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What Are Marine Expeditionary Units?

With the conflict currently raging in the Middle East, much attention has been paid to what role the United States could play in it. And if you have been following these discussions, you likely have heard reference to the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable).

In 2021, Sgt. Jacob Orlowsky, a scout squad leader assigned to 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, leads a patrol during a live-fire and maneuver exercise. Image: Staff Sgt. Donald Holbert/U.S.M.C.

What does that mean? What is a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), and why does the 26th carry that SOC parenthetical designation? All good questions, and even if you’re a Marine with recent deployment experience, some of the answer may be surprising.


uss bataan lhd 5 26th meu 5th fleet us navy
Flight operations take place on the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD 5) as seen from an MH-60S Seahawk helicopter. MCS3 Raymond Minami/U.S. Navy

The 26th MEU (SOC) is out of east coast bases, primarily Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and is deployed as part of the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group (ARG), which is sailing aboard three L-Class amphibious ships including the USS Bataan (LHD-5), USS Carter Hall (LSD-50) and USS Mesa Verde (LPD-19).


uss mesa verde lpd 19 ah-1z cobra landing on flight deck of 24th meu
An AH-1 SuperCobra is fueled on the deck of the USS Mesa Verde (LPD 19.) In 2017, the Mesa Verde was supporting the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit. Image: Gunnery Sgt. Adaecus G. Brooks/U.S.M.C.

Spread out among those vessels is a partial Command Element (CE) aboard the Mesa Verde already in the Mediterranean Sea, and a Ground Combat Element (GCE), an Aviation Combat Element (ACE), and a Logistics Combat Element (LCE). The bulk of the latter elements are aboard Bataan and Carter Hall steaming in the Red Sea close enough to be assembled and deployed should the U.S. need them.


mv-22 osprey tiltrotor aircraft with marines takes off from uss tripoli
An MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 262 takes off from the flight deck aboard amphibious assault carrier USS Tripoli (LHA 7) Image: MCS2 Malcolm Kelley/U.S. Navy

The Foundations

Drilling down into the MEU (SOC) organization you’d find the GCE is BLT 1/6, or a Battalion Landing Team of about 1,200 Marines and sailors from 1st Battalion, 6th Marines. Surprisingly, 1/6 deployed without amphibious landing vehicles. The Corps is still waiting to fully certify the new Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV), which is designated to replace the workhorse AAVs or amtracs that served as ship-to-shore connectors for decades.


marines 31st meu train us navy in philippine sea 2022
Marines of the 31st MEU train with U.S. Navy sailors in visit board search and seizure (VBSS) techniques using a rigid hulled inflatable boat (RHIB) in 2022. Image: Cpl. Grace Gerlach/U.S.M.C.

That means that if the flag goes up for a landing, the Marines will be using workarounds based on the Navy’s LCACs (Landing Craft Air Cushion) and old standard LCUs (Landing Craft, Utility). Another makeshift surface connector would be the 11-meter Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats (RHIBs) with Marine coxswains specially trained by Navy Combatant Craft specialists.


us marines fire himars m142 rockets in training
Marines with the 4th Marine Division fire rockets from a M142 high mobility artillery rockets system (HIMARS) during assault support tactics training. Image: Cpl. Aaron James B. Vinculado/U.S.M.C.

As the Marine Corps — mistakenly in my opinion — recently opted to get rid of all it’s tanks, the 26th MEU (SOC) would enter combat on its current deployment into prime tank terrain sans heavy armor. The MEU has only the LAV-25 as a light armor weapon to support infantry operations.


us marines fire m777 howitzer artillery in meu
Marines with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit fire an M777 Howitzer during exercise KAMANDAG 3 at Colonel Ernesto P. Ravina Air Base, Philippines in 2019. Image: Lance Cpl. Christian Ayers/U.S.M.C.

On a perhaps brighter note, the artillery battery designated to support 1/6 ashore has a mix of M777 155mm towed howitzers and three of the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) rocket launchers which can hit the beach, shoot and scoot in rapid fashion.

Over There

The MEU’s biggest problem in case it’s ordered ashore for combat operations would be actually landing the landing force. Because of the jury-rig surface connectors available, they will have to rely in large part on aircraft from the ACE, or Air Combat Element. In this case, it’s VMM-162 or Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron-162 (Reinforced), which primarily flies the MV-22 Osprey. The Ospreys are fast with relatively long legs, but they are vulnerable to light anti-aircraft weapons. Rotary-wing heavy lift capability in the ACE is also provided by a few CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters that can carry troops internally or cargo externally from ship to shore.


us marines board mv-22 osprey tiltrotor aircraft on uss tripoli
U.S. Marines prepare to board MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft on the flight deck aboard amphibious assault carrier USS Tripoli (LHA 7) in 2022. MCS2 Malcolm Kelley/U.S. Navy

The problem with MEU air support is not enough airframes in the deployed Ospreys or Super Stallions to make up for the lack of surface connectors. And when you start losing aircraft to MANPADS (Man Portable Air Defense Systems), RPGs and heavy-caliber machineguns, ship-to-shore movement becomes a snarl. 


av-8b harrier launches from uss bataan lhd 5 amphibious assault ship
Petty Officer 1st Class Rodrickus Shepherd signals a U.S. Marine AV-8B Harrier pilot to launch from the USS Bataan (LHD 5.) Image: Petty Officer 2nd Class Julio Rivera/U.S. Navy

That’s where the reinforced part of VMM-162 plays an important role. The ACE can also call on AV-8B Harrier jump-jets for close air-support and other CAS aircraft such as the UH-1Y Venom armed and upgraded version of the venerable Huey helicopter, and the AH-1Z Viper which carries the new JAGM (Joint Air-Ground Missile) in addition to rockets and its devastating rapid-fire 20mm cannon.


us marine corps uh-1y venom helicopters meu
U.S. Marine Corps UH-1Y Venoms take off for an air insertion and extraction exercise during Weapons and Tactics Instructor (WTI) course in 2016. Image: Lance Cpl. Anabel Abreu-Rodriguez/U.S.M.C.

Suppression of AAA and other ground fire threats to ACE operations by the 26th MEU would fall to the Harriers, Venoms and the Vipers which would be operating from inland FARPs (Forward Arming and Refueling Points) for rapid turnaround as troops advance inland.

Interested in knowing more about the Marines’ SuperCobras? Click here.


usmc ah-1z viper attack helicopters 26th meu marine expeditionary unity aviation training
Two U.S. Marine Corps AH-1Z Viper helicopters prepare to land during training in November 2021. Image: Lance Cpl. Elias E. Pimentel III/U.S.M.C.

Getting It Done

Those FARPS and all other logistic support of the 26th MEU (SOC) would be carried out by the Logistics Combat Element, in this case Combat Logistics Battalion 22. These Marines and sailors do a lot more than shipping beans, bullets and bandages for the MEU. They are the find it, fix it and ship it forward operators who keep the whole effort moving.


us marines of 31st meu training assault attack training
Marines with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit watch for enemy activity during a defense of the amphibious task force exercise aboard USS New Orleans (LPD 18.) Image: Sgt. Danny Gonzalez/U.S.M.C.

Marines in outfits like CLB-22 are masters of innovate, adapt and overcome, but they need tools for the jobs at hand. That may be a problem in the potential combat situation facing the 26th MEU (SOC). When the Corps chose to divest itself of tanks, they also tossed out their engineer bridging equipment. Should the MEU be ordered ashore and run into rivers or other obstacles requiring bridging, they will find themselves in a tight spot.


lav-25 11th meu main gun shooting israel
Marines assigned to the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit fire the main gun on an LAV-25 armored recon vehicle during training. Image: Staff Sgt. Donald Holbert/U.S.M.C.

The Right Tool

Of course, the 26th MEU (SOC) might not be employed in conventional amphibious combat operations. They are trained to do multiple types of operations in an exhaustive 26-week pre-deployment training curriculum that molds them into a highly adaptive, quick response force, which earns the unit the SOC or Special Operations Capable designation.


marine scout sniper 13th meu maritime interdiction 7th fleet
Sgt. William Sites, a scout sniper with the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, prepares to support maritime interdiction operations from the USS Miguel Keith (ESB 5.) Image: Cpl. Austin Gillam/U.S.M.C.

It’s interesting to note that the 26th MEU is the first such outfit to earn that designation in nearly a decade. The Special Operations Capable designation fell by the wayside for the most part during Marine commitment to combat deployments in Afghanistan. Training for standard MEU missions such as Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel (TRAP), Humanitarian Assistance (HA), Noncombat Evacuation Operations (NEO) and conventional operations seemed adequate for a decreasing number of MEU deployments.


scout team live fire exercise 11th meu training in israel
Lance Cpl. Jordan Davis assigned to the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit fires an M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle during live-fire training in Israel, 2021. Image: Staff Sgt. Donald Holbert/U.S.M.C.

Up to this point, Marine-deployed MEUs went without the Special Operations increased level of training and deployed on an irregular schedule due to manpower shortages caused by Afghanistan commitments and the Navy’s lack of available hulls in the gator fleet. These days, the Corps is scrambling to attain its standard of having three MEUs constantly at sea around the globe and ready 24/7 for use by the various geographic Combatant Commands.


11th meu marines train in israel with idf troops in live fire training exercise operations
Marines of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit train during an interoperability exercise at Bislah Training Center, Israel. Image: Lance Cpl. Patrick Katz/U.S.M.C.

Building Blocks

That doesn’t mean the 26th MEU (SOC) in the area is out there independent of support should they be called to fight. Think of the Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) as a Lego set. Blocks can be added rapidly to create a Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MAB) of two or more MEUs, and even bulked up to create a Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) if needed in the Middle East.


us navy landing craft utility meu uss mesa verde
Loaded with Marines, the U.S. Navy Landing Craft, Utility 1663 approaches the well deck of the USS Mesa Verde (LPD 19) during training. Image: Sgt. Brendan Mullin/U.S.M.C.

The Marine Corps is good at rapidly fielding task-organized, right-sized forces to meet an immediate threat. Right now, that would be a tough row to hoe due to the loss of pre-positioned equipment around the world and a significant lack of amphibious shipping in the Navy’s inventory.


us marines 31st meu train to defend uss new orleans lpd 18
Lance Cpl. Patrick Holcomb with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit sets security during a Defense of the Amphibious Task Force drill aboard USS New Orleans (LPD 18.) Image: Sgt. Danny Gonzalez/U.S.M.C.

Conclusion

It’s an edgy situation for the Marines and sailors steaming offshore and closely watching the current conflict. It’s hard to know what to prepare for should they be called to fight. But I have no doubt they stand ready should they be called, and will be more than ready to protect US interests in this extremely volatile region of the world.


us marines watch a landing craft loaded on uss mesa verde
Marines watch equipment loaded on a landing craft in the USS Mesa Verde (LPD 19) during a 2022 training exercise. Image: Maj. Jeremy Wheeler/U.S.M.C.

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