An MV-22B Osprey lands aboard the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge on Sept. 15. The tilt-rotor aircraft gives Marines the ability to move inland fast to perform rescue operations. (Sgt. Christopher Q. Stone/US Marine Corps)
WASHINGTON — As the US and other nations push for chemical-weapons disarmament in Syria, where government forces are accused of killing more than 1,000 civilians in a sarin attack and the US has threatened military strikes, American warships await orders in nearby waters.
In the region, aboard the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge, the amphibious transport dock San Antonio and the amphibious dock landing ship Carter Hall, are the 2,200 Marines of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), who deployed from Camp Lejeune, N.C., in March.
While there is almost no chance that the Marines will go ashore in Syria or any neighboring country, they remain a credible threat as the United States’ global quick-reaction force.
It’s a role that the Corps has always trained for, relished and promoted, but it’s also one that has received little attention as the grunts have slugged it out in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains and Taliban-infested farmlands of Afghanistan for the past 12 years.
The 26th MEU deployed with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 266 (Reinforced), from Marine Corps Air Station New River, N.C. With its MV-22B Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, the squadron gives the force the ability to move inland fast and hard to perform rescue operations, just as the MEU did to spirit out two downed American pilots in Libya in 2011.
And in response to the killing of the American ambassador and three other US citizens in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012 — and the inability of the US to get a response team to the site in time — the Corps has also been ordered to station a special-purpose Marine air-ground task force at Moron Air Base in Spain, with another small detachment placed at Naval Air Station Sigonella in Italy. The units are tasked with responding quickly to any crisis that may arise in the Mediterranean.
The Marines in Spain consist of a reinforced infantry company with six Ospreys and two KC-130J tankers for refueling on long missions.
At a time when the White House and the Defense Department are working to shift the nation’s diplomatic and military focus from the Middle East to the Pacific region — as much as this is feasible — the Marines are looking to recapture the “global force in readiness” mission and are staying involved in both theaters.
“We cannot be engaged everywhere, nor can we commit ourselves to protracted interventions all the time,” said Frank Hoffman, a senior research fellow at National Defense University and former senior director of naval capabilities and readiness in the Department of the Navy. “We need freedom of maneuver — the ability to deter aggression and respond promptly when the president needs options. That’s what amphibious forces give our leaders.”
This past summer, the Corps announced that it is sending another battalion to Australia in 2014, bringing the total number of Marines deployed there on rotation to 1,150. It’s part of a plan to perform more partnering exercises with Australian forces, and will also give the Corps a shorter hop to the increasing number of military-to-military programs it’s conducting with other emerging allies in the region.
The deployments will increase in coming years as a 2,500-strong Marine air-ground task force will begin deploying to Australia on six-month rotations starting in 2016.
While the US Army continues to promote its own “pivot” to the Pacific and its engagement with partners there, it has been less of a shift for the Marines and Navy because they have always been active in the region.
But when it comes to the continuing requirements in the Middle East, Hoffman said “one cannot ignore the real world nor our global responsibilities, so there will always be events that pull on our shirt sleeves and demand more attention. The trick is to keep our eye on the main thing or our vital interests and not get distracted by secondary interests.”
In an event that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago, in June, US Marines and Japanese soldiers took part in an amphibious exercise off the California coast that featured US Marine Ospreys landing on Japanese ships and 1,000 Japanese soldiers, along with troops from New Zealand and Canada storming ashore on Southern California beaches.
The commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade, Brig. Gen. John Broadmeadow, told reporters that such partnerships are likely to become the norm.
“We are hitting a lot of [US Southern Command’s] objectives” in the exercise, he said. “This isn’t a one-way partnership between us and the Japanese. This is a broad coalition that looks at our pivot to the Pacific from a more global perspective, and that our South American partners are as important in that coalition as our traditional Pacific partners.”