Location Means 31st MEU, 11th ARG Must be Ready to Go at All Times
By OTTO KREISHER, Special Correspondent
ARLINGTON, Va. — Due to their location, the Okinawa-based 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) and the 11th Amphibious Ready Group (ARG), based in Sasebo, Japan, operate at a much quicker tempo and with different challenges than similar units based in the United States, their commanders said May 4.
Other MEUs have months to organize and train for their deployments, which come on 18-month cycles. But “we’re never more than 90 days from deployment,” said Col. Tye Wallace, 31st MEU commander. “We’re fully composed the entire time, so we try to compress our training into a small amount of time.”
“On deployments, we’re on patrol the moment we get underway,” while the other ARGs take 45 days to get there, said Capt. George Dayan, Commodore of Amphibious Squadron 11.
Unlike the other MEU/ARGs, which are deployed for six or seven months, the normal patrol for the 31st and the 11th are two to three months.
The two units also must be ready to deploy on short notice, such as when elements were called on to quickly respond to a devastating earthquake in Japan, the two officers told a “returning commanders” briefing at the Potomac Institute.
That requires Wallace to keep his Marines and the equipment for his ground and air combat elements and Dayan to maintain his ships and Sailors constantly ready to go. Because of his forward-based condition, Dayan said he is dependent on contractor support, provided mainly by Japan, for 80 percent of his maintenance.
They also are the only MEU/ARG that has a flag officer, the commander of Expeditionary Strike Group 7 and his staff, on board for every deployment.
And virtually everywhere they operate, from Thailand to Guam, they are shadowed by ships from the Chinese Navy. That requires them to split up the three-ship ARG at times to create a diversion so the other ships and embarked Marines can conduct high-end training without being observed, Dayan said.
Even with their intense operating schedule, which involve almost constant peaceful cooperative engagement with close allies, such as Japan, South Korea and Australia, and a growing list of partners and friendly Asia nations, the two units are working to prepare for the possible future contested operating environment against a peer competitor.
That includes operating “for days or weeks” under “EMCON” conditions in which virtually all their high-tech communications and navigator equipment are shut down, in anticipation of an adversary disrupting them or using the electronic emissions to target them.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller have ordered all their forces to train to operate as if their space-based navigation and long-range communications are denied.
And they are working to develop what Wallace called “an up-gunned MEU/ARG,” testing “how can the Marines support the Navy at sea.”
That includes using his AV-8B Harriers and deck-mounted machineguns to help defend the amphibious ships, he said.
The “up-gunned” force also would have surface combatants attached to the ARG to add strike and defensive capabilities.
That effort matches the approach described in the new “Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment” (LOCE) concept recently signed by Richardson and Neller.
Wallace said the “up-gunned” concept was a US Pacific Command and Seventh Fleet initiative. But they have read the LOCE document and it is “very similar” to what they have been developing, he said.