Marines: June 2, 2004

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The U.S. Marines are finding that their style of operating works in out of the way places like Afghanistan. Since the 1980s, the marines have been organized into expeditionary units. The most common of these, called simply a MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit), is basically an infantry battalion reinforced with whatever support units are required for a specific job. The additions can include artillery, reconnaissance, engineer, armor, and assault amphibian units (armored personnel carriers), helicopters (transport, utility, attack), vertical/short takeoff and landing (V/STOL) fixed-wing attack aircraft, and other specialized units. Also included are supply, support and maintenance detachments. The actual size of an MEU sent into action will vary, usually from 1,400 to over 2,000 marines (and some sailors in support jobs). The 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, for example,  arrived in Afghanistan in April, 2004, with 2,200 personnel. One month of operations by the marines included 81 civil affairs projects (repairing buildings, usually mosques and schools, digging wells and repairing roads), 130 combat patrols, over 80 cordon and knock operations (surround a compound and search it for illegal weapons). The patrols and searches yielded five dead Taliban and 35 weapons. Less easy to count were the number of times the Taliban were reluctant to move about in the area patrolled by the marines. The marines have a scary reputation even in Afghanistan. The Afghans are connoisseurs of warriors, and rabid consumers of war movies and videos of anything dealing with guns and violence. So they know about the marines, and are not eager to mess with them. 

The marines are there mainly to give the local Afghan governor some dependable muscle in his battle against diehard Taliban groups. This is why there are so many civil affairs projects, which involve many of the support troops in the MEU. The marines will stay through the Summer, then leave as Winter approaches (and Afghan warriors traditionally call it quits and sit out the nasty weather.) 

The MEU concept is being copied by U.S. Army, as they reorganize for more expeditionary type operations. The air force did the same thing several years ago. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) also uses the MEU concept, although usually with fewer troops in each task force. Typically, SOCOM would only have a few hundred operators (as their fighting troops are called) involved, with a thousand or more pilots, maintenance and support troops along to provide necessary services. 

The MEU is not unique in marine history either. During World War II, they found themselves attaching a large number of specialized navy and marine support units to the combat divisions sent ashore in amphibious operations. Now that the United States finds itself fighting world wide against small number of lightly armed, and elusive, terrorists, the MEU approach makes more sense that the older method of piling on as many divisions and supplies to keep them going against an enemy willing to stand and fight.

 


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