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The Marine Corps is looking to send a forward-deployed crisis-response force — like the one it just stood up for Africa — to the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility.
Worldwide uncertainty, tight budgets and fewer Navy amphibious ships have Marine Corps officials looking for new ways to support combatant commanders.
The force for Africa, launched in April, is a new type of special purpose Marine air-ground task force comprising about 550 Marines. Deployed to Morón Air Base in Spain, the task force has ground and aviation capabilities and will respond to a range of issues, including humanitarian crises, embassy emergencies and evacuation needs.
Commandant Gen. Jim Amos said in April that U.S. Southern Command could see a similar, though slightly smaller unit, based there by the end of 2013.
Now that same concept is being considered for CENTCOM, said Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, deputy commandant for combat development and integration.
“I think it’s a response to an increased requirement,” Mills told Marine Corps Times. “You’ve got three [Marine expeditionary units] out on the water right now, but they’re busy doing other things.”
The Corps has consistently shown that it is able to get Marines on the ground, operationally ready, in a short amount of time, he added.
During a hearing on shipbuilding and Marine Corps modernization on Tuesday, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the Navy’s shipbuilding plan falls short of the 38 ships the Marine Corps needs to fulfill its mission. The plan calls for only 33 ships, but that number won’t be reached until 2025 and assumes a large increase in the annual shipbuilding budget, McCain said.
The Navy is also assuming readiness risks with the current amphibious fleet; only 22 ships were fully mission-capable last year, McCain said.
Lawmakers are divided on the issue of Pentagon funding. Some argue the Defense Department must make necessary cuts to its budget. Others are concerned that issues like the Navy’s dwindling fleet size are national security concerns that should be looked at more carefully prior to applying across-the-board spending cuts like those that took place this year.
While basing Marines ashore might cut back on the Corps’ demands for ship space, standing up new crisis-response forces around the world is still an expense the Marine Corps will need to weigh.
“It’s expensive — it costs in forces and it costs in money,” Mills said. “But where we’re needed is where we’re going to go. If it’s easier to put forces ashore someplace and we have the ability to do that — Spain was very gracious about letting us in there — then we can do it. If not, we’ll have to rely on ship-borne forces.”
Basing Marines on land instead of at sea does lock them into one place, which can delay response time.
“The value of an amphibious force is that you can move to the crisis site and [the Marines] can react quicker,” Mills said. “Anytime you’re locked into a ground location, the time line is a lot longer.”
Also deployed to Spain are six MV-22B Ospreys with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 365, which will provide lift for the task force. They departed Marine Corps Air Station New River, N.C., in late April, and made the longest and largest transatlantic flight of any Osprey squadron to date, according to a Marine Corps news release. With them were two KC-130J aircraft from Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 252.
The crisis-response force is constituted around an a reinforced rifle company from II Marine Expeditionary Force, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C. The rifle company has not yet been publicly identified.
It’s not clear if the same model would be used for CENTCOM.
Staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org contributed to this report.