Marine Forces Europe stood up the Black Sea Rotational Force in 2010 to build closer military ties with the Black Sea, Balkans and Caucuses regions without increasing demands on already-strained Army forces based in Europe, explained Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Charles G. Chiarotti, Marine Forces Europe’s deputy commander, in a U.S. Department of Defense statement issued here on Thursday.
The command, with no permanently assigned troops, reached back to U.S.-based Marines to serve six-month rotations helping partner and allied nations build their military capacity and, by extension, to promote regional stability.
The current rotation, the third for the Black Sea Rotational Force, includes 360 U.S.-based Marines, most from the Marine Corps Reserve’s 4th Reconnaissance Battalion in San Antonio. Deployed to a base in Constanta, Romania, this special-purpose Marine air-ground task force fans out across the region as it works with 19 nations’ militaries.
Chiarotti called the rotational force a model of efficiency, not only saving money and other resources but actually increasing U.S. engagement in the Black Sea region.
In the past, the Marine Corps deployed teams from the United States to conduct specific missions or engagements that supported the commander’s theatre campaign plan, he said. Often, as many as 20 small-scale engagements ran concurrently — anything from a two-Marine team teaching basic marksmanship to a large-scale exercise.
That was an expensive way of doing business, in terms of manpower, planning and support requirements and transportation costs, Chiarotti said. “So we started to look at ways to bring efficiencies to the process,” he added, recognizing that the Marines had fewer forces available to draw on at the time as they ramped up their presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The old U.S. European Command engagement model had a significant shortcoming, Chiarotti noted. In the event of a crisis, the participating Marines weren’t equipped or organized to provide the ready response that has always been the Corps’ proudest hallmark.
“So we turned the rubric around,” he said. Rather than a theatre security cooperation force able to respond if needed while operating in the region, leaders began thinking of the rotational force as a crisis response force able to support theatre security cooperation.
The force’s forward presence during its theatre engagement activities would be critical in the event of a crisis, Chiarotti said.
“The most important thing about this is [that] in addition to security cooperation and presence, this is a Marine air ground task force that is forward deployed and able to respond to crises,” he said.
So as part of their predeployment training, the rotational force Marines prepare for some of the most likely crisis missions they could be called on to support — humanitarian assistance and non-combatant evacuations, among them.
Chiarotti said he has no illusions that the task force could assume the role of a larger response force during a contingency operation. But forward-deployed Marines would provide an initial military response, if needed, until additional forces arrive.
“This, by no means, is meant to replace a Marine expeditionary unit,” Chiarotti said.
“But we serve as that immediate capability that could possibly respond to a low-level crisis within our capability set,” he said, or become the initial enabling force to a larger crisis response force.
The rotational unit has proven to be a hit within the region. Marine Forces Europe doubled its size since the 2011 rotation and extending its deployment schedule to include three major exercises and 91 other training events with 19 partner nations — 17 of which support the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
Each activity is carefully planned between already-scheduled exercises — a measure that saves millions of dollars in transportation costs alone, Chiarotti explained.
The Eucom and Marine Forces Europe staffs identify priority nations for engagements, getting those militaries to identify skill sets to concentrate on.
The kickoff exercise for the current rotation, Agile Spirit 2012, brought together the Marines and the Georgian armed forces to train in counterinsurgency and peacekeeping operations, including small-unit tactics, convoy operations and counter-improvised-explosive-device training.
The training was particularly valuable in light of Georgia’s role in Afghanistan. With a full battalion supporting the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force there and a second to soon join them, Georgia will soon become the largest troop-contributing nation on a per capita basis, Navy Adm. James G. Stavridis, Eucom commander, noted during recent congressional testimony.
Marine Corps Lt. Col. Rick Coates, commander for Black Sea Rotational Force 12, called the exercise a valuable opportunity for his Marines to conduct operations in an area of the world where Marines do not regularly deploy.
“This is a great opportunity to learn from each other while developing our ability to work together,” he said.
But unlike in the past, when the Marines returned home at the completion of an exercise, the rotational force returned to its base in Romania using their own C-130 aircraft to prepare for their next engagements in the region.
“So it’s all self-contained,” Chiarotti said. “You get them there, and then once they are in the theatre, we use our own aircraft to get them where they need to go, all over the place. They will do everything from a 300-person exercise like Agile Spirit to a two-man engagement.”
The rotation will conclude with the Baltops exercise in Latvia.
Based on the Black Sea Rotational Force’s success, Marine Forces Europe used it as a template to stand up a similar rotational force to support U.S. Africa Command.
That special-purpose task force of Marines and sailors was launched in October and operates from Sigonella, Sicily. The force is slated to deploy soon for its second rotation in Africa.
U.S. Southern Command is developing a similar program.
Chiarroti said the rotational force sells itself to American allies and partners, providing professional instruction tailored to their exact requirements and needs. “They see the value, and want to do more,” he said.
Ultimately, he added, he hopes to be able to support that as the rotational force grows to a 600- to 700-member unit with limited crisis response capabilities, fixed- and rotary-wing aviation assets and more robust command elements.
In the meantime, he called the Black Sea Rotational Force a model for maintaining forward presence and enduring partnerships in an efficient, cost-effective way.
“With its relatively small footprint, ability to self-deploy and limited, crisis-response capabilities, it delivers precisely what our commander requires,” he said.