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Twentynine Palms Marines commanding general talks budget, priorities

February 26th, 2014 | by Denise Goolsby | Comments
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Maj. Gen. David H. Berger speaks at Desert Falls on Feb. 21, 2014. Denise Goolsby/The Desert Sun

Maj. Gen. David H. Berger, Commanding General, MAGTFTC, Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, covered a wide-range of topics as guest speaker at the Palm Springs Chapter of the Military Officers Association of America luncheon at Desert Falls Country Club in Palm Desert on Friday, Feb. 21.

Berger, who was deployed in 2012 to Afghanistan as the Commanding General of 1st Marine Division (forward) in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, talked about the long-term, big picture plans for the military, the Marine Corps in general and the Twentynine Palms Marines.

He opened his remarks to the 80-plus gathered in the Desert Falls ballroom – including high school students from the four local Jr. ROTC units – by stressing the importance of the education the military provides to its rank and file.

“Your military, your government sends us to school throughout our careers,” he said. “Most people don’t know that.”

He said the professionalism of the military is attributed to the ongoing education provided by each branch of the military.

“While I was a Lt. Col. when most of my peers were going to war college, they sent me to John’s Hopkins University,” he said.

Other branches – Army, Navy and Air Force – send their officers to universities including Stanford and Harvard.

“This is the quality of folks we have, it’s always been that way, in large part because they continue our education. Your military keeps that education going as long as you’re wearing the uniform, and I don’t know of any other organization that invests that much time in our continued education – I’ve never run across another corporation that does that. It’s that important.”

Military overview

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Lance Cpl. Geoffrey West, infantryman, Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, patrols through Musa Qa’leh District, Afghanistan, April 23, 2012. DVIDS

“Our top priority as the Marine Corps, like the rest of the service, remains Afghanistan. That will not change as long as there’s a service member serving in that combat zone.”

There are currently 4,000 Marines serving in Afghanistan.

“That number will come down during the rest of the year as the U.S. force there and NATO force there shrinks itself.”

“The big question? What happens at the end of this year?”

There’s no clear answer, he said.

There are plans to move everybody and every piece of gear out of the area — and there are other plans to leave training personnel in-country.

Crisis response training, deployment of military assets: “Tailoring your military to be ready for the smaller kind of crises that can pop up in an embassy, in a port somewhere, in an airfield somewhere where there are either U.S. military folks or U.S. citizens there.

Around the world, on the Marines Corps side, there’s a force now positioned just outside of Africa. By the end of this summer, you’ll see one in the Middle East; there’s one in the Pacific. Each of the services is doing the same and they’re positioning people and aircraft in these spots so if we have another problem like we had in the embassy in Libya that there’s some military force nearby that can get there, hopefully within hours. It’s a big load. That’s a huge challenge. Our entire DOD (Department of Defense)  is focused on making sure we can respond to a crisis and get there quickly.”

More and more of these crisis response forces are positioned around the world.

Regarding the shift in the administration’s focus out to the Pacific:

“That’s an important move for the military, but for the Navy and Marines, it’s not really a shift at all, because we never left.

Berger said there will be a percentage of forces deployed to the Middle East that will be reallocated back out to the Pacific.

“All four services have a good presences there. Now it’s going back to where it ought to be. Shorter deployments – 6 to 7 months. Some positioning of important material and equipment around the Pacific so that it can be where it needs to be if we have to get to it fast.”

Marine Corps downsizing

“We had to grow the Army and Marine Corps for Iraq, Afghanistan. We’re on the back side of that curve right now. We’re past the peak. For the Marine Corps, that peak was 202,000 Marines – it hadn’t been that big since Vietnam.”

“From a little more than 212,000 down to about 175,000 – we can get the job done at 175,000. There was a lot of good planning and thought as to how to bring the Marine Corps back down to that number.

I think it will take another 2 years to get there.”

On weapons, aircraft and weapons systems

The equipment being used now is “state-of-the-art,” he said, attributing the accomplishment to planning that took place starting in the early 1980s.

“You’re seeing it in play right now,” he said.

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An MV-22B Osprey tiltrotor aircraft from Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 166 ) slows for a vertical landing at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms on Jan. 31, 2013. Crystal Chatham, The Desert Sun

MV-22 Osprey – “It looks like it has no business flying. That aircraft, having flown in the back of it in some pretty tough missions in Afghanistan, it did things and saved lives and inserted our forces where no other aircraft could have done it. It’s that fast, it’s that powerful, ability to get in and get out like no other aircraft can do.

It can fly in at 220 – 230 knots, throw on the brakes, hover – it goes almost straight down – and do the reverse and get out of there if you need to. Can go much farther than any helicopter can go.”

F-35 Joint Strike Fighter – “It’s like a flying computer you can’t see on radar … allows us to do our job like it was science fiction.”

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The F-35A Lightning II joint strike fighter lifts off for its first training sortie March 6, 2012 at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. It’s the first flight of any 33rd Fighter Wing F-35 since their arrival to the base. (U.S. Air Force photo/Randy Gon)

He said the high technical ability of these systems is, “So much of an overmatch it gives us comfort on tough missions. Frankly, we’re not looking for an even match. We’re not looking for a fair fight. That’s not what we want. We would like to bring everyone of your kids and grandkids back. We’re not looking for an even playing field at all. You can expect us to keep asking for more and more and more because we are not looking for a fair fight at all. And it’s not one now.”

Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms

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Maj. Gen. David H. Berger speaks after assuming command of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center and Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command during a change of command ceremony Jan. 11, 2013 in Twentynine Palms. Crystal Chatham, The Desert Sun

“It’s the one place in the world where we can do live fire maneuver training – every weapons system, every aircraft – and we do it live. Everything is real. Real bombs, real bullets. It’s the only place in the world where we can do that. It is a very unique place …  It will remain our premiere training base for live-fire and maneuver.

The combat center will continue to host, five or six times a year, major training exercises.

“One year we did 10 in a year – because we were pumping that many units overseas.”

About 3,500 – 4,000 marines from around world participate in the 30-day training.

Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center downsizing, future plans

“I think you’ll see as the Marine Corps shrinks down, you’ll see a little bit of shrinkage at Twentynine Palms in the population there, but not actually so much.

There’s a couple of battalions that will fold their flags as we draw back down. One squadron will move. They got the good draw – they go to Hawaii from Twentynine Palms. We’re shifting stuff around in the Marines Corps, like the communication officer’s school that has been in Quantico forever is moving down to Twentynine Palms.”

At any one time, 25,000  to 28, 000 Marines, family members and civilians will be aboard the combat center.

On the recent land expansion

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Paula Mattecheck drives an off road vehicle on Quailbush Road in Johnson Valley, located west of Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms on Aug. 18, 2012. Richard Lui, The Desert Sun

That was absolutely essential to do. This was a difficult one for us to talk to Congress about because they look at Twentynine Palms and it’s 900 square miles – 900. And we needed more, they said, ‘What do you mean you need more?’ and then you explain to them the kind of aircraft we have now, the kind of artillery that we have now – the distances that we can cover that we couldn’t cover 20 years ago, then they start to understand.

It seems huge, until you’re in the new planes we’re in now and the new artillery – you can run to the end of that property pretty quickly. We needed enough room where we could  practice like we actually fight.

I think it will take a few more years to do the environmental and all the other stuff it will take and the airspace over the top of it. It’s a very good thing and a great compromise that came out of it is, part of it is going to be maintained, still, by the Bureau of Land Management and part of it is an off-highway vehicle place where they can race their off road vehicles. This is one of those where everybody walked away with what they needed. We needed more terrain, they got what they needed – I think it worked out well.

In the future what you’ll see as we use that other property, I think you’ll see a little bit of growth in the size of these exercises, because it needs to be a full-up brigade – that’s what we need to train. That’s what we’re going to fight at – that’s what we fight at now.

You’ll see these F-35 – joint strike fighters will come up to participate – they’re in Yuma right now.”

Simulation; training between the forces

“I think you’ll see more simulation in military training. Simulations are very helpful – they don’t take the place for doing it for real, but we need more of that simulation because you can do it over and over and over again and it doesn’t cost that much.

But it’s not going to take the place of the live stuff that has to happen. You need to know what that feels like.

I’ll think you’ll see even more training between the services … more and more and more, you’ll see combinations of Air Force and Army and Navy and Marines training together, side-by side, so when we go to a conflict, we’re not trying to figure out how that guy does business. We will know that.

Everywhere we go to fight — we’re all going to be there. We need to know how each other operates. We don’t want to learn that when we land.”

Military budget cuts

“A lot of problems, a lot of drama about budgets and money and all last year. Frankly for us in the military, we wait for all that to happen and at the end of the day we use the money that you’re going to give us, your congressman gives us and we’re going to go off and train and get ready. And that’s what we’re doing. We’re not losing any sleep over it.

I think Congress did exactly what they needed to do and we got what we need. We’re going to train, we’re going to have the right military that you can be very proud of and can be very confident in.

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