If Yemen is an example of a successful U.S. counter-terrorism operation, as President Obama once claimed, what would failure look like? Not only is this country the quintessential failed state, it is the home base of one of the worst terrorist organizations, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). AQAP has hatched some of the most serious terror plots on the West, including the underwear bomber, the ink toner bomb attack and most recently the attacks in Paris.
Yemen has become a battleground both between contending terrorist organizations, the Islamic State and AQAP, and between pro-Iranian Shia and pro-Saudi Sunni tribes. The Yemeni government, our close ally, barely controls the grounds of the presidential palace. Although there are some reports about a truce being put in place to halt the fighting, no one should expect that it will bring peace and stability to this country.
As if the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in 2012 and this year’s evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Tripoli were not sufficient, the Yemen situation demonstrates yet again how rapidly the security situation in the Middle East can change and the ongoing vulnerability of U.S. diplomatic personnel and other civilians. It demonstrates the premium that exists for having rapidly deployable counter-terrorism forces available in the region. So important has this capability become, that the United States has sought permission from Spain to permanently base a special purpose Marine air-ground task force (SPMAGTF) in Morone. From there it can rapidly reach potential crisis zones across the Maghreb.
For decades, the best capability the U.S. military has with which to respond to a wide range of contingencies is the Amphibious Ready Group/Marine Expeditionary Unit (ARG/MEU). It alone provides the means to conduct rapid operations ashore from a sovereign base at sea. The ARG consists of three Navy ships, usually including at least one large deck amphib capable of supporting operations by vertical take-off aircraft and helicopters. The MEU is built around a battalion landing team with supporting capabilities (armor, artillery, transport, communications, engineers, medical and intel). As demand for the capabilities represented by the ARG/MEU have grown, and the number of units has shrunk, the formations often are split up in order to cover more territory and respond to more events.
When the situation in Yemen exploded, the Pentagon moved a portion of an available ARG/MEU to the waters off the port of Aden. The ARG’s flagship, the assault ship USS Iwo Jima (LHD-7), and the USS Fort McHenry (LSD-43), a Whidbey Island-class dock landing ship, were positioned in the Red Sea so as to be able to rapidly respond to an order to intervene to protect U.S. citizens and property. These two ships carried the bulk of the 24th MEU’s air and ground capabilities. As a Pentagon spokesman declared, “between those two warships, there’s enough combat power to respond to whatever contingency may come up.” The third member of the ARG, the USS San Diego (LPD-22), a San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock, is in the area but apparently on its way to the Indian Ocean to perform another mission.
Exploding demand for rapid response forces such as those represented by the ARG/MEU and SPMAGTF has resulted in the Marine Corps reversing an earlier, budget-driven decision to deactivate a regimental headquarters and three infantry battalions. These forces are now judged to be critical to the Marine Corps’ ability to maintain an adequate force structure to meet its forward deployed response requirements.
The same logic that pushed the Marine Corps to hold on to force structure should compel the Pentagon to review its plans for the size and composition of the amphibious warfare fleet. The Marine Corps’ objective of 38 amphibious warfare ships looks increasingly like the right answer to an era of chaos and increasing threats to U.S. interests, personnel and friends. So, too, does the decision to replace the aging LSDs with a new class built around the basic hull and systems of the LPD-17s.
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