Engaging the Future: Younger Navy and Marine Corps Warriors Prepare


2013-05-22 By Robbin Laird

The USN-USMC team learns in the context of a joint and combined exercise Bold Alligator – the largest annual, amphibious exercise conducted.

It is also a great opportunity for an outsider to learn many things, and probably none more interesting than to learn from the young warfighters concerning their perspectives and their approach to conducting their jobs now and in the future.

In this piece, I will highlight three sets of conversations I had during my visit to Bold Alligator 2013.

In each of these conversations, it was very clear that the skills of Sailors and Marines are leaning forward to engage in 21st century operations, by building upon proven techniques of the 20th century  and discarding obsolete processes in order to effectively respond in today’s environment and prepare for tomorrow’s.

This means honing the ability to work in coalitions from the ground up; integrating air, sea and ground operations; in addition to honing IT skills across a joint and combined force.

Bold Alligator is a foundational plank for this younger generation to lean forward. 

My generation lived in service stove pipes and fought endlessly to preserve each service’s fox hole; this generation gets the importance of joint operations rooted in core service competencies.

Lt Colin Fox

The first conversation was with 31 year old LT Collin Fox.

Fox, who trained as an ASW SH-60F pilot, began his career with a tour of duty aboard USS Harry S. Truman Strike Group.  At the time of our conversation, he had recently shifted his assignment to Expeditionary Strike Group 2, where has served as the Staff Readiness Planner since March 2013.

In this capacity at ESG-2, he has the opportunity to expand his expertise to include amphibious operations. He noted that “compared with Truman, the amphib mission set is certainly different but they complement each other well.  I had never been on an amphib prior to Bold Alligator but was able to see the impact of amphibious operations and the integration of CSGs and ESGs first hand.”

Fox noted that he was concerned his ASW expertise might not be as valuable as in past years because the SH-60F community of which he had been part had transitioned to a new aircraft which was “more of a utility aircraft with no anti-submarine capability.”

However, after reporting to ESG-2, he learned ASW is a major concern for the amphibious warfare community as highlighted in Bold Alligator.  He was pleasantly surprised to realize his skillsets and expertise translated to the amphibious world.

He also gained an appreciation of the complexity of amphibious warfare.

“It is very coordination intensive, which is easy to get wrong.” The complexity of amphibious operations reminded him of the complexity of ASW operations.  “It parallels ASW in the sense of the number of different assets that have to work together — in the right way, in the right roles – to accomplish the mission.  Amphibious operations have an additional layer of planning preceding that complexity.”

LT Collin Fox. Credit Photo: SLD

He noted a major difference with the carrier strike group concept as well.  “With the carrier strike group, you deploy together and you come back together.  With the amphibious ready group, the force is tailorable —  assets are added if required, enhancing the flexibility of the force and ensuring it is the right size to address challenges in dynamic environments. That is the heart of the expeditionary strike group concept.”

He also contrasted the carrier strike group concept with the challenges of evolving the new expeditionary strike group concept.

“The carrier strike group concept is a well understood mechanism of how it’s supposed to work and there’s a lot of corporate knowledge on who does what, what everyone’s role is.  It’s a concept that’s been practiced for a long time.”

With the expeditionary strike group you are creating “capabilities around an amphibious readiness group by adding a flag staff on top and other assets as required by the mission set.  It’s a tailor-made strike group built around an ARG, and exercises like Bold Alligator help refine the details.”

Fox also noted that the allied aspect would be highlighted in his next effort which the staff will travel to Kiel, Germany to participate in the Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) exercise. 

In this exercise, assets will get underway, and rely heavily on coalition participation. “The majority of ships involved are foreign – French, Dutch, German, and a several others,” said Fox.  “Learning each other capabilities and processes in Bold Alligator is invaluable step to inform future operations and exercises.”

Lastly, Fox expanded on the importance of a synthetic exercise, such as Bold Alligator to his training.

“Shortly after reporting to ESG-2, I attended school house training to bring me up to speed on amphibious operations. Then, I was able to merge academics and real-world processes while standing Battle Watch Caption in a simulated environment during Bold Alligator. Next month I will use both experiences to participate in a live exercise.  My skills have grown a great deal in just a few months because of this process.”

So is the story of Collin Fox, an entrant into the brave new world of the evolution of the expeditionary strike group and coalition warfare which boasts integration and flexibility.

Major Sean Dynan

In the second case, Maj. Sean Dynan, a dynamic USMC officer who enthusiastically worked on managing the littoral battlespace presented in Bold Alligator 2013.

The exercise presented a significant, air, maritime and land area challenge.  And unlike some Army officers who think that land power is what you do when you are on the ground, Marines understand it really is about combined arms and the ability to operate with expeditionary logistics.

The command and control piece of this is significant and a work in progress. 

Clearly for the ESG construct to be successful in inserting and supporting forces ashore, C2 needs to work effectively.  There is little question that a good capability was demonstrated here, and the annual Bold Alligator exercise allows it room to continue to grow.

For this Marine Corps leader, “it’s a wicked problem to have to handle that complex of a situation.  Especially when you start talking about A2AD, and all the innovations on the enemy side and their ability to reach out and touch what’s at sea.

The challenge from the Navy side is normally when the Navy is the supported commander, it means they are at sea and deal with the threat at sea.  But with the ESG approach, now the Navy is primarily concerned with setting the conditions to safely deliver forces ashore. It also means the seabase is now an extended supply depot with C2, ISR, and firepower to support a maneuvering force.  This is tough C2 problem to solve.”

Basically, the ESG commander ensures the A2AD threat has been neutralized in order move ships close enough to shore to provide supplies in support of forces ashore.  Now, add in sea basing as a continuous support element and the problem becomes further complicated.”

The C2 piece is a crucial part of the ability to flow forces ashore effectively. For Dynan, the problem was discussed as a puzzle to be solved, a challenge to be met, not a permanent removal of US forces from the sea because the challenge was too tough.  We can be thankful for young leaders like this!

Gunnery Sgt. Anderson

The two final interviewees illustrated the skill sets required to satisfy the increasing demand for communications in 21st century operations.

The first was Marine Corps, Gunnery Sgt. Anderson, who described himself as an expert in wired communications.  Anderson described how sorting out the communications challenge was a core effort which required evolving capability driven by the communications industry.

Gunnery Sgt. Anderson Credit Photo: SLD

As you know, the communications industry does not stand still.  It can change in the blinking of the eye.  Systems can become obsolete overnight.  Not everything we can do on land, can be done on a ship.  It is fine line we have to drive where we can bring the shipboard communications (blue side) and then transition ashore (the green side).  We need to understand both and bring them together into a comprehensive capability.

He also commented what most interested him was the working relationship with the Blue side, to better understand how to get the Blue-Green team working realistically with regard to shaping a phased approach to identify and manage the communications needed for the exercise and comparable operations.

IT Specialist Kayshonda London

And finally, the conversation with Information Technology Specialist Kayshonda London highlighted the close relationship between what happens in the synthetic exercise and the real world.  From the IT point of view, synthetic exercises provide a valuable forum to validate processes and maximize proven technology for real-world application.

Information Technology Specialist Kayshonda London Credit Photo: SLD

During a synthetic exercise, communication is extremely important. Operators and support staff were dispersed across the battlespace, across various commands and states on the East Coast —  a similar construct as if we were underway. In addition, we are in need of the same lines of communication to coordinate force movements that were simulated in this case but would actually be conducted in a live exercise or a future operation.”

As a result, we managed video-teleconferencing, voice lines, email, watchstander chat accounts…and the list goes on.

Additionally, Bold Alligator gives operators the opportunity to become more familiar with communications processes in the area of requirements and security. In an age where every member of a crew or staff has requirements for, and access to classified and unclassified networks, it is vital they understand capabilities, limitations and vulnerabilities. Bold Alligator allows that learning to occur in an environment largely free of variables.

So our collaboration occurs across warfare areas, services and nations to make communication possible – inport and at sea. We continually align processes, the environment and technology to support execution.

In short, in an exercise like Bold Alligator 2013 is not just about developing operational concepts but putting in play the evolution and integration of the skill sets to realize those concepts as well. 

As we highlighted in our recent Jane’s Navy International piece on the USMC-USN team in the Pivot to the Pacific, a much overlooked but central piece for shaping a 21st century strategy is the evolution of the skill sets of the Marines and sailors in executing a 21st century strategy.  Strategy can be drawn up in briefing slides; mission success is delivered by effective tools in the handles of skilled and powerful warriors.

It is not enough to have just “things.” Elemental accounting of quantitative differences can often overlook qualitative differences such as the intangibles of C2, training and tactics and logistic support….. The United States’ and allies’ innovation in understanding the evolving 21st-century“information revolution” and making that technology combat effective is crucial….