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Investigation Reveals Details of US Marine Shot in Syria

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It’s unlikely that a Syrian guard was trying to kill the U.S. Marine he shot in the leg in a Feb. 17 incident at a joint, coalition-Syrian outpost in the Middle Euphrates River Valley, according to an Operational Inherent Resolve investigation.

U.S. Central Command on Thursday afternoon released a highly redacted report on the AR 15-6 investigation into the suspected “green on blue incident,” which resulted in Marine Sgt. Cameron Halkovich being shot twice in the left leg.

Halkovich and Cpl. Kane Downey were making a nighttime check of the base perimeter when a Syrian Democratic Forces guard shot Halkovich with his AK-47, according to a story first reported by Task and Purpose.

Downey immediately returned fire, killing the guard at close range.

The 15-6 investigation, led by an unnamed Marine colonel, determined that the shooting was an “isolated incident” and that Downey “acted appropriately and proportionally to the threat and the situation.”

“However, I cannot determine conclusively if [Halkovich] was shot intentionally by the [SDF] guard, or if he shot as a result of a negligent discharge,” the report states.

The SDF guard was “approximately 4 feet away” from Halkovich, who was not wearing body armor inside the security perimeter, the report states.

“Had the [SDF] guard intended to kill [Halkovich], it would have been exceedingly easy for him to do so at that distance,” according to the report.

Before the shooting occurred, Halkovich neared a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected, or MRAP, vehicle at a defensive position and was approached by the SDF guard, according to the investigation.

The SDF guard offered a cigarette. Halkovich “greeted the [SDF] guard but declined the cigarette, and reports possibly shaking the [SDF] guard’s hand before turning east and walking towards the MRAP,” the report states.

“At this point [Halkovich] was shot in the back of his left leg by the [SDF] guard and immediately fell to the ground,” according to the report.

Downey “heard the shots and turned to see the [SDF] guard’s weapon (AK-47) in his shoulder and pointed towards [Halkovich]; he further reports that the [SDF] guard oriented the AK-47 on him,” the report states.

Downey told investigators he was “feeling threatened, believed [Halkovich] was dead, and immediately engaged the [SDF] guard with two shots to the chest from less than 15 feet away,” the report states.

It was over in a “matter of seconds,” the report continues, describing how Downey “immediately kicked away the [SDF] guard’s weapon, confirmed he was no longer a threat, began treating [Halkovich’s] injuries by applying a tourniquet, verbally directed the Marine Guard in the MRAP to radio the situation, and then fireman-carried [Halkovich] to the [Forward Surgical Team] approximately 100 meters away.”

Halkovich received a Purple Heart for his injuries. Downey was awarded a Joint Service Commendation Medal for what the investigation described as his “heroic actions” during the incident.

The SDF conducted its own investigation and found this to be an isolated incident as the result of a negligent discharge, but “fully accept” that the Downey’s reaction was “appropriate and justified given the situation and conditions,” according to the report.

The SDF investigation maintains that the rounds fired from the SDF guard’s weapon “hit the ground and ricocheted into [Halkovich’s] leg,” the report states.

The 15-6, however, said medical examination showed that the “wounds are clearly indicative of direct entry of two 7.62mm rounds and not a ricochet.”

The 15-6 investigation also found that the SDF guard “likely had a round chambered in violation of the weapons status policy,” which was set at “weapons condition 3 (magazine inserted, no round in the chamber).”

If it was not a negligent discharge, there was “insufficient evidence” to show why the SDF guard would have wanted to shoot Halkovich, the report states.

There were, however, two “unrelated” negative interactions between SDF and U.S. personnel before the Feb. 17 incident, according to the report.

“There was an incident where an [SDF] guard chambered a round and approached a Marine while on post,” the report states. “U.S. personnel involved related that the situation was de-escalated quickly and was not a significant concern. The [SDF] soldier involved in this incident was not the same [SDF] … guard killed on 17 February 2018.”

Another incident occurred “on or about Feb. 15,” when SDF guards did not want to allow a vehicle with wounded civilians to enter the base to receive medical treatment … but U.S. forces interjected and allowed the civilians to be treated at the FST,” the report states.

Despite these incidents, an examination of the SDF guard’s phone found no proof that he wanted to harm Halkovich, the report states.

“Nothing discovered … indicated there was a plot to commit the attack or a connection to ISIS influence,” according to the report.

The 15-6 maintains that “it is unlikely that any further investigation is going to reveal the true motive of the deceased [SDF] guard’s actions” and warns that such incidents are likely to occur in the future.

“While it appears this was an isolated incident, it doesn’t change the realities of operating with partners in a complex and hostile environment,” the report states. “As the conflict progresses, tensions and patience will deteriorate; therefore it is important that leadership continue to reiterate vigilance and the potential of future incidents.”

— Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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Athletic Trainers Will Head Out to Marine Units After Years-Long Delay

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MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. — Marines will see dozens of athletic trainers hit the fleet over the next few years, giving leathernecks access to unit-level sports medicine for the first time since entry-level training.

The Marine Corps will invest up to $8.6 million annually on experienced athletic trainers over the next four years. Ten of the trainers will hit the operating forces by the end of next month, said Col. Stephen Armes, director of the service’s Force Fitness Division.

Eventually, the three Marine expeditionary forces will each have 20 trainers assigned to them.

“The intent is to get them down as far as possible, at least to the regimental-group level and ideally down to the battalions,” Armes told Military.com in an interview here. “… If you look at a collegiate football game, the ATs are on the sidelines, they’re out at practice, they’re working with the athletes.”

Athletic trainers have been in place at the recruit depots for 15 years. From there, the program expanded to the follow-on schools of infantry as well as Officer Candidates School and The Basic School for officers.

Training and Education Command leaders have long wanted to push athletic trainers out to the operating forces after seeing the number of injured recruits who had to be sidelined during boot camp plummet with the introduction of sports medicine. When across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration hit defense budgets in 2013, though, plans for expansion were left on the chopping block.

Now, the Marine Corps is taking a phased approach, approved by Commandant Gen. Robert Neller, to push the plan forward. The service will spend $1.3 million this fiscal year on the 10 athletic trainers, about $4.5 million in 2019 to bump the number to 33, and then $8.6 million a year from 2020 to 2022. That will bring the total number of trainers for the operating forces up to 66.

Armes and his team presented eight options to the commandant. The one Neller chose, he said, will “get them out to as many units as possible.”

The hope is that athletic trainers, combined with the new Marineforce fitness instructors who develop unit physical training plans, can spot injury trends. Medical privacy laws can make tracking injuries difficult, Armes said.

“We know a Marine is nondeployable, but we don’t always necessarily know why,” he said. “Is it an injury, pregnancy, sickness? We don’t necessarily need to know who the Marine is, but we need to be able to track injury rates.”

Since most of the injuries occurring during entry-level training are from overuse and in the lower extremities, Armes said they’re fairly certain the same is happening at the MEF levels. Athletic trainers will work not only with force fitness instructors to adjust workouts to prevent the most common injuries, but can also encourage Marines to enter data about them into a new fitness smartphone application that’s in the works.

Ultimately, he said, the key is to have the athletic trainers working closely with the Marines in their unit, just as they do at the recruit depots. They’re meant to complement Navy medicine, not replace it.

“There’s an old saying that it’s easier for a commander to keep a Marine healthy than it is for a doctor to heal them,” Armes said. “The athletic trainer program is really to … keep Marines from being injured because that affects deployment numbers.”

— Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at@ginaaharkins.

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Air Force May Go Old School With Dress Blue Uniform Update

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The U.S. Air Force is not only getting new battle uniforms in the near future, service officials are also debating a change to the dress blue uniform.

In a move that closely mirrors the Army‘s push to bring back its World War II-era pinks and greens uniform, the service is considering a look that reflects its 70-year history, particularly in the dress blues jacket, Chief Master Sgt. Kaleth O. Wright, chief master sergeant of the Air Force, told Air Force Times on Wednesday.

“The service coat is something that we may look at changing,” the service’s top enlisted leader told the Times in an interview. “We’d like to get back to a little more heritage on the jacket, potentially adding two additional pockets and bringing it into more of a military style. I’d like to see it brought more in line with our military heritage.”

Wright told the Times he foresees the updated jacket rolling out to airmen as early as next year, but many factors are still being considered and discussed. “It is something that we are interested in but right now, no, there is no date for a change to the coat,” he told Military.com in a statement Thursday.

“We haven’t made any decisions just yet, but both [Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein] and I like some of the historic, traditional uniforms that we’ve had in the past. We have to take our time to make sure these things are done right,” he said.

Per Wright’s description, the Air Force may look to the classic jacket worn between 1969 and 1990. After a uniform board convened in 1968, then-Chief of Staff Gen. John P. McConnell approved a cleaner look with a limited number of badges, but the two-pocket design remained. The style was worn by airmen such as Gen. Curtis LeMay.

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The move to evoke the service’s history is similar to the Army’s recent push to bring back the WWII-era pinks and greens uniform.

In March, the Army’s top enlisted soldier defended the decision even though the change will be costly. The service is “working very hard to get that cost to be neutral, but unfortunately the reality of that is, it won’t,” said Sgt. Maj. Daniel Dailey, sergeant major of the Army, adding there is never a “right time” to make uniform changes.

Though a final decision has not been made, the uniform will be “historically accurate” to the uniform Gen. George C. Marshall wore as chief of staff of the Army during World War II, Dailey said at the time.

News of a possible change to Air Force dress blues closely follows the service’s announcement that it is switching its battle uniform to the Army’s camouflage pattern.

The Air Force in May announced it is adopting the Army’s Operational Camouflage Pattern as its new combat uniform. The uniform will start being phased in Oct. 1, with the expectation that all airmen will be wearing the OCP pattern by April 2021, officials said at the time.

The push for simpler, more comfortable uniforms has been a top discussion point for the service’s leadership, including Goldfein and Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson.

“We do have a process for making sure these things happen the correct way,” Wright said Thursday. “Just like with the OCP announcement, we don’t want to make any changes without giving our airmen time to adjust. If we do change the service coat or any other uniform item, we’ll be sure to give enough lead and transition time for airmen to be ready.”

— Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at@Oriana0214.

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GOP Divide Emerges over Trump’s Space Force

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WASHINGTON — Two House Republican leaders are backing President Donald Trump’s proposed Space Force, but key Republicans in the Senate aren’t sold on the idea, setting up a debate over establishing and paying for a new branch of the military.

Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California told The Associated Press the proposal is a “smart way” to address growing investments by China and others in space.

“We’d support that,” McCarthy said in a brief interview in Sacramento, California.

GOP Whip Rep. Steve Scalise, the No. 3 House Republican, also backs Trump’s plan, an aide said Thursday.

McCarthy and Scalise are vying to replace House Speaker Paul Ryan once he retires at the end of this term, if Republicans keep control of the House in the November midterm elections. Ryan has not commented publicly on the Space Force proposal.

In the Senate, Trump’s plan has received a cooler reception.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not commented publicly on the Space Force and is awaiting more information from the Pentagon and the committees with jurisdiction, an aide said. The second-ranking Republican, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, said he is skeptical of the idea.

“Traditionally this has been a role played by the Air Force. And I have not yet heard a compelling case why we need a separate force,” Cornyn said, adding he has not yet heard from administration officials about the idea. “I’d like to hear their rationale for creating a separate force.”

The Space Force would be the first new branch of the military since the creation of the Air Force in 1947. Congress would need to create and fund the new military service, which is expected to cost billions. The administration is preparing a formal legislative proposal and budget to be presented by the end of the year.

Defense Secretary James Mattis was initially reluctant about creating a new force, concerned about a narrow operation and new layer of bureaucracy, but now is behind the president’s approach.

In announcing the plan last week, Vice President Mike Pence described space as a domain that was once peaceful and uncontested but has now become crowded and adversarial.

There is rising interest in the U.S.’s reliance on orbiting satellites for military and economic uses at a time when it has been reported that China and Russia are pursuing anti-satellite weapons for use during warfare. There are also growing worries that cyberattacks could target satellite technology.

For now, space power is overseen by the Air Force Space Command, which is headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Trump’s proposal would consolidate operations under a new command, to be up and running by 2020.

McCarthy said the idea is to make advancements as China and others increasingly invest in space.

“What the Space Force does is focuses on space,” he said, rather than “just sitting within the Air Force.”

McCarthy said “it would actually make a lot of good advancements for us, especially from technology.”

Congress recently authorized $716 billion for the military as part of the fiscal 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, which Trump signed into law on Monday.

Convincing Congress to provide more money for a new Space Force could be difficult. The chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., was circumspect when asked about it.

“My view on it this time, and it’s early, is I think we ought to be careful,” Shelby said. “We’ll see what happens. Let’s see what they’re really proposing.”

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Associated Press writer Alan Fram contributed to this report. Ronayne reported from Sacramento, California.

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US Awards $2.9 Billion for Early Warning Missile Defense Satellites

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The US Air Force announced Tuesday it had awarded Lockheed Martin a contract for a set of satellite-based missile warning systems, to the tune of $2.9 billion.

At the Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama, on August 8, Missile Defense Agency Director Gen. Samuel Greaves laid out a sketch of what the next generation of missile detection and defense systems might perceive like, noting that the primary purpose of the detection system was “to be the bell ringer if something is going on,” we reported at the time.

That early warning system, the Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (Next Gen OPIR) system, will be composed of five satellites. According to a notice of intent filed by the Air Force in May, Next Gen OPIR will consist of three geosynchronous satellites manufactured by Lockheed Martin and two polar orbit satellites to be built by Northrop Grumman, the contract for the latter of which has not yet been announced, Space News noted.

“This is early warning to support our nuclear deterrence,” Thomas Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Business Insider Wednesday. The system will replace the current Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS), a 10-satellite constellation in utilize since 2006.

Although Lockheed’s SBIRS contract runs through 2022, the Air Force told Congress in February it wanted to reallocate funds from the seventh and eighth SBIRS satellites toward what became Next Gen OPIR, Space News noted. The first OPIR is scheduled to be launched in 2023 — two years earlier than previously planned — and the first polar satellite by 2027, with the entire system online by 2029.

“As we develop these novel systems, speed matters,” US Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said in a statement. “We are focused on providing a missile warning capability survivable in a contested environment by the mid-2020s.”

Deployment of the novel detection system was stepped up earlier this year in response to Russian Mach 5-capable weapons tested earlier this year.

“The most indispensable thing to enact in the missile defense business is effect sure you can see and characterize the threat,” Gen. John Hyten, head of US Strategic Command, said at the August 8 symposium.

The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the US military’s budget for the coming fiscal year, was signed into law Monday, Sputnik reported. This NDAA makes establishing a hypersonic missile defense system a priority, with a Congressional defense committee report required in the next 90 days.

The early warning system will operate primarily by looking for the heat signature created by a missile’s engines, easily detectable when viewed from above during launch but also viewable in flight when silhouetted “against the cold background of space,” Greaves said.

“That infrared, that heat-detecting satellite is there to detect a missile’s plume, so it gives you that early warning of a vast missile launch,” Karako explained. “That is indispensable from the national command perspective, because in the event of a very infamous day, the United States would acquire that warning and that time to kick our overall deterrence force into gear.”

The Air Force’s selection of Lockheed and not Northrop, via a sole-source contract, was justified by the “unusual and compelling urgency” of a novel missile warning system, but it only further secures Lockheed’s dominance of the field — Northrop is actually serving as a subcontractor for Lockheed on the project, Space News noted.

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2 Marines Received Valor Awards for Secret Gunfight Against al-Qaida

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This article by Paul Szoldra originally appeared on Task & Purpose, a digital news and culture publication dedicated to military and veterans issues

Two members of Marine Special Operations Command received valor awards for their heroism during a gun battle last year with al-Qaida militants in Northern Africa, a spokeswoman for U.S. Africa Command confirmed on Wednesday.

While on a three-day operation to train, advise, and assist partner forces in the unnamed country — which the command withheld due to “classification considerations, force protection, and diplomatic sensitivities” — the Marine Special Operations Team on February 28, 2017, became engaged in a “fierce fight against members of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb,” according to one of the award citations for the unnamed Marines, who are often referred to as “Raiders.”

The two award citations for the Navy & Marine Corps Achievement Medal (with “V” distinguishing device for valor) were released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by Task & Purpose. Despite redactions of names and the specific Marine Raider team involved, the citations provide a glimpse of a battle between Americans and militants on the African continent that had not previously been made public.

While the specific country where the battle took place remains unknown, Northern Africa consists of Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia, and Western Sahara, according to the United Nations.

Africa Command spokeswoman Samantha Reho told Task & Purpose in a statement that partner forces initially engaged and killed one al-Qaida fighter with small arms fire before calling for helicopter support. Militants then attempted to flank the Marines and partner forces from the rear, leading the Marines to “return fire in self-defense.”

According to one citation, the Raiders’ communications chief and assistant element leader — typically a sergeant or above — “provided critical communications relay and ensured proper positioning of partner force elements.” The citation went on to say the Marine, while under accurate enemy fire, provided immediate trauma care for a fellow Raider who was wounded and helped evacuate him into a partner force helicopter that was hovering six feet above his position.

The second citation for an element member on the team — typically a sergeant or below — captures how the battle raged from the helicopter overhead. While onboard the partner force helicopter, the Marine fired at militants below, coordinated close air support, and directed the gunners and pilots on board the aircraft.

The militants responded with accurate fire, however, and a partner force soldier behind the helicopter’s M60 machine gun was shot twice in the foot, after which “[the Marine Raider] took control of the M60 and continued to suppress the enemy while treating the wounded gunner,” the citation said.

“He then accompanied the helicopter during the casualty evacuation of the Marine Raider and a second casualty later in the day, and conducted two re-supply deliveries all under enemy fire,” the citation added.

The partner force ultimately secured the site of the battle and “assessed two enemies were killed,” Reho told Task & Purpose. The wounded Marine was evacuated and has since made a full recovery.

The gun battle between Marines and al-Qaida militants took place seven months before a deadly battle between ISIS militants and U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers who were advising partner forces in Niger. The October 4, 2017 ambush resulted in the deaths of four American service members and led the Pentagon to conduct a major review of U.S special operations missions in Africa.

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Norway Confirms Plan to Double Number of Marines Near Russian Border

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Twice as many Marines will deploy to Norway next year and train just hundreds of miles from the Russian border — a move leaders in Moscow say will lead to retaliation.

The Norwegian defense ministry confirmed Wednesday that it will move ahead with a plan to bolster the number of U.S. Marines rotating through the country to 700,Reuters reported. The plan, first announcedby Norway in June, has drawn sharp protests from Russian leaders who’ve called the move “clearly unfriendly.”

The larger rotations are expected to start in 2019 and will last up to five years. Norwegian Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen has said the move isn’t directed at Russia, but to enhance NATO allies’ cold-weather training.

About 300 Marines have been rotating through Norway every six months since January 2017. It’s the first time foreign troops have been based in the country since World War II, according to Reuters. Members of the North Carolina-based 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, are deployed there now.

The Marines currently train west of the Swedish border in Oslo. Norwegian officials said in June that they want the larger Marine rotations to push north past the Arctic Circle to Setermoen, about 250 miles from the Russian border.

The Russian embassyhit back against that plan, warning that it could lead to “rising tensions and trigger an arms race, destabilizing the situation in northern Europe.”

“We consider [the plan] to be clearly unfriendly so they cannot go without consequences,” it added.

During a December stop in Norway, the Marine Corps‘ top general told the unit there at the time to always remain ready to fight. There could be a“big-ass fight” on the horizon, he added.

“I hope I’m wrong, but there’s a war coming,” Commandant Gen. Robert Neller said. ” … You’re in a fight here, an informational fight, a political fight, by your presence.”

— Military.com’s Hope Hodge Seck contributed to this report.

— Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at@ginaaharkins.

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Why Didn’t F-15s Shoot Down the Stolen Sea-Tac Airliner?

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When a rogue civilian airliner took off from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport last Friday, the military responded with a multifaceted, coordinated effort between two F-15 Eagle pilots, said officials at North American Aerospace Defense Command and the Defense Department.

But days after the incident, it remains unclear why military officials and the F-15 pilots agreed not to shoot down the aircraft, given concerns the pilot might deliberately crash it into a populated area.

“We cannot speculate the various considerations and decision-making processes that led to the decision to not shoot, but can confirm that they did not,” Air Force Capt. Cameron Hillier, a NORAD spokesman, told Military.com on Wednesday. “While the fighters are armed during intercept missions as part of Operation Noble Eagle, the F-15 has a wide range of response options available, depending on the circumstances. They could shadow, intercept, escort or provide aid as required.”

Hillier said officials at NORAD, the Air Force’s air operations center, and officials “at many levels,” including the Office of the Secretary of Defense, monitored the situation as it unfolded Friday evening.

“Through it all, there was a call not to take the shot,” he said. An after-action report is in the works but will not be made public as it is classified, he added.

A Horizon Air employee, later identified as ground service agent Richard Russell, stole the empty aircraft Friday evening, flying it south of Seattle just before crashing into Ketron Island in the Puget Sound, roughly 35 miles south of the airport. Russell, 29, died in the crash.

Two F-15Cs from the Oregon Air National Guard‘s 142nd Fighter Wing launched in response to the stolen Bombardier Q400 turboprop aircraft, which belonged to Alaska Airlines. The Q400 can seat 76 passengers and four crew at full capacity.

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The fighters “were directed to fly supersonic to expedite the intercept,” NORAD said in a statement following the incident. The pilots attempted to redirect the aircraft over the Pacific Ocean, it added.

The F-15C can carry a mix of AIM-9L/M Sidewinder short-range air-to-air missiles and AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles. It also has one internally mounted 20mm Gatling gun in the right-wing root, according to the Air Force.

The ideal resolution would have been for Russell to land the Q400 at a remote location, Hillier said. “Effort one was to get him on the ground, but the pilot gets a vote in that.”

An air traffic controller tried to convince Russell to land at nearby Joint Base Lewis-McChord, according to audio recordings that surfaced on social media. However, he continued flying and performing aerial acrobatics before ultimately crashing.

NORAD said that while the situation at Sea-Tac was “unique,” it is tasked with monitoring many intercepts every year as part of Operation Noble Eagle, the operation name for all air sovereignty and defense missions in North America.

“NORAD has conducted more than 1,800 intercepts of non-military aircraft since September 11, 2001,” Hillier said. “While the majority of intercepts are conducted in the United States, NORAD focuses on the defense of both the U.S. and Canada and draws on forces from both countries as mission requirements dictate.”

— Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at@Oriana0214

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Pentagon to Study Marine Unit’s Ability to Respond to Crises in Africa

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Five years after the Marine Corps stood up a new land-based unit to respond to threats at U.S. embassies and other emergencies across Africa, the Pentagon’s top watchdog wants to make sure the force has what it takes to carry out its mission.

The Defense Department Inspector General’s office announced last week that it will immediately begin evaluating whether Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Africa can meet its operational requirements. The study comes months after the unit’s former commander recommended the land-based force be moved back to Navy ships.

The task force, which was created after the deadly 2012 attack on a diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, was meant to fill a gap since budget cuts left the Navy and Marine Corps without enough amphibious assault ships to regularly patrol the Mediterranean Sea. But the special-purpose unit was “not designed to be something in perpetuity,” said Col. Sean Salene, who led the response force for seven months last year.

“Re-establishing that presence in the Mediterranean as a more capable, larger-capacity force, we think would work better to meet all the demands that are out there,” Salene said in November. He has since been nominated for promotion to one-star.

The Marine Corps declined to comment on the inspector general’s study since it’s ongoing. But the service fully cooperates with all DoD inspections and evaluations, said Capt. Karoline Foote, a Marine spokeswoman at the Pentagon.

“Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Africa is uniquely tailored to meet the demands of the mission to which it is assigned,” Foote added. “… The flexible, expeditionary nature of this SPMAGTF makes it uniquely qualified to respond to a litany of mission sets, crises and limited contingencies in the absence of an amphibious ready group with an embarked Marine expeditionary unit.”

The unit, which includes about 1,000 Marines and sailors based in Spain and Italy, first deployed in 2013 — about eight months after the attack in Benghazi left four Americans dead, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. In that incident, nearly 24 hours passed before any U.S. troops arrived in Libya to reinforce security, which led to harsh criticism of the response by the State Department and Pentagon.

Since then, the Marines with the crisis-response unit have evacuated State Department personnel from several diplomatic posts under duress, including from South Sudan and Libya in 2014.

Since most of the unit is based in Europe, though, reaching some areas on the vast African continent can be difficult. The Marines conducting the 2014 evacuation mission in South Sudan flew MV-22B Ospreys more than 4,000 miles from Spain to Juba, requiring mid-flight refueling from a KC-130 Super Hercules.

As the fight against the Islamic State has kicked up, both of those aircraft have been in high demand. The Marine Corps has stood up two more land-based crisis-response units: one that operates year-round in the Middle East and one that heads to Central America during hurricane season. Last year, the crisis response force for Africa saw its number of Ospreys and C-130s slashed in half, leaving it with six MV-22Bs and three transport tankers.

That, said Col. Martin Wetterauer — another of the unit’s former commanders, wouldn’t change the Marines’ ability to conduct their mission in Africa, but it would prevent them from carrying out multiple operations at once.

Operating from the sea as a MEU also removes the need for permission from partner nations to use airspace or stage gear on the ground for future missions, Salene added.

While conducting its evaluation, the inspector general’s team plans to speak to the defense secretary’s office for policy, the Joint Staff, Marine Corps headquarters, U.S. Africa Command, Marine Corps Forces Africa, personnel with Special Purpose Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Africa and others, according to a notice about its study. No timeline was given as to when the evaluation will wrap up.

Foote said the Marine crisis response force is designed to be expedient while still providing significant capabilities for crisis situations and other theater-security cooperation efforts in Africa.

“Its highly mobile organization allows the MAGTF to conduct limited crisis and contingency response operations to safeguard U.S. citizens and interests in the U.S. Africa Command area of responsibility,” she said.

— Military.com’s Hope Hodge Seck contributed to this report.

— Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at@ginaaharkins.

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No Changes to SDF Vetting Process after Syrian Guard Shot US Marine

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U.S. and coalition forces did not alter the screening process for vetting Syrian Democratic Forces after an SDF member shot a U.S. Marine in February at a remote Syrian outpost, according to a high-ranking Operation Inherent Resolve official.

A team tasked with investigating the Feb. 17 shooting, which left two bullet holes in the leg of Sgt. Cameron Halkovich, was unable to determine whether the incident was an insider attack.

Halkovich and another Marine were making a nighttime check of the base perimeter when an SDF member shot him with his AK-47, according to a story first reported by Task and Purpose.

Cpl. Kane Downey, the Marine accompanying Halkovich, shot and killed the gunman, applied first aid to Halkovich and carried him to the medical facility, Task and Purpose reported.

British Army Maj. Gen. Felix Gedney, deputy commander of strategy and support for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, said Tuesday that the “tragic incident was an anomaly” and said he sees no need to change the process for screening individuals for the SDF.

“I don’t think we needed to. We have a very effective vetting force, and I don’t think we fully understand the motives behind what happened,” he told reporters at the Pentagon. “And I think most likely it was a tragic misunderstanding that led to the use of lethal force.”

An investigation into the incident, which was led by a U.S. Marine colonel, could not “conclusively determine” whether the SDF guard intentionally shot Halkovich, according to an Aug. 10 press release by U.S. Central Command.

It’s possible that the SDF guard negligently discharged his weapon, triggering the chain of events, Gedney said.

“The truth is we can’t be sure. We know the mechanics of what happened, but we don’t know the motives of what happened, and it is entirely likely that the incident was sparked by a negligent discharge at a point where there was high tension anyway,” he said.

“We in the military, on combat operations, are always high tension, and there is an element of friction that professional forces learn to deal with,” Gedney said. “And in this case, it seems like there may have been some form of tragic misunderstanding, which led to the actions and the loss of life.”

Halkovich received a Purple Heart for his injuries. Downey was awarded a Joint Service Commendation Medal, an award that was warranted under the circumstances, Gedney said.

Downey “responded very quickly to what he considered a threat, and he did that in an exceptional way, for which he was rewarded,” Gedney said.

— Military.com’s Gina Harkins contributed to this report.

— Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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