The amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD-3). Currently on station in the Red Sea, the Kearsarge may lead a non-combat evacuation operation (NEO) of U.S. citizens from Egypt (Wikipedia photo).
According to the State Department, more than 200 Americans have left Egypt on hastily-arranged evacuation flights.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. A department spokesman says 2,400 U.S. citizens have contacted our embassy in Cairo about getting a seat on government-chartered evacuation jets. At least 900 Americans are expected to leave Egypt on Tuesday (and 1,000 more on Wednesday) as that nation teeters on the brink of revolution.
Continued political turmoil and rioting in Egypt is raising the possibility of a non-combat evacuation operation (NEO) to remove more than 90,000 Americans from that country. While the State Department would prefer the current system of charter flights, the Pentagon is prepared to send in the Marines, if necessary. The amphibious assault ship, USS Kearsarge, and an amphibious transport dock, USS Ponce, are currently on station in the southern Red Sea.
Using helicopters and landing craft, Marines from the two vessels could go ashore and supervise the evacuation of U.S. citizens and those from other countries as well. While the Kearsarge and Ponce have already deployed most of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) into Afghanistan, there are still about 1,000 Marines aboard the amphibious ships--enough to reinforce the detachment at the Cairo embassy and secure evacuation sites across the country.
As we noted four years ago, any NEO is a potentially dicey operation, particularly if conditions in the host country continue to go south. There's also the question of exactly how many Americans and third-country nationals might show up at evacuation points. The number of U.S. citizens in the country varies from 50-90,000 (depending on whose estimate you believe).
But NEO planners base their operations on the "rule of three," meaning that for every American known to be in the country, there may be two more who request evacuation. So, the Marines of the 26th MEU and the sailors of the Kearsarge and Ponce could be tasked to remove more than 100,000 people from multiple locations. And, if the current upheaval takes on an anti-U.S. tone, that task becomes infinitely more complex.
Over the weekend, some observers wondered why the U.S. had not ordered an evacuation of non-essential personnel, noting that other countries were already removing their citizens. But a short time later, the embassy in Cairo encouraged Americans to leave Egypt, and announced that charter flights would begin today. Still, it will take a lot of passenger jets to evacuate thousands of Americans, and there are no guarantees that Cairo International (and other Egyptian airports) will remain open until the job can be finished.
That's why Kearsarge and Ponce may be called upon to finish the job. Keep the sailors and Marines aboard those vessels in your thoughts and prayers in the days ahead. They may be tasked for the biggest NEO since the fall of Saigon, and that's no exaggeration.
ADDENDUM: CNN is reporting that a small Marine security detail has arrived at our embassy in Cairo. The contingent, totaling about a dozen Marines, is part of a fleet anti-terrorism unit. Not a harbinger of a NEO, but the deployment is useful for assessing security at the embassy compound--and coordinating planning for operations that may be in the offing.