Marine aviators and infantry working with role-playing actors simulated an embassy evacuation Friday evening at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center outside Twentynine Palms.
The operation was staged by Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One (MAWTS-1) personnel, who are based in Yuma, Arizona.
A supervising officer who has overseen Marines at U.S. embassies briefed spectators just after 5 p.m. Oct. 18, before tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft roared in for vertical landings and take-offs.
“Normally an embassy compound has about three or four buildings surrounded by barricades, walls, cameras. some of the embassy compounds will have a big field, a place where a helicopter or helicopters can land, not all of them, it depends on the city,” the officer said.
“So there’s a mob trying to get into the embassy. The ambassador made the determination things are getting bad and we need to evacuate all personnel. What would happen is ambassador would notify the State Department in D.C. that we need U.S. forces to come in for the evacuation and the Marines have been notified to carry this out.”
The roughly five-hour scenario involved evacuating a fictitious total of 480 people from the location.
The aircraft would have security force, a tactical air control team, and processing personnel to ensure only American citizens board the aircraft.
There was a simultaneous evacuation staged at a housing complex nearby on the base, to replicate the reality in many cases, that people work at embassies and live elsewhere in their communities, away from the embassy.
“You heard of Benghazi last year and everything that went with that. Just so you know, we don’t have Marines at every single embassy and consulate in the world, and the reason for that is there are over 200 U.S. embassies and consulates. The Marines are only at 154, and the main reason why the Marines is because they’re there to protect classified information and equipment.
“They’re there to protect personnel also, but the main reason for being there is that classified information. So that’s why the Marines are some embassies and not other ones. . . .
“No Marines were in Benghazi. There was no classified information at Beghazi either. That was a temporary facility. It wasn’t a permanent embassy or consulate. That was a facility they built up as a holding place. The real embassy is in Tripoli. The ambassador that was killed was visiting at that time. His living and working place was in Tripoli.
“But as a result of that now, the State Department wants Marines at no only the places where we have classified information, but wherever we have American citizens working, that’s where they want us to be there to focus more on protection of personnel. . . .
“In countries in North Africa we’ve sent in more Marines to augment the Marines that are already there, because as I mentioned earlier there’s three or four buildings on an embassy compound. The Marines are only concerned about one building, and that’s the chancery.
“That’s the actual building that the ambassador and all the other federal agencies work out of. That’s the building that if the mob came over the wall, they come over the wall, take down the flags, spray paint, that all makes for great television but at the end of the day they didn’t accomplish anything unless they penetrated that one building, the chancery.
“The only time they penetrated that building was in Iran in 1979, and the reason why is because we weren’t allowed to resist. The State Department told the Marines ‘Hey, just let’em in.’
“If you saw the movie ‘Argo’ that’s a pretty accurate description of what happened. If the Marines were allowed at that time to shoot, and keep those doors closed, they would have done that. But at the end of the day the Marines can’t make the decisions. It’s the ambassador that has the final say-so on what goes on in that country.”
When he helped oversee Marines at various embassies around the world, the Marines did not report to him directly on a day-today basis. They reported to a State Department diplomatic security agent, not a military chain of command.
A Marine major with combat pilot experience added more details to the briefing.
“The Osprey now is probably the most efficient way to do it. They can put 24 combat Marines in and if you fold up the chairs you can get 32 combat Marines. In an extremist situation we’d stack people like cordwood. Believe me people would want to get out.
“A NEO (noncombatant evacuation operation) is an operation that frankly is a lot more common than you think. The Marine Corps . . . since the fall of Saigon in ’75 we’ve done 20 NEOs. It’s a pretty common real-world scenario. I think we had three in 2011. Liberia, Tunisia and Japan.
“It can be for civil unrest, which is a traditional way, like the colonel was saying. The people are mad and they don’t want you there any more and you start evacuating. Or, it can just be for a tsunami. So it can be done. It’s a non-combatant evacuation. It doesn’t necessarily have to be combative in nature. Combative for us is what I mean.
“You can do it for disaster relief as well. When you need to get your folks out of a foreign country and you need to do it quickly, whatever the reason is, this is what you do.”
The scenario covered two incidents in two states: a humanitarian relief mission in Arizona and a noncombatant evacuation at Twentynine Palms.
“There’s two missions going on. The idea is we give the students a package of 33 aircraft and then there’s the supporting air agencies, there’s six of those, air traffic control, and there’s also a ground element, you’ll see people running around in cammies, they’re from infantry, we’re from combat logistics. So that’s the whole package.
“The scenario we gave the students to work through is you have two things going on in the same time. You have a foreign humanitarian assistance in Arizona, which you have to drop off food, relieve suffering in some way, it has nothing to do with evacuation, you’re actually delivering things for relief. And you have a NEO. And this NEO here is the other piece of it.
“So they have to figure out the apportionment of aircraft, how to do all that. That’s the real drill.”