These Fast-Acting Response Forces Could Prevent Another Benghazi
Small, high-tech teams stand ready across Europe, Africa and Asia
Events in war-torn South Sudan in recent weeks have presented a dazzling—and sometimes confusing—display of U.S. military capabilities. Emergency operations have been conducted in the unstable new country by troops assigned to three totally different American task forces dispersed across Africa.
The new task forces have their roots in Benghazi, Libya. On Sept. 11, 2012, extremists attacked a diplomatic facility in Benghazi, killing U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens plus several others.
The military rescue in Benghazi, Operation Jukebox Lotus, was seen by many as having been too slow, too weak and disorganized. Congress and the general public were furious at the Pentagon’s perceived failure. The scandal prompted the Defense Department to review how and where forces are deployed around the world.
The new crisis-response task forces, born in the flames of Benghazi, reflect a marriage of old and new concepts—and are meant to prevent a repeat of 2012’s tragedy.
Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response
In the aftermath of the Benghazi attack, the U.S. Marine Corps—which handles security for diplomatic posts—established a new unit to reinforce embassies and consulates in danger of being overrun.
When South Sudan went to Hell in mid-December, SPMAGTF-CR rushed troops from its current base in Spain to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti and onward to Entebbe, Uganda, where they stood alert. The 500-person task force has its own MV-22B tiltrotors and KC-130 tanker-transports, allowing it to cover thousands of miles in a day.
As the Marine Corps downsizes with the draw-down in Afghanistan, special task forces like the SPMAGTF-CR are becoming more important. They’re smaller, swifter and can be manned on a rotating basis by regiments permanently based in the U.S. The Marines have already stood up similar new task forces in the Black Sea region and Australia.
Army Regionally Aligned Forces and Contingency Response Forces
The Army has followed the Marines’ lead and is now “aligning” rotating forces to specific geographical regions. The 2nd Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division, a tank and infantry unit based in Kansas, has been on standby for emergencies in Africa.
When sectarian violence flared in South Sudan, the 2nd Brigade rushed 45 soldiers from Djibouti to the town of Juba aboard Air Force transport planes. Their mission: to safeguard U.S. citizens being evacuated from the roiling country.
The Regionally-Aligned Forces are just the beginning. The Army is also restoring parachute units to crisis-response duty. For many years, the ground combat branch kept two parachute brigades on constant stand-by for emergencies: one brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division in North Carolina and also the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Italy.
But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan kept those troops too busy for alert duty, and the Army’s ability to swiftly react to a crisis slowly eroded. When militants attacked in Benghazi, the 173rd was in Afghanistan and could do nothing to help.
Now with the Iraq war over and the U.S. fighting in Afghanistan winding down, the Army once again has assigned part of the 173rd to stand alert in Italy. This Army Contingency Response Force is a company-size element with around 200 people. Hopping aboard C-130 or C-17 airlifters, the ACRF can reach most of Africa in just a few hours.
Likewise, the Army has tapped part of the 4th Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division, based in Alaska, to be an ACRF for the Pacific. The land service is also proposing to send specialized instructors across the Far East to help train allied soldiers. The American troops involved in this so-called “Pacific Pathways” program would also be available to respond to crises.
Special Operations Command and Control Element-Horn of Africa
At least two Army Special Forces units deployed in immediate response to the attacks in Benghazi. The secretive Delta Force was probably one of them. Both Delta Force and the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, better known as SEAL Team Six, were initially formed to fight terrorists, back when “terrorism” mostly meant kidnapping.
Today their missions are much broader. Delta Force, SEAL Team Six and other Special Operations Forces are forward-deployed all over the world and can move quickly to rescue good guys and kill or capture bad guys. The special operators couldn’t get to Benghazi fast enough to help, but a renewed sense of urgency means they could be more responsive in the future.
Indeed, when South Sudan popped off, the Special Operations Command and Control Element–Horn of Africa, based in Djibouti since 2002, quickly sent Navy SEALs aboard three CV-22B tiltrotors to the town of Bor. They were supposed to secure the airport to allow for evacuations of American citizens, but sectarian fighters on the ground had other ideas.
The South Sudanese opened fire on the V-22s, injuring four SEALs and forcing the task force to turn back. A later U.S. mission to Bor succeeded in securing the airport. The inability of the SOCCE-HOA team to initially reach Bor could be seen as a failure, but the fact that American troops responded so quickly to instability in South Sudan is evidence of the Pentagon’s new priorities—and an encouraging sign in the post-Benghazi era.