The Complex

Marines’ Post-Benghazi Forces Rescue Embassy Personnel -- and Show Up the Army

Marines escorted U.S. State Department personnel aboard a plane Friday, evacuating much of the embassy in Juba, South Sudan, as the conflict there escalated and put the safety of the embassy at risk. It's the latest action for the Marine Corps task force established last year to respond to such emergencies, and it's unlikely their involvement in Africa will wane anytime soon. In fact, the Marines' response in South Sudan comes despite the creation last year of a U.S. Army crisis-response unit that was supposed to handle emergencies in the region. And if recent movements are any indication, the force faces the prospect of mission creep as instability across the region raises the prospect of more violence in Egypt, Libya and other countries.

The Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force-Crisis Response, as the Marine Corps unit is known, was established in the wake of the Benghazi debacle last spring to respond by air to crises across northern Africa, primarily from bases in Morón, Spain, and Sigonella, Italy, with KC-130J planes and MV-22B tilt-rotor Ospreys. That leaves landlocked South Sudan -- nestled between the Central African Republic and Ethiopia in Middle Africa -- a long way away. To position itself to help in Juba, the Marines moved about 150 personnel last month from Spain to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, and then deployed a platoon from that group even closer, to Entebbe, Uganda. It was these Marines that responded to the evacuation call Friday, providing a KC-130 cargo plane to airlift U.S. civilians from Juba, South Sudan's capital.

"Since arriving in Entebbe, the Marines remain ready to respond to a variety of mission if called upon by national and commander leadership, but their focus remains on deterring crises in the area while also being prepared to respond if required," their commander, Col. Scott Benedict, told Foreign Policy on Thursday, before the evacuation was ordered.

The mission highlights the complexities for American forces in the region after the Sept. 11, 2011 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya. The United States has responded to numerous crises in Africa since then, at times having forces ready to deploy by air within an hour if called. The move to Djibouti and Uganda represented the task force's longest insertion of troops yet -- more than 3,400 miles.

But it also represented for the Marines a victory over a bureaucratic foe. The U.S. Army last year established its own crisis-response unit, the East Africa Response Force, in Djibouti, with similar goals of reacting rapidly to crises affecting U.S. interests. Pentagon officials told Foreign Policy last month that the mission would be divided up on a regional basis, with the Marines handling missions in northern Africa and the Army's response force handling missions in the east. The Army continues to reinforce the embassy and had a role in the evacuation, but it was the Marine Corps' aviation that got U.S. civilians out of harm's way. Soldiers from the Army's response force have been in South Sudan at the embassy since last month providing security, but the Marines provided the flight out on Friday for U.S. civilians and embassy personnel.

In part, that's because the Marine Corps fields, in effect, an air force of its own. The Army doesn't have such "organic" aircraft, as they're known in milspeak. The Marines' ability to move to respond from Djibouti "is a testament to our organic aviation assets," Benedict told Foreign Policy.

Benedict said Thursday the crisis-response mission has required coordination between his task force, the Army's response force, the embassy in Juba and Army Maj. Gen. Terry Ferrell, commander of the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa that has headquarters in Djibouti. Page, the ambassador, (pictured above) said on Twitter that the U.S. was not suspending operations there, just "minimizing its presence." But the embassy also said in a statement that it would not offer consular services to U.S. citizens in South Sudan as of Jan. 4.

Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, said Friday that the "drawdown" in U.S. personnel at the embassy in Juba was underway "out of an abundance of caution to ensure the safety and security of our diplomatic personnel."


Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that Ambassador Susan D. Page had been evacuated from South Sudan. She is, in fact, still working from the embassy in Juba, State Department officials said. An earlier version of this story also did not make it clear that the soldiers who have buttressed security at the embassy are from the East Africa Response Force. They have been coordinating with the Marines, but did provide planes to evacuate embassy personnel.

Photo by Staff Sgt. Robert L. Fisher III

National Security

Military Looks to Shield Its Satellites from Electromagnetic Attacks

Electromagnetic pulse attacks are one of those things that keep some military officials wide awake at night -- and put others soundly asleep. It all depends on who you’re talking about.

For the former, including a number of doomsayers, missile-defense boosters, and prominent politicos, the risk is that a rogue state could emit a blast of electromagnetic energy by way of a nuclear explosion in the upper atmosphere, frying electronic systems from California to Cape Cod.

For skeptics -- and many scientists -- it’s all an overblown theory containing loads of technical and practical problems. More realistically, it'd be lights out when we’re eventually hit by a rare and exceedingly powerful solar storm.

But concerns about weaponized EMP persist. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a Pentagon body focused on countering threats from nuclear weapons, has put out the call for new studies into the phenomenon, according to a notice from the agency posted in December. Specifically, DTRA wants to research "high-altitude weapons electromagnetic pulse effects modeling" for satellites.

The ultimate goal is to come up with a uniform military standard for EMP effects on satellites, which could later be used to harden them against an attack. The term "effects modeling" in the notice refers to laboratory simulations. DTRA has also stressed it's not trying to predict the likelihood of an e-bomb attack, just the expected results of one.

We have some experience with this -- albeit with several gaps.

For one, we do know that satellites in low-earth orbit would be in grave danger of getting zapped by EMP. Satellites at these orbits include ones used for high-resolution imagery, monitoring the weatherb and handling telecommunications. They also include a large number of military situational awareness satellites and the International Space Station.

Four years ago, DTRA rounded up research into 16 high-altitude nuclear detonations during the Cold War that damaged or destroyed at least eight satellites. Most famously, Telstar 1 -- the world's first communications satellite -- was damaged in 1962 after its transistors were bombarded by electrons released by the 1.4-megaton, 250-mile-high Starfish Prime nuclear test.

While most low-earth-orbit satellites would avoid being immediately knocked out by an EMP, the presence of radiation exposure over the long term is a "serious long-term hazard" that "could seriously hamper any war effort, particularly in remote regions," the agency noted in a 2010 report.

Little is known about effects of EMP at higher altitudes, above 370 or so, or below 60 miles. For a ballistic missile defense system that successfully strikes and detonates a nuclear ICBM at high altitudes, "strategies may risk being designed on the basis of inappropriate levels of nuclear effects, at least for detonations in the upper half of the mid-course battle space," the report added.

The good news is that the agency doesn't think mid- and high-earth orbit satellites are at great risk for any damage beyond a slightly shorter lifespan. "Satellites in MEO or GEO are not at risk to immediate loss from radiation damage resulting from a credible EMP attack anywhere on Earth," the agency concluded.

At high orbits, spy satellites from the National Reconnaissance Office, military communications satellites, and ballistic missile detectors -- plus the Global Positioning System -- are already heavily shielded from radiation. Radiation injected by a weapon at high orbits would also decay within days instead of years like in low orbits, lessening the effect further.

There are several things you could do to make satellites more survivable, though. There's hardening and shielding, which can add weight and cost -- a problem for private companies that own and operate LEO satellites jointly used by the military. The often-misunderstood, $250 million High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) is even used by the Air Force to research how to scrub the magnetosphere of electrons emitted by nuclear weapons that could screw up satellite transistors.

But then there's the practical problem for whoever's doing the nuking which makes the scenario not that plausible. If you’re a rogue dictator with some loose H-bombs, why launch them into space when you could just nuke a city? Either way you've started a nuclear war with the world's most powerful nuclear power. The risk of starting Armageddon is still the same. What makes EMP so different?

Still, you can't fault DTRA for at least being interested in the idea. And on the flip side, there's always the potential for non-nuclear EMP space weapons to get panicky about. Don't lose too much sleep over it, though.

First published on's War Is Boring collection.