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Expert: USMC embassy guard boost will be tough

Dec. 21, 2012 - 01:20PM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 21, 2012 - 01:20PM  |  
In response to the deadly attack in September on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, Congress has called for 1,000 new Marine security guards to provide additional protection for U.S. diplomatic facilities around the world.
In response to the deadly attack in September on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, Congress has called for 1,000 new Marine security guards to provide additional protection for U.S. diplomatic facilities around the world. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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The Marine Corps could face significant challenges filling a congressional mandate to nearly double its number of Marine embassy security guards at a time when the service is drawing down its active-duty force.

In response to the deadly attack in September on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, Congress has called for 1,000 new Marine security guards to provide additional protection for U.S. diplomatic facilities around the world. With 1,200 Marine security guards currently assigned to more than 130 countries, this would boost the total number by nearly twofold.

The additional guards would be assigned to the Marine Corps Embassy Security Group, which is based in Quantico, Va., and to regional commands and detachments at embassies, consulates and diplomatic facilities worldwide. The extra personnel would be authorized beginning fiscal year 2014, and would be available for three years.

A Marine Corps spokesman at the Pentagon, Capt. Gregory Wolf, told Marine Corps Times that the service anticipates it will be able to assess and train the enough Marines to fulfill the new requirement.

But filling manpower quotas has been a challenge even when the State Department capped the authorized number of Marine security guards at much lower levels, said Andrew Bufalo, a retired Marine master sergeant who served as a detachment commander at American embassies in the Republic of Congo and Australia. He's the author of "Ambassadors in Blue," a book about the Embassy Security Group. Nearly doubling its size won't come easy, Bufalo said.

"When you look at the quality of troops you need out at the [Embassy Security Group], usually they're the better Marines, so commanders don't want to let them go to that duty," he said. "Then you get to the school and you have a high attrition rate because the standards are high."

Those high standards historically result in a 25 percent washout rate at Quantico's Marine Security Guard School, Wolf said. That means for every 200 students who start the seven-week training program, about 150 go on to become Marine security guards.

Comparatively, the washout rate has averaged less than 3 percent over the last two years at Marine Corps Security Force Regiment, which trains Fleet Antiterrorism Security Teams in Norfolk, Va., a Marine official there said. FAST platoons can be dispatched to shore up security at diplomatic facilities when trouble arises, as they were in the wake of Benghazi and other violent incidents abroad during the fall.

The standards at security guard school are high for a reason, Bufalo said, and lowering them to get more Marines through the school is not the answer. If the Corps attempts to push too many students through the program quickly, it risks fielding some personnel who are unfit for the job, he said.

Currently, sergeants and below train for seven weeks at the school, which can accommodate 200 students per class, Wolf said. There are five classes per year, leaving time between each round for instructors to complete specialized training and to take leave, he added.

Churning out 1,000 new Marine security guards could mean adding more classes or adding more students per class. Bufalo said the Corps will need to boost staff significantly for either option.

"They just built the new compound," he said of Quantico's new training facility, which has been opening in stages and is expected to be complete in 2014. "And I'm thinking they probably didn't build it with a larger class size in mind."

Staffing at the training and inspection levels will be other factors for the Marine Corps to consider. Increasing the throughput at the school would mean a need for more instructors, or you'll have Marines going through with less attention paid to each, Bufalo said. The semi-annual inspections that regional commanders do at each post around the world will need to be addressed, too, if Marine security guards are assigned to new places.

That appears to be a strong possibility. The State Department's proposal to Congress recommends more Marines be stationed at dangerous diplomatic posts around the world, according to">a report published Tuesday by The Daily Beast, which cites unnamed government officials familiar with the State Department's plan. It's not immediately clear if that means more Marines at existing posts or if new posts will be created for places that don't currently have detachments.

Housing new detachments abroad also must be considered, Bufalo said.

Another possible option for filling these 1,000 slots could be an increase in the number of posts at which each Marine security guard serves, thus extending the duration they're assigned to the Embassy Security Group. Currently, sergeants and below receive orders for three years, serving at three posts for 12 months each. Staff sergeants and above also receive orders for three years, but they serve at two posts for 18 months each.

Sergeants and below who serve as Marine security guards move around more because they are required to be single with no children in their custody. But staff sergeants and above who serve as detachment commanders can be married with up to four dependents. Their longer assignments provide continuity for their families.

But keeping Marine security guards on special duty assignment would take them from their primary jobs, potentially creating other deficiencies and voids around the Marine Corps' operating forces, Bufalo said.

"Their [military occupation specialty] proficiency could suffer if they're away from their main job for even longer," he said. "So they're going to have to look at that."

The 2013 National Defense Authorization Act includes a section detailing numerous requirements for developing a plan to add the new Marine security guards. It's expected passage follows a request made by the State Department for more than $500 million to augment the increase.

A">report released by the State Department on Tuesday summarizes an independent review board's findings on the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in Benghazi. It cites several internal failures that led to inadequate security for preventing and responding to the incident, which left U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead.

To carry out the review board's recommendations, the State Department asked Congress to reallocate $1.4 billion originally slated for Iraq. That includes $553 million for additional Marine security guards.

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