Lt. Col. Phil Ash gives directions to a Task Force Belleau Wood perimeter patrol, scouring the region near the massive Camp Leatherneck/Bastion complex. Spending on security has risen sharply since an attack in September 2012 killed twop Marines and destroyed six aircraft. (Hope Seck Hodge / Staff)
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Marines patrol outside Leatherneck/Bastion as a surveillance blimp flies overhead. (Hope Seck Hodge / Staff)
OUTSIDE CAMP LEATHERNECK, AFGHANISTAN — The Marines here are dressed for a dismounted patrol in the broiling Afghan sun, complete with body armor, cans of Barbasol to mark suspected explosives, and the blast-proof “combat diapers” that are now ubiquitous outside the wire. But this patrol is taking place well within sight of the armored fortress that is the Marine Corps’ miles-wide headquarters in Helmand province, and no insurgent has thus far dared to lay an improvised explosive device this close to guard towers manned with automatic weapons.
“Don’t think there’s not [an IED] because there hasn’t been one,” warns Lt. Col. Phil Ash, executive officer of Task Force Belleau Wood, the base security element, as the 10-man patrol, composed of Marines from 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, and 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, the battalion replacing it, makes its way single-file through the sand.
This ramped-up vigilance is one of many signs of the sea change in security that has taken place since Sept. 14, 2012, when a group of 15 armed attackers dressed in Army uniforms managed to gain access to Camp Bastion, the British airfield adjoining Leatherneck, killing two Marines and destroying six AV-8B Harrier jets before they were killed by responding Marine forces.
An investigation into the incident, which resulted in the relief of two Marine general officers, would reveal, among other things, that guard towers were only 50 percent manned prior to the attack, that the breach point had been poorly lit, and that then-Regional Command Southwest commander Maj. Gen. Charles “Mark” Gurganus, faced with limited resources, had been forced to assume some security risks in the interest of sending more Marines to fight in the outer reaches of Helmand province.
None of that is true anymore, particularly the part about limited resources. The commander of Task Force Belleau Wood, Col. Peter Baumgarten, declines to name a dollar figure, but acknowledges base security spending has increased by “a lot” since the 2012 attack. The size of the task force has nearly tripled since then to its current strength of about 3,000, including a battalion each of Marines and Georgian troops, a squadron from the British Royal Air Force, and a contingent from the Jordanian Armed Forces.
Every guard tower, placed at irregular intervals around the perimeter of Camps Bastion and Leatherneck, is now manned 24/7 with guards who are familiar with the normal “baseline” of area activity for that particular post, and light is now used as a defensive weapon, flooding certain portions of the base complex with such blinding intensity in the evenings that it would be impossible for an intruder to tell what lies beyond the beams.
The base’s first external defense is a dirt-berm perimeter, too tall to drive over, that circles the complex at a distance of several hundred meters. That ring has been built up and reinforced since the 2012 attacks.
And just in recent weeks, the space between berm and gate has been reinforced with various physical obstacles that use wadis and razor wire, among other things, to create nasty surprises for assailants in the dark.
The morning’s patrol, a chance for the Marines of 1/2 to familiarize themselves with the terrain, turns up little of interest. Several times, the troops take a knee to observe the activity of motor bikers on a roadway past the berm. Once, Ash points out a narrow depression in the berm where a motor biker has found a way through; likely one of the scrap metal collectors who sometimes try to comb this no-man’s-land for fence posts and bullet casings before the guards warn them off.
Ash says the Marines rebuild breach points like this one as they find them.
Later in the day, he shows a reporter the view from a perimeter guard tower looking out to the west, where the patrol had roamed that morning. The tower, manned by Georgian troops, could easily view activity well beyond the berm line.
During the morning’s patrol, Ash said, “between 20 and 40 people on the ground alone had eyes on you at any time.”
It’s also clear from this vantage point how the base’s geographic defenses work with the natural terrain: in certain light, berms and wadis that could sabotage an advancing attacker all by themselves become all but invisible on the landscape.
Binoculars, an elevated guard post, rifles, automatic weapons: It is, in other words, “your good, old-fashioned grunt-centered defense,” Ash says. It’s just applied more aggressively and consistently now.
The emphasis on the low-tech is intentional.
“One you understand [a new technology], you can start to develop a way to work around it,” he says.
But the space-age technology protecting the base has been ramped up, too, though the leaders of Task Force Belleau Wood are less willing to talk about those developments.
Camp Leatherneck used to have one white “spy blimp” flying overhead like a Macy’s parade float; now it has two.
Over the course of the past year, Baumgarten said, the base has doubled its collection of next-generation cameras, ground-based observational surveillance systems, on towers across its breadth; it also uses vehicle-based observational surveillance systems, installed in MRAPs, to get roving intelligence while out on patrols.
Other surveillance features — such as a tiny drone, just bigger than a model airplane, that passes above the patrol on some other missions — task force officials decline to discuss.
All those cameras, which feed to screens at the now-teeming Task Force Belleau Wood operations center, observe what happens within the base as well as outside the perimeter, giving the base what task force staff acknowledge is a “Big Brother” feel. Baumgarten said his first security concerns are perimeter infiltration and indirect rocket fire, but his next priority is insider threats.
“You’re a casino and you’re trying to catch people counting cards,” said Master Gunnery Sgt. Doug Fraser. “That’s basically what we’re doing.”
Perimeter patrols, too, have received a plus-up: In addition to scouring the space inside the berm line, Task Force Belleau Wood sends patrols 10 miles or more beyond the boundaries of Camps Leatherneck and Bastion, canvassing local villages. These deep patrols frequently receive contact from distant small-arms fire, often multiple times a week, he said. While this hostile activity is usually too far out to present much of a threat, these perimeter security patrols have seen one casualty: Cpl. Caleb Erickson, 20, a motor transport operator with 1/9, whose vehicle was struck by a suicide bomber Feb. 28, according to local news reports.
The task force has also begun to incorporate Afghan troops into these perimeter patrols, with an eye to leaving the base in the hands of the Afghan National Army’s 215th Corps when the Marines and coalition forces leave at the end of this year. It’s not clear how much of the complex the Corps will opt to maintain, but for now three platoons from the 6th Kandak, or battalion, of the 4th Brigade are teamed up with the task force on patrols and training in IED detection and other skills.
“I like to tell them the second you stop learning is the second you start dying,” said Cpl. Miles Vining, with Bravo Company, 1/9.
Another Marine from the company, Cpl. Charles Kristel, said while the Afghan troops are learning lots of new skills, they also possess valuable regional knowledge. In one case, he said, they had become suspicious at the sight of a woman in tennis shoes; she would turn out to be a man in disguise, who was then questioned by troops.
In the remaining months of 2014, Baumgarten said, the task force is sparing no expense to avoid another blindsiding base attack like the one in 2012. Ash called the Marines’ attitude toward security “healthy paranoia.”
And as the Marines’ footprint in Helmand province grows smaller and more forward operating bases close, task force leaders are redistributing some of the security gear coming back in convoys to the Leatherneck/Bastion complex.
“We’ve done a lot of great work, better and better, and you go, ‘Wow. Should we do more?’ And the answer is, ‘hell yes,’ ” Baumgarten said. “If we have the resources right now, we’re going to continue to build things to the highest possible level we can.”