As the Marine Corps adjusts to operating with fewer Marines afloat on amphibious ships, the service is better defining the role of its new Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response and is considering adding a few more across Africa and the Middle East to boost forward presence without straining Navy resources.
Col. Scott Benedict, who commanded the new SPMAGTF-CR from its formation in March 2013 through the end of January, said the 550-man unit cannot fully replace a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) onboard an Amphibious Ready Group (ARG), but it does fill a critical need for combatant commanders.
“This force is not a Marine Expeditionary Unit, it does not bring those same capabilities that the Marine Expeditionary unit brings,” said Benedict, who is also the commander of the 24th MEU out of Camp Lejeune, N.C. “However, the gap left in the Mediterranean and the African [area of responsibility] by the lack of a MEU that’s simply caused by a lack of amphibious shipping has allowed us to complement that capability with this force here.”
As budgets have tightened, the Navy had to reduce its forward presence to just one ARG and one Carrier Strike Group deployed to the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility, in addition to one of each forward-stationed in Japan. In September, the Navy announced it would have only one of each non-deployed but trained and ready for surge operations.
That reduction left the Mediterranean and Northern Africa with few assets to respond to crisis situations in a time when several countries are in turmoil. The SPMAGTF-CR, with six V-22 Bell Helicopter Textron [TXT]-Boeing [BA] Ospreys and two Lockheed Martin [LMT] KC-130J tankers based out of Morón, Spain, has proven effective, from posturing itself in Italy to be closer to ”some of the hotspots in North Africa” as a deterrent to flying all the way to South Sudan for embassy reinforcement and evacuation.
Benedict said he believed that as long as there was not an ARG/MEU deployed to the Mediterranean, there would be a SPMAGTF-CR there. But he said it was important to note there are other Marine units in the area with their own specialized skills, forming a toolkit for U.S. Africa Command and U.S. European Command.
The Marine Corps has forward-deployed a Black Sea Rotational Force and a SPMAGTF-Africa to support training exercises with partners in Europe and Africa, respectively; a Fleet Anti-terrorism Security Team based out of Rota, Spain and under the command of AFRICOM; and Marine Security Augmentation Units under the control of the State Department to reinforce embassies as needed.
Benedict said all the groups came together during his time in Spain to do a Marine Integration Exercise, proving they could aggregate all the local forces and perform embassy reinforcement, tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel, and evacuation control operations.
“What we also demonstrated by doing that is that Marines can quickly and rapidly aggregate forces together, and we’re scalable and very flexible in that manner,” Benedict said.
So much so, he said, that the Marine Corps is considering setting up more. Benedict said “they’re conceptual, they’re in development now,” but he added that there were talks of putting one in Bahrain as well as somewhere in Africa if a country were willing to host a unit.
“Something like this, we’ve got a lot of people looking at it very hard, and the commandant’s willingness to put this force in a couple other places is clearly because of the value the combatant commanders have seen with this force,” Benedict said.