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Pacific Marine Corps gets new commander

Lt. Gen. Steven R. Rudder, deputy commandant for Marine Corps aviation, speaks to Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron (VMGR)152, at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, March 16, 2018. Rudder visited VMGR-152 to present them with the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Aviation Safety Award for the squadron’s excellence in safety while stationed at MCAS Iwakuni. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Lauren Brune)

The former deputy commandant for Marine Corps aviation took over Thursday as head of Marine Corps Forces Pacific and Fleet Marine Force Pacific as the Corps pursues a major transformation to better counter China and Russia.

Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder’s marching orders are pretty clear.

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger, who served in Rudder’s position at Camp H.M. Smith from 2016 to 2018, said in his “commandant’s planning guidance” that III Marine Expeditionary Force, headquartered in Okinawa, Japan, “will become our main focus-of-effort” with the ability “to persist inside an adversary’s weapon systems threat range.”

The last part potentially refers to islands that dot the western Pacific, including in the South China Sea.

Rudder took over the Pacific command from Lt. Gen. Lewis Craparotta, who will lead the Marine Corps’ Training and Education Command.

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At a Feb. 5 House committee hearing, Rudder, then in his aviation role, said that Berger “is trying to change the mindset of the United States Marine Corps that III MEF in the Pacific is where we need to send our best and brightest.”

“III MEF is his focus. When he gets up in the morning, he thinks about that theater, and how we can get the right capabilities out there with the right readiness,” he added.

Rudder served with multiple helicopter units and deployed to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Qatar. He commanded Marine Aircraft Group 26 on a deployment to Al Asad, Iraq, and the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing in Okinawa, Japan.

The Connecticut native previously held an assignment as director of strategic planning and policy with U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

He also was with the Office of Net Assessment, which is described as the Pentagon’s source of “deep, long-term future thinking on strategies and opportunities that improve the U.S. position in military-economic-political competition.”

More than 86,000 Marines, sailors and civilians serve under Marine Corps Forces Pacific — more than two-thirds of the Corps’ combat forces.

Marine Corps Base Hawaii had about 8,800 Marines in 2018 at Kaneohe Bay and Camp Smith, according to the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. Three infantry battalions are located at Kaneohe Bay.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, no formal change of command ceremony was held Thursday. Berger and Adm. Phil Davidson, commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, offered video comments.

Among the Marine Corps changes ahead for Hawaii is the development of a new “Marine Littoral Regiment” — the first of its kind in the Corps — that represents preparation for the potential of a high-tech missile war in the region.

Instead of training for low-tech counterinsurgency missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, which defined the Corps for nearly two dec­ades, littoral, or nearshore, Marines will become specialists in ship-to-shore capabilities in austere conditions to, among other things, sink ships at sea using missiles fired from unmanned vehicles that look like bulked-up Humvees.

The unmanned vehicles will operate inside the range of extremely capable enemy missiles fired back at them while Marines move about quickly to avoid being targeted.

Berger wants to shrink the Marines by 12,000 (186,000 are in the Corps now) and get rid of its tanks, leaving that capability to the Army, so the service can specialize in working with the Navy and in littoral operations.

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© 2020 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser