By Barbara Starr
The Pentagon has approved a Marine crisis response force for North Africa with air transport and combat capabilities, Defense Department officials said, a response to criticism the military was unable to get any forces to the scene of last September's deadly terror attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.
The plan for a force of 500 Marines that can arrive at a crisis point within 12 hours has been in the works for weeks.
Details are being discussed with the Italian government and others in southern Europe, officials said.
The United States hopes to quickly reach a final agreement for a base of operations, most likely in Italy. For now, the force will be based at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
The unit will be equipped with rifles, mortars, and other infantry weapons, and also will have six V-22 Osprey aircraft for quick transport.
It will be able to conduct limited combat and security operations at U.S. facilities under attack as well as evacuate Americans, search for downed pilots, and offer humanitarian assistance.
Eventually, it will also conduct training with military forces in the region.
The Marine force is tailored to address what the military was not able to do in Benghazi last September 11.
Militants attacked the compound without warning, essentially in two waves about six hours apart. The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans were killed.
Then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told a congressional hearing in February there was not enough time given the speed of the attack and the lack of "adequate warning" for the United States to respond militarily. There might have been an opportunity to act had it been a "prolonged or continuous assault," he said.
At that same hearing, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said it would have taken up to 20 hours to mount an air attack, which may not have been effective anyway due to the type of assault that unfolded, with crews that were not alert status to begin with.
"Frankly, even if we were able to get the F-16s or the AC-130s over the target in time, the mission still depends on accurate information about what targets they're supposed to hit. And we had no forward air controllers there. We had no (inaudible) - no communications with U.S. personnel on the ground. And as a matter of fact, we had no idea where the ambassador was at that point to be able to kind of conduct any kind of attacks on the ground," Panetta said.
The Marine unit is supposed to solve that problem by putting troops directly into a specific area, officials said.