Events in the Middle East over the past two and a half years have taken a decidedly violent and negative turn, even for this benighted region. There was the June 18, 2012 assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Since then, there has been the rebellion in Mali, the increasingly savage and bizarre actions of Boko Haram in Nigeria, civil wars in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, growing instability in Libya, Al Qaeda affiliates attacking Israel from the Sinai and the usual and enduring conflicts in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. The escalating violence in the region clearly requires a more robust and responsive U.S. military capability.
A decade of war in Southwest Asia, recent defense budget cuts and the ongoing withdrawal of U.S. forces from Europe created a situation in which the United States lacked the minimum military resources to respond rapidly and effectively to the attack on our Benghazi consulate. To meet a growing need for responsive forces, the Marine Corps stationed some 500 Marines, later increased to 850, with MV-22 Ospreys and KC-130 aerial tankers in Spain as a special crisis response force. Even this wasn’t sufficient. Just a few days ago, the Pentagon announced that the USS Bataan, with some 1,000 Marines plus both aircraft and vehicles, was being deployed to the central Mediterranean. It is clear that when they are in doubt, U.S. Combatant Commands call for an amphib.
Historically, and even to the present, the best U.S. military capability for addressing regional threats, the 911 force, has been the Marine Expeditionary Unit/Amphibious Ready Group (MEU/ARG). The USS Bataan and its complement of Marines is part of a MEU/ARG. The MEU/ARG is unique in the world due to its ability to operate from international waters, the breadth of its capabilities and its overall flexibility. The MEU portion of the team consists of a reinforced infantry battalion with its own command and control, combat support, logistics, vehicles, indirect fires and aviation elements. The ARG half of the combined capability typically consists of three ships — a LHD, LPD and LSD — which not only provide transportation for the MEU’s air and ground elements but can serve as a sovereign base at sea with advanced medical care, intelligence capabilities and support facilities. LHDs offer enormous mission flexibility with their well deck, huge medical capability, self-protection, and large internal volume for equipment, water, fuel, supplies and repair facilities. The large LHD and LPD amphibious warfare ships allow the MEU/ARG to deploy with its own air force consisting of MV-22 Ospreys and AH-1W attack, UH-1N utility and H-53E heavy lift helicopters and soon the F-35B fighter.
The demand for MEU/ARGs consistently exceeds the supply. The Navy had to break up an ARG in order to deploy the USS Bataan to the Mediterranean and still meet other demands in the region. Currently, the available force structure (seven MEUs and 33 amphibious warfare ships) allows only three MEUs to be available at a time; one on the East Coast, another on the West and a third in the western Pacific. Until fairly recently, the Pentagon deployed two MEU/ARGS on each coast. One spent most of its time in the Mediterranean. A decline in the number of large deck amphibious warfare ships forced the reduction from five to three available formations. Current shipbuilding plans have the size of the amphibious warfare fleet falling further, to as few as 28 ships.
The Obama Administration has been disingenuous when it claims that no U.S. military force could have responded in time to the tragedy in Benghazi. Had a MEU/ARG been available in the central Mediterranean, which was the case for more than thirty years, Marine Corps forces could have responded rapidly. Flying MV-22 Ospreys from the amphibs’ decks, a Marine response force could have been deployed directly to the embassy. The decision to deploy the USS Bataan close to Libya is a testament to what might have been back in 2012.
Given the uncertain nature of the global security environment, the inherent flexibility of the MEU/ARG construct, the decline in U.S. overseas presence and the pivot to Asia-Pacific, this is dumb. The single smartest strategic move this administration could make would be to increase the number of large deck amphibious warfare ships — more LHDs, continuing production of LPDs, an enhanced ship to replace the aging LSDs and a new Mobile Landing Platform — to 38 which is the number the Navy and Marine Corps both say is necessary to meet the level of demand.
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