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Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert B. Neller, speaks on the Marine Corps’ current operational tempo, while Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard Vice Adm. Charles D. Michel, left center, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John M. Richardson, left, and retired Adm. James Stavridis, right, listen during the WEST 2016 Conference at the San Diego Convention Center, Feb. 19, 2016. The purpose of the conference was for service members to come together and discuss strategic military concepts and training, as well as meet with companies that can assist in making their concepts a reality. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Emmanuel Ramos/Released)

Photo by Sgt. Emmanuel Ramos

Marine Corps leaders discuss current, future challenges

23 Feb 2016 | Sgt. Emmanuel Ramos I Marine Expeditionary Force

The Marine Corps is the nation’s premier expeditionary force. It responds to global crises and defends America’s interests abroad in an ever changing environment. To ensure this force-in-readiness, senior officials use a realistic evaluation of worldwide threats to make recommendations that influence policy, and design extensive training.

On Feb. 17, 2016, Lt. Gen. David H. Berger, the commanding general of I Marine Expeditionary Force, participated in a panel discussion at the WEST 2016 naval conference, hosted by U.S. Naval Institute and AFCEA, that addressed his strategy for the implementation of the new guidance laid out by Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert B. Neller earlier this year.

The purpose of the conference was for service members to come together and discuss strategic military concepts and training, as well as meet with companies that can assist in making their concepts a reality.

Berger opened up the panel by listing his observations on command and control, and distributed operations in the Marine Corps with an emphasis on I MEF operations.

“Our operating concept in the Marine Corps right now is Expeditionary Force 21, which drives us towards distributed operations,” Berger said during his opening remarks. “In the offense it allows us to spread out, find seams or create seams, and then penetrate quickly. In the defense it spreads us out and it makes targeting a little more of a challenge for the threat.”

Berger acknowledged that with distributed operations there are potential weaknesses, and as technology advances, cyber warfare is the biggest threat.

“I think there is no question in our mind the adversary that we train against will degrade, or shut down, our networks for some period of time, or even more insidious get inside them and cause problems while they’re up,” Berger said.

To combat those threats, Berger stressed the importance of having small unit leadership that can make decisions and operate without a higher headquarters for extended periods of time. In addition to small unit leadership, having a network environment that Marines can have command and control nodes, that can self-isolate and self-heal, is necessary to operate successfully against potential threats.

“We need to be able to go extended periods of time with no communications between levels of commands, and by extended I mean up to a week. All that means for us is enabling, empowering small unit leaders to make decisions on their own when we can’t talk to them,” Berger said.

During the panel Berger also spoke on how upgrades to the entire amphibious fleet, in combination with the new F-35B Lightning II aircraft, allows leaders to command and control a credible mobile force over a wider area.

“Before, we could never have commanded or controlled a force like that, distributed like that, over that great a distance,” Berger said.

This capability allows the Navy and Marine Corps to spread itself farther apart throughout the Pacific and around the world, while reducing at risk. This also allows them to build more relationships with foreign nations.

On the final day of the of the conference, Neller, along with the Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard, Vice Adm. Charles D. Michel, and Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. John M. Richardson, gathered for a town hall to discuss how their strategy is being implemented.

Neller echoed Berger’s thoughts on cyber warfare and the need for strong small unit leadership. He also addressed the operational tempo of the Marine Corps and how that can be affected.

“We’re always struggling to find that knee in the curve between supporting the combatant commander requirements, the maintenance and readiness of our gear, and the desire of Marines to go do things. No one joined the Marine Corps to sit on their sea bag at Camp Lejeune or Camp Pendleton. Sixty percent of our force is under 25 years old. They want to go. So we’re trying to find that place where we can sustain ourselves, maintain the mission essential tasks, and keep our gear ready,” Neller said.

With a force set to be at 182,000 Marines by the end of this fiscal year, the Corps finds itself stretched thin. As a result, taking on, or supporting more roles across the globe can have a negative effect on unit and equipment readiness.

“We’re a two to one force. Two to one is the bare minimum we think we can sustain a normal life; prepare and have enough time to get ready. We’d rather much be a three-to-one force, but right now the world is not cooperating. So we’ll continue to do as much as we can to the point where I’d have to tell the chairman or the secretary, ‘I want to support the combatant commander, but here are the risks.’ We’re not going to say no, but understand there is a bill at the end of this, if you keep doing this like this, whether it’s people staying in, or gear being ready,” Neller said.

Finding the right balance is a never ending battle that Neller said keeps him up at nights.

For many, the conference was an opportunity to refresh themselves on current events that covered everything from new gear to futuristic cyber warfare, which was once a topic of science fiction, but is now being discussed as a present danger. The conference also highlighted that while the battlefield is ever changing, one thing is certain to remain constant; the Marines will continue to be the most ready, when the country is least ready.

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