NEO stands for noncombatant evacuation operation, and we are seeing one unfold before our eyes on the evening news this week. As these events take place in Sudan and off the eastern coast of Africa, I was encouraged to see USNS Brunswick alongside in the Port of Sudan ferrying Americans to a safe haven and follow-on passage via Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.
Unfortunately, this ship is an expeditionary fast transport that serves as an ocean-going ferry for limited transport of personnel or equipment. A similar type of vessel, the former USNS Swift, which was transferred to the United Arab Emirates and engaged in humanitarian missions, was hit by a cruise missile in these same waters in 2016. These waters are hazardous. It is reassuring that the expeditionary sea base Hershel “Woody” Williams and the destroyer Truxton are also supporting the Sudan mission.
In the case of violence in Sudan, these options were unavailable. The problem is both one of readiness and inventory.
The Navy and Marine Corps have studied the question on the correct number of amphibious ships for several years now, and there seems to be a consensus among those armed services that the correct number is 31 big-deck amphibious ships. The problem in getting to and sustaining that number does not reside inside the Navy or the Marine Corps, but rather with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which does not embrace the value of the amphibious warship in 21st century warfare.
During Exercise Trident Juncture in 2018 — at the time considered the largest NATO exercise since the end of the Cold War, with about 50,000 participants; 65 ships; 250 aircraft of various types; and 10,000 vehicles — the ability to lift a Marine expeditionary unit from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, to the fjords of Norway in response to a simulated attack by the Russian Federation was made possible by the U.S. Navy’s Iwo Jima Expeditionary Strike Group. About 8,500 U.S. Marines participated in this exercise to augment allies and partners in an Article 5 operation that enabled operations in the air, from the sea and on the land.
During my time as commander of Naval Forces Europe and Naval Forces Africa, there was a constant demand signal, blessed by the combatant commanders, for a permanent presence of an expeditionary strike group in the Mediterranean. In lieu of a permanent presence, the commanders now receive transient presence, which occurs when the ESG (or other platforms) stop and operate in theater for a few weeks, vice a six-month deployment rotation.
As a result, we have the situation that we are watching now in real time. Last week, the commandant of the Marine Corps testified before the House Armed Services Committee that he felt he had “let down the combatant commander.” He was referring to fellow Marine Gen. Michael Langley — the current leader of U.S. African Command — and the Navy and Marine Corps’ inability to generate an expeditionary strike group with a Marine expeditionary unit to conduct more than one mission in the last six months — earthquake relief in Turkey and Syria, plus the outbreak of violence between warring factions in Sudan, with American citizens caught in the crossfire.
While we may have dodged a bullet this time, the conflict is nowhere near over. And like Afghanistan, we will continue to hear of the plight of Americans and dual citizens who are caught up in the fray for the foreseeable future.
Retired U.S. Navy Adm. James G. Foggo is the dean for the Navy League’s Center for Maritime Strategy. He previously served as commander of Naval Forces Europe and of Naval Forces, Africa.