By: Jeff Schogol
Marines are leading the charge against the Islamic State group in Libya — and it’s not the first time they’ve brought the fight to the enemy in that country.
The Marine Corps’ ability to sail anywhere in the world and bring a world of hurt to the enemy has made it the ideal service to respond to crises in Libya since Thomas Jefferson was president.
Most recently, Marine AV-8B Harrier II jump jets and AH-1W Super Cobras from the amphibious assault ship Wasp have been pounding Islamic State fighters in the Libyan city of Sirte since operation Odyssey Resolve began on Aug. 1.
The U.S. has launched 82 airstrikes using manned and unmanned aircraft as of Thursday, according to U.S. Africa Command.
“The Marine Corps off the coast of Libya is showing once again its extraordinary ability to project power from the sea, supported by the Navy,” said retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis.
Currently the dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University, Stavridis led NATO and U.S. European Command during the 2011 air campaign that ousted Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
“No other global force has the flexibility and lethality on demand shown by the Marine Corps – Navy team, and in an era of declining enthusiasm for large, land-based deployments — especially to the Middle East — the optionality of sea basing stands out vividly,” he said.
One reason the Marines have been the service of choice for operations in Libya is that they are better postured than land forces, such as the Army, said retired Marine Lt. Col. Dakota Wood, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington.
“Lacking a stable, persistently available land-base option along the North African coast, a land force would have to deploy from Europe, making movement, timely resupply, and even reinforcement problematic,” Wood told Marine Corps Times.
By operating from the sea, the Marines have the ability to sustain an air campaign anywhere in the world with aircraft based on amphibious assault ships, Wood said.
“Fixed wing support can come from land, but quite distant in Libya’s case whereas amphib- or carrier-based air can generate more sorties in a given period of time,” he said.
The Marines are able to project power quickly using Marine Air-Ground Task Forces, which are made up of a command element, logistics combat element, aviation combat element and ground combat element, said Marine Corps Spokeswoman 1st. Lt. Danielle Phillips
“They can be scaled, as necessary, to meet the needs of the mission and commanders’ intent,” Phillips told Marine Corps times.”These MAGTFs are then forward-deployed as rotational units, like the Black Sea Rotational Force or our crisis response units in Central and South America, Europe and Southwest Asia.”
A quick reaction force with Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response prepares to depart Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy, in support of a military assisted departure from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Libya, on July 26, 2014. Photo Credit: U.S. Marine Corps photo by 1st Lt. Maida Kalic.
The task forces include Marine Expeditionary Units and land-based Special-Purpose MAGTFs, which can conduct all types of missions including reinforcing U.S. embassies and diplomatic posts, disaster relief, rescuing downed aviators and theater security cooperation, Phillips said.
“Selective, timely and credible commitment of air-ground units have, on many occasions, helped bring stability to a region and sent signals worldwide that the United States is willing to defend its interests, and is able to do so with a significantly powerful force on extremely short notice,” she said.
The shores of Tripoli
The Marine Corps’ history in Libya goes all the way back to the Barbary Wars, when Marine Lt. Presley O’Bannon led seven enlisted Marines, a Navy midshipman and a small force of Greeks to capture the Libyan city of Derne, defeating 800 defenders.
“With a boldness that has seldom been equaled in history, they assaulted the town and drove the enemy out of that part of it they were attacking,” according to the 1939 book “A History of the United States Marine Corps” by Lt. Col. Clyde Metcalf. “O’Bannon and his Marines seized the harbor fort and raised the Stars and Stripes for the first and only time (prior to the World War) in that part of the world.”
O’Bannon’s victory at Derne is commemorated by the Mameluke sword that officers wear and by the Marine Hymn lyric about the “shores of Tripoli.”
In 2011, the 22nd and 26th MEU supported Operation Odyssey Dawn and Unified Protector, against Gaddafi.
Harriers from the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge flew airstrikes on the first day of the campaign to attack a column of Gaddafi’s forces advancing on Benghazi, destroying four tanks, one refueling truck and an infantry fighting vehicle.
When a U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle crashed near Benghazi on March 22, 2011, a 30-man recovery force with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit flew 150 miles from the Kearsarge to the crash site to retrieve the downed pilot, Air Force Maj. Kenneth Harney.
With two vehicles approaching him, Harney cried over the radio, “Tell my wife I love her,” but Harrier pilot Maj. J. Eric Grunke was able to drop a 500-pound laser-guided bomb in time for Harney to be rescued
Three Marines received the Air Medal for their part in the rescue: Capt. Erik Kolle, Capt. David Potter and Sgt. Daniel Howington.
Close to the action
After Libya became a failed state, Marines with the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force- Crisis Response helped evacuate the U.S. embassy in Tripoli in July 2014. Marines in two Ospreys flew overhead as embassy personnel drove to the Tunisian border. The task force was renamed Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Africa that September.
Since 2014, the Marines have established austere bases near Africa known as Cooperative Security Locations, from which they can quickly launch operations ranging from humanitarian assistance to combat missions, Phillips said.
“CSLs consist of little more than a fenced-in space the size of a football field, but in a crisis such as an embassy reinforcement or humanitarian intervention, the locations can be readied within hours to host nearly 200 troops for as long as they need to stay,” Phillips said in an email.
Marines first tested the concept in Ghana and Gabon, Phillips said. An advance team of between five and 10 Marines can arrive at the locations and get them ready for more U.S. service members to operate from there.
“From those locations, Marines are significantly closer to areas of unrest or potential conflict,” she said. “Instead of flying Marines more than 4,200 miles across the continent, MV-22 Ospreys and KC-130J Hercules remain ready to transport Marines for mere minutes or hours to conduct missions.”
Marine Corps Times