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The crisis-response plus-up: With new missions, units come new opportunities for Marines

Jun. 3, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Egyptian protesters climb the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Sept. 11, 2012. The Marine Corps is deploying new crisis response special purpose Marine air-ground task forces to provide combatant commanders with more options.
Egyptian protesters climb the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Sept. 11, 2012. The Marine Corps is deploying new crisis response special purpose Marine air-ground task forces to provide combatant commanders with more options. (Nasser Nasser/The Associated Press)
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The Marine Corps is in the midst of a strategic shift meant to solidify its role as the military’s go-to crisis-response force, greatly expanding embassy-security capabilities while developing specialized forward-deployed units focused exclusively on threats and emergencies in at least three geographic combatant commands.

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MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, VA. — The Marine Corps is in the midst of a strategic shift meant to solidify its role as the military’s go-to crisis-response force, greatly expanding embassy-security capabilities while developing specialized forward-deployed units focused exclusively on threats and emergencies in at least three geographic combatant commands.

For Marines, this translates to opportunity.

Recruiting is underway to fill 1,000 newly authorized Marine Security Guard slots and add personnel at up to 50 locations worldwide where currently no MSG detachments exist. The plus-up will nearly double the number of personnel assigned to the Marine Corps Embassy Security Group, opening scores of so-called B-billets for career-minded Marines looking to fulfill crucial special duty assignments. As part of this growth, officials also are targeting about 120 current MSGs with infantry experience to stand up the group’s new Security Augmentation Unit, which will dispatch squad-size teams from its headquarters here at Quantico to diplomatic facilities wherever and whenever a need for reinforcement arises.

At the same time, the Corps is planning to stand up new special purpose air-ground task forces — like the one that deployed in April to support U.S. Africa Command — for U.S. Central Command and U.S. Southern Command. Like the new task force assigned to AFRICOM, which is built around a reinforced rifle company and supported by Marine aircraft and logistical support, these units could number in the hundreds and be tapped for a variety of operational missions — to include embassy reinforcement — throughout the Middle East, South America, Central America and the Caribbean.

With combat deployments to Afghanistan slowing, and the Corps’ active-duty drawdown increasing competition to stay in uniform, these developments will provide opportunities for Marines to stand out among their peers. Such special duty and operational assignments can go a long way in helping Marines gain an edge at promotion time.

What you need to know:

More embassy security

The call to increase the Embassy Security Group came from Congress in the wake of last September’s terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which left four Americans dead, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. At the time, no MSG detachment was present there or in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, prompting lawmakers to ask what the State Department could do to better protect diplomatic personnel and facilities across the globe.

Adding 1,000 MSGs will boost the Embassy Security Group to about 2,200 personnel. It’s not clear, however, what effect this will have on the Marine Corps’ force structure, a question that remains due to lingering uncertainty over the federal budget crisis and whether across-the-board cuts prescribed by sequestration will force the Corps to reduce active-duty manpower beyond its current target of 182,100.

The commandant, Gen. Jim Amos, told Marine Corps Times in April that he has asked Congress for additional funding to cover a revised end strength of 183,100, but a verdict remains to be seen. The cost to fund these personnel is significant, approximately $1.6 million per Marine, according to a recent report in The New York Times.

“It’s still being reconciled,” Amos said. “If I have to pay for it inside my account, then I just bought 1,000 more Marines and a Marine Corps that, instead of being 182,000 trigger pullers, is 181,000.”

Regardless, Col. Michael Robinson, the Embassy Security Group’s commanding officer, said the 1,000 additional MSGs will fill a variety of roles. And several significant changes are in the works, he said, including:


New posts. The State Department has identified 50 diplomatic posts worldwide where officials would like to add a Marine Security Guard detachment. To start, the State Department has focused on filling 35 of them over the next three years. If officials choose to stand up a detachment at all 50, the Corps is prepared to accommodate. New detachments are expected in northern Africa, according to a Marine Corps official. But the State Department declined to provide specific locations, citing security concerns.


Beefed-up detachments. For posts that have detachments, the Corps is moving to add a few Marines in places where the security risk is elevated. The goal is to have at least one MSG acting as a “rover,” Robinson said. He can walk the embassy’s perimeter or provide internal security for the chancery, he said. The locations that will receive additional MSGs were not disclosed.

Posts in the Middle East or Africa, where the threat level is higher, will see detachments grow to at least 13 — the size of a full squad. Today, some embassies in those regions have detachments of just six MSGs, Robinson said.


More administrative support. Training 1,000 new MSGs will require additional instructors at the schoolhouse here. Likewise, managing them will require more captains, who serve at regional headquarters and inspect detachments in their region twice each year.


Quick-reaction reinforcement. Perhaps most significantly, about 120 existing MSGs will compose the new Marine Security Augmentation Unit, or MSAU. (Officials pronounce it “em-saw.”) The unit will be composed of nine or 10 squad-sized teams ready to provide immediate embassy security reinforcement. Each will be assigned to a region, and because they will be trained MSGs and connected to the State Department, these teams can respond directly to calls from the ambassador, chief of mission or regional security officer at an embassy in trouble.

MSGs complete three yearlong tours at diplomatic posts around the world. Starting this summer, those who have completed a tour will be eligible to serve on the MSAU, Robinson said. But the Corps wants specific skill sets.

“Our preference is going to be combat arms [military occupational specialties] for the MSGs that volunteer or are nominated for the MSG Security Augmentation Unit, so that’s who we’re looking for first — volunteers who are combat arms or military police,” Robinson said. But since most MSGs don’t come from infantry MOSs, Robinson said officials will consider candidates’ relevant deployments and other related experience.

The MSAU will begin training its first team of Marines at Quantico this summer. Volunteers can expect a three-week package featuring training alongside the State Department’s mobile security deployment teams and the Corps’ Fleet Antiterrorim Security Teams, traditionally the go-to Marines when embassies require reinforcement in times of crisis. They’ll also get additional communications and weapons training, and learn advanced room-entry tactics and how to escape a collapsed structure.

Crisis-response forces

It’s less clear how the Corps intends to assemble, deploy and employ the new, and appreciably larger, crisis-response task forces. Although thin on specifics, Marine officials have indicated their capabilities will be diverse and distinctive from the service’s seven Marine expeditionary units and its FAST platoons. MEUs, which typically number about 2,200 Marines and sailors, operate at sea from Navy amphibious ships whereas these new ensembles will be based on land — and operate largely independent of the Navy.

The unit currently overseas supporting AFRICOM — it’s named Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force–Crisis Response — was developed after months of turmoil in Mali, Algeria, Libya and other north African countries put U.S. officials on edge. It comprises 550 Marines from North Carolina, and is likely to serve as a model for future iterations in AFRICOM and potentially CENTCOM and SOUTHCOM.

After leaving the East Coast in late April, the task force assembled at Morón Air Base in Spain before an unspecified number of personnel were moved to Italy. Growing unrest in Tripoli raised concerns for the safety of personnel at the U.S. Embassy there, defense officials said, indicating that should the Marines be sent into Libya, it would be to temporarily augment security.

The new task force includes six MV-22B Ospreys and two KC-130J aerial refuelers to support the reinforced rifle company, which officials have not identified. It reports directly to the head of AFRICOM, Army Gen. David Rodriguez.

Amos has said it’s likely the Marines eventually will leave Spain and move around Africa, telling Congress when the unit deployed that they can train foreign militaries as well.

Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, deputy commandant for combat development and integration, told Marine Corps Times “the crisis response force can react to any number of crises, not just embassies — although that’s what they’re primarily focused on.”

Retired Lt. Gen. Jan Huly, former deputy commandant of plans, policies and operations at Marine Corps headquarters, said a number of factors are considered when standing up a new type of unit. Will it be modeled after an existing unit, or will it require new doctrine? Leadership then examines the rank structure, military occupational specialties, equipment and support needed to fulfill the mission, he said.

For Marines, there are other procedural matters to consider, too. The headquarters element in the AFRICOM crisis response force is slated to deploy for a year, with Marines moving through on six-month rotations — similar to deployments to Afghanistan or Japan. The likelihood a Marine will deploy with one of these new units will depend on how many are stood up around the world and how big they will be, Huly said.

Marines deployed with a crisis response force won’t receive special duty pay, said Capt. Greg Wolf, a Marine spokesman at the Pentagon. And the nature of pre-deployment training is a gray area. Marine Corps Forces Africa did not respond to questions regarding that criteria.

It’s also unclear whether future crisis-response MAGTFs will look like the one supporting AFRICOM, though Marine officials are working with combatant commanders in CENTCOM and SOUTHCOM to explore options. Amos has said the force for SOUTHCOM, led by Marine Gen. John Kelly, likely would not be as large but that, pending available resources, he hopes to see it functional by the end of the year. It’s a region of the world that has been plagued by transnational organized crime for decades, where officials are fighting the smuggling of drugs, weapons and illicit money across borders and often into the U.S.

Mills, in confirming the Corps’ desire to align a crisis-response force with CENTCOM, indicated that while the Corps does have MEUs capable of providing embassy reinforcement and crisis response, those assets could be tied up when an urgent need arises. Additionally, the Navy’s shipbuilding plan falls five ships short of the 38 the Marine Corps says it needs to fulfill its mission. And even then, they won’t all be built until at least 2025 — and that assumes Congress is willing to fund a large increase in the shipbuilding budget.

Lawmakers are divided on that issue in light of the federal budget mess. Some argue the Defense Department must make cuts, while others are concerned the Navy’s dwindling fleet size is a national security concern that should be looked at more carefully prior to applying across-the-board spending cuts like those that took place this year. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has pointed out that readiness is at risk with the current amphibious fleet. Only 22 ships were fully mission-capable last year.

While basing Marines ashore might cut back on the Corps’ demands for ship space, standing up new crisis-response forces around the world still is an expense the Marine Corps and Congress will need to weigh, Mills said. “It’s expensive — it costs in forces and it costs in money,” he told Marine Corps Times in May. “But where we’re needed is where we’re going to go.

Balancing assets, capabilities

These new units are not intended to replace existing entities, such as FAST platoons and MEUs, officials say. Instead, they’re meant to augment them when the need is dire or other assets are busy, Mills said. But capabilitywise, there will be overlap.

In Africa, for instance, the Corps has a special purpose MAGTF, based in Italy, that since 2011 has operated in such countries as Senegal, Uganda and Burundi. Principally, it focuses on teaching tactics to foreign militaries engaged in their own fights against extremists.

But this winter, amid growing tension in Tripoli, a reinforced platoon from SPMAGTF-Africa — it’s called Task Force Tripoli — was sent to the U.S. Embassy to replace the group of FAST Marines called in from Rota, Spain, during the aftermath of September’s attack in Benghazi. Comprising several reserve infantrymen from 2nd Battaltion, 25th Marines, out of Garden City, N.Y., the unit stands post at the embassy in much the way Marines do at bases in Afghanistan, according to its commander, who called the Marines there “an external security force.”

“We are outward looking,” Lt. Col. Daniel Whisnant, commanding officer of SPMAGTF-Africa, told Marine Corps Times. “If there was any external threat, we would address that, with the embassy’s concurrence.”

So all of this raises the question: With so many capabilities able to respond in the event of emergencies abroad, who goes in and when?

Robinson, who commands the Embassy Security Group, foresees “a graduated response” that would start with ambassadors calling the MSAU. There’s an advantage to using MSGs for this role, he said. They understand the layout and technology involved in securing an embassy. And although MSGs work with FAST platoons all the time, their training and core skill sets are different, he said, referencing the FAST Marines’ infantry focus.

That’s the starting point, Robinson said, because the State Department has a direct line to those Marines. They start by beefing up security at an embassy where the ambassador believes danger is imminent.

“Let’s say then it ends up that the event happens and it’s larger than expected,” Robinson said. “The MSAU is defending the compound and doing what they do, but it requires more forces. We need to not only protect the compound but evacuate and get people out of there.”

From there, the State Department can notify the Marine Corps it needs the FAST platoon or crisis-response force that’s in the region, he said. If there isn’t one, or they’re tied up, they can go to a MEU, he said, because embassy reinforcement is one of their core skills. It’s just using different assets and different stages, he said.

Robinson said the ESG will continue to work closely with FAST companies, which consist of six platoons typically forward deployed in Europe, the Middle East and Pacific. They are still expected to provide backup assistance in the case of an embassy crisis, as they did in Libya this fall, and will also share training events with the new MSAU.

Huly, the retired three-star, called embassy security and crisis response “the challenge of the day.” MEUs, which typically have served as the Corps’ 911 force during political instability abroad or natural disasters, train for numerous missions, including embassy support. But there is much to be gained, Huly said, by dedicating specialized units to be ready for these specific contingencies.

“You could put the average infantry rifle company on aircraft and fly them to the scene of the job and they’d do a rather credible job,” Huly said. “But what you don’t have then is somebody dedicated right now to a specific area keeping its eye on and getting intelligence and information and working it up. You get a bit more specificity” with this construct. “... [MEUs and] other organizations have day jobs too. So if you say, ‘OK, I’m going to dedicate you to this now, too,’ then something’s got to give.”

Retired Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who spent more than four decades as a diplomat, concluding his career as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, lauded the Marine Corps’ multifaceted approach to bolster embassy security. Giving ambassadors the ability to connect directly with Marines has the potential to save lives during a crisis, he said.

There is no place in the world immune to a terrorist attack, Crocker said. When he was tasked with reopening the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan in 2002, he said it was imperative that the Marines working with him there be able to respond to threats to the compound and take their orders directly from him.

“Events move very, very quickly,” Crocker said. “There just is not time, having been through these situations, to go through all the bureaucratic wickets.”

Staff writers Dan Lamothe and Andrew deGrandpré contributed to this report.

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