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Lessons From Marines’ Special Africa Force: Juba, The Anti-Bengahzi

Posted by Murielle Delaporte on


CV-22 AFSOC Osprey refueling

After the US Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, was murdered in Benghazi, the call went out to beef up America’s ability to respond rapidly to smaller attacks and crises. The Marines created a new Special Purpose force. This is the first time anyone has gotten interviews with anyone but the commander in the Marines’ new SP-MAGTF force. The unit, temporarily based in Spain but designed to operate throughout Africa, is also part of the Marines’ campaign to build rapid reaction forces throughout the world’s nastiest regions — Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific. The Army is doing much the same as the two services vie to become essential and thus protect their force structure and budgets. The news peg for this piece is the Marines and Special Forces’ flights from Djibouti to Juba to evacuate Westerners. Murielle Delaporte looks at the training, gear and international cooperation (think Beau Geste and his Spanish cousins) that the new Marine force relies on and how they were used during the Juba rescue. The Editor.

The evacuation of several hundred Westerners from South Sudan in early January, after the country slowly collapsed into warring factions, was a success, judged on at least three criteria: decide and act quickly; prepare and train appropriately alone and with allies; work with and rely on regional partners.

The decision to secure the embassy and do evacuations was taken on December 15 and on December 22. Some 160 Marines and sailors from the Special-Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force-Crisis Response were flown in two KC-130s and four MV-22B Ospreys from their temporary base in Spain to Djibouti and on to Uganda. At 3,400 nautical miles (a distance equivalent to Anchorage to Miami), this was the longest range insert ever performed by this force. (Readers will remember that three AFSOC MV-22s were fired on when they tried to land at the South Sudanese town of Bor. Four on board were wounded. The Editor.)

Air Force Lt. Col. Glen Roberts, spokesman for the Djibouti-based joint force, explained the sequence of events following the worsening of the domestic situation in South Sudan on December 15.

“On December 15, there was  in South Sudan a very small contingent of Marines ensuring the security of the US Embassy in Juba, as Marines traditionally guard US embassies across the world. The decision was made to evacuate part of the personnel from the embassy, and, in order to do that, that mission was given to US AFRICOM, which then confided its execution to the CJTF-HOA (Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa).”

The CJFTF-HOA mission since its establishment 10 years ago in East Africa is countering violent extremist organizations like Al Shebab, monitoring them, so that their actions do not spill over the continent, doing mil-to- mil engagement and building partnerships especially in the Horn of Africa.

The CJTF-HOA Commanding Officer, Maj. Gen. Terry Ferrell, activated for the first time what is referred to as the East African Response Force, a joint force based in Djibouti. A new concept, born a year ago in the aftermath of Benghazi, the previous EARF was stationed five months, while the next rotation was activated to go to Juba only 36 hours after their arrival in Djibouti.

About 55 US soldiers and two airmen went in and evacuated many members of the embassy and provided security to the latter. “As soon as they were on the ground they were able to apply their training in security reinforcement for the embassy. The SP-MAGTF-CR came under General Ferrel’s command and control in HOA. About 150 Marines came down from Spain to Djibouti and 50 went to Entebbe, Uganda, and then, from there, went to Juba to evacuate more personnel,” Lt. Col. Roberts said.

About 380 US citizens and 300 foreigners were evacuated and the Task Force is maintaining a very active posture, with (at the time of this writing) 49 EARF members still deployed in South Sudan:  “The EARF and the SP-MAGTF, combined together, give us great flexibility. It is indeed a very joint operation involving all services. In addition to the Marines, you have the Army (EARF), the Air Force (with CV-22s and C-130s) and Navy SEALS personnel, and that demonstrates the flexibility that the command has to assist and protect personnel on the continent of Africa,” Roberts concluded.

The Marines deployed for the Juba evacuation remain in Entebbe on standby.

Training For Scalability

Among the keys to the effective evacuation was the fact this force can handle multiple missions thanks to multi-role equipment – such as the MV-22 and the KC-130J, combined with a wide range of good planning.

“We train for all the missions: we make the Marines train in everything and we make them work very hard,” Col. Scott Benedict, SP-MAGTF’s commanding officer at the time of the mission said: “If you have the plan right and you have the right assets, you can then be as efficient and effective as possible, even for a small force like this. In order to do so, we have in our HQ a very robust capability to plan the best postures and coordinate with AFRICOM up in Stuttgart, as well as with other nations.” (Benedict now commands the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit.)

Training includes a range of scenarios with role players challenging the Marines. And the Marines are trained in a variety of roles: If a machine-gunner, for instance, does not need to shoot his machine gun, he will hand out bottles of water or do crowd control.

The introduction of new equipment follows the same principle, said Lt. Col. Freeland, commander of the SP-MAGTF CR’s air combat element.

Longer-range capabilities allow them to “take men further” even while training and partnering with allied forces. In this case, they worked with the French Foreign Legion and the Spanish Parachute Brigade to train and share their skills (shooting weapons, hand-to-hand combat, reinforcement of an embassy, etc…).

“In the past, we could not, being located here [in Móron de la Frontera], fly to Nimes and operate a day or two days and then come back. We would have to move up there, be there for a week or two and bring everything back. Whereas now with the aircraft and the tailored ground force we can extend — even in training — great distances in order to train and sustain our training with the partners and then turn back to our homebase. To do so, we still have to pack up, to make sure that the Marines can eat, have their water, their weapons, their ammunition, all their supplies for sustainment, their shelter, all that needs to go every single time we need to go somewhere,” Benedict notes.

Breaking the Fear of the Unknown

If being based in Southern Europe and training with regional partners is new for the younger Marines who have been deployed in Afghanistan, it is not for older Marines like Colonel Benedict and Lieutenant-Colonel Freeland.

The French, Spanish and Italians have all been very good hosts, Freedland noted. “We are also gaining great benefits when we partner with foreign forces: opportunities to pair with forces like the Legionnaires who have very similar capabilities and combat experience to Marines, our ability to partner with that force which just came out of an operation on the continent of Africa, are priceless for us,” he added. “When GCE CO Captain Wallin gets to put his Marines side by side on the firing line with the Legionnaires, we are learning a lot. A t the same time, they learn from us with the techniques that we use, putting them in that MV-22, showing them how we conduct operations to support an embassy reinforcement, which is what we did up there in training in Nimes.”

For the ACE CO, who has been part of the modernization of the medium lift assault support, what is striking are the similarities of the modernization processes between the aviation elements of the French Army Aviation, the Spanish Army and the Marine Corps.

On the ground, Capt. Wallin finds a lot of similarities as well and welcomes these opportunities to familiarize each other and work on improving interoperability. “Just the familiarization with the experiences from different combat zones, being able to include these experiences in our interoperability training, basically just familiarize ourselves with our coalition partners have been very beneficial,” the captain said. “There is a wide variety of things both a Marine and a Legionnaire can do.”

So far the Marines work with the French and the Spanish Legionnaires and have been training on small arms, machine gun and cyber in particular.  But as always what this is above all about is building trust and relationships among brothers in arms, training after training, so that when the moment comes, the “fear of the unknown” is irrelevant.

“What such training really is about is to bring down any barriers so that the first time that we do meet on the field, it is not the first time… so even though it may not be that Legionnaire, or it may not be that paratrooper, it may not be that same Marine, they experienced us, we experienced them and we are talking the same soldiers’ language… On the ground it is the relationships that mean the most and make it much easier to operate,” concludes the Commanding Officer of the SP-MAGTF CR.

“We have a relationship between the 2nd Marine Division and the French 6th Brigade (6e BLB) and we train bilaterally in Djibouti as well. The size of the French army is very similar to the size of scale of the units and very similar to the way we operate.  I also think that Marines are very easy to work with, because we do not rely on our technology: we rely on our individual Marine, who is the best weapon. Once you get to know him, you know the Marines…”

This article resulted from interviews conducted in mid-December at Morón de la Frontera Air Force Base in Spain, where the SP-MAGTF CR has been temporarily deployed since April 2013 within the framework of the 1988 defense cooperation agreement between Spain and the United States, except for one phone interview the Djibouti-based CFTJ-HOA PAO.

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