From Being a Greyhound Bus to Becoming a Strike Force: Bold Alligator 2012 Shows the Way


02/11/2012 – During the week of Second Line of Defense interviews with the USN-USMC team in early January, the SLD team sat down with Captain Sam Howard and Col. Phil Ridderhof to discuss the exercise and the approach.  In effect, the USN-USMC team is developing an approach to maneuver warfare projected and supported from the sea.

There is a prevailing view inside the Beltway that the USN and USMC are holding Bold Alligator to make a political point of their relevance. The political context of 2012 is assumed as the context. The reality is that BA-12 was started 3 years ago and BA-11 was the initial stop along the way.

Captain Sam Howard During the SLD Interview (Credit: SLD)
Captain Sam Howard During the SLD Interview (Credit: SLD)

Bold Alligator 2012 is testing the Expeditionary Strike Group. Indeed, one can argue that the Gator Navy is moving from being a Greyhound Bus to becoming a strike force. The template being shaped in BA-12 will provide a lay down within which force modernization associated with the F-35B and the VM-22 can unfold.

Captain Sam Howard is Special Assistant to the Chief of Staff of US Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk VA.  Marine Colonel Phil Ridderhof, senior Marine Corps adviser to U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, Va.

Captain Howard began his career in destroyer operations and most recently before his Norfolk Assignment was the skipper of the USS Bataan.  During his time on Bataan, he participated in the Haiti relief efforts.

Captain Howard emphasized that one of the opportunities generated by the exercise was to familiarize other services with the key advantages provided to the joint force by seabasing. “A sea base is a concept that regrettably is foreign to the other services, at least in real practice, and we were able to certainly to demonstrate it in real practice in real-time in the case of Haiti and will be able to expand on this in the exercise.”

Howard underscored the importance of the exercise as a combined arms approach and useful to re-shaping military doctrine. “It’s a combined arms endeavor, and so getting to that thought process of making it a combined arms thing is certainly very important to us.”

Col. Ridderhof picked up on the combined arms theme introduced and discussed by Captain Howard.  He emphasized that the exercise was built in part around operating at a different level than an ARG-MEU was capable of operating.

The ARG and the MEU are very important, very capable.  When you start getting bigger than the ARG and the MEU an amphibious operation is not simply a quantitative increase.  There’s a qualitative difference in how you think about organizing the task force.

The ARG-MEU is built around three core ships and the MEU is of a regimental size, with a battalion landing team, combat logistics, battalion, and the composite squadron.

The MEB being used in this exercise is a different animal. One of our challenges in the Marine Corp is how do you describe the MEB?  It can be anywhere from 10,000 to 17,000 soldiers, but in general, it is a regimental landing team with at least three battalions, plus a Marine air group size of an aviation combat element and combat logistics regiment-sized support element.

One of the key things is that to do all six functions of Marine Corp Aviation, to do command and control, is central to the operational capabilities. A MEU has little pieces, but to do the big Marine Corp Aviation Command and Control pieces is a significant jump in capability.  You need all of the pieces of Marine aviation, and then all the logistics to sustain that for 30 days plus.

Col. Ridderhof During the SLD Interview (Credit: SLD)
Col. Ridderhof During the SLD Interview (Credit: SLD)

We discussed with both Howard and Ridderhof the nature of the evolution of the Expeditionary Strike Group.

The problem we have with the ESG is one of definition and of which ESG are you talking about? Because when you say the word Expeditionary Strike Group, it refers to concepts of the past as well as new ones.

There is an ESG as it was but we no longer deploy as ESGs.  The concept of taking ARG with three amphibious ships, put a cruiser, and one or two DDGs with it, and maybe a submarine, and it all works up with a MEU, and so you have basically an ARG MEU extended, and that was called an Expeditionary Strike Group, and that went out.

We no longer deploy those.  It’s still on the books as a capability.  Then they took the Amphibious Group Headquarters, which is a one-star headquarters, and they called those ESG Command Elements, ESG-2 here, ESG-7 in Okinawa,. ESG-5 in Bahrain, and ESG -3 on the West Coast.

Then you’d look at Bold Alligator. That’s also an ESG because it’s going to be called ESG-2. Admiral Scott is in command of it and he will have several amphibious ships, some cruisers and destroyers, and other naval support elements. That’s a lot different than just three amphibious ships, and with a cruiser, and so he’s now commanding an amphibious task force.

And the large-deck carrier is shifting its approach as part of this operational construct.

Col. Ridderhof underscored: Bold Alligator is testing today’s capability but because we haven’t done this this way, the CFMCC Commander has typically not been considering the littoral as a whole, going all the way to that objective ashore as his battle space.

He’s influencing it surely, but hasn’t been thinking of it all the way there. Just as the ARG MEU would be first on the scene, how does the Carrier Strike group fold into the scalability of the operation?

Captain Howard emphasized: The reality is all this is in the context of a joint war fighting organization.  And among the lessons we will take from this is how to develop further the unique war fighting relationship between Navy and Marine Corp and how does that best plug into the total force, joint force.

And finally we discussed the origins of Bold Alligator and the role of the Blue-Green team.

Col. Ridderhof discussed the bottom-up approach as well as the top level of decision-making generating the thinking being tested in the exercise.

We’ve had full command support for the last two years because it was a good idea whose time had come. Admiral Harvey and General Hejlik have really pushed this through.  There was an idea, and they saw it, and have taken it in greater direction than we could of ever imagined when we were looking at this.

But even though there’s a joint framework, we’re getting our own house in order naval wise, and then as we get this better, we’re operating within a joint framework.  But from the resource standpoint, it’s just been challenging because there is no specific certification overall for the exercise. Individual parts of their individual strike groups are getting their certification, but overall for the exercise, they are not.

There’s no combatant commander that’s specifically asked I need a MEB ESG level amphibious with a Carrier Strike Group exercise for you to do that on the east coast, and you need to prioritize that.  That’s something that’s a decision that was coming here from the force provider side of the Admiral and the General looking out over the spectrum, and saying, this is the capability we’re going to have to need, and we’re the only ones who can really put it together.