Any response by Marine forces based out of Europe to a crisis in Africa would have to overcome the tyranny of distance and time, meaning help could be a long way off.
Even with the speed and long-distance capabilities afforded by tilt-rotor aircraft like MV-22 Ospreys, it can take hours for help to arrive in the Africa Command, or AFRICOM, area of responsibility.
It took nearly 23 hours for Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team Marines responding to the 2012 Benghazi, Libya, attack to arrive in Tripoli.
Marines and U.S. government personnel are at risk operating in this austere and vast geographical environment, as it could take hours for wounded civilians or Marines whisked off a chaotic battlefield to arrive at a higher echelon of hospital care.
That also means responding to downed aircraft, rescuing pilots or personnel can be a laborious task fraught with complex hurdles.
To ameliorate this challenge, the Corps is now partnering with elite Air Force Guardian Angel Pararescue Jumpers, also known as PJs.
The initiative to embed the PJs with the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force – Crisis Response – Africa (SPMAGTF-CR-AF) started in Nov. 2018, according to Maj. Adrian J.T. Rankine-Galloway, a spokesman for Marine Forces Europe and Africa.
“The inclusion of these highly qualified airmen provides SPMAGTF-CR-AF with dedicated technical rescue personnel, as well as field and in-flight paramedic capabilities,” Rankine-Galloway told Marine Corps Times in an emailed statement.
Air Force PJs are charged with personnel recovery missions and are trained to rescue and provide lifesaving care in nearly any clime or region. They often operate alongside special operations units, but also can work as an independent team.
Elite Air Force PJs assisted in a massive search and rescue operation in December 2018, following the mid-air collision of a Marine F/A-18 and a KC-130. Six Marines died in the accident and only one survived.
Nevertheless, the Pentagon has struggled in the AFRICOM region to maintain a lifesaving policy known as the “golden hour.” The golden hour policy tasks the military with whisking wounded troops to a trauma facility within one hour of sustaining an injury.
In places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where robust infrastructure for around the clock dedicated rotary wing casualty and medical evacuation platforms were on hand, the golden hour proved to be highly successful.
In early 2018, Rear Admiral Colin G. Chinn, Joint Staff surgeon, credited that policy with a nearly 98 percent survival rate.
However, that infrastructure largely does not exist in AFRICOM.
“You’re never going to have the golden hour in Africa; it’s not possible,” retired Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc, the former commander of Special Operations Command Africa, told The New York Times. “But you have an acceptable amount of time that commanders have agreed on.”
With difficulties managing the golden hour in AFRICOM, live saving care by qualified medical technicians becomes paramount, as these operators may be tasked with caring for patients for extended periods of time.
The new PJ and Marine partnership also provides an opportunity for the Corps to train and practice for a higher end fight, where the golden hour policy will also likely not be tenable.
If a major war breaks out in the Pacific Ocean, Marines will be dispersed across floating barge bases and island chains, and in some cases the Corps may not even own the airspace it is operating in.
That presents a host of challenges for military medical practitioners.
“Our potential problem is air lift capacity, in certain scenarios we are not going to have enough capacity and so as opposed to right now, we are going to have to hold onto those patients much longer,” Chinn said in February 2018.
The Corps’ partnership with the Air Force PJs could provide a glimpse into how the Corps may address medical challenges in a future higher end fight.
Currently the PJs are attached to the SPMAGTF-CR-AF on a rotational basis, according to Rankine-Galloway.
“This partnership has proven to be a mutually beneficial arrangement and has increased the readiness, effectiveness and tactical agility of the SPMAGTF to carry out its crisis response mission,” Rankine-Galloway said.
The Corps’ Africa MAGTF is based out of Moron, Spain, and operates much like a Marine Expeditionary Unit without the naval vessels to ferry the Marines around.
The SPMAGTF-CR-AF can rapidly respond to crisis events, but Marines attached to this unit also carry out theatre security cooperation training exercises with partner forces.
Marines with the Africa MAGTF recently were in Morocco working with Moroccan special operations forces.
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.