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Training for War

November 26, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MICHAEL GORDON: Djibouti is a tiny, impoverished African nation of some 600,000 or 700,000. The Marine presence, plus some forces that the U.S. already has in shore, essentially marks the return of the United States military, in a big way, to the Horn of Africa region. It’s really the first time since the U.S. withdrew from Somalia, after the bloody firefight in Mogadishu, that the U.S. has begun to build up its combat power in the Horn of Africa region.

SPOKESMAN: All rig, ready to offload.

MICHAEL GORDON: After the September 11 attacks in the United States, there was a real concern that al-Qaida operatives would flee Afghanistan and head toward the Horn of Africa. So what happened was, under U.S. command, a flotilla set sail off the coast of Africa, hoping to capture al-Qaida operatives fleeing toward this area, and interdict any arms shipments going either way.

CAPT. RUSSEL P. TJEPKEMA, Commander, U.S.S. Nassau: For all of the ships that are out here, we are operating in a combat zone. There is a real threat that is there, and we’ve got to be prepared to meet it, to defend ourselves. So we’ve got to build a combat atmosphere within the ship, and that’s our challenge.

MICHAEL GORDON: The “Nassau” amphibious ready group is really a unique combination of sailors and Marines.

SPOKESMAN: Steer course 074.

MICHAEL GORDON: And basically what it is, is U.S. Navy personnel who operate three warships, the “Nassau” and two sister ships. These are amphibious ships that carry harrier jump-jets, cobra helicopters, and also all manner of landing craft to put Marines ashore. The other complement of this force is the Marines, about 1,800 Marines, who spend all their time lifting weights, maybe taking some military training in preparing to get off the ships and go ashore.

LT. COL. WALTER MILLER, Commander, Battalion Landing: They are pumped up. They’re ready to do whatever. The world is an ever-changing place, so is this region, as well as everywhere else. We don’t know exactly what we could be, or what we’ll be called on to do. We have ideas of what we could be called on to do. And that adds a little bit of extra motivation in there, to stay hard and stay sharp. And that’s what they’re doing.

MICHAEL GORDON: The force we encountered was the 24th Marine expeditionary unit. And they left Camp Le Jeune on the East Coast of the United States, in North Carolina, in late August.

LT. COL. JAY KENNEDY, Commanding Officer, Helicopter Squadron 263: Our Marines and sailors know that we’re in the neighborhood of where stuff’s going on. So there’s a heightened sense of not necessarily anticipation, but they know they are a lot closer to the fight, so to speak.

MICHAEL GORDON: Basically, they are off the coast of Djibouti. Now, Djibouti has not exactly been on the tongue of most Americans in recent years. Djibouti has no oil, it has no real resources. But Djibouti has long offered western military something very desirable: Location, location, location. It’s just across the water from Yemen. It’s just north of Somalia. It’s a strategically vital piece of territory.

PRESIDENT ISMAIL OMAR GELLEH, Djibouti (Translated): After September 11, there was concern that al-Qaida would flee to Somalia, to Yemen. It is the job of the special services– ours, the Americans, and the Europeans– to track it and to determine if there is something that is happening in the region.

MICHAEL GORDON: So, this is becoming a very busy region for western militaries. You have the French long- standing presence, you have the Europeans off the coast of Djibouti and Somalia looking for al-Qaida, the Central Intelligence Agency has been flying missions with its predator drone. Now, the predator is an unmanned aircraft that, in the CIA version, is equipped with hellfire missiles.

And the CIA has used this weapon in Afghanistan, and it’s using it here in this region to carry out strikes against al-Qaida targets. And now, you have the 24th Marine expeditionary unit carrying out an exercise in the northern part of the country for possible antiterrorist actions, and also for… maybe even participation in against Iraq.

CAPT. TERRY O’BRIAN, Commander, Amphibious Readiness Group: We’re putting the Marines ashore, and that is a part of the exercise. But the force protection measures that we are taking … and our vigilance, is real. It’s real time, it has been, it always has been, it always will be, but now we are particularly focused so we’re not… this is not scripted, this is not some foreign navy that’s playing bad guys. We’re out there. We’re focused. And it really is, our concern is very much real.

MICHAEL GORDON: These ships are packed with military gear: Trucks; tanks; armored vehicles; equipment of all types. They have a variety of ways of getting ashore.

One, which was saw on the “Nassau,” is the LCU, the landing craft. This looks a lot like something the Marines would have used in World War II or in a “Saving Private Ryan” scenario. They also have these large air- cushioned vehicles which they call LCAC’s. These are essentially hydrofoils that can go 50 miles an hour from over the horizon. They come zooming across the water. It’s quite a spectacle, because when they hit land, they don’t have to stop. They can then continue to move ashore.

One of the interesting things that happened was that the Marines took all of the precautions that they needed to take, as did the Navy, to guard against a terrorist threat. But this had little bit of a boomerang effect with the local population, when they came ashore in this tiny and impoverished town of Obuk. Here the Marines come, buttoned up in their helmets and Kevlar jackets and there was a bit of a cultural, I would say, miscommunication.

The Marines were on dock just trying to protect themselves, the townspeople concluded wrongly that the Marines were sort of occupying the dock, and had somehow cut off this tiny town’s lifeline to the world. The result was a demonstration and a bit of a tense standoff, until the whole thing was defused and the Marines went on to do their exercise.

COL. RICHARD MILLS, Commander, 24th Expeditionary Unit: We have over 1,500 Marines ashore. We have our heavy artillery ashore. We have our tanks, our mortars, our tow vehicles. It’s the real big pieces of my punch that I’m able to get ashore, the live fire, to sustain train the crews on. And the real difficult part is to blend all of those weapons systems together at one point, at one time, on one target, to produce the result that I need to achieve success.

SPOKESMAN: Fire! ( Cannon fires )

MICHAEL GORDON: What they really wanted to do was fire their weapons, their big weapons, and to fire them in combination with each other. And there are very few places in the world which let you conduct a small war. (Cannon fires )

MICHAEL GORDON: What are you firing today?

SPOKESMAN: We’re firing high explosives. We’re firing H.E., We fire illumination rounds to illuminate the battlefield. They’re also marked for aircraft that are coming in on gun runs. We fire what they call Mik a25s, which is a smoke round that can create a smokescreen very effectively. And it bursts up in the air and creates a smokescreen for the infantry.

SPOKESMAN: Cease fire.

COL. RICHARD MILLS: We come here. We’re in the desert. We’re over 100 degrees, very dry. We’re making all our own water. And we’re getting a chance to train and operate and fire our big heavy weapons, which is important to us to maintain those skills.

MICHAEL GORDON: You’re talking about a unit that comes from Camp Le Jeune, North Carolina, Pine Forest. This is an opportunity for this East Coast unit to practice desert warfare. And clearly, it’s a training area they plan to use on a regular basis from now on.

One thing that’s obvious to me from being here onshore and on ships off the coast is that this is really going to be in the news in the years to come. Djibouti is, and the Horn of Africa, is becoming a major new arena for the American military, even as the central command prepares for a potential conflict for Iraq.