When the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, came under attack in 2012, the Marine Corps was unable to dispatch a quick-response force before the facility was overrun and four Americans were killed.
The Marines were unable to respond because there were no amphibious ships in the Mediterranean at the time. With fewer amphibs available than needed, the service has been forced to cut the number of forward deployed Marine Expeditionary Units (MEU), Col. Jason Bohm said May 19 during a speech at the Potomac Institute on Policy Studies outside Washington, D.C.
Bohm recently returned as commander of Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force, Crisis Response, Central Command, the first such unit to deploy to the area of operations that includes both Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Marine Corps once maintained a MEU in the Mediterranean, one in the Persian Gulf and one in the Pacific. Now the Marine Corps has only a 1.5 MEU presence, meaning one permanently stationed in the Gulf and one deployed to Pacific Command for half a year. Expeditionary units from the East and West coasts now share responsibility for the Persian Gulf region, he said.
Bohm said his MAGTF coordinated with four different MEUs during its seven-month deployment to Central Command.
“If we had sufficient shipping, we might be able to go back to that 3.0 presence and you might not need a crisis response force that is land based,” Bohm said.
The Benghazi incident led to the creation of the first such unit, called a SPMAGTF-CR. Based in Moron, Spain, the 2,000-plus Marine force was equipped with V-22 Ospreys and KC-130 aerial refueling tankers and tasked with responding at a moment’s notice to crises throughout Africa.
The same formula in late 2014 was applied to Central Command, which spans 20 countries and includes the war in Afghanistan and the fight against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. Bohm commanded the 2,300-Marine unit form a headquarters in Kuwait.
Bohm said the MAGTF concept “continues to prove its enormous relevance in an environment where you have to be flexible, adaptable and rapidly responsive to developing crises.”
“That’s what we were able to do in droves during this deployment,” he added.
When the ongoing political crisis erupted in Sana’a, Yemen, however, Bohm’s closest response force was in Kuwait on a six-hour “tether,” he said. The shipboard MEU, however, was in the Persian Gulf and was able to respond in 30 minutes to secure and eventually evacuate U.S. citizens from the embassy there. It is an example of how the special-purpose force and the amphibious MEU can complement each other to tailor forces as necessary to a particular contingency, Bohm said.
“There has been some discussion and there has been some debate: MEU versus special purpose MAGTF,” Bohm said. “Why do we need both? My answer to that is we complement each other. … There are advantages and disadvantages to having a sea-based MAGTF and to having a land-based MAGTF.”
That “N+6” steady-state readiness level, meaning from the time it was notified of a crisis, it could plan and mount a response within six hours, was standard for his unit, Bohm said. For contingency operations, that lag time was sometimes whittled to N+0, meaning that air assets like MV-22s and C-130 gunships were on station ready to conduct tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel (TRAP).
The unit maintained a steady-state N+30 minute TRAP response time once Operation Inherent Resolve, the coalition fight against Islamic State Militants and in support of the Iraqi military, was launched.
The TRAP force consisted of a 26-Marine platoon split into two, 13-Marine teams, Bohm said. Together they operated with three MV-22s and a KC-130 configured as an aerial refueling tanker.
It was overhead with V-22s when Jordanian pilot Muath Al-Kaseasbeh was shot down over Syria and would have attempted to recover him had he not fallen almost immediately into the hands of ISIS, who subsequently executed Kaseasbeh.
The SPMAGTF also included a 12-aircraft squadron of AV-8B Harrier jump jets, which dropped ordnance on ISIS targets beginning the day after the unit arrived in country.
Aside from Inherent Resolve, the MAGTF also provided support to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Its squadron of E/A-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft provided electronic warfare, information operations and targeting capabilities to U.S. forces in that country. Its KC-130 airlifters also helped move U.S. equipment and personnel out of Afghanistan in support of the drawdown effort, Bohm said.