On a blustery day on the Norfolk Naval Base, Commander, Expeditionary Strike Group Two (ESG 2), and Commander, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade (2nd MEB), in coordination with ships assigned to the U.S. Second Fleet, were hotly engaged in Bold Alligator 2011, the largest joint fleet simulated amphibious exercise in the last 10 years.
But don't let the word "simulated" fool you — the exercise included a total of 29 participating commands, including eight ships, 14 ESG/2nd MEB reporting units and seven training centers. While about 500 Sailors and Marines took part in the exercise, the scenarios were built for more than 10,000 notional forces operating within a highly volatile concept of operations.
The scenario for the exercise consisted of a forcible entry operation conducted to enable a non-combatant evacuation in the midst of a violent sectarian conflict. This complex but realistic mission required the ability to respond rapidly, project a credible force ashore, and organize and execute the evacuation of thousands of non-combatants. "In many cases, these capabilities can only be provided by amphibious forces," said Brig. Gen. Chris Owens, the commanding general of 2nd MEB, a few days before the exercise began.
Running Dec. 11 through 17, the exercise was designed to focus on the fundamental aspects and roles of amphibious operations to improve amphibious force readiness and proficiency for executing the six core capabilities of the Maritime Strategy: forward presence, deterrence, sea control, power projection, maritime security and humanitarian assistance/disaster response. Bold Alligator 2011 is the first of many planned Bold Alligator exercises; the next one, a live exercise, is scheduled for February 2012.
Media representatives gathered on the multipurpose amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD 5) Dec. 13 to speak with exercise participants and view some of the hardware used in the exercise, including a 38-foot Nighthawk unmanned patrol boat, the intelligence gathering, unmanned vehicle Scan Eagle and a Sea Knight helicopter.
"We want to show you this because all of these assets play a part into that amphibious capability. When I talk about amphibious capability, I am talking about the ability to go from ship to shore and the ability to project that combat power to shore. No one else in the world has this kind of capability and the combination of services that we [Navy and Marine Corps] can provide. When we look at these different assets, each one of them plays a little part in the bigger picture," said Marine Corps Capt. Timothy Patrick, the public affairs officer for the 2nd MEB.
Rear Adm. Kevin Scott, commander of Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) 2 emphasized the importance of "staff training and integration" within Bold Alligator. Although the U.S. Marines are legendary for conducting large-scale amphibious landings, for the past 10 years they have been landlocked in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Sailors and Marines who are in the services now do not have the training and experience in working together in amphibious operations. We will be building proficiency and interoperability," Scott said.
But Marines were aboard the Bataan to assist with humanitarian relief in response to the catastrophic earthquake which crippled Haiti in January 2010. Operating three miles from shore and equipped with heavy-lifting and earth-moving equipment, medical support facilities, a complement of Navy and Marine helicopters, as well as air cushion landing crafts, the combined Navy-Marine Corps team transported relief supplies and conducted medical evacuations.
"It is a misnomer that we haven't been doing amphibious operations over the last 10 years. Just because we are not going across a beach Normandy-style doesn’t mean that we haven’t been doing amphibious. In the last 10 years, we have probably had 12 or 13 different amphibious operations, most recently down in Haiti," said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Tony Siciliano, the systems planning engineering officer for Bold Alligator. "What this exercise really brings to the table, is getting that larger staff, larger than a MEU, that MEB staff integrated with the PHIBRONS and integrated with the Expeditionary Strike Group. It really builds the teamwork that you can honestly say has been lacking in the last few years with the land-based focus of Iraq and Afghanistan."
The exercise also gives the Navy and Marine Corps the opportunity to test their communications systems interoperability. To say that technology has changed a lot in the last 10 years would be an understatement.
"I have been doing this for about two years and I have seen changes since I have been onboard," said Lt. Cmdr. Andy Lucas with the ESG 2 C5I Department (N6). "We have had computer networks since I started doing this. I know, obviously years ago, the Marines and Navy staff never had computer networks onboard."
Cmdr. Eugene Bailey, the head of N6 for ESG 2, discussed the incompatibilities he has already discovered between Navy and Marine Corps systems since the exercise began.
"Some of the things that we are finding is that ships, especially the amphibious fleet, because of the dynamic nature [of operations], we have the advances of the Marine Corps [technology] which are outpacing the Navy amphibious baseline. We are seeing the disparity between things like Microsoft Office products interoperability between different communications systems because Marines have purchased more advanced equipment, or in some cases, have had their servers loaded with different things than what we currently have on ships because the ships are tied to the SHIPMAIN process [for modernization]. One of the things that concerns me as the C5I officer for the strike group, looking across the spectrum of amphib ships, is that I don’t think in this arena we are agile enough to respond to a dynamic threat and be able to keep up with the Marine Corps’ pace of advancement [in technology] if we don’t do something quickly."
But Bailey quickly pointed out that the purpose of Bold Alligator is to do just that — to bring the incompatibilities between equipment to the attention of higher leadership for quick action. The chain of leadership goes all the way to the Chief of Naval Operations and Commandant of the Marine Corps, who have ordered the blue-green team to get back to its amphibious roots.
"My team has done a great job of turning all of our challenges into wins. From my perspective, the biggest advantage it gives for me is training because it opens up the aperture and gives a greater depth of experience to my Sailors … Because of the synthetic nature of the exercise, we had to become experts on a lot of different systems. From my perspective that is a win because now my folks understand the operational flow of information: how it goes from weapons systems and radar to the watchstanders and to the leadership to be able to make decisions," Bailey said.
CWO3 Siciliano explained the communications that create situational awareness and commanders rely on for decisive action. "The ISR piece is huge now, where a few years ago it was a 'nice to have.' It was that 'sexy' technology that only the special operations folks had. Now, much like VTCs, commanders can't live without it."
Communications during the exercise were conducted primarily via Voice over IP because of the radio frequency conflicts of operating in port, but radios play a large role in Marine Corps communications, Siciliano said.
"Ten years ago, the Marine platoon would have a VHF radio like the 119 (SINCGARS Tactical Radio, AN/PRC-119 Manpack) and SINCGARS was king. Ten short years later, we have individual radios for each Marine. There is constant communication from the fire team level and all the way up to the company level. We have the 117Golf (AN/PRC-117G), which is being fielded now, which has data networking capabilities. In the Marines now, something as small as a fire team can create these ad hoc networks on the battlefield and exchange vast amounts of information via the radios," Siciliano explained. "The 117G is the newest piece of gear that we have been issued and with its networking capabilities and the 117Fox (117F), which is larger and can do SATCOM. As a planner, that is something that I always have to consider, what the satellite systems can support, and if that is really the best way for the Marines on the ground to go."
Operating together is important but the Navy-Marine Corps team must communicate with allies, coalition partners and non-governmental organizations, as well.
"Ten years ago it was rare that we would communicate or have any information exchange requirements with foreign allies or coalition partners. Today I can't think of an exercise or operation that we conduct that we don't have a coalition or allied partner involved. That brings its own issues, and there are things that we need to consider about security of classified information and how we want to be able to interact appropriately with our allies. It is not so much technology advancement as it is a procedural and security mindset change," Siciliano said.
The technological challenges can be mind-boggling to prepare an ESG's communications for a quick deployment, and Bailey said he has already begun a list of action items that will reduce the time to assemble the communications for a large amphibious force.
"One of the things that I am taking away from this exercise is a training plan for my team and a ship's ability to flex a rapid embarkation. I have to make some purchases for additional computers to be ready to go and match up schedules with the 'big decks' that we would embark on — to match it up with whoever is the ready duty ARG (amphibious ready group) if we had to respond to something of this size. So coming this quarter, my folks will start doing a rapid embarkation two-day exercise that is strictly focused within the ESG. On the administrative side, I have some guidance to put out to each of the ships to have pre-staged support items for the flag staff as they come aboard," Bailey said.
Not only is Bailey and his staff responsible for systems interoperability within the amphibious group, the N6 is also responsible for the integration of ISR assets and systems — anything with bits and bytes.
"Each of those systems comes with different technical capabilities and requirements. One of my jobs as the senior IP, the Information Professional for the strike group and the N6, is to ensure that we have at least met minimum capabilities to support advanced warfighter needs. For each of those new technologies that give the commander a more focused picture, I try to bring those things together to give them that fused picture in a consolidated format that is easily digestible," Bailey said.
"It becomes incumbent on me to coordinate with the ships and those system owners to make sure that we can integrate those products into the ship's networks and systems seamlessly, or if there are technical challenges that I have the ability to reach out to SPAWAR (Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command) and the other program offices to find out the technical solution to make all those systems integrate properly."
Still, undaunted by the technical challenges, Bailey said he could have fly-away kits with laptop computers, printers and information stores ready for the embarked staff in four days if the amphibious group had to respond to a crisis. Remarking on the communications needs of a large amphibious force, Bailey said, "It keeps me running every day."
For more news from Expeditionary Strike Group 2, visit www.navy.mil/local/ESG2/.