By Donna Miles of American Forces Press Service
MANAMA, Bahrain, Feb. 25, 2011 - Traveling through the Middle East to confer with U.S. allies in the midst of regional unrest, the top U.S. military officer visited a new Marine Corps headquarters element here designed to evacuate noncombatants or provide humanitarian assistance and disaster response.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, checked in today on the Marine Corps Forces Central Command Forward element at Naval Support Activity Bahrain.
The headquarters stood up in November to bring Marine Corps Forces Central Command what its other sister services already have: a forward element within the 20-nation Centcom area of operations.
"Trying to conduct business from the MARFORCENT headquarters in Tampa is a bit difficult," Lt. Col. Mark Duffer, the element's deputy current operations officer, told reporters traveling with Mullen. "So we wanted to push something forward to the here and now, to what's happening so we can [create an] effect right away."
Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, pushed for the new forward element to focus on two primary missions: theater security cooperation and crisis management. "This was his vision here," Duffer said. "And his vision started a couple of years ago and finally came to fruition here."
MARFORCENT stood up with a staff of 161 Marines, sailors and civilian employees working in a tiny facility within Naval Support Activity Bahrain.
The location proved to be perfect, operationally as well as geographically, Duffer said. Home to Naval Forces Central Command and the U.S. Fifth Fleet, close partners in the MARFORCENT mission, it's situated smack in the middle of the Centcom area of operations.
"If you put your finger right on the map, on Bahrain, you can see we are very centrally located and [that it's] a very good location," Duffer said. "We can ... reach out and touch anybody, so we provide that stabilizing force."
From their new location, Marines assigned to the element work to build capability within regional militaries, concentrating more on ground than amphibious forces. "We focus ... on the basics of what Marines do: hand-to-hand combat and marksmanship and other things that are very basic and make up the Marine Corps ethos that we want to provide," Duffer said.
The goal, he explained, is to help strengthen regional allies' forces so they are better able to defend their nations and, if needed, to provide coalition support for future operations.
Meanwhile, MARFORCENT is now positioned to provide faster response to a regional crisis -- particularly noncombatant evacuation operations and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
"We are that 9-1-1 force people can tap into to efficiently, effectively and always get the job done," Duffer said.
As unrest ripples through the Middle East, he recognized the potential for the new element to be called on to help evacuate civilian noncombatants caught in the violence.
"As we stand up this command center, we have an ability to command and control that" at Centcom's direction, he said. "We can actually stand up as a joint task force with coalition forces, as well as provide [evacuation operations] within this region.
"We are prepared to do that, but have not been asked as of yet," Duffer said.
The more certain requirement -- the only question being its exact timing and location -- is a rapid humanitarian assistance and disaster response in the event of a crisis in the region.
Brig. Gen. Brian Beaudreault, commander of Marine Expeditionary Brigade Bahrain, understands that need firsthand. When the forward element stood up last fall, he was on the ground in Pakistan, commanding the U.S. joint task force that responded to devastating floods there.
"This is one of the key tasks that we can be assigned to do, so I think we are very well positioned" to carry it out," Duffer said.
Gunnery Sgt. Adam Doyle, who served with MARFORCENT headquarters in Tampa before helping form the forward element, said the new location improves the ability to coordinate operations, as well as logistics. "The command here brings ready access," he said. "It provides what we need to be more responsive."
As the element continues to take shape, Doyle and his fellow MARFORCENT Marines are preparing to move next month into a larger headquarters being renovated across the base.
Exactly how many Marines ultimately will join the element is classified, but Duffer said he sees developments underway as a sign of MARFORCENT's long-term commitment to strengthening partnerships and protecting U.S. interests in the region.
"We are building up this command center for a lasting, enduring mission within [Centcom's] area of responsibility," he said.