WASHINGTON — The U.S. Marine Corps in recent months took the quiet step of putting its Force Design 2030 plans to work in Europe, using forces to monitor Russian naval forces in the Baltic Sea.
“We went past experimentation and we went right into operational capability,” said Maj. Gen. Francis Donovan, the commander of the 2nd Marine Division and Task Force 61/2.
Force Design 2030 calls for the Corps to refashion itself into a lighter, faster and more lethal service — one that can integrate Marines and sailors into versatile “stand-in forces” that can respond to an array of crises. To that end, U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa — otherwise known as U.S. 6th Fleet — stood up Task Force 61/2, named for Naval Amphibious Forces Europe/2d Marine Division, in April.
The task force oversees the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group and the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, known as an ARG-MEU when coupled. An experimental reconnaissance/counter-reconnaissance force also falls under its purview.
The Naples, Italy-based task force made history in June when a vessel under its command, the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge, made a port visit to Stockholm in a show of support for Sweden’s bid to join NATO. It marked the first time a U.S. naval vessel of its size had visited the city.
In a July 21 interview, Donovan offered a detailed, insider’s view of force structure and equipment involved in the realization of Force Design 2030 — and how it was put into use amid increased Russian naval activity in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
What does Task Force 61/2 do, and what is its connection to the Marine Corps’ stand-in forces concept and Force Design 2030?
A couple of things happened over the last few years here in the 2nd Marine Division. As the commandant came out with Force Design 2030 about a year before I got here, the division was already transitioning certain equipment, standing down certain elements of the division, standing up others. I inherited that, but it got exciting when we looked at two programs from Force Design 2030 that directly impacted us as far as experimentation.
One is called the Infantry Battalion Experimentation 2030, or IBX-30, where one of our battalions looked at a new structure, how we distribute infantry forces over a maritime littoral contact layer and how we operate. The second was reconnaissance/counter-reconnaissance, or RXR. It’s a term brought forward by Force Design 2030 that’s about how we task and organize Marine forces to support a fleet commander’s requirements, primarily to increase a fleet commander’s maritime domain awareness.
For RXR, we had littoral exercises up and down the East Coast that tested tactics and procedures and put the core elements of RXR into action.
Since the beginning of this global war on terror, the 6th Fleet structure in Naples, Italy, had not had to command and control an amphibious ready group and Marine expeditionary unit for a full deployment inside of U.S. European Command and U.S. Africa Command. Typically, after a six-month work-up on the East Coast, we would sail from the Atlantic Ocean into the Mediterranean Sea and right into 5th Fleet, [which is responsible for the Middle East].
But about 10 months ago, the commander of U.S. 6th Fleet, Vice Adm. Eugene Black, was given that challenge and opportunity. He worked with II Marine Expeditionary Force’s commander, Lt. Gen. William Jurney, to form a command-and-control element in Naples, which led to Task Force 61/2, which meshed Navy and Marine Corps forces.
The task force was not directly tied to Force Design 2030 at first, but it became the venue for advanced exercises in theater for both some of our IBX forces and RXR forces. The RXR initially focused on theater exercises to continue to prove out the concept and construct, but the war in Ukraine brought with it increased Russian naval activity. So Marines on the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge were not only brought forward to exercise, but to prove the concept by increasing maritime domain awareness to the fleet commander.
Some have criticized Force Design 2030 as solely geared toward the Pacific. How did it fit — or not fit — into the European theater, and what fine-tuning took place to make it work in Europe?
We want to make RXR theater-agnostic, providing maritime domain awareness to a fleet commander who has to execute local and temporal sea-denial and sea-control lanes.
Whether that’s the Pacific, the Baltics or the Mediterranean, the Bab el-Mandeb or the Persian Gulf, we are a maritime nation, and our commerce has to transit global commons that have strategic chokepoints in that key maritime domain. We worked very hard to ensure that what we were developing for RXR could be exported anywhere.
I think it has great promise in the Pacific, but I thought we’d have a better chance to exercise along the European continent and littorals because often in the Pacific, our legacy training there puts us in the same areas and environments with the same partners. There was a fresh canvas in Europe, and we were able to go in and engage the fleet staff that runs both EUCOM and AFRICOM naval littoral [training] engagements and develop a campaign plan to test RXR in a very active, complex theater.
Throw in the increased Russian naval activity in the Mediterranean and the Baltics and you really got a chance to test this out. What started out as experimentation became: “Can we go into this NATO country and actually do this mission?” The answer was: “Absolutely.” The focus is on key maritime terrain, and we’ve got that in spades in the EUCOM and AFRICOM theater.
How did Europe’s terrain, especially littoral features like the small islands around Sweden, factor in?
The Pacific has large swathes of big, blue ocean that eventually condense down into narrow chokepoints, like the Strait of Malacca or the Sulu Sea, and in around the other places that maritime traffic has to travel. With Europe’s waterways ― you have the Suez Canal, the Dardanelles, the Bosporus, the Straits of Sicily, the Strait of Gibraltar, then all the way up to the Gulf of Finland ― there are numerous opportunities to get into that key maritime terrain and then develop access and placement of forces.
So what did we learn from experiments? With RXR, we knew right away we didn’t want to tie it to a certain wheeled vehicle or a certain platform because to be able to execute those operations, you have to have incredible flexibility and a dynamic approach. For example, when we brought RXR forces forward, we originally thought we’d get some C-17 aircraft, and we already had some utility task vehicles with radars mounted on them — some communications equipment, some command-and-control systems, and then off we’d go. Well, because presidentially directed actions to support Ukraine were using C-17s, we lost our C-17s, so right away we’re like: “How do we get to theater?”
Well, we packed up our stuff in Pelican cases and backpacks and we got commercial flights to fly into the theater. We were able to land in a NATO country and within hours start increasing the maritime domain awareness of the 6th Fleet commander. We worked with those nation forces in that littoral contact layer, which is where we believe the RXR fight is going to play out.
We didn’t bring UTVs, so we got rental cars. One of our cables went down on one of our radars, so we went to a local boating store and got a new cable. We ate in the host nation’s mess facilities.
At the same time, we also were able to link our RXR force to the ARG-MEU that maneuvered up into the Baltic Sea and leverage V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft, the different mobility platforms of the ARG-MEU with our ground-based RXR forces, and it ended up being the perfect union. In one case, we had a radar team forward, backed by intel Marines in fleet headquarters ― so we had the sensing force forward in the NATO country with fleet headquarters providing the cueing.
Once we linked the ARG-MEU to those RXR forces, we had a much greater ability to stretch our legs on those islands, those key locations. And that keeps the potential enemy guessing: They don’t know where we’re going to be; and we don’t want to be a known entity in that contact layer, we want our radars blending in with the local noise; we want our intel communications to be passive; we want to do that kind of reveal/conceal thing on our terms. And so I think it’s very different.
We can have the big gray ships there, and that means one thing, but [RXR forces] can be there when they’re not there. Let’s say we keep a destroyer there that can shoot an SM-6 missile 100 nautical miles. We want them 100 nautical miles away, potentially, and then we’ll have Marines forward in those areas able to bring those fires to bear. Those maritime chokepoints are so important. The lighter, more dynamic, more flexible those forces are, the more access we can develop. In some cases, it might be very overt, and in other parts of the theater, you’ll have a clandestine approach where we’re using different naval platforms to put forces ashore where they’re least expected.
Describe those RXR teams and how they’re made up.
Our primary two core elements of the tactical action of RXR — those Marines and sailors came from 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion and 2nd Light Armored Recon Battalion. So one change we’re looking at hard in Force Design 2030 is the future of wheeled-vehicle reconnaissance. It’s very good in the open desert and open terrain, but can we look at that differently? We’re considering a second reconnaissance battalion that provided the reconnaissance Marines that did the hard-skill work: cold and wet, working on submarines or working on other surface platforms; working Zodiac boats; clandestine actions at night. That’s classic Marine reconnaissance work, and I’m excited.
As far as the 2nd Light Armored Recon Battalion, we developed it in experimental mode: a mobile reconnaissance company with a mobile reconnaissance team. These are Marines who might have been communicators, intel specialists, mechanics or scouts. We looked at who is best suited to do this, who could operate in a smaller team, and who has an interest in making some of these systems come together when they might not have been designed to work together. We had four mobile reconnaissance teams, and that was the primary sensing force that was out there. Each of those teams had about four to six Marines and sailors; we had a headquarters element forward, away from Naples, led by one of our O-6s, and below that an RXR element. We had some other sensing elements forward doing different types of intel collections. The key was all that was brought back and fused in the fleet headquarters, and that all together was recon/counter-recon.
The total force investment was probably 150 Marines and sailors, and that was spread between forward-sensing forces, and then inside fleet headquarters, driving collection and increased maritime domain awareness. Headquarters was also pushing indications, warnings and cueing down to the force.
How has the equipment for these Marines changed, as opposed to, say, the armored vehicles they’d previously used?
Because you’ve got to be able to get there and be flexible, “small form factor” was our theme. We have great communications systems, backpack radios and the Harris system radios — the AN/PRC-150, the AN/PRC-160, the AN/PRC-117. We’re able to leverage those and apply methodology to use them at the right time in the right place so we’re not revealing ourselves. We’re being smarter about how we’re using our current systems. That was one of our goals.
We originally wanted UTVs because they’re able to get us around quicker, and they are still very viable because they fit inside a CH-53 helicopter or V-22, and they can extend our reach and speed. What’s not viable is a larger vehicle that we would have to get strategic lift for or transport on a ship.
The key term for us, “small form factor,” was about the ability to tap into something called the Common Aviation Command and Control System, or CAC2S. It’s about linking into the Link 16 network, which would have in the past taken four or five Humvees, big radars or generators. Now, think about a couple laptops and a couple of small-scale PacStar-type terminals that can fit in a backpack or on a UTV. That CAC2S was the heart and soul of taking all this stuff we’re collecting and entering into a process, a system, that would then eventually kick out a Link 16 link between us and supporting assets, whether that’s an F-35 or a destroyer, or providing our ability to link back into a fleet headquarters, into that maritime ops center, and having our locations show up in a command post.
That Link 16 architecture is the joint architecture, that’s how you bring aviation and surface fires to bear. Beyond hand-held Link 16 radios, we’re able to use the Stalker unmanned aerial system — a program of record for us right now — which belonged to the MEU. That gave us about a 100-mile radius and longer loitering time and better collection equipment.
We bought commercial off-the-shelf FLIR [maritime recreational] radar systems that we were able to link into Link 16. That was kind of the missing link in the sense that no one had ever done that before. So you’d have these off-the-shelf radars that can, yes, acquire a target, but it took those Marines a number of different littoral exercises to figure out how to connect it into that CAC2S system. So light, mobile, very flexible forces; low numbers of very highly trained Marines that really trained themselves specifically for this kit. Then we’re able to reinforce it with support from the fleet headquarters, and then mobility assets from the ARG-MEU. Other supporting platforms across the task force and 6th Fleet enhanced what we’re able to do in recon/counter-recon.
How much of it was experimentation and exercises, like the multinational Baltic Operations drill, versus real-world need?
RXR wasn’t tied to BALTOPS at all; the ARG-MEU was tied to BALTOPS. But in the end, as things developed over time, with a lot more Russian naval forces in the Baltic Sea, specifically in the Gulf of Finland — that’s a normal transit lane for Russian naval forces in and out of St. Petersburg.
We originally were going to do RXR in a different country. Once we got there, we were asked: “Could you go to this NATO country and help increase the maritime domain awareness of 6th Fleet?” This is before BALTOPS. And the answer is: “Yes.” And that’s exactly what we did. We went past experimentation and we went right into operational capability.
Not everything was perfect; we learned a lot each time, we adjusted, we moved folks around. But it directly increased the maritime domain awareness in key maritime terrain for that fleet commander before BALTOPS. We were able to double down and keep an eye on the increased Russian naval force presence in action in that area, in the Gulf of Finland, into the Baltic Sea.
What was the NATO country?
I can’t say because of the sensitivities of NATO and partnerships and all that.
Editor’s note: In late May, forces from the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group and 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit under Task Force 61/2 participated in the Hedgehog military exercise in Estonia, a NATO country on the Gulf of Finland.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.