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Marine expeditionary unit's role in potential Syria strike unclear

Aug. 28, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Marines assigned to Battalion Landing Team 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, stand watch aboard the amphibious transport dock San Antonio on July 27. The MEU is forward deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility as a crisis-response force.
Marines assigned to Battalion Landing Team 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, stand watch aboard the amphibious transport dock San Antonio on July 27. The MEU is forward deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility as a crisis-response force. (Lance Cpl. Juanenrique Owings/Marine Corps)
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In the run-up to the U.S. military and its allies bombing key targets in Libya in 2011, Marines and sailors with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit floated off the coast on Navy ships, waiting for orders. It didnít take long for them to come.

Four of the six AV-8B Harrier jets with the force, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., were among the first aircraft to launch early March 19, 2011, as U.S. and other allied aircraft joined to bomb Libyan government forces as they advanced on the city of Benghazi. Three days later, the Marines launched one of the most high-profile missions of the campaign: a daring air rescue of an Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle pilot who ejected over Libya before his jet crashed.

The mission is indicative of the kind of involvement top Marine officers highlight as the U.S. prepares for military intervention. It comes into play now as the White House and Pentagon set their sights on Syria, where the regimeís alleged use of chemical weapons on civilians has raised the prospect of a U.S. military strike in coming days. It is unlikely the U.S. will send in ground forces, but an air campaign would raise the possibility of aircraft crashing. If that occurs, a Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel, or TRAP, mission, is a one possibility to rescue surviving U.S. personnel.

Once again, the 26th MEU is in the region. The force, comprising about 2,200 Marines and sailors aboard three ships, deployed from Camp Lejeune in March, and entered the Middle East region in April, Marine officials said. The forces are distributed among the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge, the amphibious transport dock San Antonio and the amphibious dock landing ship Carter Hall.

The ships may not be positioned well to assist in Syria soon, however. A routine Facebook update on Tuesday from the Marine forceís commanding officer, Col. Matt St. Clair, said the Kearsarge was in the United Arab Emirates and the Carter Hall was off the coast of Africa in the Seychelles, each nearly a week from the Syrian coast. The San Antonio, meanwhile, was in the Gulf of Aden as of Sunday, according to photos released by the Navy. That would require the ship to travel north several days through the Red Sea and Suez Canal to have any kind of prominent role in a Syria campaign. The San Antonio can carry hundreds of Marines and several MV-22B Ospreys, which were used in the 2011 TRAP mission in Libya.

The Corps has units in the region to deal specifically with crisis-response missions, said Capt. Eric Flanagan, a Marine spokesman at the Pentagon. So far, however, none have been directed to prepare for a specific mission or deployment, he said.

Itís also possible, if not likely, that the U.S. will forgo an air campaign in favor of cruise missile strikes from Navy destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Doing so would prevent the possibility of a U.S. aviator being taken as a prisoner of war, something that occurred in nearby Lebanon previously after a Navy A-6 Intruder was shot down by a ground-to-air missile.

In that case, Navy Lts. Mark Lange and Bobby Goodman were taken prisoner by Syrian forces on Dec. 4, 1983. Lange died shortly afterward of injuries sustained in the crash, and Goodman was held in Damascus for about a month. The mission was prompted by Syrian forces opening fire on a U.S. plane supporting Marine forces in Lebanon, according to media reports at the time.

TRAP mission recalled

In Libya two years ago, the U.S. avoided a similar outcome when the Marines executed the TRAP mission. Within 80 minutes of the plane going down, commanders dispatched dozens of Marines, two CH-53E helicopters, two MV-22B Ospreys and two AV-8B Harrier jets from a ship off the coast of the north African nation. A KC-130J tanker also was called in from Italy to provide aerial refueling.

In that case, the Strike Eagle pilot, Maj. Kenneth Harney, and his weapons system officer, Capt. Tyler Stark, ejected safely after facing engine trouble. They landed in rebel-held territory east of Benghazi, far from the heavily armed forces advancing on the port city in support of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, but didnít know if the armed rebels also posed a threat.

Harney evaded Libyans while on foot for nearly four miles, until a team of Marines rescued him in an MV-22B Osprey. Stark ended up in a Benghazi hotel that night after being taken in by Libyan rebels.

The TRAP force was launched from the Kearsarge, positioned about 130 nautical miles from the crash site east of Benghazi, a rebel stronghold, Marine officials said. Each Osprey carried about 15 reconnaissance Marines from Battalion Landing Team 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, out of Camp Lejeune. Two Harriers provided close-air support, and the CH-53E helicopters carried an additional quick-reaction force from Lejeuneís 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, that never even landed.

On its present deployment, the 26th MEU includes more than 1,000 Marines with BLT 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, out of Camp Lejeune. The Ospreys are with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 266 (reinforced), deployed from Marine Corps Air Station New River, N.C.

The Corps also added a new special purpose Marine air ground task force this spring designed specifically to respond to crisis response. Most of the Marines are based far from Syria at Morůn Air Base in Spain, but a small detachment has been kept closer at Naval Air Station Sigonella in Italy to respond to crises in the region. Itís built around a reinforced infantry company and supported by six MV-22B Ospreys and two KC-130J tanker jets. The Ospreys, with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 365, also out of New River, are returning home today and tomorrow. It was not immediately clear which unit is replacing them in MorÚn.

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