Tag Archives: SPMAGTF-CR

Pentagon Helps Out As Americans Evacuate Libya

Over the weekend, the United States decided to close out their embassy in Tripoli, Libya. The remaining personnel were then taken by truck convoy overland to Tunisia. The Pentagon helped escort the vehicles on their five hour journey. I wrote a short piece on the operation for War is Boring as details were still unfolding, but most of the informed speculation turned out to be correct.

MV-22B Ospreys from Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force - Crisis Response sit on the ramp at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy as Task Force Tripoli prepares to depart for a Non-Combatant Evacuation Operation in the early hours of 26 July 2014.

MV-22B Ospreys from Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response sit on the ramp at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy as Task Force Tripoli prepares to depart for a Non-Combatant Evacuation Operation in the early hours of 26 July 2014.

The force for this Non-Combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) consisted of an airborne quick reaction force provided by Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response (SPMAGTF-CR), three F-16 fighters, and an unspecified number of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets.

The SPMAGTF-CR contingent, reportedly called Task Force Tripoli, consisted of twenty-four troops in two MV-22B Osprey tilt-rotors, supported by KC-130J Hercules tankers. This task force should not be confused with the Marine task force that took part in the initial stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Back in May, the Marines had been forward deployed to Naval Air Station Sigonella in Italy for just this sort of contingency. SPMAGTF-CR was created in the aftermath of the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya in September 2012 for exactly these sort of operations. The Marines shadowed the convoy in order to respond to any attacks. Some eighty additional armed Marines were in the vehicles as part of the embassy contingent, which totaled over one hundred and fifty people. The Marines were likely Embassy Security Guards and members of Fleet Antiterrorism Security Teams (FAST).

Less information is available on the F-16s and ISR assets. The F-16s reportedly flew from Aviano Air Base in Italy. The aircraft were likely from one of the squadrons of the 31st Fighter Wing based there. The jets also received support from KC-135R tankers, no doubt also operating from USAF bases in Europe. An unspecified number of unmanned aerial vehicles – which could include the MQ-1 Predator, MQ-9 Reaper, or RQ-4 Global Hawk – also kept an eye over the entire operation. The USAF has unmanned ISR platforms based in Europe and in neighboring Niger. There has also been an eyewitness image of a Navy EP-3E spy plane, likely from US Sixth Fleet, flying over Tripoli during the operation.

The Department of State has described the evacuation as a “temporary staff relocation” and said repeatedly that it hopes to return to Libya at the earliest possible convenience. However, the embassy in Tripoli had already been working with a reduced staff after the 2012 Benghazi incident. Libya has been wracked by violence since the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, with the central government exercising little, if any control over a plethora of militias. Islamist terrorist groups have also taken advantage of the instability in the country.

Recently, militia infighting forced the closure of Tripoli’s airport and destroyed almost a dozen planes on the tarmac. This skirmish no doubt influenced the decision to close the diplomatic mission. Separately, militias allied with General Khalifa Hifter have essentially laid siege to Benghazi in hopes of routing Ansar al-Sharia, a terrorist group linked to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).  There is no clear end to the violence in sight.

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US Marines Go to Italy as Libya Edges Toward a New Civil War

Libya appears to be teetering on the brink of a new civil war three years after an international intervention helped rebels topple Moammar Gadhafi. Since then, the country’s new authorities have been unable assert its authority and demobilize various independent militias. These armed groups have openly challenged the government on numerous occasions, kidnapping domestic and foreign officials and attempting to sell oil from their own personal fiefdoms.

Members of Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force - Crisis Response board a KC-130J at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, as they prepare to return to their base in Spain on 1 March 2014.

Members of Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response board a KC-130J at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, as they prepare to return to their base in Spain on 1 March 2014.

The US sent 200 Marines from Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response (SPMAGTF-CR) to Italy last week as this recent crisis began to unfold. Today it was reported that additional aircraft were deployed to bolster the force at Naval Air Station Sigonella. The Marines could use their MV-22B Ospreys and KC-130J Hercules aircraft to evacuate Americans from the embassy in Tripoli and elsewhere in the country. SPMAGTF-CR was created last year after the infamous attack on the US consulate in Benghazi in 2012. The Marines’ focus is on being able to rapidly assist American diplomatic facilities in hotspots and evacuate personnel to safety. I wrote a longer piece about the Marines’ initial deployment for War is Boring. The US may have also been keeping an eye on Libya with manned or unmanned aircraft, including drones launched from a recently constructed facility in Niger. I have also just written a piece on Niger’s increasing importance in the region, which will only increase if Libya continues to be unstable.

This new crisis reached a head when forces reportedly loyal to General Khalifa Hifter attacked the seat of parliament. Hifter, who had lived in exile in the United States until Gadhafi’s ouster, claims he is trying to rid the country of the Muslim Brotherhood, who he accuses of being a puppet of the large international organization. Islamist political parties came to power earlier this year. The country’s previous prime minister Ali Zidan resigned in March and then his interim successor Abdullah al-Thinni, who had been defense minister, resigned in April. Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood party has in turn accused Hifter of being a reactionary in league with former members of Gadhafi regime.

The conflicting ideologies and the open violence are indicative of the trouble Libya has had in finding common ground after Gadhafi’s departure. The country’s various factions appear to be choosing sides for a broader conflict, but this does not necessarily mean those alliances will have any lasting effect. Al Qaeda aligned groups have vowed to fight Hifter’s forces, but may not necessarily join with forces aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood.

This latest crisis has already caused delays in international efforts to try and develop a professional and objective national security force for Libya that could wrest control away from the largely autonomous militias. Libya’s international partners may also find their allegiances split. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Algeria have all shut down their embassies. American Marines in Italy could conduct their own evacuation mission at any time.

Crisis Response Marines Train in Conjunction With African Lion 14

Last week, Marines from Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response (SPMAGTF-CR) conducted a training exercise in Morocco, in conjunction with the annual African Lion bilateral training exercise. On 3 April 2014, Marines from SPMAGTF-CR flew in two MV-22B Osprey aircraft from Moron Air Base in Spain to Tifnit, Morocco. On arrival, the Marines set up security for a hypothetical United States government compound to protect US citizens and property within.

Marines from Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force - Crisis Response board an MV-22B Osprey for a training exercise in Tifnit, Morocco on 3 April 2014

Marines from Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response board an MV-22B Osprey for a training exercise in Tifnit, Morocco on 3 April 2014.

The training event is yet another instance where the capabilities of SPMAGTF-CR have been highlighted as of late. The unit was created last spring in the wake of the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya in September 2012. Since then, the Marines have forward deployed to Djibouti and Uganda to be able to respond to the crisis in South Sudan. More recently, Marines from SPMAGTF-CR have deployed to Romania to reinforce US units in that region. Officially that deployment has nothing to do with the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

African Lion, which ended last Saturday, is also an important annual bilateral training exercise with Morocco, which has a long history of cooperation with the US, dating back to the American Revolution. African Lion dates back at least to the 1990s, at which time it was a biennial exercise sponsored by US European Command (EUCOM) and conducted by the Southern European Task Force (SETAF). US Marine Corps Forces, Europe (MARFOREUR) subsequently took over the exercise in the 2000s.

With the creation of US Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2008, EUCOM relinquished responsibility for the exercise. Marine Corps Forces, Africa (MARFORAF) also took over the actual conduct of the event. The annual exercise also involves members from other US military services, such as the Army and the Air Force, and is observed by numerous foreign partners.

This year, approximately 150 soldiers of the Royal Moroccan Armed Forces, 350 U.S. servicemembers participated in the African Lion exercise.  The focus of African Lion 14 was on interoperability with military-to-military engagements in stability operations, rapid response to contingencies, a multinational observer program with 13 different countries, non-lethal weapons and peace enforcement, live-fire and weapons familiarization training, humanitarian and disaster-relief response. Other nations observing the exercise included: Belgium, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Mauritania, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Tunisia, Turkey, Spain, Senegal, and the United Kingdom.

US Africa Command Sends Marines to Romania

Last week, the US Department of Defense announced that it would be sending an additional one hundred and seventy-five Marines to Romania. The US Marine Corps already maintains a rotational task force with some three hundred personnel in that country at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, as part of existing regional security cooperation efforts.

A KC-130T Hercules carrying Marines and sailors with Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Africa 13 takes off from NAS Sigonella on route to a security cooperation engagement in Burundi on February 16, 2013.

A KC-130T Hercules carrying Marines and sailors with Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Africa 13 takes off from NAS Sigonella on route to a security cooperation engagement in Burundi on February 16, 2013.

What is particularly interesting about this deployment is that the Marines from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina will be assigned to Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response (SPMAGTF-CR) rather than Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Black Sea Rotational Force (SPMAGTF-BSRF). This is likely because the decision had recently been made to increase the overall size of SPMAGTF-CR, headquartered at Moron Air Base in Spain, and the only approval required was to forward deploy the personnel to Romania. The personnel will be collocated with SPMAGTF-BSRF, but will remain under the control of SPMAGTF-CR, which is assigned to US Africa Command (AFRICOM).

SPMAGTF-CR is part of a DoD-wide response to the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya in 2012. DoD established a number of crisis response task forces around the world as a result. The Marines in Spain are assigned to AFRICOM, but according to DoD they can be tasked to respond to any crisis. The deployment of the Marines to Romania shows off their capabilities and officials say that it is specifically to allow the task force “greater flexibility.”

Officially, the deployment is not related to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, where a popular protest movement ousted the regime of President Viktor Yanukovych earlier this year. Russia responded to this change by supporting a secessionist referendum in Ukraine’s Crimea region and subsequently voting to annex the province. Crimea had been made part of the Ukrainian Soviet Social Republic in 1954, at which time the country was a part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The province has a sizeable ethnic Russian population, in addition to ethnic Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars, and others. Ukraine and Russia have now traded veiled threats and the US and other NATO members have reinforced allies on Ukraine’s borders to ease fears of further Russian interventions. The US has also recognized the new interim Ukrainian government and said that the Crimea referendum and annexation are illegal.

Marine Task Force in Spain to Expand

On Monday, the U.S. military announced that it was going to send three hundred and fifty more Marines to Spain to join those already with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force – Crisis Response at Moron Air Base. The Spanish government agreed to the increase, as well as allowing the Marines to remain at Moron for another year. Additional aircraft will be sent as well, though there is no word yet on what types will be deployed. SPMAGTF-CR currently has six MV-22B Ospreys and two KC-130J Hercules.

Members of Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force - Crisis Response board a KC-130J at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, as they prepare to return to their base in Spain on 1 March 2014.

Members of Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response board a KC-130J at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, as they prepare to return to their base in Spain on 1 March 2014.

There could be a desire for additional firepower, perhaps in the form of AH-1Z attack helicopters or AV-8B harriers, to escort the Ospreys on missions. The Air Force had three CV-22Bs damaged during a rescue attempt in South Sudan last December. Four Navy SEALs were also wounded and the aircraft were forced to abort their mission and divert to Entebbe, Uganda.

SPMAGTF-CR was created after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya in 2012. The Pentagon was widely criticized for not having available crisis response units and has since stood up or otherwise designated units around the world to perform the mission. These forces are generally rotational in nature, as part of a larger trend in the US military broad.

You can read more about this in a piece I wrote recently at War is Boring.

US Senate Committee Releases Benghazi Review

Today, US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a redacted version of its review of attacks of US diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya on the night of September 11th-12th, 2012.  The attacks led to the death of US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stephens and other US personnel and has become a major point of domestic debate in the US.  The review takes a highly negative view of the response to the attack itself and to the aftermath by a number of federal agencies.

A low quality version of a briefing slide from November 2012 provided by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency showing the distance of the most direct route from the temporary mission compound to the CIA annex compound in Benghazi, Libya.

A low quality reproduction of a briefing slide from November 2012 provided by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency showing the distance of the most direct route from the temporary mission compound to the CIA annex compound in Benghazi, Libya.

The review, available in full here at Codebook: Africa, includes fourteen individual findings and subsequent recommendations that touch on issues regarding intelligence gathering, force protection, response to attacks on diplomatic facilities, interagency cooperation, and more.  The review also analyzes the unclassified talking points on the attacks provided to  House and Senate intelligence committees in the wake of the attacks.  These talking points have been a divisive issue in the domestic debate.  Additional “views” provided by the Committee’s majority, which noted that they felt the attacks were in their opinion “likely preventable” given the evidence gathered,  and specific Senators are also provided.  These include a serious criticism of General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time of the attack, who remains in that post.  The State Department was also soundly criticized for its actions at the time and what members of the Committee described as a lack of cooperation and accountability during the review process.

It is worth noting that even before this review, both the US Department of Defense and Department of State had already been reviewing and changing elements of their force protection policies and crisis response capabilities.  On the military side, the US Marine Corps was directed to expanded its Marine security guard elements and activated a Marine Security Augmentation Unit (MSAU) at Marine Corps Base Quantico, which could provide additional personnel to embassies in need.  The US Marine Corps also activated Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force – Crisis Response (SPMAGTF-CR), currently station in Rota, Spain, to provide a rapid response capability for diplomatic facilities in need in the region.  The US Army also directed the activation of crisis response force elements around the world, including the East Africa Response Force (EARF) at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti.  Both SPMAGTF-CR and the EARF have deployed in response to the recent crisis in South Sudan, where they bolstered embassy security and helped evacuate US citizens and other foreign nationals.

Violence Continues in South Sudan and CAR

Violence has continued to escalate in South Sudan and Central Africa Republic, as crises in both countries continue despite international military interventions and other efforts.  Yesterday, in South Sudan, reports indicated that inter-communal fighting had spread into the country’s Upper Nile state, while in Central African Republic, French forces reinforced their positions in the capital Bangui with armored vehicles following heavy gunfire.

Map of South Sudan from the United Nations, dated October 2011.  The disputed Abyei region is shown shaded grey.

Map of South Sudan from the United Nations, dated October 2011.

In South Sudan, the United Nations believes that some ninety-thousand individuals to have been displaced, including almost sixty-thousand known to be sheltering at facilities operated by the UN Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS).  Reports this week of mass killings and the discovery of a mass grave in the country indicate that the inter-communal violence between the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups is rapidly escalating.  The UN and others have called for engagement and dialogue to solve the crisis, which erupted after a reported coup attempt, which the government blamed on former Vice President Riek Machar, a member of the Nuer ethnic group.  The violence in Upper Nile state follows significant incidents in Unity state, another oil rich province, and Jonglei.

The UN Security Council has responded to the crisis by authorizing UNMISS to almost double its size, adding some five-thousand five-hundred peacekeepers (both military and police personnel) to the existing force of some seven thousand personnel.  UNMISS has already suffered casualties in the violence after ethnic Nuer militiamen attacked a facility in Akobo in Jonglei state.  However, the UN noted that it would take some time for the new forces to arrive.  It is possible that the US could assist in rapidly deploying peacekeepers, as it has done in the past.

spmagtf-cr-logoThe situation in South Sudan has already provided an opportunity for the US military to showcase its current crisis response capabilities.  Soon after the violence started, the US deployed elements of the East Africa Response Force, based at Camp Lemonnier Djibouti, to protect US diplomatic facilities and assist in evacuating civilians.  The US has now deployed elements of the Marine Corps’ Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response, based at Moron Air Base in Spain, to Camp Lemonnier and to Entebbe, Uganda.  In addition, last week, three Air Force Special Operations Command CV-22B Ospreys were damaged and four US servicemen injured during an attempt to rescue US and other nationals for Bor, the capital of Jonglei state.  The aircraft had been launched from Camp Lemonnier and were diverted to Entebbe after the mission was aborted.  It has since been reported that the rescue force included US Navy SEALs, suggesting that the aircraft and personnel for that mission might have come from Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa’s (CJTF-HOA) Special Operations Command and Control Element – Horn of Africa (SOCCE-HOA).  SOCCE-HOA is responsible for special operations in east Africa in support of CJTF-HOA’s mission, which includes regional crisis response.  SOCCE-HOA is in fact an outgrowth of a crisis response element (sometimes referred to as CRE-HOA) that was established at Camp Lemonnier in Spring 2002 as part of the initial buildup there following the events of September 11th, 2001.  SOCCE-HOA is also the primary force provider for Operation Observant Compass, the US mission to support regional forces in their fight against the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Map of Central African Republic

Map of Central African Republic

In neighboring CAR, violence has also continued despite an influx of African peacekeepers to the African-led International Support Mission in the Central African Republic (MISCA) and the French intervention, Operation Sangaris.  Violence there has become a matter of largely a matter of fighting between mainly Muslim former Seleka rebels and Christian militias referred to as anti-balaka.  Though anti-balaka groups initially welcomed international intervention, some have since become dissatisfied with their unwillingness to oust current President Michel Djotodia, the former leader of the Seleka rebel group, who deposed former President Francois Bozize in March.  Christian groups have also accused Muslim peacekeepers from Chad of siding with ex-Seleka rebels, leading to violent clashes.  Christian protesters blame Chadian forces for at least one death.  Anti-balaka militiamen reportedly killed a peacekeeper from the Republic of Congo on Tuesday, possibly in retribution.  French forces, however, are seen as having sided with the anti-balaka militias, leading to violence between them and ex-Seleka rebels.  Both ex-Seleka rebels and anti-balaka militia continue present a significant challenge to international forces and despite efforts to disarm both groups and seek a negotiated settlement.