haunt the past and present. Evil atrocities continue. April 2016, the United Nations and Arab League Envoy to Syria estimated that 400,000 have died in the Syrian conflict. Over 4,800,000 refugees have been displaced (
Over 4,800,000 refugees have been displaced (NRC Handelsblad, August 2016). Numbers have increased. For those swept into chaos in Carter’s ‘five’ areas, there is hope in US presence.
America’s ‘Away Team’ – a welcome sight or deterrent fright?
Any aggressor or foreign state competitor would think twice seeing a ‘stars and stripes’ line-up of power on the horizon, as a US aircraft carrier, two destroyers, a cruiser with a ballistic missile-defense system, and about 75 aircraft come into view, bringing their own decision-making battlespace.
“The purpose of a carrier strike group is to provide presence and power projection,” said Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) David Bennett, spokesperson for the ship. “Everything that’s done on the carrier is to support launching and recovering aircraft…and support whatever mission sets are necessary.”
Bennett relayed If there was some sort of situation in the world that required an aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson is “next on deck”, meaning the US Department of Defense’s deployment of all those people, ships, hardware, communications systems, planes and helicopters….and a shipload of ordnance and armament – are put through some training evolutions before coming to bat for America and its allies.
While the Chicago Cubs were winning the World Series, the Carl Vinson was playing a ‘this is war’ game. The Composite Training Unit Exercise (COMPTUEX) put all aboard to task in a series of complex battle scenarios and problem-solving exercises, engaging actual targets. This included utilizing anti-surface, anti-subsurface, anti-air, and electronic capabilities in simulated attacks by enemy forces.
All designed and executed, “to bring the whole strike group into a cohesive fighting team,” said Bennett.
The aircraft carrier is home to four fighter attack squadrons, one early airborne warning squadron, one electronic attack squadron and two helicopter squadrons. Thousands serve/support the ‘carrier city’ -everything from a hospital to those who serve as cooks, mechanics, supply chain, and tons more.
With the completion of COMPTUEX, the Carl Vinson Strike Group deployed January 2017 and are heading to the Asia-Pacific, “where there are a number of security challenges”, according to Secretary Carter.
This includes North Korea’s nuclear saber-rattling, maritime territorial concerns in the East and South China Seas, the Indian Ocean and elsewhere, and Russia’s and China’s vows to confront American missile defense projects in Europe and Asia.
LCDR Bennett assures from the Carl Vinson,
“We’re going to continue to deploy – to reinforce our commitment to the region and reassure our partners that we’re engaged and trusted allies.” Shared international principles of freedom, stability, and a high-standard trade system must be reinforced and allowed to flourish. Secretary Carter emphasized that the US, “will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.”
Who are you going to call when crisis thunders? A floating ‘911’ force.
On January 1, 2017, North Korean leader Kim Jong announced that an intercontinental ballistic missile launch was close for his nuclear-capable country. April 2016 saw Russian jets fly within 30 feet of US Navy destroyer, USS Donald Cook, in the Baltic Sea. In September, Russia announced it would park its only aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, off Syria’s coast for combat. A CNN report mapped ISIS in “29 countries other than Iraq and Syria…attacks have killed at least 2,043 people and injured thousands.”
Concerns of Russian aggression in Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are causing Polish para-military forces to mobilize and NATO to bolster presence in the Baltic region. China’s self-proclaimed air-defense zone in the East China Sea overlaps zones of Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. Reported in Taipei Times, were recent provocations by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army aircraft around Taiwan’s airspace.
Different security challenges and crises require a unique approach to rapid problem-solving. When the USS Makin Island (MKI) crests the horizon, it brings advantages of a smaller, faster warship, infused with Marines of the 11th MEU. Six months prior to deployment, the Marines train with their Navy counterparts to perfect their business – expeditionary warfare. Colonel Clay C. Tipton, Commander of the forward-deployed troops, says it’s like “like preparing a football team…to be game-day ready.”
It started with the command element of about 300 figuring out how to run the MEU, then swelling to 2400 Marines when the ground, aviation, and logistic elements were composited in April 2016 and a Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) was born. Leaders taught the newly formed unit the Rapid Response Planning Process (R2P2). “The MEU is capable of receiving a mission, coming up with a plan, and able to begin executing it within six hours,” said Major Craig Thomas, spokesperson for the 11th MEU.
The MKI ARG/11th MEU ticks like the gears of a faithful clock.
“Whether it’s sending two Marines off [the] ship on a small mission or a company-sized element supported by aircraft and sustained by a logistics battalion – ‘everything affects everything, ‘” said Tipton.
He and the Navy Captain (Commodore) of the ARG ‘support and are supported’ by each other, depending if the operation is at sea or on shore.
“It’s a dangerous time and forward presence matters,” said Tipton, the only one in his family of five to join the military. Although he refrained from comment on any specific operations or encounters, he assured that his team is ready. “That’s the expectations I think America has for the Marine Corps.”
There are seven standing MEUs that routinely deploy; six based in the US, and one located in Okinawa, Japan.
“Roughly 70 percent of the world is water, 80 percent of the population lives within a few hundred miles of the oceans and 90 percent of international commerce moves by sea,” informs Thomas.
That massive fluid geography becomes a base for this “at-sea task force,” providing rapid response across a tyranny of distance to hotspots. A storm breaks and the President and Geographic Combat Command can call in this hard-working team of warships, air gunships/air transports, and chiseled professionals to conduct amphibious assaults and raids, evacuations, embassy reinforcement, maritime interceptions, humanitarian assistance, tactical recovery, the enabling of follow-on forces, and more.
Tipton focuses on servant leadership in a demanding warrior culture and lifestyle.
“You’re going to be in potential conflict or a tactical situation with enemy forces…This [requires] Marines to embrace what they do for a living and hone their skill sets, so they are not surprised – so they are ready through preparation.” He emphasized, “MEUs are sentinels for the Marine Corps and our nation overseas.” The primacy of the MAGTF – it’s the expeditionary mindset – ‘any place, anytime, any mission.’”
(image captions: Camp Pendelton, Calif. Colonel Clay C. Tipton addresses Marines after run. Photo courtesy US Marine Corps; Colonel Clay C. Tipton salutes during the 11th MEU’s composite ceremony. Photo courtesy US Marine Corps)
Survival, spiders, and snakes in the ‘Eye of the Tiger’.
“The breadth and depth of [rebalance] modernization starts with allies,” said Carter. “These are ties that have been nurtured for over decades, tested in crisis…”
Interoperability was recently strengthened between the MKI ARG/11th MEU and Malaysian Armed Forces in Exercise Tiger Strike 2016. Bilateral combat operations were tested with training in jungle survival, Combat Rubber Raiding Craft (CRRC), Martial Arts programs, medical capabilities, helicopter drills, and ship-to-shore amphibious landings.
Staff Sergeant (SSgt) Derrick Fladseth, a platoon sergeant in Charlie Company, Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, assists and advises his platoon commander, and handles platoon administrative duties, making sure all dots connect.
Fladseth continues a broad military family legacy, as the only Marine. Conducting ground operations in an equatorial rainforest is different than his combat experiences in the dry deserts of Afghanistan and Iraq.
“In the jungle, you’ve always got high levels of humidity – you have the flash rains that come…you’re always going to be wet,” said Fladseth. Morale must be kept up and weapons and gear kept dry. Troops may only move 3-400 meters an hour versus an open desert pace of three miles an hour.
“Wildlife’s always a consideration. You’re not always able to see everything around you…it can get to the point where it’s so thick, you’re just cutting through the brush.”
Then, there are spiders, snakes, and solutions to concealment, noise, sending out patrols…“The key thing is getting to know the environment.”
(image captions: Sabah Province, Malaysia. Marine with First Bn., 4th Marines gives orders, Exercise Tiger Strike 2016. Photo Cpl. Devan K. Gowans; Marines sight in with their weapons, Exercise Tiger Strike 2016. U.S. Marine Corps photo Lance Cpl. Brandon Maldonado; Marines set up landing zone security, Exercise Tiger Strike 2016. Photo Cpl. Devan K. Gowans; Malaysian soldiers call for suppressive fire during bilateral training, Exercise Tiger Strike 2016. U.S. Marine Corps photo Lance Cpl. Brandon Maldonado)
Malaysian forces taught Fladseth and his team to set up sleep sites above the jungle floor, various shelters, and trapping techniques for survival/sustainment. “The hardest thing,” relates Fladseth, “is building trust between two distinct units, especially when they are from different nations.”
Fladseth spearheaded a helo raid in Final Exercise (FINEX).
”Leading up to that point was a lot of running rehearsals between our forces…working out the kinks. We did on/off drills with MV-22s and CH-53 helicopters. The big one was the ‘fire and movement’ portion once we landed. We were training them and they were training us.”
Overseeing junior Marines who have never worked with a foreign military was rewarding. “That’s going to be one thing they never forget for the rest of their lives,” said Fladseth.
In addition to principled alliances – and dynamic force posture of the rebalance – come path-breaking, high-tech improvements. Carter pointed out billions slated for more lethal submarines and drones, investments in the new B-21 Raider Long-Range Strike Bomber, the 5th generation F-35 C stealth fighter and advanced land attack and anti-ship missiles. Cyber and electronic warfare and space capabilities are in the rebalance line-up, soon to be under President Trump’s administration.
The biggest investments of all are in people. LCDR Bennett assures ‘America’s away team’ is primed for the triple header – security, stability, and superiority – and will not call the game because of rain.
Colonel Tipton and his MAGTF will weather any challenge effectively, emulating ‘first to fight’ across the ranks.
SSgt Fladseth puts on more than a uniform each day, “No matter what the situation is or how difficult it may be, at the end of the day our only true option is to succeed.”
We, as Americans, would have different lives without them all.