Top Stories 2020: Marine Corps Operations

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020. 2020 was a turning-point year for the Marine Corps. After previewing changes to come in his Commandant’s Planning Guidance released last year, Commandant Gen. David Berger released a Force Design 2030 document this year outlining major changes […]

Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Austin McBain, a fire support specialist with 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, I Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) Information Group, monitors a radio during exercise Summer Fury 20 in Yuma, Ariz., on July 14, 2020. US Marine Corps Photo

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020.

2020 was a turning-point year for the Marine Corps. After previewing changes to come in his Commandant’s Planning Guidance released last year, Commandant Gen. David Berger released a Force Design 2030 document this year outlining major changes in how the service would operate and equip itself. No longer would the Marine Corps be a service schlepping around tanks for sustained ground operations; rather, it would be light and mobile, using small ships to maneuver around islands and shorelines to attack an adversary from all angles and challenge their ability to track and target the small and on-the-move units.

And Berger didn’t stop at just releasing the plan: divestments are starting, new units are forming, wargames and exercises are reflecting new concepts of operations.

“In my professional opinion, we have to change. We have to move out now,” Berger told lawmakers recently.

Force Design 2030

U.S. Marines with Charlie Company, Infantry Training Battalion, School of Infantry – West, fire an M98A2 Javelin guided missile system during a field-fire demonstration as part of the Anti-Tank Missileman Course at Range 204B on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, Jan. 22, 2020. ITB trains, develops and certifies Marines as riflemen, as well as their primary military occupational specialty within the infantry field, before sending them to join the Fleet Marine Force. US Marine Corps photo.

Berger released Force Design 2030 in March, laying out the first iteration of his vision of what the Marines needed to morph into to be successful in the future: a focus on maritime campaigning; close integration with the Navy, especially in sea control and sea denial missions; an emphasis on small units that could maneuver around islands and shorelines and bring with them logistics, anti-ship missiles, surveillance equipment, or whatever else the joint force needed dispersed throughout the battlespace.

In some ways, this vision was a culmination of everything the Marines had been working towards: many of the concepts relied on using the KC-130J on expeditionary runways and using the F-35B’s vertical takeoff and landing capabilities to get into remote areas. But in some ways it was wholly new: no longer would the Marines conducting these island-hopping missions start out aggregated on an amphibious warship, drop out the back of the well deck in a connector and then move ashore for operations; instead, the concept would rely on Marines on small ships that don’t exist today, such as a Light Amphibious Warship (LAW) that is habitable for the crew for longer durations of time but can also directly beach themselves to put Marines ashore.

The release of Force Design 2030 wasn’t the end of the effort, but rather the beginning of a massive wargaming, modeling and simulation, and live exercise bonanza that will stretch into next year.

U.S. Marines with Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 3d Marine Regiment, traverse through water during an amphibious assault exercise, Marine Corps Base Hawaii, May 28, 2020. Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 3d Marine Regiment, and Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 3d Marine Regiment, conducted an amphibious assault exercise and military operations in urban terrain to increase littoral mobility proficiency in 3d Marine Regiment and advance the goals of the Commandant of the Marine Corps 2030 Force Design. US Marine Corps photo.

So far, the first Marine Littoral Regiment was stood up in Hawaii to start experimenting with things like long-range ground-based anti-ship missiles, as well as either LAW prototypes or surrogates to start understanding what operations might look like with these new units and new capabilities. The service also entered into Phase III of the Force Design effort, described as a “campaign of learning approach” where teams will basically stress test the plan as it exists today by asking difficult questions of it and seeking answers through wargaming and experimentation. Much of this learning will culminate in a massive 2021 Large Scale Exercise that will involve multiple carrier strike groups and amphibious ready groups and will focus on the new operating concepts: Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO), Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE), and Expeditionary Advance Base Operations (EABO).

Though much is still to be learned through the ongoing campaign of learning, Berger is sure enough that they’re heading in the right direction to call for a restructure of Marine forces in the Pacific, to spread out beyond hubs in Japan and South Korea. While deterring China in the Pacific is his main focus now, later experimentation may look at creating alternate unit formations better tailored to challenging Russia in the North Atlantic, for example.

Of course, this is all coming at a time when defense budgets are expected to be flat or declining, so Berger said all along that he’d create a plan that the Marine Corps could pay for within its current topline. To do so, the service has taken a “divest to invest” strategy, announcing that “by the year 2030, the Marine Corps will see complete divestments of Law Enforcement Battalions, Tank Battalions and associated Military Occupational Specialties (MOS), and all Bridging Companies. Additionally, the Corps will reduce the number of infantry battalions from 24 to 21; artillery cannon batteries from 21 to 5; amphibious vehicle companies from 6 to 4; and reduce tilt rotor, attack, and heavy lift squadrons.” A further review would be conducted to see if the aviation reductions – specifically, limiting F-35 squadrons to just 10 aircraft each instead of 16 – should lead to a reduction in the planned buy from contractor Lockheed Martin.

F-35 Operations

F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 and the 617 Squadron sit on the flight deck aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth at sea on Oct. 6. 2020. US Marine Corps Photo

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was among the best examples this year of the Marines pivoting in stride and refocusing towards Berger’s vision. Though fielding the F-35B and C jets has been decades in the making for the Marine Corps, ongoing F-35B and nascent F-35C activities this year nested well into the priorities of Force Design.

After spending 2019 learning how to incorporate the vertical takeoff and landing F-35B into the Marines’ island-hopping EABO concept, they took it a step further this year: incorporating the carrier-based F-35C into those plans.

The Marines’ first F-35Cs began flowing into Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., in late January to support Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 314, the first squadron to transition to the next generation of carrier-based Marine aviation. In March the squadron was certified “safe for flight,” meaning they could train on their own without the supervision of the fleet replacement squadron, and earlier this month the squadron reached initial operational capability. Among the first things the squadron did after achieving IOC: demonstrating the ability to quickly rearm and refuel at expeditionary land bases, a centerpiece of EABO that will allow the Marines to stray far from their aircraft carriers and conduct stealthy missions on behalf of the joint force.

U.S. Marines with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 314 and Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 352, Marine Aircraft Group 11, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, conduct a new expeditionary landing demonstration with M-31 arresting gear Interim Flight Clearance (IFC), on Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., on Dec. 3, 2020. US Marine Corps Photo

Noting an expected deployment in late 2021 aboard aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72), Maj. Robert Ahern, a pilot with VMFA-314, explained the urgency of the expeditionary landing and refueling, saying that as early as next year “we may be called upon to execute expeditionary advanced base operations. We need to be able to do this. This is something that hasn’t been done yet with the F-35C.”

A second tenet of future military concepts that the Marines’ F-35 community has focused on this year is interoperability and close collaboration with allies. In September, the “Wake Island Avengers” of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211 flew to the United Kingdom to begin training ahead of a joint deployment aboard aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08). The U.S. Marines and their U.K. counterparts conducted a group exercise and participated in NATO exercise Joint Warrior off Scotland.

“With a total of 14 jets and eight Merlin helicopters, it’s the largest concentration of fighter jets to operate at sea from a Royal Navy carrier since HMS Hermes in 1983, and the largest air group of fifth generation fighters at sea anywhere in the world,” the Royal Navy said at the time.

VMFA-211 will deploy with Queen Elizabeth in the spring.

Major Events

Recruits with Alpha Company, 1st Recruit Training Battalion, wait in line at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, Sept. 22, 2020. US Marine Corps Photo

Despite the global COVID-19 pandemic – and the relative ease of blue-water navy exercises compared to the greater precautions needed for amphibious warfare and other ashore training drills – the Marines kept busy this year around the world.

Perhaps most challenging was the rotational deployment to Darwin, Australia, which was put on hold in March due to the growing pandemic.

In May, the service announced it would resume its annual rotational deployment after Australia agreed to grant an exemption to its COVID-19 travel restrictions. The Marine Rotational Force-Darwin (MRF-D) would involve about 1,200 Marines – just half the originally planned 2,500, due to COVID – who would train in the Northern Australia region. All were required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in Australia, with COVID tests being given at the beginning and at the end of the quarantine period.

Though a smaller group than originally planned, with no manned aviation assets deploying this year – but some unmanned aircraft for intelligence-gathering – the group worked with their Australian counterparts on increased interoperability in command-and-control, fire support coordination and aviation planning.

U.S. Marine Corps Capt. David Reece, a joint terminal attack controller with 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, looks over his notes during Exercise Iron Fist 2020 on San Clemente Island, California on Feb. 6, 2020. US Marine Corps Photo

Prior to the pandemic, the annual bilateral Iron Fist exercise at Camp Pendleton, Calif., took place in January and February to help improve the capability of Japan’s first Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, which stood up in 2019 and will reach full capability next spring. About 310 Japan Ground Self-Defense Force soldiers came to California to operate off USS Pearl Harbor (LSD-52) and USS Portland (LPD-27), with an emphasis on infantry, amphibious assault vehicle, reconnaissance and medical training.

Japan established the ARDB to better position its self-defense forces to thwart off and defend incursions into its 3,000-plus islands — particularly in the southwest, including the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

Later in the year, Marines out of California were involved in fighting historic wildfires up and down the West Coast. In September Marine Wing Support Squadron 373 deployed to support the aerial firefighting mission on the Slink Fire, which spread onto training areas of the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center north of Yosemite National Park. Later in the month, 7th Engineer Support Battalion under 1st Marine Logistics Group at Camp Pendleton was trained for ground firefighting and divided into strike teams that would be paired with a corpsman and an experienced professional firefighter. The Marines ended up at the August Complex Fire, where they were given extra responsibilities such as protecting a helicopter landing pad from the encroaching fire.

Accidents and Safety

Marine Corps AAV-P7/A1 assault amphibious vehicle driver with Bravo Company, Battalion Landing Team 1/4, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, drives an AAV-P7/A1 up the well deck ramp of the amphibious landing dock USS Somerset (LPD 25) during training to increase Navy-Marine Corps interoperability in the eastern Pacific on July 27, 2020. US Navy Photo

Eight Marines and a sailor died when their amphibious assault vehicle sank off the coast of California on July 31.

Fifteen Marines and a sailor from 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit were aboard the AAV that had been training on San Clemente Island and then swam into the water to return to USS Somerset (LPD-25). They reported taking on water, and while eight Marines were recovered immediately – one of whom was pronounced dead at the hospital shortly afterwards – seven Marines and the sailor were still missing.

Submarine support ship HOS Dominator was brought in the next day to assist in the search and rescue, and the Marine Corps paused all AAV operations. By Aug. 2, the Marine Corps declared the missing men presumed dead and transitioned to a recovery operation.

The sunken AAV and human remains were located on Aug. 4 and recovered Aug. 8.

Two investigations were launched – a Naval Safety Center Investigation and a Command/Line of Duty Investigation – and Commandant Berger said at a recent hearing that the command investigation was nearing its conclusion but that it hadn’t reached his desk yet. Still, in October the commander of the battalion landing team was relieved of command.

A Marine KC-130 crash lands in California Sept. 29, 2020.

In Marine Corps aviation, a KC-130 and a F-35B collided in air on Sept. 29 during a mid-air refueling. The F-35B pilot safely ejected. In a feat of fantastic flying, the KC-130 pilot from Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron (VMGR) 352 lost two engines, had a potential fire onboard, had just partial control of the aircraft, and yet landed safely in a farm field and saved all Marines onboard.

An MV-22B Osprey belonging to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 163, based at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, was extensively damaged while parked at a general aviation airfield near the U.S.-Mexico border. While the aircraft was unattended, a skydiving plane rolled into it, damaging the left engine compartment, wing and landing gear and both propellers.

Marine MV-22B Osprey after being struck by a Twin Otter skydiving plane on May 30, 2020. City of San Diego Photo

In March, two Marine Raiders were killed in northern Iraq while supporting Iraqi Security Forces in the fight against ISIS.

In July, an early morning shooting at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., temporarily locked down the training grounds. After investigating, police determined a Marine died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Panel: U.S. Must Embrace ‘Power of Naval Diplomacy’

The 21st century is again the time to show off the “power of naval diplomacy” — from ship visits to officer exchanges — to counter China’s global maritime ambitions, two security experts said last week. Rockford Weitz, director of maritime studies at Tufts University, said during this pandemic year “China overplayed its hand” with aggressive […]

Guided-missile destroyer USS Sterett (DDG-104) steams in the Persian Gulf on Sept. 29, 2020. US Navy Photo

The 21st century is again the time to show off the “power of naval diplomacy” — from ship visits to officer exchanges — to counter China’s global maritime ambitions, two security experts said last week.

Rockford Weitz, director of maritime studies at Tufts University, said during this pandemic year “China overplayed its hand” with aggressive moves against India in the Himalayas, threatening Malaysia and others in the South China Sea and suppressing democratic protests in Hong Kong.

One way of showing American engagement in the Indo-Pacific and the strength of its alliances would be to have “NATO ships visiting Vietnam with say Japan and the United States” present as well.

At the Heritage Foundation online forum, Geoffrey Gresh, on the faculty of the National Defense University but speaking for himself, said such a naval visit would help close the seams between the geographical commands. The visits tell other nations “we’re here … you’re valuable partners” and not standing alone against China.

Recalling President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1907 dispatch of the “Great White Fleet” to demonstrate American naval reach, he added “just the presence of an American ship has enormous power.”

That presence carries special weight with the smaller island nations in the Pacific that are dependent on fisheries for their livelihoods. They share serious concerns about Beijing’s illegal hauls in their waters, often backed by its naval militia. It is also meaningful to large nations, such as India, in exercises such as this November’s Malabar 2020 where the United States and Indian navies were joined by Japan and Australia. The exercises serve to remind Chinese leaders that like-minded nations can cooperate to provide mutual security.

Gresh noted that when China completed its 2017 naval exercises with Russia in the Baltic Sea, its ships “went on a Grand Tour of Europe,” including a port call in London. “It doesn’t have to be an enormous ship” to make an impression that can last, he added.

As a related effort, Weitz called for a greater Coast Guard presence, including its National Security Cutters, in Oceania as another means of showing the island nations that Americans are present to help them build up their own maritime patrol forces to protect their territorial integrity.

He also suggested the Navy look to American Gulf Coast shipbuilders, which construct off-shore vessels for petroleum exploration and transportation for drilling platforms to shore, as a source for a modernized PT boat that could show the flag and help very small nations secure their waters.

Weitz envisioned “200 of them with Marine detachments” that had stealth characteristics and some punch. In numbers like that in the Indo-Pacific, the new PTs would be “putting the PRC [Peoples Republic of China] back on their heels,” he said.

Both noted that China’s global maritime ambitions have been growing as the size of its navy, coast guard and naval militia increase. Accompanying the expanded size and reach has been China’s expansive use of its Belt and Road infrastructure initiatives reaching across Asia into Europe and Africa and now into the Arctic. Their overseas port building efforts can be used for both civilian use of the host government and a possible future base for Beijing, like the one in Djibouti. In the Horn of Africa nation, where the United States also maintains a naval base, the Chinese presence started as a re-fitting station for its ships participating in the anti-piracy operations in the Red Sea and off the east Africa coast.

When asked about a new numbered fleet, possibly based in Singapore, the experts said it could be helpful in closing gaps in command reach and demonstration of presence. The two stressed more resources — ships and crews — would be needed to make it work effectively.

If the idea doesn’t fly with the Biden administration, Weitz said a “better resourced 7th Fleet” is still necessary.

“Having a base in Darwin, Australia is a pretty significant testing of the waters,” Gresh added.