Maj. Gen. Paul J. Rock Jr., then-deputy commander of the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force, speaks over the 1MC aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer in 2019.

Maj. Gen. Paul J. Rock Jr., then-deputy commander of the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force, speaks over the 1MC aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer in 2019. US Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Justin Whitley

What’s Next for Marines in the Middle East?

The commander of Marine Corps Forces Central Command hones a smaller force.

As the Pentagon focuses on eastern Europe and threats from China in the Pacific, Marines in the Middle East are reorganizing and readying themselves for the future—while keeping a wary eye on Iran.

In an exclusive interview with Defense One, the commander of Marine Corps Forces Central Command, Maj. Gen. Paul Rock, said that while the Marine footprint in the area has decreased significantly over the last few years, the service understands “that there’s a fair shot that we haven’t seen the last crisis or contingency in this region,” and they want to be prepared for that possibility.

“Who would have thought, for instance…in U.S. European Command six, eight months ago, who would have thought that we’d be in that situation right now?” Rock said, referring to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “We’ve got to be ready to respond wherever.”

So MARCENT is upgrading communication networks so troops can come in from anywhere and immediately plug in, and pre-positioning equipment in the theater to reduce the requirement for strategic lift, Rock said. It is also working with partners in the region—which not only improves relationships and the readiness of U.S. Marines, but also beefs up the capability of other area militaries, “all of which help deter and help those countries preserve the stability and security of the region by deterring Iran.”

“Iran is an opportunistic actor who, they prey on and exploit weakness as they seek to expand their influence,” Rock said, so improving the capabilities of partner forces “helps strengthen the region and improve its stability against the Iranian activities.”

Such exercises also help the Marines in the Middle East practice bringing in units from the United States or elsewhere—a critical skill, since MARCENT no longer has a standing force of roughly 2,200 Marines and sailors with infantry and aviation capabilities. The Marine Corps had created a handful of Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Forces, which they called SPMAGTFs, specifically for crisis and contingency response, after the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya. One of those units was based in the Central Command area and was considered the future of the Marine Corps at the time.   

The unit was integral to last August’s evacuation from Kabul, and 10 of the 13 troops killed in the bombing at Hamid Karzai International Airport were part of the SPMAGTF at the time. But the task force was eliminated shortly after that mission, leaving the Marine Corps with only a small contingent of Marines in Bahrain as an enduring presence in the 21-country region.

Even before Rock took command in July, “it was apparent that MARCENT is in a period of transition, as is much of the Marine Corps and the joint force,” he said, as it moved from a period of large-scale conflict in two theaters within the region to none. His command adapted to those changes in force structure and funding “by shifting the weight of our efforts to become a competition- and planning-focused headquarters, prepared for and capable of rapid transition to support crisis response and contingency operations.”

In one such recent response, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 115 deployed from Beaufort, S.C., to Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, “during a period of heightened tension in the region,” around the beginning of 2022, where they supported a variety of missions, including joint force operations in Iraq and Syria and Navy ship transits through the Strait of Hormuz to support U.S. Naval Forces Central Command.

Rock also began a series of exercises, called Intrepid Maven, planned as a quarterly chance to bring forces from the continental U.S. to train with partner forces in the region. The first was in February with Jordan, and the next one will be with Kuwait.

“Each of these, we’re building relationships, we’re improving readiness of both our forces and our partner forces. And all of that helps strengthen the region and improve its stability against the Iranian activities,” Rock said. “Deterring Iran and their malign activities—of both Iran and their proxies—that underpins a lot of what we do on a continuing basis.”

But while MARCENT no longer has its special purpose Marine air-ground task force, it does have what Rock calls “the gem in the crown”: a Marine-Navy joint task force that is the only one of its kind. Task Force 51/5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, or 51/5, is a standing unit based in Bahrain, led by a Marine one-star and made up of Marines and sailors.The unit is U.S. Central Command’s joint task force crisis response headquarters, and Rock said it is able to provide command and control from land, at sea, or over the horizon.

During the evacuation of Afghanistan, Task Force 51/5 provided command and control on the ground at Hamid Karzai International Airport, and was prepared to assist with two more non-combatant evacuations in the past few months—in Sudan and Central Asia, Rock said. “They’re ready to go on very short notice, and have repeatedly proven their effectiveness, and so that is a contribution that we have on hand that goes a long way towards improving our responsiveness.”

The task force, created in 2016, is in line with some of the key pillars of Commandant Gen. David Berger’s Force Design 2030 plan: naval integration and a return to the service’s “maritime roots.” In November, it led U.S. participation in a Navy amphibious exercise with the Israeli Defense Force, and in late March, Marines under the direction of Task Force 51/5 worked with UK Royal marines for a training exercise that involved boarding, searching, and seizing a vessel.

“There’s no better example of naval integration than Task Force 51/5, bringing the strengths of the blue team and green team together to, in this case, command and control forces,” Rock said, adding that he is looking at ways to “build on their example” at the MARCENT level, to “make sure that we’re looking at things from an integrated blue-green perspective.”

The Central Command area is “a theater that, as the Marine Corps goes through its force design efforts, and generates additional capabilities, this is a theater that is fundamentally a maritime theater, with key international strategic choke points, from the Suez Canal to the Bab-el-Mandeb to the Straits of Hormuz,” Rock said.

And while the U.S. military’s so-called “pacing threat” is China in the western Pacific, Rock said it also has “global characteristics.” So, “the ability to rapidly respond to crises remains very important to the Marine Corps. And for this command, it’s a big part of how we’re orienting ourselves looking forward.”