Marine Corps Preparing For Expanded Role in Africa
That paradigm shifted as a result of the Arab Spring movement. Both the Marine Corps and Special Operations Command have plans to increase troop strength to deal with instability and terrorist threats on the continent.
U.S. military planners see Africa as a region where small units of U.S. troops, operating in concert with — and in support of — indigenous forces, can have a big impact. Special Forces have proven their worth as trainers and reinforcements for African troops in regional conflicts there.
The Marine Corps expects to have a larger role in crisis response. That was driven home for the Marines when the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was attacked and Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed, Maj. Gen. Raymond Fox, commander of II Marine Expeditionary Force, said April 9.
That event “changed AFRICOM forever,” he said at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space conference at National Harbor, Md.
The Arab Spring toppled several governments in the region — some of which were U.S. allies — and created widespread instability that has been exploited by extremist groups, said Lt. Gen. Robert Neller, commander of Marine Forces Central Command.
Since Neller took his current job in September 2012, there have been violent regime changes in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen. Syria exploded into a violent civil war that is nearing its fourth year. Al-Qaida has migrated to the Magreb and the Arabian Peninsula, he noted, while affiliated groups are training, recruiting and wreaking havoc in both Somalia and Nigeria.
U.S. Africa Command originally was modeled on foreign policy in South America where the State Department, the Agency for International Development and non-governmental organizations took the lead in maintaining relative stability, Fox said. U.S. military involvement on the continent has been limited since the incursion in Somalia in the 1990s ended in disaster. A single base in Djibouti that is primarily focused on the Middle EAST is the only permanent U.S. presence there.
“That certainly has changed as al-Qaida started leaving places like Afghanistan and Syria, and picking up weapons in Libya and moving down into the Magreb and other places,” Fox said.
After Benghazi, the Marine Corps was tasked with increasing protection at dozens of other U.S. embassies and consulates on a continent that is more than three and a half times the size of the United States. Just finding all the U.S. corporations, government installations and non-governmental organizations is difficult, Fox said.
"The maps are all deceiving,” he said. Africa “is a lot bigger than you could ever imagine.” It takes eight hours to fly from Frankfurt, Germany, to Lagos, Nigeria, and 13 hours to fly from Lagos to Atlanta, he said.
The MV-22 Osprey has changed the equation on how a relatively small military force can respond to crises on a huge continent like Africa, Neller said.
“The ability to go 250-260 knots, aerial refuel and carry 20 armed and combat-ready Marines across a combatant command [area of responsibility] is a significant strategic capability,” he said. “Yes, it would be nice if we had ships, but ships are expensive.” Ospreys can reach much of the continent, but need aerial refueling to fly longer distances.
Currently 90 Marines are on the ground at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Libya. They rotate in every six months. The embassy would not be open without that force, Fox said.
Marines also are stationed in Liberia. Others rotate into places like Uganda. When Fox assumed command, there were about 150 Marines focused on Africa. Now there are about 2,000, not counting the Marine Expeditionary Units stationed periodically nearby at sea, he said. MEUs can provide air superiority, ground forces and logistics capabilities to support them ashore. But crises in Africa rarely require such a large combat force, Neller said.
Col. Scott Benedict, commander of 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, said Marines are suited to responding to crises in Africa because their units can be scaled to provide anything from high-end forcible entry and combat operations to humanitarian assistance missions.
Marines were unavailable to respond to the Benghazi attack because of a lack of amphibious ships in the Mediterranean, he said. The service’s immediate response was to set up a smaller force based in Europe that is not reliant on ships.
The special purpose Marine air-ground task force — a two-company unit with MV-22s and aerial refueling tankers — stationed in Spain and Italy filled that gap, Benedict said.
Several Fleet Antiterrorism Security, or FAST, teams have been stationed in the region, said Col. James Bright, commander of the Marine Corps Security Force Regiment.
The teams are specially trained during a yearlong pre-deployment program and stationed at Maron, Spain, in Bahrain and Yakuska, Japan. Since 1987, FAST teams have deployed on more than 70 missions, Bright said. In recent years, they have deployed to Sanaa, Yemen; Cairo, and Tripoli.
Plans are to continue pushing forces south so they can more quickly respond while expending less fuel and putting less stress on troops, Fox said. “We need to move south. Maron was the starting point because we didn’t have anywhere else to go,” Fox said. “It would certainly be ideal, assuming that Africa is important to the U.S. and assuming there are going to be stability problems in Africa, that we slowly … start operating in places like Senegal and maybe go a little further south.”
Fox said that certain governments are supportive of hosting Marines, and the State Department is “warming up to the idea” of an increased military presence on the continent.
“We have to get used to operating in Africa and they have to get used to us,” Fox said. "We want Marines to be as familiar with Africa as they are with Iraq and Afghanistan. I don’t want the first time they see that place to be when they’re going in there for real. So we’re going to deliver a path where Africa sees more of us and we see more of Africa.”
Neller said there are no plans to establish permanent bases on the continent. That’s one reason why the Marine Corps would like to have more amphibious ships available off the coast of a country in crisis.
See the May issue of National Defense for more on the future of U.S. Special Operations Command forces in Africa.