The SP-MAGTF CR: Training for Scalability


2014-02-11 by Murielle Delaporte

[slidepress gallery=’rope-training-for-sp-magtf-insertion’]

The evacuation of several hundred US and non US citizens in early January 2014 from South Sudan has been a success based on at least three principles: decide and act quickly; prepare and train appropriately alone and with allies; work with and rely on regional partners (in this case Uganda was key).

The decision to secure the embassy and to do partial evacuations was taken on December 15th and on December 22nd, 2013.

160 Marines and Sailors from the Special Force Marine Air Ground Task Force Crisis Response were able to be flown by 2 KC-130s Hercules and 4 MV-22B Ospreys from Spain where they are temporarily based to Djibouti and then Uganda.

With 3,400 nautical miles (a distance equivalent from Anchorage to Miami), this was the longest range insert ever performed by this force thanks to its self-deployable capability.

Many hours of training have been essential as well.

This training has been aimed at being able to respond with the greatest flexibility and in the shortest times to a variety of contingencies. Notably, the contingencies focused upon have been U.S. Embassy reinforcement, fixed-site security, non-combatant evacuation operations, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel and theater security cooperation, occurring in the US AFRICOM AOR.

USAF Lieutenant-Colonel Glen Roberts, Public Affairs Director of the Djibouti-based joint force explained in a phone interview on January 10, 2014, the sequence of events following the worsening of the domestic situation in South Sudan on December 15th:

On December 15th, there was  in South Sudan a very small contingent of Marines ensuring the security of the US Embassy in Juba, as Marines traditionally guard US embassies across the world. The decision was made to evacuate part of the personnel from the embassy, and, in order to do that, that mission was given to US AFRICOM, which then confided its execution to the CJTF-HOA. 

The CJFTF-HOA has been since its establishment ten years ago in East Africa « countering violent extremist organizations like Al Shebab, monitoring them, so that their actions do not spill over the continent, doing mil-to- mil engagement and building partnerships especially in the Horn of Africa.

The CJTF-HOA Commanding Officer, General Terry Ferrell activated for the first time ever what is referred to as the EARF, i.e. the East African Response Force.

The EARF is a joint force from all services based in Djibouti. A new concept born only a year ago in the aftermath of Benghazi, the previous EARF was stationed five months, while the next rotation was activated to go to Juba only 36 hours after their arrival in Djibouti.

About 55 US soldiers and 2 USAF airmen went in and evacuated many members of the embassy and provided security to the latter: as soon as they were on the ground they were able to apply their training in security reinforcement for the embassy.  ‘

The SP-MAGTF-CR came under General Ferrel’s Command and Control in HOA. About 150 Marines came down from Spain to Djibouti and 50 went to Entebbe, Uganda, and then, from there, went to Juba to evacuate more personnel.

Lieutenant-Colonel Roberts continued:

The United states have indeed significant cooperation with Uganda: at the time of these events, the SP-MAGTF Africa was involved in a pre-planned small logistics exercise, while US AFRICOM was also overseeing a mission of aircrafts flying 850 Burundians as peacekeepers in Central Africa. 

About 380 evacuations of US citizens and 300 of non US citizens were performed as a whole and the Task Force is maintaining a very active posture with (at the time of this writing) 49 EARF members still deployed in South Sudan:  « we are continually assessing the situation in order to be able to respond. We are only there to keep our embassy open and that is all.

We honor the War Powers Act and are not there to take side, but to protect US lives in the Embassy. The EARF and the SP MAGTF, combined together, give us great flexibility.

It is indeed a very joint operation involving all services.

In addition to the Marines, you have the Army (EARF), the Air Force (with CV22s and C130s) and Navy SEALs personnel and that demonstrates the flexibility that the command has to assist and protect personnel on the continent of Africa.

The Marines deployed for the Juba evacuation are still currently in Entebbe on standby waiting for their next assignment, whichever and whenever it might be.

Training For Scalability

A scalable multi-mission force with multirole equipment – such as the MV-22 and the KC-130J – translate into a training focusing on scalability and versatility, which starts with good planning.

According to Colonel Scott Benedict, Commanding Officer of the SP-MAGTF at the time of the mission (he is now  commander of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit) recalls:

We train for all the missions: we make the Marines train in everything and we make them work very hard We have to set up the training for these missions through the ability to plan and effectively plan, as it is in many missions the most important piece.

If you have the plan right and you have the right assets, you can then be as efficient and effective as possible, even for a small force like this. In order to do so, we have in our HQ a very robust capability to plan the best postures and coordinate with AFRICOM up in Stuttgart, as well as with other nations. 

Training includes all missions via various scenarios with role players challenging the Marines “both within and beyond their specialty in one area.” If a machine-gunner for instance does not need to shoot his machine gun, he will be supplying bottles of water or do crowd control.

The introduction of new equipment follows the same principle, as Lieutenant-Colonel Freeland, Commanding Officer of the Air Combat Element of the SP MAGTF CR, explains:

The same way the aircraft we are teaming with are very versatile and adaptable, we have very versatile and adaptable Marines given the very different types of training that they see: with very versatile and adaptable machines and ground element, you end up with a very agile and flexible force.

Longer range capabilities allowing to “take men further” also help the SP-MAGTF CR to practice its agility even while simply training, while providing more opportunities to partner with allied forces.

Here the case in point involves the French Legionnaires and the Spanish Parachute Brigade, and to train and share their skills (shooting weapons, hand to hand combat, reinforcement of an embassy…) with their European colleagues.

Col. Benedict highlighted the impact of the twin pairing of the KC-130Js and Ospreys in providing the speed and range which enables the force.

In the past, we could not being located here [in Móron de la Frontera], fly to Nimes and operate a day or 2 days and then come back.

We would have to move up there, be there for a week or two and bring everything back. Whereas now with the aircraft and the tailored ground force we can extend even in training great distances in order to train and sustain our training with the partners and then turn back to our home base.

To do so, we still have to pack up, to make sure that the Marines can eat, have their water, their weapon, their ammunition, all their supplies for sustainment, their shelter, all that needs to go every single time we need to go somewhere.

Breaking the “Fear of the Unknown”

If being based in Southern Europe and training with regional partners is new for the younger Marines who have been deployed in Afghanistan, it is not for the older Marines like Colonel Benedict and Lieutenant-Colonel Freeland:

It is just different.

The French, Spanish, Italians have all been very good hosts for us.

We have been there before and we are coming back to the places we have not been in the past few years because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So we are re-learning some of the things that we knew before, like how to operate near Nimes or Canjuers with the French, in Sierra de Rota with the Spanish here, or working back down in Sigonella in Italy. We are also gaining great benefits when we partner with foreign forces: opportunities to pair with forces like the Legionnaires who have very similar capabilities and combat experience to Marines, our ability to partner with that force which just came out of an operation on the continent of Africa, are priceless for us.

When GCE CO Captain Wallin gets to put his Marines side by side on the fire line with the Legionnaires, we are learning a lot and at the same time they learn from us with the techniques that we use, putting them in that MV22, showing them how we conduct operations to support an embassy reinforcement, which is what we did up there in training in Nimes.

We had that sharing back and forth and that type of learning is great across the forces. At our level on the ground, things have not changed: what we share – soldier to soldier capabilities – has not changed.

It is always shared, even inside the US forces, based on different physical capabilities of the equipment, and there is always some learning when you put two things together that have not worked together before, whether it is a tank and a Humvee or a Tiger and V22. You will always have some learning that occurs.

We have similar training that we do with assets very similar to the French Tiger with the Cobra helicopter or the Apache, and then it is a just a matter of how to understand and talk to each other in order to employ that force. 

For the ACE CO, who has been part of the modernization of the medium lift assault support, what is striking are the similarities of the modernization processes in the French Army Aviation, the Spanish Army Aviation and the Marine Corps Aviation:

When you look at where the Marine corps was with its aviation and ground forces 10 to 20 years ago, we have come a long way with some of our systems : you look at the French and the Spanish, they also have come a long way with their aviation systems and in particular those we were exposed to.

Their training systems are very, very modern and very strong, the simulation is fantastic, – in fact very similar to what we see with the V22 – , so it was very impressive to see how much both the Spanish Army aviation and the French Army Aviation have modernized in parallel with our evolution over the last 10 to 15 years.

On the ground, Captain Wallin finds a lot of similarities as well and welcomes these opportunities to familiarize each other and work on improving interoperability:

Just the familiarization with the experiences from different combat zones, being able to include these experiences in our interoperability training, basically just familiarize ourselves with our coalition partners have been very beneficial.

Our experiences are actually very similar, not only in terms of the capabilities a light force carries, but also in the way it works and is able to multitask:  there is a wide variety of things both a Marine and a Legionnaire can do. 

So far the Marines work with the French and the Spanish Legionnaires and have been training on small arms, machine gun and cyber in particular.

But as always what this is above all about is building trust and relationships among brothers in arms, training after training, so that when the moment comes, the “fear of the unknown” is irrelevant.

The Commanding Officer of the SP-MAGTF CR conclude:

These types of experiences are not so much about doing operational planning at our level right now.

What such training really is about is to bring down any barriers so that the first time that we do meet on the field, it is not the first time… so even though it may not be that Legionnaire, or it may not be that paratrooper, it may not be that same Marine, they experienced us, we experienced them and we are talking the same soldiers’ language…

On the ground it is the relationships that mean the most and make it much easier to operate.

I truly believe that the major barrier is just the unknown: if I have never met a Legionnaire and just heard about a Legionnaire, I do not understand that he is a man or a woman just like me and the same goes with Marines.

A lot of people have heard things about Marines – a lot are true but some are not -, and so to meet the Marines, and Legionnaires and Paratroopers, to shake hands and share experiences of  firing weapons and training together, just having that camaraderie that comes from being military operating partners shoulder to shoulder help overcome the barrier we are trying to break.

We have a relationship between the 2nd Marine division and the French 6th Brigade (6e BLB) and we train bilaterally in Djibouti as well.

The size of the French army is very similar to the size of scale of the units and very similar to the way we operate.  I also think that Marines are very easy to work with, because we do not rely on our technology: we rely on our individual marine who is the best weapon. Once you get to know him, you know the marines… 

The same way, mil-to-mil training with African partners such as with Uganda is the foundation of that trust-building ingredient indispensable to the long-term success of any stability operation on the African continent.

Juba has been so far a case in point.

This article stems from interviews conducted mid-December at Morón de la Frontera Air Force Base in Spain, where the SP-MAGTF CR has been temporarily deployed since April 2013 within the framework of the 1988 defense cooperation agreement between Spain and the United States[, except for one conversation done by phone with Djibouti-based CFTJ-HOA PAO.

See also the following:

For a condensed version which appeared on Breaking Defense and did not include the phone interview on January 10th which placed the SP-MAGTF-CR in its general command context see the following:

The slideshow above shows Marines and sailors with Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response load an MV-22B Osprey for helicopter rope suspension training at Morón Air Base, Spain, Dec. 6, 2013 and December 17, 2013. 

The latter was during a visit of Second Line of Defense to SP-MAGTF in Spain.

Credit: SP-MAGTF:12/17/13