SHAFAQNA – The Pentagon activated a new quick-reaction force of U.S. Marines this week in the Middle East, building on an effort begun in the aftermath of 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, which killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos said about half of the 2,300 person force, to be based in Kuwait, was in place and would quickly be available to respond to any security or humanitarian crisis in the Middle East.
Although the new Kuwait-based reaction force was in the planning stages before the U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State militants began, Gen. Amos said the Marines there could be used, if needed, to reinforce the embassy in Baghdad, rescue downed pilots, or bolster the effort to advise Iraqi forces.
But defense officials said the most likely first uses of the new force would be to respond to crises and problems arising in other corners of the Middle East.
The new reaction unit, described by Gen. Amos in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, is the outgrowth of an effort to remake the Marine Corps into a global “911” response force.
The Marine force is separate from the 1,200 U.S. military personnel who have been sent to Iraq to protect U.S. facilities and train Iraqi forces.
Over the past four years, Gen. Amos has sought to transform the Marine Corps into a force focused on crisis response. Under pressure to trim spending and reorient the force, he has slimmed down headquarters units, shed tanks, and told the Corps to be ready to respond at a moment’s notice. He is due to step down later this month.
Gen. Amos said the new force in Kuwait will be ready for a variety of missions, with V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft, cargo planes and Marine infantry.
“All I am trying to do is provide another tool in the tool box,” Gen. Amos said. “This is a force ready for an array of mission sets.”
Since becoming the top Marine Corps commander in 2010, Gen. Amos has overseen a transition away from long-running ground campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and toward new missions. Fearing that the Corps had begun resembling a second U.S. land army, Gen. Amos worked to carve out a mission for the Marines as a quick-reaction, crisis-response force.
In the wake of the 2012 attacks on American diplomatic posts in Libya, the Marines created a rapid-reaction force based in Morón, Spain and Sigonella, Italy. That force has been used to reinforce embassies, evacuate diplomats and stand alert to respond to potential crisis.
“After our ambassador was killed, we sat back as a Marine Corps and asked what could we have done, what could we have offered the president,” Gen. Amos said. “We didn’t have any forces in the Mediterranean. We said we will build…a crisis response team.”
The Marines have learned from their early experiences with land-based crisis response teams, Gen Amos said. The first task force exposed the need for additional personnel, more V-22s and the need to appoint a single commander to oversee both training and rescue missions.
The Marines are considering another crisis-response team for South America, but are unlikely under current budgets to have enough money, Gen. Amos said. Still, he said, the Marines may send teams there on temporary assignment.
Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy officer and now an analyst at the Center for a New American Security, said Gen. Amos deserved credit for looking beyond traditional Marine operations, like assaults from the sea.
But Mr. Hendrix said that rather than positioning large crisis-response teams on land in places like Kuwait, the Marines should consider placing smaller crisis units on other kinds of naval vessels, such as the Littoral Combat Ship or the Joint High Speed Vessel, a troop transport.
“Looking at the Marines as a crisis response force is good in the sense the Corps knows it must develop an alternative mission and a new future,” Mr. Hendrix said. “If they would build smaller teams …then these teams could be brought together in times of crisis.”
Gen. Amos acknowledged the value of sea-borne crisis teams.
“In a perfect world we would rather have these teams sea-based,” he said. “But we don’t have enough ships.”
Write to Julian E. Barnes at firstname.lastname@example.org