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Exclusive: General says more Marines could be based throughout Africa

Jan. 31, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
BNDF enhances security with SP-MAGTF Africa 13
A Marine with Special-Purpose MAGTF Africa explains how to pull a detonator pin to Burundi National Defense Force soldiers in March. Senior military officials are discussing the possibility of basing one or more crisis response units in Africa. (Senior Airman Rachel Waller/Air Force)
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Marine units that specialize in crisis response could be based in Africa in coming years as military leaders work with host nations that have shown interest in the U.S. posturing troops in their countries, according to a top general in the region.

Lt. Gen. Steven Hummer, deputy to the commander for military operations in U.S. Africa Command, said these units would likely be similar to the Special-Purpose Marine-Air Ground Task Force Crisis Response based at Morón Air Base in Spain, which stood up in 2013.

“There’s quite a reach from Morón to get to [certain African countries], depending on the operational aircraft,” Hummer told Marine Corps Times. “As we look at the future of the environment around the world, and the fiscal challenges impeding the number of ships we would like to have, there’s a balancing act we have to achieve between MAGTFs aboard ships and MAGTFs ashore, where they can respond to indications and warnings.”

The units likely would be a hybrid between the crisis response force and a second Marine unit that operates in the region — SPMAGTF Africa, which is based at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy. Those Marines conduct training with local militaries that are dealing with terrorism or other threats to security.

“A crisis response force, that could be their primary mission,” Hummer said. “But they could also be doing theater security cooperation training with militaries on the continent. They could participate in exercises, all the while — as we craft these — continuing to develop their skills and readiness toward crisis response.”

Both SPMAGTFs are land-based expeditionary units capable of operating without naval ships. That has become increasingly important as budgetary restrictions mean there are fewer amphibious ships at sea. And, of course, both task forces have built-in command, ground, aviation and logistics elements.

Leaders are looking at basing similar ground units in the Middle East to deal with crises there, and in Florida to deal with emergencies in the Caribbean or Central and South America.

The Spain-based crisis response force is built around about 550 Marines, at least four MV-22B Osprey helicopters and two KC-130J refeulers. The combatant commander can call on it to respond to humanitarian disasters or security emergencies at embassies, or take on other missions. The usefulness of the task force was on display in early January when the Marines helped evacuate personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Juba, South Sudan, following violent unrest in that country, and left a contingent there to beef up security.

All discussions about basing future SP-MAGTFs on the African continent are pre-decisional, said Army Maj. Fred Harrell, a spokesman for U.S. AFRICOM. Any move to base a unit within a country requires the approval of the host nation, the State and Defense departments and other government agencies, he said. For now, Hummer and other leaders are simply conceptualizing new options for dealing with crises in coming years, he said.

When U.S. Africa Command stood up five years ago, some African leaders expressed concern about the potential militarization of the continent. But Harrell and Hummer both stressed that 99.9 percent of everything the U.S. does there is in full partnership with host nations.

That approach requires making sure everyone involved finds real benefit in the partnership, Hummer said.

“What makes sense is what’s a ‘win, win, win’ concept: a win for the African country, a win for the United States and a win for AFRICOM in posture and forces on the continent so we can do what the embassies want us to do, what the host nations want us to do and what the nation expects,” Hummer said.

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