Libya: Boots On The…Ship?

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USS Bataan leaves Norfolk Wednesday to pick up Marines en route to Libyan theater / Navy photo by Brian Goodwin

President Obama and his commanders have made it clear there will be “no American boots on the ground” in Libya. So how come 2,200 heavily-armed and ready-to-fight Marines are heading to just off “the shores of Tripoli,” as leathernecks like to sing? They’re the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), and will be climbing aboard the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) — the USS Bataan, the USS Mesa Verde, and the USS Whidbey Island — as it deploys three months ahead of schedule next week, toward Libya.

While the Marines can help out in humanitarian efforts, war is their reason for being. A press release from the Bataan itself two days ago used the word combat four times in its brief description of the 22nd MEU:

The 22nd MEU is comprised of its Command Element; a Ground Combat Element, Battalion Landing Team, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment; Aviation Combat Element, Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 263 (Reinforced); and Logistics Combat Element, Combat Logistics Battalion (CLB) 22.

The Bataan group heads toward Libya, after it stops in North Carolina this weekend to pick up those Marines. Once in the Mediterranean Sea, it’ll relieve the USS Kearsarge and its sister vessels, which have been supporting operations in Libya. But most of the Kearsarge’s Marines were dropped off in Afghanistan in January (400 more were dispatched to the Kearsarge group as Libya heated up earlier this month).

The Bataan and Kearsarge are amphibious assault vessels, and look like small aircraft carriers. Strangely, the U.S. Navy — which has two aircraft carriers nearby — hasn’t moved either one closer to Libya. Some in the Pentagon suggest that’s because the White House doesn’t want the Libyan operation to look too “American-centric.” There’s no clearer way of displaying U.S. might than by dispatching a 100,000-ton carrier to a world hot spot. Unlike the Marine ships, there are no ground troops aboard a carrier or her supporting vessels. Much smaller carriers from France and Italy are flying Libyan ops.

Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations, told TIME earlier this week that we shouldn’t read too much into the lack of a carrier off Libya’s coast. “It’s prudent to have, in the north Arabian Sea, the Arabian Gulf, the Indian Ocean region, the two carriers that we have there now,” he said. “Where we move our forces is really driven by the combatant commanders, but you did not see me — and some may say, `Well gee, that sounds strange for a Navy guy’ — you didn’t see me clamoring to put Enterprise back into the Mediterranean.”

It certainly knocks the wind out of the Navy’s favorite quote. “When trouble looms, the first thing the President always asks is `Where’s the nearest carrier?'” Navy officers like to say. “Where’s the nearest ARG?” doesn’t have quite the same ring.