The Bataan Expeditionary Strike Group participated in the Composite Training Unit Exercise off the North Carolina Coast in February. The strike group welcomed participation from the French command and projection ship FS Tonnerre (L9014) , as well as the antisubmarine frigate La Motte-Piquet. Tonnerre is of particular interest because of its unique "off-the-shelf" design. Tonnerre is a versatile platform designed to operate far forward and to support action during complex political or military situations. Her innovative capabilities significantly enhance the French, European, NATO and coalition ability to fulfill forward presence requirements.
The exercise, scheduled by Commander, U.S. Second Fleet, was evaluated by a training team led by Commander, Strike Force Training Atlantic. COMPTUEX is important because it is designed to shape the ESG into a cohesive team ready to meet a variety of missions. It's a critical step in the pre-deployment training cycle for a joint task force. This is the first time that Tonnerre and other French units participated and conducted joint interoperability training with U.S. Navy and Marine units.
Large-deck multipurpose amphibians, LHDs, like Bataan and Tonnerre, can embark, transport, deploy, command and fully support all elements of a marine expeditionary unit, or other land units, inserting forces ashore via helicopters, landing craft and amphibious vehicles. They can also be used for disaster relief, transporting medical and humanitarian assistance, and evacuation of civilians in a civil crisis or disaster.
The strike group is comprised of the amphibious assault ship Bataan, amphibious transport dock ship Ponce, amphibious dock landing ship Fort McHenry, guided-missile cruiser Anzio, guided-missile destroyers Porter and James E. Williams; the Los Angeles-class attack submarine Memphis and a Marine Landing Force from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit. The exercise gives Marines, who have been on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, a chance to flex their sea legs and train with the gator Navy.
The supply ship Kanawha, frigates Carr, Doyle, Hawes, Kauffman, Nicholas and Simpson; Los Angeles-class attack submarine Boise; and destroyers Carney, Cole and Bulkeley also participated.
CHIPS spoke with Capt. Jack L. Sotherland several days before the start of COMPTUEX. Both Sotherland and Tonnerre's Commanding Officer French Navy Capt. Edmond de Vigouroux d'Arvieu were anticipating great benefits from working together.
Q: Can you talk about what your hopes are for COMPTUEX?
Sotherland: I have been in command since August of last year, and we started working up with the strike units and started liaison with the French Navy at that same time. The goal of COMPTUEX is to certify the Bataan Strike Group to perform the full range of military operations with an eye toward major combat operations and everything that falls within that, for example, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and maritime security operations supporting our maritime strategy.
Based on our country's maritime strategy ("A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower") that came out a couple of years ago, we work with our coalition partners and other allied and partner nations such as the French and the French Navy. They bring capabilities that we can build on — that interoperability that Capt. d'Arvieu was talking about during his brief. The Tonnerre has very similar capabilities inherent in our own dock landing ships (LSDs).
We do these operations early on so that when we actually deploy, whether it is working in U.S. Africa Command, the 6th Fleet area of responsibility in the Mediterranean, or in the U.S. Central Command AOR, if we come across the Tonnerre or other French ships, our staffs and our crews will be able to talk the same language.
The French Navy, as everybody knows, has been one of our closest allies since our country was formed in the 18th century. We have always had a very close relationship with the French military, the French Navy in particular.
French sailors were able to operate our Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) vessels at an early stage, their well deck was designed to operate those, as well as our Landing Craft Utilities, the LCUs, which are huge workhorses. Because we have that interoperability, we can bring our platforms over to their ships and vice versa.
The Bataan Strike Group will be the first strike group to deploy with MV-22s, the Marines' variant of the Osprey, as part of their air combat element. That is a significant capability. If we are eventually authorized to land and operate off large French units, it increases our reach and our ability to do our missions.
The French will work with our Marine brethren putting troops ashore and conducting relief missions from the sea. To do that, we use amphibious shipping, which traditionally uses LCACs and LCUs, and then our H-53s (Sea Stallion) and MV-22s, to bring troops to shore.
We also have surface combatants assigned to the strike group. They provide not just protection for units in amphibious ships, they also provide offshore artillery support to the Marines. That's relatively new to be able to integrate that into our operations.
The Bataan ESG is graded with the same criteria as a carrier strike group. We have the same number of ships. The major difference is our striking power is different; instead of an air wing outfitted with tactical strike aircraft, U.S. Marines comprise our striking power, as well as Tomahawk missiles that we employ from our assigned cruiser and destroyers.
This is what we will do: We go out to sea; we embark Marines at Morehead City in North Carolina, and immediately go into various scenarios that will stress the command and control of the strike staff, as well as the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit.
We do this with an eye to make sure that we can communicate well with each other, and we can execute the mission when we are called on from the combatant commander.
After we have done an amphibious landing at about the two-week mark, we will put the Marines ashore in an amphibious assault, and then we will concentrate primarily on the blue side of certifications, which runs the gamut of antisubmarine warfare, air defense exercises, maritime interdiction operations, to maritime security operations.
We spread the strike force along the entire Eastern Seaboard from VACAPES (Virginia Capes) all the way down to the Jacksonville, Florida OPAREA (operations area).
That is somewhat unusual, but we have to do that this time of year because the weather in the VACAPES and North Carolina is rather unpredictable, and there is a lot of training that we could not perform safely if we were not able to go into the warmer, and to a degree, calmer waters of Florida. That's where we do a lot of our maritime interdiction operations.
It also gives us a good chance to stress our command and control using satellite links, our voice communications, and other command and control upgrades that we have received in the last couple of years.
The Bataan just got back from her last deployment about a year ago, so it is a relatively quick turn-around. It is our way of supporting maritime strategy and the fleet readiness program that the Chief of Naval Operations has developed.
The Bataan ESG is made up of amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD 5); amphibious transport dock ship USS Ponce (LPD 15); amphibious dock landing ship USS Fort McHenry (LSD 43); guided-missile cruiser USS Anzio (CG 68); guided-missile destroyers USS Porter (DDG 78) and USS James E. Williams (DDG 95); the Los Angeles class attack submarine USS Memphis (SSN 691) and a Marine Landing Force from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit.
Also participating in COMPTUEX are: USNS Kanawha (T-AO 196), USS Carr (FFG 52), USS Simpson (FFG 56), USS Boise (SSN 764), USS Cole (DDG 67), USS Bulkeley (DDG 84), USS Hawes (FFG 53), USS Kauffman (FFG 59), USS Doyle (FFG 39), USS Carney (DDG 64), USS Nicholas (FFG 47), and FS La Motte-Picquet (D 645) and FS Tonnerre (L9014). COMPTUEX was conducted in February on the Eastern Seaboard.
Q: When is COMPTUEX going to play out?
Sotherland: It takes place the entire month of February. There is a short turn-around after that because COMPTUEX is the Navy's certification for my strike group and most of March is booked with a Marine certification exercise. The Marines tell us where they need to be to perform their mission, and it is my job to get them there safely.
This is not something new, but training with the French has not yet become routine. The last few COMPTUEXs, whether they involved a carrier strike group, or an amphibious group, utilized other allied nations to participate. It is a win-win for everybody.
Regardless of where the Bataan Strike Group goes, we are going to be interoperable, whether it is operating with coalition allies, NATO allies, or other close partners.
Believe it or not, we occasionally can be challenged when communicating with our British allies because sometimes they don't use the same terms or language that we are familiar with.
Coming up with standard phraseology and developing a common operating picture of where we are and how we disseminate contacts and other information across the link and how we will work together is the only way we can get better.
I was at NAVCENT (U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, U.S. 5th Fleet) for 18 months before coming here, and I worked closely with the French Navy because they had command of Combined Task Force 150 for a time; CTF 150 has responsibility for millions of square miles of water off the Horn of Africa, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
Working with all those navies [in CTF 150], allows us to further develop the capacities and capabilities of navies and coast guards that are expanding their reach further seaward, some for the first time.
Q: Can you talk about how you will use the ships in COMPTUEX?
Sotherland: We have six ships in the strike group. All have flight decks, but only the amphibs have well decks. It is this capability that gives a strike group the opportunity to expand our options. And the participation of Tonnerre gives my staff, as well as the 22nd MEU, much greater flexibility.
If I am using the Bataan as a command and control ship doing one part of a noncombatant evacuation mission, now I may be able to move the Bataan closer in and use the Tonnerre as a receiving ship.
We really don't have a lot of excess space on the Bataan. If you come on board during COMPTUEX, there is no room. We have 10 MV-22s, and they bring a lot of maintenance requirements for people, parts and supplies.
If we had to bring a lot of people onboard the Bataan, it would be a tight fit, but having the advantage of another ship, that is almost as large and has more space internally (because she doesn't support as many aircraft,) is an advantage. And remember, we have the usual complement of Marine and Navy helicopters and AV-8B Harriers that share the deck and hangar spaces, totaling 29 aircraft.
I can say now that we have positioned Tonnerre, that we are positioned to augment for medical facilities. Doctors all speak the same language.
If we had 'persons under control' or we had captured pirates, the national rules of engagement that France operates under allow her [Tonnerre] more flexibility to take those pirates, process them and get them to another country.
If I remember correctly, there was a French yacht pirated in 2008. The French overcame the pirates, captured some of them and transported them to Paris [after extradition was granted by Somali authorities] to stand trial.
Their rules allow them to do that; our rules probably would not have allowed that so we take advantage of what the French can do in the strike group.
Part of my staff's responsibility, and every ship's responsibility, is to maintain a matrix of national rules of engagement that tells us what the United States can do, what the British can do, what the Germans can do, and so on.
Over the last five years in COMPTUEX, we have seen a greater interoperability and ability to take advantage of the strengths of each of the participants.
Q: Can you discuss the technology you will use with the French Navy in this exercise?
Sotherland: A lot of it will be command and control. They use a lot of the same link architecture, and we have the ability to digitally talk to one another and display various contacts.
The technology on Tonnerre is highly integrated which allows it to operate with a much smaller crew. That is eye-opening to me and because of that we can probably stress them [French crew] much faster in high-tempo operations. We would probably augment them with additional liaison officers to advise them on what we are doing.
We don't operate with them as part of NATO yet, but in a bilateral operation. That is why we currently only have the French Navy presence for this exercise.
They do not bring any new revolutionary technology. It is just much more automated and not as manpower intensive.
Q: Will you be using the Combined Enterprise Regional Information Exchange System to communicate with the French Navy?
Sotherland: CENTRIXS is the coalition status quo for us to communicate. Everything that we have needs to go on the CENTRIXS Web site first because if they [French Navy] do not know what our intents are and what we want them to do, then we are not effective. CENTRIXS is the command and control linkage Web server that we will be using.
Q: Can you talk about some of the areas where you hope to learn from the French?
Sotherland: Our Navy has recognized that as Americans we have a tendency to be inward-looking as a culture, and despite the U.S. Navy having been a presence globally for so many decades, I don't think we have done a very good job in the past about learning to adapt to other cultures, but this has been recognized, and there are a number of programs that the Navy is leveraging that will close this culture gap.
One of the most significant efforts is the Center for Language, Regional Expertise and Culture, referred to as CLREC, and I have relied heavily on them to train my staff to better prepare us for our deployment.
It is not just the culture in the Middle East, but in Europe, in the ports of Africa or along the Mediterranean — pulling into Indonesia would be different than pulling into Egypt.
Having cultural sensitivity, knowing the basics of language, how to talk to a different nation, a different people, and not expect them to be like Americans, is one of the biggest things we learn from the French.
In the Indian Ocean, the French have engaged with many countries from a maritime perspective for hundreds of years. If we are going to Dakar or Guinea, I should pick up the phone and talk to my counterpart in the French Navy and ask what he knows about this port and this people, and how not to offend them.
How do I carry our message without seeming arrogant, and how do I limit behavior that could be interpreted as arrogant? What do we usually do when we go to a foreign country? Americans usually talk loud and with our hands and expect to be understood.
Part of my responsibility to my staff, and the ships assigned to me, is to improve cultural awareness, provide rudimentary language training, and find out who speaks the national language within the crew.
I am lucky that a number of members of my staff speak Arabic. We also have some Spanish and some French speakers. We utilize them not just as translators but as cultural points of contact.
I love working with the French, Dutch and Italians, just to name a couple of the far-reaching navies, because they have presence. For instance, the French Navy is everywhere the U.S. Navy is — the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and Pacific. They are very capable, and they have built hundreds of years of interaction with other nations. We can go to our coalition partners, so we do not have to reinvent the wheel.
Q: Do you have a representative from the State Department participating in COMPTUEX?
Sotherland: That is an excellent idea, and we have identified it as a core competency that we should have, but the State Department is still a small organization when compared to the Navy.
We mitigate that with political advisers that are assigned to the various combatant commanders as well as some of their service components. Every one of the staffs that I deal with, whether it is 6th Fleet or 5th Fleet, has a political adviser. They are my points of contact.
NAVCENT also has liaison officers that are stationed in the embassies of many of the countries within the CENTCOM AOR. They are there to facilitate any interaction I have with any nation's military or government.
It works very smoothly. I am looking forward to doing more bilateral and multilateral exercises in support of both the maritime strategy and the various TSCs, or Theater Security Cooperation strategies.
Our overall mission is that we have to be ready to do major combat operations any time and everything else builds on that. Putting Marines ashore in Landing Craft Air Cushions uses the same mechanics as moving civilians on and off the beach for an evacuation.
As we saw with the USS Kearsarge (LHD 3) during Continuing Promise in Haiti after the hurricanes hit, that's a military operation. In that case, we were helping the indigenous people help themselves by providing airlift, manpower, food and supplies.
There were no trigger-pullers — we were not there to take over the country — we were there to help.
For more information about the Bataan, go to Navy News at www.navy.mil or contact the public affairs officer at firstname.lastname@example.org.