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Marines, Army form quick-strike forces for Africa

Jun. 14, 2013 - 09:52AM   |  
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WASHINGTON — The Marine Corps and Army have developed quick-reaction forces to respond to attacks such as the one in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador.

The Marines will base 500 troops at Moron Air Force Base in Spain, about 35 miles southeast of Seville, said Capt. Eric Flanagan, a Marine Corps spokesman. They can be flown on short notice to African crises aboard six Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.

Those aircraft can take off and land like a helicopter and cruise at more than 300 mph. Two KC-130 tanker aircraft have been dedicated to refuel them in flight, which will expand their reach.

The unit is known as the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force for Crisis Response. It will act as a first responder to U.S. embassies in the region on behalf of U.S. Africa Command, Flanagan said. It will be on standby to help evacuate Americans from hot spots and to provide disaster relief and humanitarian missions.

The Army has developed the East Africa Response Force, which operates under the Combined Joint Task Force -- Horn of Africa. Its headquarters are at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. The company-size unit is equipped with aircraft to conduct evacuations and rescue missions in the region.

"Soldiers have been on the ground in Djibouti to support this mission since April and have the capabilities they need to conduct it," said. Brig. Gen. Kimberly Field, deputy director of strategy, plans and policy for the Army.

The soldiers for the force come from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Infantry Division based at Fort Riley, Kan.

The Benghazi attack on Sept. 11, 2012, exposed the vulnerability of U.S. outposts in dangerous countries. Although Pentagon officials knew of the attack as it was happening, they lacked forces in the region capable of responding fast enough to help. The consulate was overrun by Islamist militants, killing Ambassador Christopher Stephens. A nearby U.S. facility was also attacked.

The light, quick forces deployed by the Marines and Army are designed to fill that gap in north and east Africa.

"Benghazi really throttled things up," Flanagan said. "Everybody has looked at the threat and decided this is the new normal. We need something more responsive in the North Africa area."

Benghazi proved that the Pentagon needs to respond quickly to "flare-ups," said Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute and a defense industry consultant. The Marines are his choice for the job.

"This mission should be given to the Marines, because they have Osprey tilt-rotors that can get to fights fast and then land anywhere," he said. "They also have amphibious warships that allow them to act without access to land bases. The Army doesn't have the right equipment for quick-reaction forces in the Mediterranean or Middle East."

Peter Singer, director for the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution, said there have been about two embassy emergencies or evacuations each year for the past decade, making the Marine and Army quick-reaction forces necessary into the foreseeable future.

They're a "good idea," Singer said. "The response time at Benghazi was unacceptable. Period."

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