Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Force work on an AH-1Z Viper attack helicopter on the flight deck of the USS Bataan on April 24, 2023.

Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Force work on an AH-1Z Viper attack helicopter on the flight deck of the USS Bataan on April 24, 2023. Defense One / Caitlin M. Kenney

MEU to Debut New Artillery, Missile, and Multi-Domain Unit

The 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit will take along several innovations when it deploys this summer.

ABOARD THE USS BATAAN—When the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit sets sail this summer, it will be carrying artillery and munitions new to East Coast MEUs, plus a new unit trained for multi-domain operations.

“Being able to add just yet another asset to a very already capable [Marine Air-Ground Task Force], really it just kind of—it provides a level of excitement, and just making things go boom is always fun,” Marine Capt. Chace Nelson, the commander of Sierra Battery, Battalion Landing Team 1/6, said about his unique artillery battery and the multiple weapons they employ. 

Embarked aboard the ships of Amphibious Squadron Eight—Bataan, Mesa Verde, and Carter Hall—the 26th MEU will join 6th Fleet, then 5th Fleet. In European waters, the ARG/MEU will participate in unspecified “big NATO exercises” and practice operating under alliance tactical control, said Navy Capt. Martin Robertson, the commander of Amphibious Squadron Eight. Last year, Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO executed this transfer authority three times, including taking control of the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier, the USS Kearsarge ARG, and the 22nd MEU.

A new artillery concept

Ukraine’s fight against Russian invaders has highlighted the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, and the 26th is bringing three launchers on the Mesa Verde, a first for an East Coast MEU. The systems will be operated by the Marines of Sierra Battery, who—unusually—also have M777 towed howitzers.

“So, previous MEUs, they've had HIMARS embarked on the West Coast, but they did not do it in sort of the command-and-control aspect that we are doing it,” said Nelson, the batter commander. “We formed as a team starting back in May of 2021 to be a composite battery, so I can take any Marine from the HIMARS section, and he knows all the Marines and all the [tactics, training, and procedures] from the howitzer section. And we have that sort of flexibility that previous units do not.”

The unit’s unusual makeup is possible because the MEU’s artillery all comes from one unit on the East Coast—2nd Battalion, 10th Marines—and its flexibility reflects the service’s Force Design 2030 modernization effort. Marines are now graduating from the artillery school “basically capable of operating in both weapon systems,” Nelson said. Then it can take about three months of “really rigorous training” to make them proficient, he said.

The MEU is working on a new concept called “HI-TIDE,” or HIMARS-Tactical Insertion Dynamic Employment, which will enable the battery to start firing within moments of reaching the beach. The concept is similar to the Army-Air Force “HI-RAIN,” or HIMARS-Rapid Infiltration, but instead of using an aircraft to transport the launchers, the 26th MEU would move them ashore from an amphibious ship by hovercraft or boat. The HIMARS can immediately be fired by a unit on the landing craft or from the ship, Nelson said.

Developed by the 26th MEU, the concept is meant “to bridge the gap for long-range fires from the sea,” spokeswoman Capt. Angelica White said in an email to Defense One.

The HIMARS’ reach of about 50 miles enables commanders to take out distant anti-access/area denial systems that threaten MEU aircraft.

“I can kind of point you to look at the employment of it in Europe and the way it's been worked. You burst that [A2/AD] bubble, now you have air superiority, and all you have to worry about is enemy air assets,” Nelson said.

New missile

In another first for an East Coast MEU, the AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters of the 26th’s aviation component will be packing the Air-to-Ground Missile, or JAGM. The Marines are “spearheading the operations” with the newish weapon, which is similar to the anti-armor Hellfire, Capt. Matthew Goodwin, a weapons and tactics instructor, told reporters April 23.

The precision missile may be particularly useful when they travel to the 5th Fleet area where Iranian fast boats have harassed U.S. Navy ships.

“So I'm not going to name any names, but say there's some sort of hostile nation that likes to use swarm tactics with boats that drive very fast across the water. The JAGM has an extremely effective capability to engage that as it's moving,” Goodwin said.

New unit

The 26th also brought back an older idea, re-establishing a unit called the Maritime Special Purpose Force. Nestled under the MEU’s command element, the unit received specialized training for a variety of missions, including hostage-rescue training from the FBI.

“It's more than just a raid force; it's an all-domain, a multidomain force,” said Col. Dennis Sampson, the MEU’s commander. “When you think about [Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations], low signature, rapid capabilities that doesn't need a lot of sustainment, that you want to go out to sense and make sense of the operating environment or to contribute to a naval expeditionary force…these Marines are able to set conditions for follow-on forces.”

That’s the kind of job often done by SEALs or other special operations forces, Sampson said, and illustrates the close relationship that the 26th has worked to build with Naval Special Warfare. Several operators were attached to the MEU during pre-deployment training, imparting skills and forging relationships that may pay off in foreign waters.

“We looked at our pre-deployment training program, looked at the operating environment…Then looked at force design, and looking to make the MEU more relevant as a tri-COCOM, or tri-geographic combatant command crisis response force, we looked for opportunities to integrate with elements of Naval Special Warfare,” Sampson said. “I think the MEU is just truly a natural partner with [special operations forces], and the ARG/MEU team is a great capability for elements of Naval Special Warfare.”

A ready amphib

The deployment cannot happen if the ships are not available, and amphibious warships have been struggling with maintenance and readiness for years. The USS Bataan was an exception, getting out of its last maintenance period two days early, “which hasn't been done in like 10 years for a large-deck amphib,” said Navy Capt. Paul Burkhart, the ship’s commander.

“So far...we've been able to repair anything that's come up, and right now Bataan is ready to go,” Burkhart said. “We've got one of the oldest combat systems on board and so keeping that up and running is no easy feat, but the techs are getting after it whenever something happens…We're in a great position right now to support the Marines as we head across the ocean to reassure our allies and partners over there that the MEU is coming in force.”

That hasn’t always been the case in recent years. In February, a lack of deployed amphibs limited U.S. naval support to Turkey after a devastating earthquake. And the current evacuation of U.S. citizens from Sudan is being supported not by a MEU/ARG but by a patchwork of Navy ships and help from nearby countries.

Amphib availability looks to get worse before it gets better. The Navy has “paused” the purchase of LPD-17 amphibious transport docks like the Mesa Verde, part of a situation that is set to drop the service’s fleet of big-deck amphibs below the congressionally mandated floor of 31.

Burkhart said amphibs bring a “unique capacity” that other ships cannot.

“I mean, a cruiser is great for their job, but could they bring on…NEO evacuees? Probably not. We can. So I mean, capacity is also a big factor in what makes the amphibs unique for the missions that we do,” he said.

Amid all the other new elements to the 26th MEU’s upcoming cruise are the sailors and Marines who will be making their first deployment.

“We haven't had heel-to-toe MEU-ARG deployments on the East Coast,” said Sampson, meaning that more time generally elapses between successive deployments. “So, while we've enhanced our training, we're taking steps to ensure Marines and sailors are postured and prepared for the challenges that we'll likely encounter while we're forward deployed.”

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