Marines Look to Get Closer to Special Operations Teams While Practicing Extractions

An MV-22 Osprey takes off from the deck of the USS Bataan.
An MV-22 Osprey attached to the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit takes off the deck of the USS Bataan in the evening hours of April 23, 2023. Aircraft like this one were used by the Marines to ferry supplies and people to Camp Lejeune where the service set up a fictious consulate that was in need of an evacuation. ( photo by Konstantin Toropin)

Just hours after helicopters finished bringing 70 employees out of the American embassy in Sudan, halfway across the world, the Marines of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) started practicing for the same type of mission.

The exercise, held at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and aboard a trio of Navy ships off the coast, was not only an opportunity for Marines to practice extracting noncombatants from dangerous situations, it also foreshadows a growing partnership between the maritime branch and special operations forces.

"Certainly, we're watching [the] real world, and you can look at Sudan. ... Here are things that are germane to what we're doing," Col. Dennis Sampson, the commander of the MEU, told a group of reporters aboard the USS Bataan on Monday.

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Reporters were invited to observe two days of operations with the Navy and Marine Corps. The trip featured an at-sea portion aboard the Bataan, an amphibious assault ship, as well as some time at Camp Lejeune, where the Marine Corps was using an office building to simulate a besieged consulate in a fictitious country.

Sampson, as well as other Marine Corps and State Department officials, said that they made an effort to include more training with members of the Navy SEALs -- the same command that, according to The New York Times, pulled off the extraction in Sudan -- as part of these trainings.

"What is unique for us, is we've actually attached them to the MEU," Sampson explained before noting that this "makes us more relevant when you get into a theater and there's a crisis." The colonel also explained that the extra training decreases the amount of time the units would need to start providing support to special forces.

"I think the MEU is just truly a natural partner with [special operations forces]," Sampson said.

The closer cooperation is partly out of practicality. Lt. Col. Josef Wiese, the second in command of the MEU, said that the "reality is [the SEALs are] going to be there, and they're probably there before the Marine Corps gets there."

But, Jonathan Berger, a State Department adviser to Marine Corps Special Operations Command, also noted that the level of cooperation between the agency that runs embassies and consulates and special operations units "is increasing."

"We've got a team now embedded in the embassy in Jakarta, for example. ... We've got folks working in Taiwan," Berger said, before naming other locations in the Philippines as well.

One aspect of these extraction trainings that is less clear is whether there were any lessons learned from the last major removal of noncombatants from a hostile area -- the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Reporters asked several State Department officials to explain what changes or improvements have been made to procedures following the massive but deadly and chaotic extraction of more than 120,000 people from Hamid Karzai International Airport in August 2021, but with little response. Officials often cited the unique, inland, location of that evacuation as making any comparison challenging.

On the Marine side, Sampson did say that some in his unit went to learning sessions with Brig. Gen. Farrell Sullivan, who was involved in the Kabul extraction, "and certainly I've talked to other folks involved."

A review conducted by President Joe Biden's White House largely laid the blame for the messy withdrawal at the feet of his predecessor -- President Donald Trump. A 12-page summary of the results that was released in April argued that Biden was "severely constrained" by Trump's decisions.

Sampson said that, broadly, he is looking to make his MEU a more relevant "crisis response force."

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

Related: The Marines' Amphibious Craft Isn't Allowed in the Surf. The Corps Hopes New Training Will Fix That.

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