Asked about the attack last fall on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, President Obama asserted, “our job with respect to Benghazi has been to find out exactly what happened, to make sure that U.S. embassies not just in the Middle East but around the world are safe and secure and to bring those who carried it out to justice.” While the Administration has been opaque about what happened in Benghazi, the U.S. military is taking measures to station forces closer to North Africa where tensions remain high.
The Marines sent a similar group to Sigonella, Italy, a few weeks ago. Both moves signify a perceived need for the U.S. to more quickly respond to incidents such as the deadly attack in Benghazi. Since the conflict in Libya ended, security forces have not kept pace with threats. According to a Heritage report on the Benghazi attack:
Since the regime fell, Libya has struggled to restore stability.… In particular, the report by the Accountability Review Board, convened by the Department of State, details incidents demonstrating the dangerous circumstances in which American diplomats were operating in Benghazi and elsewhere in Libya.
The decision to base Marines in the Mediterranean provides proximity to respond quickly in the event that U.S. citizens need to be evacuated from Northern Africa. The task force in Morón, consisting of over 500 Marines, will receive transport support from six MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and two C-130s for tactical support and refueling. While the Ospreys have greater flying range than the helicopters they are replacing, they would still require an aerial refueling from one of the C-130s to travel from Morón to Benghazi.
Therefore, the U.S. should supplement these task forces with a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) deployed to U.S. Africa Command. MEUs utilize a fleet of three Navy amphibious ships from which 2,000 Marines can embark. With aircraft such as the MV-22 and the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter short takeoff and landing aircraft, the Marines have versatile capabilities flying off the amphibious decks.
Amphibious transport dock ships such as the U.S. Navy’s San Antonio-class also can deploy a number of “ship-to-shore” vehicles such as the Landing Craft Air Cushion, an 87-ton hovercraft that can quickly embark from international waters to deliver personnel, heavy armored vehicles, or supplies.
The U.S. Marine Corps has repeatedly stated that it requires 38 such amphibious vessels to fully meet the demands of its national security strategy. However, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition Sean J. Stackley recently admitted that two amphibious ships will have to leave the fleet early because they are not receiving enough maintenance. This will reduce the amphibious fleet to 29 ships. Congress should make an investment in this fleet that attempts to reach the 38-amphib requirement.
The temporary Marine forces in Europe are a step toward better presence and awareness in a region that has not grown safer in recent years. However, the President and Congress need to make a more permanent commitment to ensure that the Marines and the other armed services have the capabilities they need to continue to project U.S. power and provide for the common defense. They can do this by recommitting to permanent basing in Europe and by a stronger commitment to a robust Navy fleet.