On the Regarding War blog, soldiers, veterans, and journalists will share their stories from Afghanistan, Iraq and other war zones. It will feature personal stories and opinions from those who have first-hand knowledge of past and current conflicts. Those at home directly affected by a family member serving in the military will also contribute. The blog is meant to be a place where ideas are exchanged and experiences are related in an effort to gain a better understanding of the realities and effects of war. Share your thoughts, raise a question, and join the conversation by leaving comments on the posts.
"An amphibious operation can be as prominent or as low-key as desired," Brig. Gen. Christopher Owens, USMC, tells me aboard the USS Bataan in Norfolk, VA. "You'd be surprised to know that there have been 106 amphibious operations in the last 20 years, and only two were combat ops." Owens, the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) Commanding General, is the co-commander, along with Rear Admiral Kevin Scott who commands Expeditionary Strike Group 2 (ESG-2), in overseeing Exercise Bold Alligator.
Bold Alligator is a seven-day "virtual exercise" designed to reacquaint high-level Marine and Navy commands with their amphibious doctrine, tactical skill sets and logistical requirements. These skills have atrophied after nine years fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bold Alligator is Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos's opening effort to return the Marine Corps to its expeditionary roots.
Comprising 450 Marines and sailors spread over eight ships, the scenario combines a country invading its neighbor and an emergency evacuation of American and friendly civilians, with all of it occurring in the midst a sudden onslaught of local sectarian violence. Bold Alligator mimics situations that have occurred recently in many parts of the world.
"It's all taken from recent real-world situations," explains Lt. Col. Owen Richwine, who developed it. "Amphibious operations are far more complex than the Marines storming the beach at Tarawa. Think of this as a combination of Iraq invading Kuwait in 1991, the Shia-Sunni carnage in 2005-2006, and the Marines evacuating embassy personnel and civilians from Liberia in 1999."
Such a complex mission requires the ability to respond rapidly, land and sustain a credible force ashore by both sea and air, all while organizing the evacuation of thousands of non-combatants. These are capabilities that can only be provided by amphibious forces, with their unique blend of land-sea-air capabilities.
The simulation is complex. The 450 participants are controlling a virtual force of 11,000 Marines from a MEB and an ESG consisting of 20 ships (15 amphibious, one cruiser, three destroyers, one frigate). Supporting naval units include a Naval Beach Group, a Fleet Surgical Team, Maritime Expeditionary Security Forces, and a Tactical Air Control Group. The USS Bataan is the flagship, with seven other ships and multiple simulation centers spread from Norfolk to Camp Lejeune participating.
The virtual enemy is an accurate recreation of a robust third-world army, with some 12,000 personnel, a mechanized division, and an assortment of tanks, artillery and vehicles. Similar to Iraq, shadowy insurgent forces appear at inopportune moments.
Through the course of each day's events, Lt. Col. Richwine's Action Group threw different scenarios at the participants. An insurgent group issued press releases accusing the Americans of coming to steal national resources, requiring an immediate response from MEB Public Affairs... enemy military action.. Rear Adm. Scott was called from speaking with me in order to take a call from the "anguished ambassador"... various logistical snafu's...
Amphibious operations have several missions. One is forcible entry (think storming the beach at Tarawa), and the others focus on humanitarian or disaster relief. A year ago, the USS Bataan group sat off Haiti providing humanitarian relief, while in 2006 the USS Iwo Jima group pulled 12,000 American citizens off the Beirut beaches as the Israeli-Hezbollah war erupted. Just two months ago Marine helicopters flying from Navy ships off Karachi brought food and water while conducting medical evacuations in the midst of northern Pakistan's horrific flooding.
That's the strength and beauty of amphibious operations: the ability to respond quickly to any situation. The USS Bataan arrived at Port-au-Prince loaded with supplies and 2,500 Marines and sailors only 8.5 days after the earthquake. With the country in ruins, food-water-medical was sent via landing craft to the beaches, from where Humvees and trucks (also sent via landing craft), distributed them throughout the country. Command & Control remained on-board; lessening the stress to a devastated government, and every landing craft that arrived with supplies returned with injured Haitians who were treated in the ship's hospital.
While a $ 12 billion aircraft carrier and fleet of supporting ships is impressive, its use is finite, and in terms of the U.S. fiscal crisis, a new carrier battle group is unnecessary. The last forcible entry was weeks after 9/11 when Gen. James Mattis took his Marines via air into Afghanistan from an aircraft carrier and waged battle with the Taliban. Clearly an important mission, but an equally important part of American foreign policy is ships like the Bataan arriving off the coasts of devastated coasts of Burma (2008), Bangladesh (2007), bringing with them food-water-medical, or 2001 in Sierra Leone, where they evacuated U.S. embassy personel and civilians.
As Lt. Col. Richwine said, "Amphibious operations provide the United States the ability to deliver military, humanitarian aid, or pulling Americans to safety; this is the best way of projecting power quickly and effectively."
Embedded journalist, author, and father of a Marine
Final Thoughts »
Exercise Bold Alligator: Projecting American Influence in the 21st Century »
A Senator Calls For Permanent Bases in Afghanistan? »
Book Review: "Lullabies for Lieutenants" »
Veterans Day Roll Call »