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Special Operations Now Primary Mission for Marines in Africa

Marines from the Africa Command's crisis response task force conduct an alert-force drill on board Naval Station Rota, Spain, in January 2016. (Marine Corps photo/Tia Nagle)
Marines from the Africa Command's crisis response task force conduct an alert-force drill on board Naval Station Rota, Spain, in January 2016. (Marine Corps photo/Tia Nagle)

In preparation for its deployment last October, the Marine Corps' crisis response task force for Africa met and trained with Navy SEALs in Dam Neck, Va.; with the Army's 3rd Special Forces Group in Fort Bragg, N.C.; and with MARSOC Raiders aboard nearby Camp Lejeune.

And when the task force arrived in theater, forward-staged in Sigonella, Italy, and Moron, Spain, there was no question what was emerging as the most pressing mission for the unit.

"What we found during our deployment was the preponderance of our effort and focus the entirety of our deployment, seven days a week, was focused on support to special operations," Col. Dan Greenwood, the rotation's commander and commanding officer of 2nd Marine Regiment, said at a deployment debrief Thursday.

The task force returned home in April after a seven-month deployment.

Greenwood attributed the shifting focus of the task force to the influence of Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, who had recently been installed as the commanding officer of U.S. Africa Command at the start of the task force's deployment. Waldhauser, a graduate of Army Ranger school, had spent a tour as chief of staff for U.S. Special Operations command.

What he found upon his arrival in AfriCom was a mismatch: too many opportunities to use special operations forces in-theater, and not enough available troops to carry out the missions.

Unrest and violence continued to be a pressing problem in Libya and northern Africa, and newly updated rules governing operations in Somalia made a way for special operations troops to take a more active role in the fight against Al-Shabaab terrorists in the Horn of Africa.

"General Waldhauser viewed the problems he was faced with -- a limited number of assigned forces -- and he felt he could get after two missions with the one crisis response force and accept some risk if he needed to," Greenwood said. "We were able to do that for seven months."

To make communication smooth between the task force and special operations units in the region, Greenwood installed a Marine intelligence officer as a liaison at Special Operations Command-Africa (SOCAF) headquarters in Stuttgart-Mohringen, Germany.

Many of the support missions the unit performed for SOCAF were well within the mandate of the task force: quick response force capabilities; casualty evacuation; and tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel, or TRAP.

The task force was also called upon to conduct intelligence operations, and began teaming up with special operations units on survey and assessment visits to U.S. embassies throughout Africa. It was the first time such a teaming operation had happened between Marines and SOF troops, Greenwood said.

"It got to the point toward the end of our deployment, where we were planning a Marine-led [assessment team] to Bangui, [Central African Republic], and SOCAF was just going to plug several of their members into us instead," Greenwood said. "So that relationship worked very well."

There were several points at which the unit had to focus more intently on the crisis response part of its mission, such as a brief period in which a small forward element was sent to Gambia amid tumult with the December presidential election, to be at the ready in case an emergency embassy reinforcement or evacuation was called for.

For future deployments to Africa, Greenwood hopes task force Marines will get more chances to train with SOF forces and practice functioning as integrated units. While the task force was able to conduct integrated training with MARSOC and spend time with other units, these pre-deployment opportunities were more limited than Greenwood would have liked.

"If you can do it in your pre-deployment training, that's fantastic," he said. "To make up for that when we got deployed, we did lots of integration and planning with task force elements in SOCAF while we were deployed. And that was how we overcame that lack of training prior to either element deploying."

But overall, Greenwood said, the partnership with SOF was smooth and mutually beneficial.

"What we benefit from is ... we gain incredible understanding of what's going on in that geographic location. And they're operating in some of these locations in Africa where we're very likely to have to go in to reinforce the embassy or help an ambassador," Greenwood said. "So we would support them with the missions they requested from AfriCom, and the benefit for us is, getting to talk to them and understand what's going on in that country, better intelligence flow between the two units."

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at@HopeSeck.

Related Video:

Marines conduct a TRAP exercise (Tactical Recovery Of Aircraft & Personnel). Marines with Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, work with the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force - Crisis Response - Central Command (SPMAGTF-CR-CC).

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