After completing a seven-month deployment earlier this month, the commanding officer of the Marine Corps crisis response force for Africa has a recommendation for the brass: Repurpose the task force and return a shipboard Marine expeditionary unit to the Mediterranean.
At a deployment debrief near Washington, D.C., Salene said the three-ship MEU was simply a better fit to meet the region’s needs and widely varied range of potential missions.
“A special purpose [Marine air-ground task force] is not designed to be something in perpetuity,” said Col. Sean Salene, commanding officer for Special Purpose MAGTF-Crisis Response-Africa. “It doesn’t have the same capabilities and capacities as the MEU/ [Amphibious Ready Group] team. Reestablishing that presence in the Mediterranean as a more capable, larger-capacity force, we think would work better to meet all the demands that are out there.”
The task force itself was created to fill a gap left by a Marine expeditionary unit. Routine presence deployments to the Mediterranean were curtailed in the mid-2000s due to the scarcity of available amphibious ships as combat operations in the Middle East intensified. While MEUs still spend time in the region, the bulk of deployments now are focused on the Middle East and the Pacific.
In 2012, the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi brought into stark relief the necessity of having crisis response forces in the region. The following year, the Marine Corps announced the creation of a special-purpose task force for Africa, deploying the first iteration of the unit to Moron, Spain, in April 2013.
The unit, which includes roughly 1,000 Marines, splits its time between Moron and Sigonella, Italy, and maintains several austere cooperative security locations, or CSLs on the African continent where troops can pre-stage gear and equipment if they anticipate being called to an embassy or city to respond to a crisis.
Readiness challenges at home have recently put an additional squeeze on the task force. Earlier this year, the unit had its air contingent cut in half, from 12 MV-22 Ospreys to six and from six C-130 Hercules transport aircraft to three as the Marine Corps works to improve pilot flight hours and aviation readiness stateside.
Col. Martin Wetterauer, the commander of a previous task force rotation, said in December the move would inevitably affect how the unit could operate.
“[The reduction in aircraft] doesn’t change our ability to conduct the mission, but it changes the ability to conduct multiple missions,” he said.
Wetterauer, who spoke at a debrief shortly following his deployment, also spoke of the challenges of operating from CSLs, particularly those like the one in Entebbe, Uganda, where there is no memorandum of agreement with the host country and even less available local support than usual.
Salene said the floating MEU/ARG, which functions as its own sovereign territory, eliminates a lot of the challenges facing a land-based unit.
“There’s just a lot of reasons why it makes sense,” he said.
He also argued that returning the crisis response force’s troops and aircraft to the Marine Corps would allow the service to “buy back readiness” or bulk up capabilities elsewhere.
“Our ability to satisfy the requirements with the MEU/Arg team and take the excess capacity and return it back to the force provider would then enable the service to reset whatever the global requirements are,” he said.
The Marine Corps has discussed different strategies that would return amphibious ship presence to the Mediterranean, near restive northern Africa. In March 2016, the commander of Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, told USNI News the service was eyeing the possibility of splitting up the MEU during deployments to reach more regions.
But ultimately, the service may not be able to support a three-ship presence in the Mediterranean for some time. There are currently 31 amphibious ships in service, said Jim Strock, former director of the Marine Corps’ Seabasing Integration Division and now an independent consultant. Several more, including the America-class amphibious assault ships Tripoli and Bougainville, will begin fleet operations in coming years. But officials maintain they need 38 amphibs to meet all mission requirements around the globe.