Bold Alligator 2012 and the “New” Middle East

Russia's Pacific and Arctic interests will become increasingly significant. (Credit: Bigstock)

by Robbin Laird

As BA-12 was unfolding, the Iranian threat to mine the Straits of Hormuz was a real world event which seemed to remind folks of the need for amphibious capabilities and the sea basing approach.

The Navy’s biggest amphibious exercise in a decade, Bold Alligator, is not specifically designed to counter Iranian threats in the Persian Gulf. But it comes awfully close, according to two senior service officials.

The joint Navy and Marine Corps exercise is geared toward honing the services’ amphibious warfare capabilities. Training operations began this week off the coast of Virginia and North Carolina, U.S. Fleet Forces Command chief Adm. John Harvey told reporters at breakfast here today. The massive exercise comes as Marines are in the midst of returning to the sea after a decade of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. The combat scenarios in Bold Alligator are not tailored to mimic any particular country, Lt. Gen. Dennis Hejlik, head of U.S. Marine Corps Forces Command, said at the same breakfast. But a closer look at those scenarios could lead some to conclude otherwise.

Navy and Marine forces involved with the exercise will work scenarios involving mine warfare, countering small boat attacks and other irregular threats and fighting in shallow coastal waters, Harvey pointed out. Those threats, among others, are the hallmarks of Iranian naval forces. Reiterating Hejlik’s comments, Harvey did note the Bold Alligator scenarios were “certainly informed by recent history.” Tehran has been flexing their naval muscles over the past few months as part of an overall show of force in the Straits of Hormuz. That said, “Everything we are going to do” during the exercise can be applied to a potential conflict with Iran in the Straits, Harvey said.

And indeed, the DOD is re-fitting the USS Ponce for duty in the Middle East.  The Department stopped the decommissioning in order to re-fit for deployment.  Although one report focused on the ship as a launch point for Navy seals, a more likely focus is upon de-mining operations and the need for significant helo and related capabilities aboard the USS Ponce.  The Ponce was one of the stars of the Libyan engagement and due to significant shortfalls on the US side is being pressed into duty.  If you ever wanted a poster child for the USN-USMC call for more amphibs this clearly is it.  A real world event is being handled by a Band-Aid approach.  If we don’t simply want to buy more Band-Aid solutions, we need to buy and deploy appropriate kit for the new con-ops now.

In fact, the Libyan operations as well as evolving events in the Middle East suggest even more strategic relevance of the rapid evolution of the sea-basing approach into a broader understanding of maneuver warfare from the sea.

In later pieces, we will develop the concept of maneuver warfare from the sea featured in BA-12; it is not about amphibious ships, it is about leveraging them as part of sea base to shape a broad maneuver space to shape engagement options and mission success.

The “new” Middle East is rapidly creating the need for such a capability, and such a transformation of US and allied forces. And remember the core role, which allies played in BA-2012. Credit Image: Bigstock

The “new” Middle East is rapidly creating the need for such a capability, and such a transformation of US and allied forces.  And remember the core role, which allies played in BA-2012.

With the Arab Spring, the security and defense framework, which the West has underwritten over the past thirty years, is shattered.  The Arab Spring states are in upheaval, the Iranians are preparing to enter the stage as a nuclear power, the Conservative Arab states have to prepare to defend themselves against Iran, and the interaction between Arab Spring forces and the stability of the key conservative Arab states is significant.  Who will the West be aiding and abetting if the Arab Spring continues to pull the rug out from under the de facto Conservative Arab, Israeli and Western alliance?

Will Western states be able and willing to deploy land based forces, whether ground or air, on Arab soil?  And given uncertainties even in key Arab allied states, how might the West best defend its interests, and to ensure energy security in the region?

There are several elements presaged in BA-12, which are relevant to the reshaping of Western capabilities to protect Western interests.

First, sea-basing and engagement forces associated with sea basing are clearly well placed to provide for security of choke points and transit in the Mediterranean and the Gulf.

Second, in the exercise, Harriers based on the USS Kersarge worked closely with land-based air to provide for a significant air combat capability to shape the battlespace.  This model can be followed with Arab Air Forces, the Israeli Air Force or Western Air Forces deployed temporarily on Arab soil.  The point is that the organizer of the spear is on the sea-base, and this capability can be conjoined with the various air combat centers extant or being developed in the region.

Third, the F-35B is a game changer.  The combat systems aboard the BACH1-11 during the exercise demonstrated the potential impact of being able to have a wide-angle lens on the battlespace transitioning into dynamic battle management using tactical aircraft.

Fourth, the synergy between Aegis and the engagement force is a crucial element ensuring the viability and survivability of Western deployed assets whether on the sea or on land.

The coming Iranian nuclear state coupled with the festering upheavals associated with the Arab Spring can create a perfect storm for the ability of the West to defend its interests in the Middle East.

Shaping an effective engagement strategy in this period of uncertainty and deploying realistic capabilities into the Mediterranean and the Gulf will be a key imperative in the period ahead.

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