The contingent of Marines sent to the Middle East as a crisis response force could become a permanent rotational support force for other U.S. personnel conducting the air campaign against Islamic State (ISIL) militants in Iraq and Syria, according to the unit’s former commander.
Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response (SPMAGTF-CR) assigned to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) was initially deployed in late 2014 to shore up the U.S. embassy in Yemen against building political instability in the capital Saana.
As U.S. involvement in the counter-ISIL air campaign expanded, the SPMAGTF became almost entirely focused on crisis response, logistical support and tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel (TRAP) if a U.S. warplane were shot down in that war zone, Marine Col. Jay Bargeron, commander of the 7th Marine Regiment at Twentynine Palms, Calif., told reporters at the Pentagon Wednesday. Bargeron is six weeks out of a six-month deployment in command of CENTCOM’s special purpose MAGTF crisis response.
“That was our top priority and almost the entire MAGTF was supporting OIR,” Bargeron said. The special purpose MAGTF was initially designed to respond to specific regional crises, and in this case, the crisis was OIR, he added. Because that crisis has lasted longer than a single six-month deployment and will likely outlast the next deployment, it has morphed into a semi-permanent rotational force.
Bargeron’s 15.2 rotation of the SPMAGTF-CR-CC was the second six-month deployment of a 2,300-Marine force. A third rotation is currently in theater and another is undergoing six months of pre-deployment training to replace it. The task force is likely to become a semi-permanent rotational Marine force in support of OIR, Bargeron said.
During its 187 days in theater, the MAGTF was geographically dispersed performing a number of missions in support of OIR. Bargeron said the force was adequately trained, manned and equipped for the mission it was given and that the special purpose, crisis response construct was appropriate for the theater and the work it was tasked with.
“I felt like it was very appropriately sized for the mission set that we had,” Bargeron said. “The advice that I’ve given my bosses is that if the mission is going to stay the same, we need to try very hard to have a similar size force in theater…Having Marines forward deployed, an expeditionary force in readiness, aggregated at or near a likely point of crisis is where we should always be.”
Marines provided security, logistical and intelligence support to task forces Al Asad and Al Taqaddum in their missions to train Iraqi Security Forces to fight ISIL. In this role, Marines directed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and indirect fire for Iraqi forces in contact with ISIL militants, Bargeron said.
Members of the unit provided six months’ worth of training to the Jordanian Quick Reaction Force, which was modeled after the SPMAGTF crisis response force. It also trained alongside the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit and special operations forces throughout CENTCOM to improve interoperability among U.S. forces and allied militaries.
Where the initial SPMAGTF rotation to CENTCOM was accompanied by AV-8B Harrier jump jets that joined in the bombing campaign against ISIL, Bargeron’s rotation was accompanied by F/A-18 Hornets flying from a Navy aircraft carrier, Bargeron said. They flew roughly 4,100 hours during 600 sorties over the six month deployment, he said.
Overall, the MAGTF flew 1,400 sorties and moved 3.7 million pounds of cargo and 6,700 personnel throughout Iraq and Central Command.
The unit was responsible for responding to the downing of any coalition fixed-wing aircraft in both Iraq and Syria and are often airborne during strike sorties to shorten response time, Bargeron said. It took orders on which strikes to cover from the combined air operations center (CAOC) in Qatar that coordinates strikes for the 60-plus-member coalition.
“It differed daily,” Bargeron said. “Sometimes we would be on a shorter alert than others. Sometimes we would cover periods of strike packages for longer periods than others. But we had to be ready to be assigned each day.”
The unit’s MV-22 Ospreys were preemptively airborne to more quickly respond to downed aircraft in the two countries about once a week, he said. A KC-130 tanker also was launched during those missions to keep the MV-22s airborne during their overwatch period.
“Part of your mission set is airborne TRAP, so if we’re covering a specific strike package in Syria, for example, you might be asked to be airborne for a certain period of time in a certain holding area to be able to respond in the event of a downed airplane, but we never responded to a downed aircraft.”
To date, only one TRAP mission has been launched by either of the two SPMAGTF crisis response forces, Bargeron said. The other such unit, actually created first in response to the storming of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, is based in Spain and focused on U.S. Africa Command.
That occurred in late June, when the CENTCOM force successfully recovered an Air Force MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle that crashed in southern Iraq because of a mechanical failure. It was the first successful TRAP mission by either of the service’s special purpose MAGTFs.
“We were asked to go and retrieve some sensitive items off the UAS,” Bargeron said. “We did that without incident. It was in a remote area. There were not any civilians or other folks at all around there. We retrieved the sensitive items and we came back.”