With MEU Delayed by Hurricane, Task Force Alone for Africa Response

FILE -- Lt. Gen. Robert Neller visits Naval Air Station Sigonella to meet service members with the second iteration of SP-MAGTF Africa 14, Aug. 9, 2014. (U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. Shawn Valosin)
FILE -- Lt. Gen. Robert Neller visits Naval Air Station Sigonella to meet service members with the second iteration of SP-MAGTF Africa 14, Aug. 9, 2014. (U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. Shawn Valosin)

SIGONELLA, Italy -- Typically, this naval air station in the shadow of Mount Etna's smoky plume goes through routine population surges and ebbs, as Marines from the Corps' special purpose crisis response task force for Africa shuttle back and forth from the unit's other hub in Moron, Spain.

But Naval Air Station Sigonella is positioned close to potential crisis points such as Libya and Niger, and that's where the unit has been spending the majority of its time on this deployment.

Typically, the infantry-heavy land element, augmented by a half-squadron of MV-22B Ospreys and a complement of C-130 Hercules, would maintain a collaborative relationship with a shipboard Marine expeditionary unit deployed in the 6th Fleet.

But a devastating hurricane season in the Caribbean last summer pulled ships out of normal deployment cycles for relief efforts, and the MEU that was supposed to be in the region now has yet to deploy.

During a visit to Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response-Africa here in December, Marine Commandant Gen. Robert Neller described the situation starkly.

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"If I draw a 2,000-mile radius around this place, and something happens, you're about it for the United States," he told assembled Marines. "You're the contact force and the blunt force right here ... so the nation expects us to deliver. They expect us to be the best."

If a crisis of any kind does arise before the expected arrival of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit in the 6th Fleet, it will highlight and test the purpose for which the crisis response task force was built.

The unit was first assembled and deployed in 2013, in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead. The violence, and the struggle to come to the aid of those at the consulate, revealed the limited options available to the United States for crisis response in that part of the world.

Since the unit's creation, it has assisted with U.S. embassy evacuations in Libya and South Sudan, and forward-staged troops in Africa many times to be at the ready amid signs of impending crises.

The Marines hold regular embassy security and evacuation drills on location and engage with various African nations for theater security cooperation exercises.

In recent months, a detachment from the unit was dispatched to Niamey, Niger, to assist with an investigation after four soldiers were killed in an attack by Islamic militants.

Col. Michael Perez, commander of the unit, told Military.com the unit had to make adjustments in light of spending much of its time at Sigonella.

"Normally, we would only go to Sigonella specifically for posturing to be able to cover Northern Africa," he said. "When we knew that they were going to place us in Sigonella for a significant period of time ... we knew we had to fix the training availability in southern Italy, because it [had been] very limited."

Perez said the unit has found new bilateral training opportunities with the Italian Army and the "San Marco" brigade, an Italian Navy force akin to the Marines. They have been able to stay current on training and now have more bilateral opportunities than they have troops to take them, he said.

The unit is also contending with the challenge of a slimmed-down aviation element. In 2016, the unit's air element was reduced from 12 Ospreys to six and from six C-130s to three as the Marine Corps worked to build aviation readiness stateside.

Perez said the top aviation priority for the unit remains its alert force -- it can scramble response at any given time in six hours or less -- and said the unit is making up for mission aircraft by rotating personnel back and forth from the United States. They train on aircraft stateside and then travel forward to help maintain the alert posture.

"Even though we've gone down to just half [an Osprey squadron], we're not that significantly limited in our ability to maintain the alert and maintain our readiness," Perez said. "It's a pretty ingenious solution."

Meanwhile, the 26th MEU is gearing up to deploy and is expected to arrive in the 6th Fleet sometime next month.

The unit was pulled from its pre-deployment workup in September to deploy to the Virgin Islands with supplies. The unit set up a logistics hub following Hurricane Irma and spent about a month in the Caribbean, delivering 390 pallets of food and water and clearing more than 65 miles of road in Puerto Rico.

The 24th MEU, which had previously been deployed to regions around Europe, Africa and the Middle East, was also pulled into hurricane relief efforts before returning home in September.

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

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