October and November 2015 saw the launch of the Marine Corps’ new approach to maintaining crisis response forces forward-deployed at sea. Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response – Africa (SPMAGTF-CR-AF) is testing the Allied Maritime Basing Initiative (AMBI) aboard allied ships, seeking to provide the US and its allies with a year-round maritime-based crisis response force in the Mediterranean Sea and Gulf of Guinea. This is accomplished by leveraging the significant amphibious capabilities already residing in Europe. Up until now, SPMAGTF-CR-AF has been using a land-based “hub” at Morón Air Base, Spain, to support efforts in Africa and Europe.
“While this [spoke] method has been effective, it lacks the level of responsiveness only achieved by being aboard US Navy amphibious shipping less than 100 miles off a coast near a crisis ‘hotspot,’” said Captain Hector Alejandro, SPMAGTF-CR-AF Public Affairs. “Since we currently lack the US Navy amphibious ships to support the maritime basing of US Marine Corps crisis response forces, other methods, such as utilizing allied ships…are being researched.”
The Allied Maritime Basing Initiative (AMBI) weighed anchor during Trident Juncture 15, the largest NATO Exercise in 10 years. Still in a data collection phase, US aircraft and SPMAGTF Marines are teaming up with foreign Navies to expand basing proximity to crisis, substantially affording greater force mobility and flexibility to control crises.
During AMBI, US MV-22 Ospreys landed on the Spanish amphibious assault ship, Juan Carlos I and the British amphibious assault ship, HMS Ocean. The excitement continued with landings on the Dutch HNLMS Karel Doorman and HNLMS Johan de Witt, amphibious warfare ships of the Royal Netherlands.
Never before had US Ospreys not only qualified to land on foreign decks, but also lived aboard for a period of days, bringing with them an Incident Response Force (IRF) of US Marines. Over a span of three months, Trident Juncture/AMBI, and other ‘proof of concept’ exercises have been conducted.
Four SPMAGTF-CR-AF officers weighed in on AMBI.
Colonel Calvert Worth, Commanding Officer for SPMAGTF-CR-AF, sits atop approximately 1,800 Marines and Sailors. Worth said his organization works directly for the Marine Corps forces, Europe and Africa, which is a component-level headquarters commanded by Major General Neil Nelson, a two-star general. Nelson works for and provides support to the Geographic Event Commanders of the US European Command and US African Command.
According to Worth, strengthening relationships in Europe is a key focus of AMBI. It familiarizes US Marines and Sailors with foreign vessels and allows them to hone [NATO] procedures of handling US aircraft and working with foreign militaries.
“NATO gets stronger [and] we become stronger and we have a capability that might be leveraged in the future,” said Worth.
AMBI strengthens SPMAGTF-CR-AF by returning Marines to their amphibious roots at sea. Worth explained that a land-based crisis response force does not have the same capabilities as an embarked Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). An amphibious Navy assault ship provides US sovereign soil and possesses inherent mobility and offensive capabilities – equipped with jets, artillery, and tanks.
“The MEUs are there for forceful entry, if necessary, and also response to crisis,” said Worth. “I do have Ospreys and aircraft to fuel them, so we can self-deploy our force and go in and provide protection for US facilities and personnel. That is our primary mission.”
Although Worth noted, there is no reliable way to predict crisis ‘hotspots’, he assures, “We have a broad information and intelligence network that will allow us to respond rapidly to crisis.” This intelligence network includes the Department of State, the source of SPMAGTF-CR-AF’s call to action.
When the call comes, deterrence is in SPMAGTF-CR-AF’s sights, which helps protect Americans at home.
“Every time we can deter or respond effectively to a crisis, it hinders the momentum of our adversaries, whoever they might be,” said Worth. He thinks that, especially today, it’s imperative to disrupt the enemy’s message that their efforts are successful. AMBI creates a greater ability to disrupt their message.
Controlling a tyranny of distance
Getting to the crisis quickly is no easy task when you’re talking about Africa, due to its large size. The ability to go to remote locations and project a capability is a significant challenge. “The ‘tyranny of distance’ is one thing most people don’t realize,” explained Lieutenant Colonel Brad Carr. “You can essentially put three United States within the entire continent.”
Carr serves as Operations Officer for the SPMAGTF-CR-AF, and is responsible for synchronizing and effectively employing the organization. A former ‘Marine of the Year’, Carr’s work involves leading and training small, decentralized elements throughout a large area.
Carr’s teams have to be able to operate in multiple locations simultaneously over a period of time. He explained that the biggest threat is being over-extended.
Diversity of operations can cause the Marine Corps’ brightest talents a few headaches. Mission sets for SPMAGTF-CR-AF can range from evacuations, extractions, downed pilot recoveries, and troop movements and insertions. Efforts could involve conducting a theater of security cooperation with other military units, or staging a location that is a Department of State area of interest, such as a US embassy.
In July 2014, certain elements of SPMAGTF-CR-AF assisted with the evacuation of more than 150 Americans from the US embassy in Tripoli, Libya, as violence between rival factions intensified. Additionally, in October 2014, SPMAGTF-CR-AF Marines responded to United Assistance’s call to help control the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, keeping the deadly disease from spreading. They were there for 90 days, transporting passengers and supplies all around the country and building Ebola treatment units.
Carr explains that by being an African response force based in Europe, they gain an advantage towards the ‘tyranny of distance’. It also helps them maintain allied relationships that share same values.
“It’s vital to maintain our national strength in uncertain times,” said Carr. “[We’re] coming to grips with how best to employ it [SPMAGTF-CR-AF], based on a changing environment we’re currently operating in. AMBI is a non-standard way to go about things – to collectively work together on a common cause.”
AMBI demonstrated its non-standard approach during Exercise Blue Raptor. Aboard the HMS Ocean, US Marines and British Royal Marines participated in a three week bi-lateral training event throughout the Mediterranean, intensifying their joint efforts to meet chaos head on.
For Carr and SPMAGTF-CR-AF Marines, it not just about terror attacks such as 9/11, the 2004 Madrid train bombings, or Paris 2015…it is also about chaos in Europe today. “These things are real and they are current,” stated Carr.
Long-term readiness and being able to maintain operational reach is a challenge. According to Carr, SPMAGTF-CR-AF doesn’t have unlimited resources or unlimited budgets. “Those things go into the planning factors before we execute and that shapes how we go about what we’ve been tasked to do.”
Being the first to test a new idea that expands allied relationships and sets a new bar for military effectiveness is exciting to Carr, who calls AMBI, “a tremendous opportunity.”
The Osprey: an evolutionary leap in capability
US planes and troops responding to crisis from allied ships could not effectively happen without the Osprey. It flies like a plane and can land like a helicopter. An Osprey, teamed with the KC-130 refueler, gives long range, vertical lift, and no need for an airport. This gives the game advantage of inserting troops safely in remote locations, moving them around, and getting them out.
“They [Ospreys] can go just about anywhere and do just about anything,” said Lieutenant Colonel Mark Franko, commanding officer for the Aviation Combat Element (ACE) at SPMAGTF-CR-AF. All of the aircraft and air capability that SPMAGTF has is under his watch, including twelve revolutionary tilt-rotor aircraft.
The Osprey’s speed and range set it apart from its storied predecessor – the CH-46 helicopter. The Osprey’s design protects it from various weapons systems, flying higher and faster than a helicopter. Franko explained, “There’s nobody else in the world that can touch the capability this airplane provides.”
“Anytime you get to do something new for the first time, it’s exciting,” said Franko about landing an Osprey on a foreign vessel. He’s fired up to expand the capabilities of the Osprey, and of what SPMAGTF-CR-AF and the Marine Corps can do in conjunction with allied services. The Osprey community across the Marine Corps is ‘very, very busy’, yet Franko believes his ACE can meet the demands of AMBI.
Franko’s squadron has experienced success with the physical movement of aircraft on and off both Landing Platform Dock (LPD) and Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) allied ships. The Juan Carlos I saw its first MV-22 landing and the King of Spain was there to welcome 60 Marines from the aviation side and 50 ground combat and command element Marines.
The closer proximity and interoperability that allied ships can provide through AMBI, along with traditional Navy MEUs, equals a force meeting the growing demands of world order. Franko said, “It’s rewarding for me to advance and build that capability, which translates to stability in the future.”
Adaptation and trust: sinews of survival
For Infantry troops meeting crises, everyone and everything is moving fast. The Marine mindset has to remain alert, flexible, and rely on training. “We are required to adapt to whatever situation arises,” states First Lieutenant John Porter. Updates are given often as a threatening situation unravels. “Once we arm them with the knowledge, they are trusted to be able to do the right thing.”
Porter, a former college football player and sports enthusiast, leads Infantry platoon 3/8 for SPMAGTF-CR-AF. His job boils down to training, educating, and mission planning for about 37 Marines at the current time.
“From an Infantry side, it’s not every day that Marines in the United States get on the Ospreys. It’s not their main platform of movement. It’s a specialized thing we do for this deployment,” said Porter.
At age 26, Porter and his platoon have been setting milestones all over Europe and Africa, from training events in Africa (teaching and learning), to riot control training in France, and with AMBI in the Mediterranean Sea. During Trident Juncture 15, Porter found it interesting to see how NATO worked.
Porter said, “We all speak the same language in terms of tactics and planning, but the [spoken] language barrier was there.” During raid and recovery exercises, Porter had to make sure everyone was on the same page to execute it properly. Luck had it that a few of his Marines knew Spanish.
“The host and partner-nation relationships we have are at the core of dealing with regional issues and improving the abilities for all parties involved to respond to any kind of crisis,” said Porter. Regular briefings on the Rules of Engagement for different areas keep Marines informed for specific situations.
“It’s a broad scope of everything we are expected to know or learn,” said Porter. “The challenge is to keep fresh on everything.”
Porter’s worries “depend on the crises”. He said, “It can vary from medical thoughts to wildlife and insects to combatant enemy forces.” While partnership training in Chad, Africa, Porter and his team had multiple encounters with cobras, lions, and hyenas. The truck he was riding in was charged by a cape buffalo. “Wildlife dangers; it is in fact a real thing.”
As soon as Col. Worth says, “Hey you have to go to this place and do this’, then the thoughts come ‘what do I need to make sure we’re safe here and there and everybody comes back home’? Porter falls into preparedness mode – study it, be aware, and be conscious of what could happen. He said, “It’s hard to pinpoint what we would face.”
Porter put his trust in a local who was in the truck targeted by the maddened buffalo. The local honked the horn and waved his arms out the window, and scared it off. “I laughed after, but it could have been worse,” said Porter.
One of the greatest tricks of the enemy is to make one think he’s not there. US Marines know better.
After 25 years of leadership, Col Worth takes great pride saying, “Marines join in order to deploy. They’re ready for that level of chaos. They look forward to honing their skills and applying their skills in that environment. I can always look at them and say, ‘This is what we do as Marines.’”
AMBI is helping them do it.
Jeanne McKinney is an award-winning writer whose focus and passion is our United States active-duty service members and military news. Her in-depth stories cover all US service branches, including first-hand accounts of combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, tactical training and readiness, humanitarian and disaster relief efforts, next generation defense technology, family survival at home, US port and border protection, women in combat, honoringthe Fallen, and much more. She has won six San Diego Press Club “Excellence in Journalism Awards.”