Editor’s Note: Last year, the Department of Defense spent $707 billion in defense, over $1 trillion when accounting for other departments like FBI counter-terrorism, Energy, and NASA — not to mention interest. It’s a colossal sum, and an equally imposing topic to cover — we’ll leave it to you to pick a front-line news spin. Instead, we’ve decided to hone in on our preferred angle, the “lesser-known” slant, at least to us civilians. We’re calling it Defense Journal, and it’s the focus of this fall series.
Between now and the end of this year, Defense Journal will share expositions — including the FAST platoon report you’re about to read — from the rise of drones or Air-Sea Battle to briefings on matters like the Marine Corps new pistol. The coming biweekly installments of Defense Journal mark our first incursion into digestible defense coverage. Join us and pass along any tips, ideas or productive feedback (we’re keen on the subject’s gravity) to feedback [at] gearpatrol.com.
After the murder of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens during the 9/11/2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, the US responded with the deployment of a little known element from our armed forces. On 12 September, a Marine Corps Fleet Anti-terrorism Security Team (FAST) platoon, approximately 50 young men, mostly infantry, deployed from Rota, Spain to secure the embassy and associated facilities in Tripoli. Shortly after that deployment, a second FAST platoon was sent to Yemen to support the embassy there. So, what is a FAST platoon and what is it capable of doing?
Find out more about FAST platoons after the jump.
1st FAST Company was established in 1987 and its capability proved so useful to commanders that two more FAST companies were eventually stood up. Existing forces tethered to the security of specific U.S. Navy installations were unleashed and re-designated as 2nd and 3rd FAST Companies to provide more flexible, agile forces that could respond to threats worldwide. Today, FAST platoons are deployed around the globe to provide limited duration expeditionary anti-terrorism and security forces in protection of vital naval and national assets. When the USS Cole was struck with a boat-borne improvised explosive device on October 12, 2000, opening a 40 by 40 foot gash in the side and killing 17 sailors, a FAST platoon quickly established security around the damaged vessel. FAST platoons have been used similarly to secure U.S. interests in many a clime and locale — including embassies in Monrovia, Liberia; Port-au-Prince, Haiti; Baghdad, Iraq; Dili, East Timor; Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; Beirut, Lebanon — often in response to actual attacks against the missions in these locations.
As part of the Marine Corps Security Force Regiment, located in Yorktown, Virginia, three FAST Companies (today, designated A, B, and C Companies) man, equip and train six platoons of Marines in preparation for deployment to Rota, Spain; Manama, Bahrain; and Yokosuka, Japan. At any given time, there are six platoons forward, with two platoons at each of these three locations, principally for the reinforcement of critical U.S. infrastructure, from embassies to U.S. military bases overseas. The mission of FAST platoons, anti-terrorism, is a defensive action, protecting people and critical facilities, differentiated from counter-terrorism, a special operations mission that calls for active hunting and targeting, often lethally, of those who practice terrorism.
Each platoon deploys with a degree of firepower and special capabilities available beyond that of a conventional Marine rifle platoon. One of the reasons for the firepower augmentation is that FAST platoons operate in an expeditionary environment: that is, forward of other forces and in austere conditions. While a major city might not normally be considered austere, under the duress of general civil unrest or open conflict, both the threat of violence and the loss of infrastructure can present challenges to a small force displaced from the aegis of U.S. air power and the umbilicus of food, water, fuel, and ammunition. With few adversaries capable of standing one-on-one with a Marine platoon, quality has a quantity all its own. Hence, the Marines are trained exhaustively in de-escalation, disrupting riots and security measures intended to avoid the having to light up the heavy machine guns and execute the final protective fire of a perimeter defense. Should the full brunt of these Marines’ lethality become necessary, they can deliver disciplined, precision firepower that destroys their enemy while ensuring the safety of noncombatants.
Each platoon has one Marine officer (often a post-combat captain), and 49 enlisted Marines, generally organized in four squads commanded by a platoon headquarters section. Unlike Special Operations units, which consist of experienced service members likely in their 30s, the majority of Marines in FAST are young — closer to 20 years old. Fresh from recruit training, infantry training, and a basic security course, these young marines are molded by a few seasoned veterans in to a tight, cohesive unit. With training in urban combat, precision shooting, riot control including the use of non-lethal weapons and techniques, convoy operations and shipboard operations, FAST platoon soldiers are experts in their field, needing no excess preparation and capable of packing up and moving out within 24 hours of receiving a mission. Weapons training includes the M4 5.56mm carbine, M9 9mm pistol, Mk12 Designated Marksman Rifle, a variety of shotguns, and medium and heavy machine guns.
FAST Platoons usually travel by contract military aircraft, flying into a secure airfield and moving by contracted vehicles to their objective, but other means are possible. One colorful anecdote involves the mission to secure the embassy in Beirut, Lebanon and prepare for the evacuation of over 3,000 American citizens. Major Tom Prentice, USMC, was presented with a suitcase of cash to lease a cruise liner to travel from Cyprus to Beirut for the exodus of Americans. Enroute, he encountered the Israeli blockade and, after providing his bona fides to the Israeli Navy vessel that challenged him, was allowed to continue to the Beirut harbor — which he found under Israeli siege. This necessitated strenuous encouragement on Major Prentice’s part to convince the ship’s captain to dock.
Given the current turmoil in the Middle East, and the inevitability of human or natural disasters that threaten our diplomatic mission and citizens overseas, it’s likely we’ll see more opportunities for FAST employment. Hopefully, you’ll never encounter them outside their home turf, because doing so probably indicates your business trip or vacation has taken a turn for the worse.