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22nd MEU deployment extension unlikely to change Marines' op-tempo, but much remains in flux

Sep. 2, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
USS Bataan
Marines embarked aboard the amphibious assault ship Bataan, in background, participate in small boat operations. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the Camp Lejeune, North Carolina-based 22nd MEU, deployed with the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group, to remain at its current location in the 5th Fleet area, near the Persian Gulf, until the beginning of October. (Seaman Josue Escobosa / Navy)
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The 21-day extension of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit is unlikely to affect the deployment schedule for other MEUs, Marine officials tell Marine Corps Times.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the Camp Lejeune, North Carolina-based 22nd MEU, deployed with the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group, to remain at its current location in the 5th Fleet area, near the Persian Gulf, until the beginning of October, according to an Aug. 30 announcement from the Navy.

This move will extend the MEU’s deployment, which began in early February, an additional 21 days beyond its planned eight months.

The extension for the 22nd MEU will allow the 11th MEU, now deployed and training in Malaysia, to take its place during a “face-to-face” turnover in the 5th Fleet, officials with the Bataan public affairs office said in a press release. But the extra month at sea likely wouldn’t be enough to disrupt the MEU deployment rotation, said Capt. Eric Flanagan, a Marine spokesman at the Pentagon.

This is the second recent high-profile change in deployment cycle for the Corps’ seven MEUs, who deploy with three-ship ARGs at scheduled intervals. The first came Aug. 22, when Navy officials with the U.S. 7th Fleet announced that the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard, now at Sasebo Naval Base, Japan, would likely see significant delays to its next MEU/ARG deployment due to a failed deck resurfacing job, according to a Stars and Stripes report.

And officials said they did not expect the problems with the Bonhomme Richard to have a direct effect on other scheduled MEU deployments either, because the ship is slated to deploy next with the 31st MEU, which is Japan-based and operates on a separate fall-spring deployment schedule, unlike any of the others.

“MEU rotations do get a little bit thrown off for two reasons: maintenance issues and operational extensions,” Flanagan said. “Given that the two issues in this case were unconnected, he said, “I don’t see this being a huge change.”

Nonetheless, there are several unknowns which could prove to be game-changers.

For the 31st MEU, a decision to keep the Bonhomme Richard out of commission for a longer period of time might in theory affect broader MEU operations down the road, if the MEU were to then deploy with a different ARG. A spokesman for the 31st MEU could not immediately be reached for comment on current planning.

Any escalated intervention in Iraq — a distinct possibility — could also change deployment calculus. For the last month of the 22nd MEU’s deployment, AV-8B Harrier jets from Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C. have been flying intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions over Iraq from the Amphibious Assault Ship Bataan, according to officials with the ship. If the MEU is called on to provide further support to efforts in Iraq, or if operational needs call for two MEU/ARGs in theater, the deployment picture could change dramatically.

Currently, the 24th MEU is training for a deployment at the end of the year with the Iwo Jima ARG. The 24th is expected to replace the 11th MEU in the 5th Fleet Area of operations to maintain a continuous presence in that region, officials said. The 15th MEU, based at Camp Pendleton, Calif., is set to begin training soon for a deployment early next year.

Longer deployments are becoming increasingly necessary for the MEUs and crisis response units. Deployment extensions for them are not unusual.

In an interview with Navy Times last year, Navy director of plans and operations Rear Adm. Brian Luther said deployments on the order of seven-and-a-half to eight months were becoming the “new norm” for MEU/ARG teams that had previously deployed for six to seven-month pumps.

The 24th MEU extended its deployment to nearly nine months in 2012 to monitor unrest in the Middle East, which then included air strikes on the Gaza Strip. The 26th and 15th MEUs also completed eight-month deployments last year.

The last deployment of the 22nd MEU was one of the longest in recent history. Originally slated for seven months, it ended in Feb. 2012 after nearly 11 months underway. During that deployment, the MEU assisted with enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya during intervention operations that ultimately resulted in the overthrow of dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Prior to that, the Japan-based 31st MEU deployed for a full year in 2007 to assist with a surge of troops in Iraq.

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