U.S. marines get ready for the next Benghazi

Quick-reaction troops and planes position in Europe

(Image credit: (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images))

The Pentagon sent more Marines and warplanes to join its emergency response group in Europe this spring. The additions show the growing importance of smaller task forces in an era of shrinking defense budgets.

Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response had 500 Marines, six MV-22B tiltrotors, and two KC-130J tankers in Spain as of March. The Pentagon's move adds 350 more people to the force, as well as additional aircraft.

The military has not said what new aircraft are joining the task force, but the Marines could want additional firepower to protect the Ospreys. Three Air Force tiltrotors were damaged by enemy fire over South Sudan last year, wounding four Navy SEALs and forcing them to abort their mission.

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Americans will also remain at Spain's Moron air base for at least another year. The Spanish government had originally given the Marines 12 months to find other accommodations, but Madrid recently offered an extension.

The Pentagon sent the Marines to Spain after widespread criticism of its reaction to the attack on American diplomats in Benghazi, Libya. The U.S. military had limited options when militants assaulted the consulate in 2012. Today the military has several fast-reacting task forces ready to go with just a few hours' notice.

Marines man the unit in temporary rotations and make use of Spanish-owned facilities. This model reduces costs normally incurred by large American military communities in Europe.

The emergency Marines' main focus remains crises in Africa. The task force has already had a chance to show off its skills on the continent.

When South Sudan descended into civil war last December, Washington sent the unit into action. The Marines went to Djibouti and Uganda to help evacuate U.S. citizens caught up in the fighting.

It was clearly more efficient for the military to have the Marines ready to go, rather than scrambling to find other forces in Europe. It was also cheaper than sending units from the United States.

The Marines also train regularly with African and European forces when they're not responding to emergencies. In February, the task force conducted separate exercises with French marines and Spanish aviators.

The U.S. and its European allies share a number of security concerns related to Africa, from terrorism to human trafficking, so this makes sense. France is especially active in Africa.

The Defense Department spends millions of dollars each year on large military exercises around the world. Unfortunately, the Pentagon has had to trim training funding in recent years owing to the automatic "sequestration" budget cuts.

The military uses a significant portion of the exercise cash just getting forces to their destination. The Marines in Spain, and other small units around the world, can conduct shorter exercises, more often, without those costs.

These factors likely played a part in the decision to expand the force in Spain. The Pentagon spends more time talking about cutting funding these days than adding it, and the Marines in Spain have clearly proven their worth to the budgeters — in addition to possibly preventing another Benghazi.

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