Twelve Brigades: A Blueprint for the Future

By Carlton W Meyer

Originally published in the April 1991 issue of the Marine Corps Gazette

"Changes to Marine Corps force structure and organization strength are wrought only with great difficulty, the product of seemingly endless study and staffing to anticipate and accommodate every impact of the change. You get none of that here. This article is a "brainstormer's delight," one that proposes remaking the Corps from top to bottom. Admittedly it will never come to pass in its entirety, but some of its sweeping ideas will make you think twice about how we might shape the Corps in the aftermath of Southwest Asia."

Change is always difficult in a large organization, especially radical change. This is particularly true in the military where ideas to adapt to our dynamic world are often resisted by those who prefer the status quo. Recently the world has undergone tremendous political change. As a result Congress now demands that America's Armed Forces undertake major changes to adapt.

Today, the Marine Corps faces congressional mandates to downsize by at least 20,000 active personnel, close overseas bases, reduce the cost of personnel transfers, expand the Reserves, integrate the Reserves with active forces, and develop new strategies for rapid deployment to Third World hot spots. It faces the Navy's plan to decommission several amphibious ships and its own desire to reduce headquarters staffing, increase readiness, and maintain high manning levels.

Such challenges are not new to the Marine Corps. Throughout its history, the Marine Corps tradition of change has allowed it to remain America's premier military force. While most Marines dread the prospect of political pressures for change, congressional mandates often lead to the adoption of ideas that improve the Marine Corps. Changes to Fleet Marine Force (FMF) structure are inevitable. Some may argue that the current structure is carved in stone by an act of Congress, ignoring the reality that laws are changed constantly. Unless a plan for a major restructuring is adopted, the FMF of 1995 will be smaller, undermanned, and far less capable. In the spirit of boldness and daring required by the Chase Contest, this article proposes a plan for a more ready and powerful FMF.

This structure is very simple, very practical, very lean, and very effective; yet it will probably leave many aghast. This plan incorporates so many changes that it would require a 400-page book to counter every objection that traditionalist critics and internal Marine Corps special interest groups can raise. Hopefully, the common sense of this proposal can overwhelm the many minor objections and obvious difficulties that cannot be addressed in a short essay.

The rationale for selecting Marine expeditionary brigades (MEBs) as the Corps' peacetime Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF) is simple. The Marine Corps' wartime plans are based on the rapid deployment of 15,000man MEBs. Therefore, a combat ready Marine Corps should be organized into the MAGTFs that will engage in any immediate hostilities, i.e., into MEBs. Marines within each MEB will work together on a daily basis so teamwork and crisis reaction time will be greatly enhanced.

Greater readiness will also be achieved by rotating MEBs on each coast in the same manner that 2,500-man Marine expeditionary units (MEUs) currently operate. Unit rotation recognizes that a military unit cannot remain continually deployed at peak readiness. Therefore, units undergo 12 months of preparation in the United States before embarking on a 6-month forward deployment aboard ship. By rotating deployments among three units, a truly combat ready unit is available at all times. In addition, these deployments force units to function in an expeditionary manner for extended periods. This prevents units from becoming administratively and logistically dependent on their permanent bases in the United States.

As a result of MEB rotation the United States will increase the size of America's most ready, forward-deployed forces from 5,000 Marines (two MEUs) to 30,000 Marines (two MEBs). These MEBs may operate in smaller task forces for a variety of missions, or as a powerful amphibious force to respond to a major threat. And since these MEBs will continually operate in rotation, the Marine Corps can easily adapt to extended commitments that may be required for a defensive presence like DESERT SHIELD or counterinsurgency operations.

Anyone familiar with the shortage of amphibious ships in the U.S. Navy knows that at least 20 more ships would be needed for an amphibious MEB rotation plan. Since the Navy plans to reduce its fleets across the board, any increase seems impossible. Herein lies the Marine Corps' biggest political battle of the decade. Fortunately, the Marine Corps will have formidable arguments. Most everyone agrees that the military must focus more on rapid intervention in the Third World and less on a major war with the Soviet Union. Amphibious ships are obviously more valuable to counter such threats than submarines or frigates. The cost of more amphibious ships can be offset by the closure of Marine Corps bases in Japan. Few would disagree that Marines should forward-deploy aboard American ships rather than garrison at expensive overseas bases. Congress would gladly appropriate money for American ships in exchange for the closure of bases in Japan, especially after DESERT SHIELD has revealed the need for more sealift ships.

Nevertheless, the Navy may continue to view the Marines as auxiliary forces to protect established air and naval bases and oppose the idea of giving priority to unglamorous amphibious ships. Hopefully, the Navy will recognize the new and more useful power it will possess with the continual deployment of large Marine amphibious groups. It should also appreciate the opportunity to close many facilities in Japan that it maintains in support of Marine bases. It is not unreasonable to believe that the recognized need for sealift and the obvious benefits of a larger amphibious fleet would lead to congressional support for 20 more amphibious ships, particularly if they were offset by reduction of less pertinent Cold War capabilities.

Until additional ships become available, the Marine Corps will need to improvise. If the Navy reorganized its amphibious squadrons, the current 60ship amphibious fleet could routinely deploy approximately 10 ships from each coast on a continual basis. This would leave each MEB three to five ships short, depending on each ship's size. Therefore, MEBs would need to leave some support equipment behind and deploy one infantry battalion by air to American or allied bases in the region. The organization for this air mobile component would resemble today's Marine air contingency battalions. During a conflict it would attempt to join the MEB by air and may even cram aboard the 10 ships (hotrack) prior to an amphibious landing.

This method of deployment will highlight the shortage of amphibs at every high-level crisis briefing with comments like: "Amphibious Group 3 with 5th MEB embarked is ready to intervene off the coast, with the exception of its 2d Battalion, which is stranded in Korea awaiting air transport because of the shortage of amphibs." It is likely also that the Army and the Air Force will also support more amphibs to help reduce America's dependence on military air transport for rapid deployment forces.

The brilliant maritime pre-positioned ship (MPS) concept will remain in place with an alteration. Deployed MEBs will require immediate combat supplies if they suddenly become involved in heavy action. Therefore, the Diego Garcia-based squadron should be dissolved and its ships reloaded only with combat supplies. These combat supply ships will be divided between the Pacific MPS squadron at Guam and the Atlantic MPS squadron in the Azores.

The Diego Garcia squadron in the Indian Ocean is no longer essential. Its equipment for 7th MEB has focused on the Middle East. Now it appears that U.S. Army units will remain in the Persian Gulf area and landbased Army pre-positioned stocks are likely. Guam is a more central location for a Pacific MPS squadron. 1st MEB in Hawaii is best suited as the Pacific MPS MEB because it is located with a departure airfield, and air sorties are shorter by 10 hours round trip flight time than any west coast MEBs. This is not a reduction in the 13-ship MPS program, but an adaptation to provide immediate support for the most versatile amphibious MEBs.

10th MEB will be designated as an MPS MEB and located at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point. It will be formed from units relocating from Japan and occupy the current wing headquarters buildings. Funding for any additional facilities should win easy approval since Congress is the primary advocate for removing units from Japan. Cherry Point is the best east coast location for an MPS MEB because it will be located with its departure airfield. Also, Camp Lejeune is already congested with Marines for three MEBs, and another would further crowd the base.

The location of the aviation squadrons for each MEB's Marine air groups (MAGs) will need resolution. It would be ideal to locate the active squadrons for each MAG together at the same air station. However, the Marine Corps will need to balance this desire with the facilities available at each location.

The rotational deployment of each MAG's fixed-wing squadrons presents a problem. Ideally, most of these units would deploy aboard aircraft carriers. Realistically, many will need to deploy to U.S. naval air stations or allied air bases overseas. Depending on political considerations, allied exercises, and potential conflicts, they may locate anywhere from Japan to Saudi Arabia to Australia in the Pacific and from Norway to Italy to Puerto Rico in the Atlantic. They may rotate by air with their equipment or swap with returning squadrons. A Marine squadron rotational deployment program is already used in the Pacific; it only needs to be organized for the Atlantic.

The Marine Corps Reserve will be expanded slightly by reorganizing the 4th Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) into two eastern CONUS (continental United States)-based MEBs and two western CONUS-based MEBs. Reserve forces will make up 4 of 12 Marine brigades (one-third), rather than today's 1 of 4 MEFs (one-quarter). Much active duty manpower and facilities for this expansion will be made possible by the elimination of the many headquarters elements associated with the 4th MEF command structure. Equipment for new units will become available from the Diego Garcia MPS squadron. The Reserve MEBs will be based at major active duty bases where their units often train. This will cut costs and integrate them more closely with the active force. The expansion of the Reserves and a closer affiliation with the active force is costeffective and a major step toward the total force concept. Not only will this benefit the Marine Corps, it will win tremendous praise from Congress.

Obviously, these 12 MEBs will require a higher command element for operations involving multiple MEBs. While the theater or fleet commander would directly control a single MEB or MEBs operating in separate areas, the FMF commands will need to provide an expeditionary command element to coordinate combined MEB operations. Such a command element will exist within each FMF command. This merger will save money and manpower during peacetime while improving coordination and security.

When it becomes apparent that multiple MEB operations will occur, the FMF command will dispatch a MEF command element. The Navy's two amphibious command ships will be assigned for the rapid deployment of each MEF headquarters. The I MEF staff in Hawaii will be assigned to the USS Blue Ridge (once it relocates from Japan), and the II MEF staff will be aboard the USS Mount Whitney based at Norfolk.

After arriving in the area of operations the MEF will take command of the MEBs from the theater or fleet commander. Depending on events, it may remain embarked or transfer ashore. If the situation warrants, the MEF commander may decide that a more centralized command and support structure is preferable. Therefore, he may reorganize his forces into a division/wing/force service support group (FSSG) structure. This is basically what occurred during DESERT SHIELD. If a worldwide war occurs and it appears the Marine Corps will engage in multiple MEB operations in more than two areas, additional MEF command elements can be formed.

Designating MEFs as all-purpose command elements is a departure from the current practice of assigning each MEF an area of world interest. However, DESERT SHIELD made it obvious that Marines must be ready for any clime and place. In any rapidly developing crisis, the Corps must deploy whatever is ready. Along these lines, the Corps' commitment for a fly-away MEB that can link up with land-based pre-positioned stocks for the defense of Norway should be terminated. If an unexpected threat to Norway materializes, the MPS program and the deployed MEBs can provide immediate reinforcement.

The disappearance of III MEF will make some believe this proposal advocates a reduction of Marine combat forces. This is not true; 8 active MEBs will require the same 24 infantry battalions in existence today. In fact, this proposal will protect the reduction in combat forces that seems inevitable to meet the reduction of 20,000 Marines before October 1995.

Most of the manpower savings will come from the closure of bases in Japan. The remainder will come from the elimination of the peacetime division/wing/ FSSG headquarters elements. Their functions will be better accomplished by the leaner 12-brigade structure. By reducing base support and redundant MAGTF headquarters manning requirements, this 12-brigade proposal will enable the Marine Corps to preserve operational units and maintain high manning levels while downsizing by 20,000 Marines.

Some Marines may mourn the loss of bases in Japan, others will rejoice. The bases in Japan burden the Marine Corps financially and politically and contribute to lower reenlistment rates and family separation problems. Before the DESERT SHIELD turmoil, the Marine Corps maintained about 27,000 Marines in Japan to support a hollow MEF with the combat power of a MEB. And since the Navy did not deploy sufficient shipping in the region to lift that MEB, Marines were essentially marooned. In recent years, the MPS program has made the need for forward bases in Japan questionable. Now, two forward-deployed amphibious MEBs will make these bases completely unnecessary. Even without this proposal, Congress is likely to force their closure.

Nevertheless, Okinawa is a strategic location in Asia and its facilities would prove valuable in a major war. The Marine Corps should quickly move toward a dual-base agreement with the Japanese Self-Defense Forces before political fighting forces complete closures. While some facilities would close, most would be boarded up for future use. The Japanese would become responsible for the maintenance and security of these bases. American forces would maintain the right to reoccupy the facilities and priority use of training areas and firing ranges if needed. The only Marines to remain would be a training liaison detachment of unaccompanied Marines similar to the unit in Korea.

There are many groups that will raise objections to this proposed 12brigade FMF structure. Hopefully, the tradition of change and the problems solved by this plan will be enough to silence the critics. Downsize by 20,000 Marines? DONE. Close overseas bases? DONE. Reduce permanent change of station costs? DONE. Expand the Reserves? DONE. Integrate the Reserves with Regular units? DONE. Increase rapid intervention capability? DONE. Increase the fleet of amphibs? DONE. Reduce headquarters staffing? DONE. Improve readiness? DONE. Maintain high manning levels? DONE. Develop a new plan for the post-cold war era? THIS IS IT.