Libya appears on the verge of all-out civil war once again as opposing factions are squaring off in the streets of Tripoli. In the wake of the Benghazi attack, the Obama Administration and the DoD are ready and waiting to pull our diplomats and their support staff out at a moments notice. Here's how they'll probably do it.
America's diplomatic mission in Libya would be by no means the first to vacate the their facilies under the deteriorating circumstances in that country. The Saudi Arabian and Turkish consulates, among others, have been closed recently. With this in mind, along with gunfire echoing throughout the streets of Tripoli, America is staging what could be an all out evacuation of US Embassy staff based there.
America's Embassy in Libya is already one of the most highly guarded in the world, but under the current circumstances it is almost a given that the Marine Corps Embassy Security Group (MCESG) has already bolstered its standard detachment of Marines Security Guards with one of the newly formed Marine Security Augmentation Units (MSAU). These rapidly deployed squads were developed in the aftermath of the Benghazi attack and aimed at providing flexible, agile and scalable additional security for US Embassies and diplomatic missions at the request of Ambassadors or the State Department. In other words, if chaos or threatening intelligence is is looming within a country where the U.S. has a diplomatic presence, these teams are deployed to be a preventive measure against a well organized attack. An MSAU was recently deployed to Kiev in response to the dramatic geopolitical changes and threats, both internal and external, occurring in and around Ukraine.
Even if there is an augmented force of Marine Security Guards in place at the American Embassy in Libya, this does not mean such a force is prepared to defend our facilities alone and indefinitely, yet alone evacuate its entire complement of civil servants and diplomats under fire. Thus the USMC has prepared what is clearly a large scale contingency operation should the call come to abandon the Embassy.
Currently, the Marines have forward deployed eight MV-22 Ospreys to Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily, which is about 320 miles from the US Embassy in Tripoli. Each MV-22 can carry 24 armed soldiers in seats along its walls, but it can carry more civilians in a dire emergency.
The Osprey was designed with this exact type of mission in mind as it boasts medium-range and helicopter-like takeoff and landing capabilities. Still, the MV-22 with 24 passengers has a combat radius of 325 miles, which would barely get it from NAS Sigonella to Tripoli and back. The fact that these aircraft may return with a heavier load than planned, may have to loiter or sit on the ground running for an extended period of time, and taking into account the high-heat environment in North Africa, they most likely will require more than one tank of gas to get this job done. Thus the Marines have also forward deployed a trio of KC-130 tankers along with the Ospreys.
The KC-130J Super Hercules tankers would be used as an aerial refueling aircraft for MV-22s, most likely right after they leave the target area on their return trip back to Sicily. If there is a Navy amphibious assault ship stationed off the Libyan coast capable of recovering even a portion the MV-22s involved, the KC-130Js could provide gas for MV-22s that are loitering in the area as they await their turn to land at the Embassy.
A single KC-130J can offer over 80,000lbs of gas to offload to "customers," in this case the MV-22s. More realistically, a pair of KC-130Js could provide a combined 80,000lbs of fuel for other aircraft with 50,000lbs left over for the KC-130Js themselves. This would allow for each Osprey to top off their tanks with 10,000lbs of fuel for their return trip to Sigonella or to drastically increase their loiter time before making their way to the landing zone and back to a nearby amphibious assault ship, although it seems that there are none of these ships in the region. The third KC-130J could be used as a spare or as a command and control platform, or even as a platform for direct fire support and over-watch if it is equipped with a "Harvest Hawk" kit.
Evacuating a major U.S. Embassy under duress or eminent threat is not just about flying some tilt-rotor aircraft in and picking up the staff, it is about creating conditions where doing so is possible. This is where the Fleet Anti-terrorist Security Team (FAST) comes into play. FASTs are an elite group of Marine commandos that are always on alert to react to situations where a terrorist actions have already occurred, or are in the progress of occurring, primarily against our diplomats, State Department facilities, large groups of US citizens abroad, or US flagged ships.
There are three FAST companies, of which each is made of up roughly six platoons consisting of 50 operators. These soldiers receive specialized training including counter surveillance, physical security, urban combat techniques, close quarter combat, and advanced hand-to-hand fighting to name a few and are picked from the top of the Marine Security Force's roster. http://youtu.be/hQ8hK_lN1E4
Although they are all based in Virginia, FASTs are usually forward deployed to Spain, Bahrain and Japan on a rotating basis so that they can react incredibly fast to regional acts of terrorism. Since the Benghazi tragedy, FASTs have been on heightened alert, especially in the Middle East and Europe. The FAST operators involved with the contingency plan in question primarily came from their forward base in Rota, Spain.
Depending on the circumstances at hand, FASTs would probably deploy on the inbound flight from Sigonella, and bolster both the standard Marine security forces on scene, as well as the MSAU that could already be temporarily deployed there. The outbound leg would see diplomats and US citizens evacuated. Depending on the size of the force and how many people are left at the US Embassy, multiple trips could be made, with the final leg seeing the Marine security detachment, including the MSAU and FASTs pulled out. In the mean time the Embassy staff would have already destroyed all sensitive documents, computer drives and other sensitive material before departing.
If such an operation were to be carried out under fire, it is quite possible that other assets would be employed to help protect the MV-22s as they make their vulnerable approach and departure from the scene. Other MV-22s could orbit above and provide fire support via their ramp mounted M240 or M2 machine guns and their 7.62mm belly mounted mini-gun turrets known as the Remote Guardian System, although this system has its limitations.
This capability would most likely be supplied by Air Force Special Operation Command's ultra-accurate and deadly AC-130 gunships as was done during Operation Eastern Exit, and/or F-16CMs based out of Aviono Air Base in northeast Italy. The F-16CMs could also provide combat air patrols if their is a chance the Libyan Air Force, or a faction within it, would launch fighters if the US did not have permission to enter Libyan airspace from the almost non-existent Libyan government.
The "Gator Navy's" massive helicopter landing docks could also deploy a "shooter" capability that would provide the MV-22s cover in the form of AV-8B Harriers and AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters. Although, it is doubtful that one of these ships is deployed to the region at this time as the MV-22s would most likely not be deployed to Sicily, some 320+ miles from Tripoli, if they could simply fly alongside their Harrier and Cobra attack optimized brethren right off a flattop stationed close to Libya's shores. If a smaller LPD or LSD is available, AH-1 Cobras could be deployed from their smaller decks to provide fire support for the USMC-centric operation. Also, the nuclear super-carrier USS George H.W. Bush is presently sailing in the Northern Arabian sea along with a full Air Wing, she could be re-positioned to the Mediterranean but it would take days to make that happen.
Other support aircraft could also be used for such an operation, such an an E-3 Sentry Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft for monitoring the airspace and directing traffic over the landing zone, an RC-135 Rivet Joint for building up an electronic order of battle should the Libyan government become hostile to a US airspace incursion, and an E-6B Mercury for satellite relay and command and control duties. Jamming aircraft, such as EC-130 and EA-18Gs for jamming radio transmissions and radar sites could also be essential. The jamming of radio and cellphone traffic in the vicinity of the operation would be advantageous as it could confuse and disorganize a potential enemy attack. Radar jamming would be paramount if the Ospreys were working in "non-permissive" airspace. Predator, Reaper or Shadow unmanned aircraft could be used for monitoring not just the operation at the Embassy but the streets around the Embassy as well and finally, an E-4B Global Hawk, WB-57, or an E-11 could provide an "active network" over the area of operations so that sensor and situational awareness data could be shared by all the aircraft and ships involved regardless of their installed data-link terminal and waveform.
The number of assets deployed and magnitude of capabilities applied in executing such a mission really depends on the situation on the ground and with the Libyan Government itself. If American aircraft are approved in the airspace over Tripoli, and there are strong guarantees as to their safety in regards to Libya's fledgling military, then the Ospreys and the KC-130s, along with Marines guarding the facility's perimeter and possibly a drone or two overhead for over-watch, may be all that is needed to accomplish the mission. If there is a high possibility of attack by heavily armed militia while the operation is underway, and/or the Libyan Government is not cooperative when it comes to access to its airspace, then a large force structure like the one described above will be necessary.
With so much potential action happening around the U.S. Embassy, and so many lumbering Ospreys coming and going, it is sure to draw a lot of attention. With this in mind, if the landing zone could possibly go "hot" the whole operation may take place under the cover of complete darkness. This would greatly eleviate the chances of being hit by small arms fire, truck mounted anti-aircraft guns, RPGs and especially shoulder fired MANPADS (MAN Portable Air Defense Systems).
Libya is crawling with these systems as Qaddafi had tens of thousands of them before he was deposed, and the majority of them were looted and many if those were smuggled out of the country and into hands of less than desirable people. The MV-22 is equipped with a high-end missile launch detection system and carries dozens of decoy flares, but they are not equipped with the latest in laser countermeasures such as the DIRCM system, although their USAF special operations counterpart, the CV-22Bs, are. Thus operating under the cover of darkness would be a huge advantage for the Marine's operation.
There are other ways such a mission could be prosecuted, such as airlifting and/or driving Embassy personnel to an airport where they would be flown out by U.S. special operations MC-130 aircraft, but the Osprey, whose tilt-rotor concept was invigorated by the failure of Eagle Claw, provides a point-to-point transport capability over long distances.
This lowers risk and increased the speed at which such an operation could be accomplished, although operating from a "Gator Navy" flattop, packed with Harriers and Cobra attack choppers, and stationed a few dozen miles off the coast of Libya would be more advantageous than traveling hundreds of miles to and from Sicily. Having an amphibious assault ship on station would also negate the need for the Osprey at all as a CH-53E Sea Stallions can carry many more people and provide better defensive fire than the MV-22B. So, although it is exciting that the Osprey may showcase its unique capabilities, for this specific mission, being that Tripoli is located right on Libya's coastline, the Osprey would not be necessary if one of America's LHDs or a group of LSDs or LPD were available to support the mission.
Regardless of the mechanical assets available or chosen to take part in such a critical mission, the bravery of the young Marines who protect our embassies in embattled regions around this globe is quite remarkable. Those who fly into the fight to evacuate our diplomatic staff or even to recapture one of our Embassies from an enemy's grip are just as brave and impressive. It is a tough, high-risk and somewhat terrifying of a job that harkens back hundreds of years to siege warfare. Yet, for decades, the USMC Security Force Regiment and the USMC Embassy Security Group has accomplished the mission with incredible dedication and and they have never been better prepared and equipped for a mission like the one discussed above than they are today.
Photo credits DoD, final photo with KC-130J and MC-22s via Lockheed Martin
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer that maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com