Second Line of Defense sat down with the Deputy Commander for ESG 2 immediately after the BOLD ALLIGATOR Exercise. We had a discussion with Col Weisz prior to the exercise so this interview allowed the opportunity to get a sense of his evaluation of the exercise and get his recommendations on the way ahead for the ESG-MEB team.
SLD: You were on the USS WASP during the exercise. From your perspective, what were some of the more interesting aspects of the exercise?
Col Weisz: Yes, the mighty WASP under CAPTAIN Gary Boardman provided outstanding support to all of the embarked staffs on her.
One of the more interesting aspects of the exercise was the robust Coalition participation. We had 10 Coalition countries participating with more than 1,200 of their own service members. They brought ships, helicopters, landing forces, ship-to-shore connectors, staff augments and exercise observers; it was absolutely incredible.
This was significant because we believe that future operations will almost always involve some sort of Coalition or Team coming together to plan and execute the mission. We don’t see ourselves conducting too many, if any, operations strictly on our own. Our Coalition friends bring great capabilities and planning capacities that we need to learn from and get familiar with. That’s what I believe: it is all about today.
Another interesting aspect of the exercise was the integration of the Carrier Strike Group (CSG) into BA 12; this was an important training and educational element for all involved in the exercise, particularly for the ESG-2 and 2d MEB staffs.
The ENTERPRISE Carrier Strike Group provided VADM Buss, the Commander of the Combined Force Maritime Component Command, with both aviation and surface capabilities that significantly contributed to the littoral fight.
Often forgotten is the robust capabilities that the Cruiser-Destroyer (CruDes) assets possess who are also part of the Carrier Strike Group; these CruDes capabilities are truly significant and are much needed in the littoral operating area, especially when you are conducting ops in a medium threat anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) type environment as we did.
At the same time, it is just incredible how much strike, ISR, EW and C2 capabilities that the entire CSG can bring to bear in a fight. Having a CSG by your side as you begin your amphibious assault is very comforting to the Amphibious Task Force and Landing Force Commanders.
We just need to conduct more of these types of integrated training opportunities in the future. It is the way we are going in the future; it’s the way ahead.
SLD: What it can do to reinforce a large MEB?
Col Weisz: The Carrier Strike Group initially provided fixed-wing sorties to help the CFMCC establish and maintain local maritime and air superiority in the operating area. This was critical for the shaping operations, by that I mean the supporting operations, the advance force operations and the pre-assault operations to take place that directly supported the follow-on MEB amphibious assault and landing.
As mentioned earlier, the CSG then became even more critical when it provided strike, ISR, EW and C2 sorties in direct support of the MEB during the actual amphibious assault and landing ashore. This enabled MEB aviation assets (both afloat and ashore) to be freed-up and utilized primarily for supporting their MEB’s amphibious assault.
This is critical due to the habitual relationships that are constantly developed and refined in the Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) construct between its Aviation Combat Element and Ground Combat Element forces. From a Ground Commander’s perspective, you want to have aviators and aircrew supporting you on the ground that you and your ground forces are familiar with, comfortable with and have trained with on a regular basis so you know each other’s capabilities and limitations as well as each other’s modus operandi.
So, as you can see, there is so much potential for synergy between the ESG/MEB and the large deck carriers, the CSGs. The large deck carrier, the CSG can easily be used on the front end of an amphibious operation, providing direct support to the Amphibious Task Force and Landing Force Commanders, enabling critical flexibility, lethality, responsiveness and versatility that is required for conducting amphibious operations ashore.
As you are already familiar with, the key to successful Landing Force operations is the rapid build-up of combat power ashore. The large deck carrier significantly contributes to this both directly and indirectly thru its aviation and surface capabilities. We never doubted they could do that.
And when you start looking 5, 10, 15 years down the road, when our F-35 Bravo Joint Strike Fighters become fully operational, our LHDs and LHAs, our Big Deck Amphibs truly become mini aircraft carriers, they really do.
The F-35B gives you that much capability and potential in a single platform, it’s phenomenal. Now, the LHDs and LHAs may not provide you with 48 plus TACAIR assets that you would see and experience on a CVN, but you’re still going to have 16-20 F-35s on a LHD and LHA that will still give you significant strike, ISR, EW and C2 capabilities.
In addition to ESG/MEB deployments, this is a great capability for our routine and forward deployed ARG/MEUs. And when you bring the ARG/MEUs together with the ESG/MEBs, you just increase your expeditionary strike force’s capabilities that much more.
At the same time, depending on the situation, the threat and the operating environment, one could easily argue that you could leave your large deck carrier, the CVN further out to sea in order to support follow-on operations or even other operations outside of the immediate area.
SLD: What other key experiences from BA-12 would you like to highlight?
Col Weisz: I have already highlighted the importance of the Blue/Green Team (USN/USMC) coming together in addition to the Carrier Strike Group and Coalition forces integration.
Equally important is the fact that amphibious operations are ordinarily joint in nature. Per joint doctrine, they require extensive air, land, maritime, space and special operations forces participation.
For BA 12, we had US Air Force, US Army, SOF and US Coast Guard units participating as well. These forces, units and capabilities were critical and we would not have been successful without them. Their efforts and support was superb. They are great planners as well and we learned much from them.
Another key experience to highlight was the mine warfare threat and our employment and utilization of mine counter-measure (MCM) assets and procedures in support.
Both ESG-2 and 2d MEB staffs had very little experience, knowledge and familiarization working with the mine warfare community, current mine threats and their associated tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs); so this was truly a great learning experience for all involved.
We conducted live and synthetic counter mine warfare operations utilizing aviation, surface and sub-surface assets and capabilities off both the Coast of North Carolina as well as off the Coast of California, in the vicinity of San Diego.
The West Coast mine warfare operations were geo-synchronized to support our operations off the East Coast. This training venue worked great and we should, we need to conduct more of these types of training opportunities in the future as our scare resources and limited funding continue to decline. This was definitely one of the most valuable training events throughout all of BA 12.
SLD: What were some of the assets used in dealing with the mine threat?
Col Weisz: For starters, the Royal Canadian Navy deployed several surface MCM ships from Halifax, Canada to Virginia and North Carolina operating areas in support BA 12. These two ships contributed significantly to our supporting operations, advance force operations and pre-assault operations. Basically, we could not have conducted the amphibious assault without them; they were that critical, they cleared and prepared the necessary sea-lanes, waterways and routes, we needed them that much.
Additionally, we had a detachment of MH-53Es, aviation MCM assets, supporting our operations out of Marine Corps Auxiliary Airfield Bogue Field; the MH-53Es are permanently based here at Norfolk, Virginia. They too provided a much needed capability for us to be able to put Marines and a Coalition landing force ashore.
We also had one live amphibious warship operating from the West Coast, one LSD or dock landing ship as it is officially called, that participated with both divers and marine mammals on board; showcasing an absolutely phenomenal USN sub-surface MCM capability.
And finally, we had the Naval Mine and Anti-Submarine Command, called NMAWC, that deployed from San Diego, California to Norfolk, Virginia and established its headquarters and battle watch with VADM Buss and the CFMCC staff aboard the Navy Warfare Development Command and its associated Maritime Operations Center.
SLD: What role did the surface navy play in the exercise?
Col Weisz: As mentioned a little bit before, the CruDes community was actively involved in BA 12. They protected the Amphibious Task Force and Landing Force from both conventional and asymmetric threats. Their defense of the Amphibious Task Force was absolutely critical as we entered the Amphibious Objective Area and encountered the enemy’s medium threat A2AD capabilities.
They had their Pre-Planned Responses, what we call PPRs, down to a complete science and were able to effectively counter and take down any pop-up threats that came our way, be it conventional surface ships, sub-surface threats, Coastal Defense Cruise Missiles, aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles and even fast attack craft.
As a first time and highly visible training event, they were able to seamlessly integrate with the MEB’s aviation combat element, both fixed-wing and rotary-wing assets and develop detailed and thorough tactics, techniques and procedures for the emergency defense of the ATF.
Again, a very successful first of its kind.
SLD: What other observations would you add to your BA-12 experience?
Col Weisz: When conducting amphibious operations, it is vital to have several capabilities, means or options readily available for pushing your landing forces, your Marines ashore.
By that I mean that you must have both an aviation and surface capability when conducting your ship-to-shore movement. There are just too many factors, events or variables that could come up and limit, restrict, even deny your ability to get Marines ashore if you do not have alternative and redundant capabilities.
Poor weather could easily be one example or factor that restricts your aviation ship-to-shore movements. Additionally, asymmetric surface threats are another example that could easily deny your surface ship-to-shore movements, so you have to have several options readily available in order to successfully move forces ashore.
In regards to the aviation ship-to-shore piece, the MV-22B Osprey performed admirably in transporting Marines and equipment ashore. Its speed and maneuverability greatly enhanced the rapid build-up of both Marine and Coalition combat power ashore.
In regards to the surface ship-to-shore movement, the requirement for amphibious warships to have well-decks could not have been stressed more; could not have been highlighted more; well deck operations are absolutely critical in order to have that alternative means of putting Marines and forces ashore. We have some work to do in regards to TTPs with the upcoming LHA 6 and 7 Big Deck Amphibs; they have no well deck.
We have got some homework to do.
SLD: So how would you summarize your findings on BA-12 and the way ahead?
Col Weisz: I’ll break that down into what I call the goods, the challenges, and then some recommendations.
As far as the goods, the Expeditionary Strike Group and MEB integration was downright superb. Both Admiral Scott and General Owens have developed a close personal relationship over the last year and a half. And that was evident throughout all the planning, coordination, and execution that they had a very tight relationship. We will work hard to continue that strong partnership. As you know, it is all about relationships and working together. As Joint Pub 3-02 points out, the key characteristic of all amphibious operations are close coordination and cooperation.
Additionally, we received outstanding guidance, direction and support from both US Fleet Forces Command and US Marine Corps Forces Command. Admiral Harvey and Lieutenant General Hejlik remained actively involved with BA 12 and worked hard to foster and develop close knit Blue/Green relationships, and that always helps when you have a higher headquarters providing that great support and guidance. In fact, ADM Harvey made BA 12 his number 1 priority for Fleet Forces Command, number one priority. Both he and LtGen Hejlik also published concise yet professional Amphibious and Expeditionary Warfare Educational Reading Programs. Both also developed and released regular BLOG updates on their Headquarters websites in regards to the progress of the planning and coordination of BA 12.
Another one of the goods is the development and implementation of the Amphibious Warfare Commander, called AWC, as a primary warfare commander in the USN and NATO Composite Warfare Commander construct, known as the CWC construct.
This AWC construct takes the place of the Strike Warfare Commander in the traditional CWC construct that the Carrier Strike Group Commanders are familiar with and utilize. This change or policy enables the Amphibious Task Force Commander to concentrate on the entirety of his amphibious operations currently taking place, not just the ship-to-shore movement piece. It allows the ATF Commander to properly command and control his air and missile defense responsibilities, his surface and sub-surface responsibilities, his information warfare responsibilities as well as many other secondary warfare and coordinator responsibilities.
For BA 12, we tasked Amphibious Squadron 4, led by Commander Pete Pagano, as our Amphibious Warfare Commander. He did a superb job of leading and directing the ship-to-shore movement from both a surface and aviation perspective.
As far as the strike capability of the Amphibious Task Force in the CWC construct, it is planned, coordinated and executed by the Supporting Arms Coordination Center, known as the SACC, which utilized a good mix of Blue and Green Fires specialists.
Probably the third good then would be the implementation of sea basing in support of amphibious ops. The primary objective of sea basing is to keep the Iron Mountain afloat, that is that logistics resupply and sustainment capability, keep it afloat vice having to establish and maintain it ashore.
This required us to utilize all of our amphibious warships, as well as our military sealift command ships, to receive and store supplies and equipment in order to maintain that robust iron mountain afloat.
For BA 12, our assigned military sealift command ships consisting of T-AKEs, T-AKs, T-AOs and T-AVB, our single aviation logistic resupply ship, accomplished this feat and provided a capable and responsive sea basing capability for both the ESG and MEB commands as we pushed the landing forces ashore.
In addition to keeping the logistics sustainment piece afloat, sea basing enabled us to keep the MEB Command Element, the MEB Aviation Combat Element and the MEB Logistics Combat Element afloat. The MEB command element stayed afloat on board the USS WASP. The aviation combat element stayed afloat on board the USS KEARSARGE, and the logistics combat element stayed afloat on board the USS SAN ANTONIO. The only C2 headquarters that went ashore was the Ground Combat Element and its Regimental Landing Team headquarters.
Moving on to the challenges. The ESG-2 manning document needs a little work in the future. We were augmented with many Coalition personnel from countries like Canada, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal, New Zealand, and Australia who did absolutely incredible work, they were superb planners and coordinators.
Many of those countries that I just mentioned provided augments and planners that just came in, hit the ground running and truly helped ESG-2 out in areas and specialties where we don’t have the manning levels we would like to have on a day-to-day basis, so that’s something that we’ve got to take a look at.
We need to answer the following with some higher headquarters help: What additional specialties and just how big of a staff do we want that ESG staff to be? It’s a tough question in today’s constrained manning and operating environment.
The shipboard spaces were also a challenge. If you just look at one ship, the USS WASP, which is an LHD, an amphibious assault ship, we had the ship’s company that was on board, consisting of approximately 1,100 Sailors. We had ESG2 headquarters that was on board. We had the Second Marine Expeditionary Brigade Command Element that was on board, and then we had Destroyer Squadron 28 on board.
Having those four command elements on board a single ship, it’s tough to provide shipboard spaces, particularly when you’re looking for senior officers and senior enlisted that’ll be manning those positions. We definitely need to take another look at shipboard spaces; my fellow Marines from 2d MEB want an amphibious command ship, great idea but we’ll see about that one.
Certification criteria for deployed staffs is another challenge area we need to look at. Currently a Carrier Strike Group goes through a year-long certification process, also an Amphibious Ready Group and Marine Expeditionary Unit, known as the ARG/MEU, goes through a detailed, long yet extremely valuable certification process. However, we at Expeditionary Strike Group TWO do not, and we know that’s something that we need to fix.
In the future, we need something that we can train to, we can educate ourselves on, and that someone can certify us and say that we’re ready, a full up round ready to go down range.
There were some C5I challenges as well. All in all, I think the Blue-Green Communications Team did a great job of working through these, but there definitely were some challenges. As you talk about the four staffs being embarked, everybody needs access to phones, computers, radios, you name it. Everybody needs access to the Voice Over Secure Internet Phones, what we call VOSIP; they need access to the Internet, SIPRNET, NIPRNET, and CENTRIX.
At the same time this is going on, we must be able to communicate and coordinate with our Coalition partners. CENTRIX will be our primary means for doing that. That’s a lot of requirements and needed capabilities for an amphibious assault ship that has a lot of going on in addition to what I have already mentioned before.
The last challenge was integrating the live and synthetic mix. That was really tough. If you’re just controlling live forces, it’s pretty easy. If you’re just controlling synthetic forces, that’s fairly easy, but when you mix the two, it really and truly is difficult, so that’s something we’ve got to take a look at in the future.
We knew coming into the exercise it would be difficult. So, now we really have to sit down and thoroughly after action it because it will be the way of the future, we must get it right now. There is no way getting around that.
My core recommendation going forward is that we look at formalizing the BOLD ALLIGATOR exercise series, and making it a regular, annual exercise just like we do with exercises on the West Coast with RIMPAC and just like we do with UFL, UFG and FOAL EAGLE in Korea. It is too important not to do that. BOLD ALLIGATOR could easily become our premier naval amphibious exercise.
We need to take a look at our ESG manning levels. Again, we need to make sure we have the proper folks at both the Expeditionary Strike Group and the MEB. I think that will require us to do some more study and research to make sure we have enough of certain C2, intell, operations, logistics, technical and other skillsets in our toolkit.
We definitely want to take a look, a refresh, at some of the other C5I initiatives on the Waterfront. Maybe we need to take a look at the way the Carrier Strike Group, the CVNs are organized, and take a look at their C5I capabilities and structure, and see if we can implement that into an Expeditionary Strike Group construct. Maybe we need to even look at the 6th Fleet and 7th Fleet Command ships, the USS MOUNT WHITNEY and USS BLUE RIDGE for C5I ideas and recommendations.
The final recommendation that I have is about the Expeditionary Strike Group training continuum. We need to train, educate and develop ourselves on a daily basis just like the Carrier Strike Groups and the ARG/MEUs do when they go out and get ready for deployment. That means that training has to be continuous; it can’t be something you just do every now and then. I mean it’s got to be 24/7, 365 days a year so that you get extremely proficient at your job. Thank you again for the opportunity to contribute.
For Col Weisz’s background see
Credit Featured Photo: An MV-22 Osprey assigned to the Fighting Griffins of Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 266 makes a historic first landing aboard the Military Sealift Command dry cargo and ammunition ship USNS Robert E. Peary (T-AKE 5). The Osprey landed aboard Robert E. Peary while conducting an experimental resupply of Marines during exercise Bold Alligator 2012. USN.