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Bold Alligator 2012 was significantly more than an amphibious exercise. And in a real sense it was not. It was a littoral force engagement exercise leveraging the seabase to operate over a very large battlespace. And it was an exercise which pick up some of the lessons learned off of Libya and are carrying them forward into the 21st Century.
When compared to the last major amphibious exercise conducted in 1996 “Operation Purple Star,” one of the clear differences was the impact of the Osprey. The speed and range of the Osprey demonstrated in both Libyan operations and in Bold Alligator provided glimpses of the future. The seabase can be linked ship to ship, from ship to shore, from shore to ship and back again. During the exercise, the Osprey landed on the USNS Robert E. Peary, a T-AKE ship and, indeed, participated in the raid 185 miles away on Fort Pickett.
As the chief coalition officer involved in the exercise, Lt. Commander Pastoor argued, “This really is about power projection from the sea and the ability to move the insertion force from and to the sea base and to operate throughout the battlespace.”
The promise of the ESG enabled by the Osprey and the coming F-35B is really rather simple. The ESG enabled by the Osprey and the F-35B is neither a Carrier Battle Group nor an Amphibious Ready Group. It is far more flexible than a CBG, in that it is a modular mix and match capability, which clearly can include allies as it did in the Exercise or in the operations off of Libya. And it is not simply an “ARG on steroids,” as one of the Harrier squadron commander noted. “It is far more capable.”
An ESG will allow for an economy of force whereby the ARG-MEU can be scaled up to include other sea based on air assets to allow for dominance of the battlespace. It is scalable both in terms of assets contained within the sea base or contributed by various land support structures, air or ground.
According to the 2nd MEF commander in the exercise, Brigadier General Owens, who will soon be moving to Okinawa, by strengthening the ability of the seabase to provide for logistics ashore, one can insert force without moving an iron mountain with it ashore. And “we get away from that image of amphibious assault where we’re going into a limited area, and that you have limited places you can land, so the enemy knows you’re coming to one of these two places. The goal of the ESG is to hit them where they’re not!”
The distributed character of the sea base seen in this exercise and highlighted by the evolving ESG allows for a modular mix and match quality. And this mix and match quality can embody the key elements of what one wants in 21st century forces: presence, economy of force and scalability.