Brigadier General Owens on Bold Alligator 2012: “We’ve got to hit them where they’re not!”

Prior to the Bold Alligator 2012 exercise, we had a chance to talk with Brigadier General Owens, 2nd MEF, about the goals, purpose and orientation of the exercise.

Later, we were able to sit down with the General in his office at Camp Lejeune to get his perspective on the exercise, its accomplishments and the way ahead.

Norfolk Naval Station- Jan 24. French Navy Capt. Emmanuel Gue discusses logistical affairs with Rear Adm. Kevin Scott Commander, Expeditionary Strike Group 2, Marine Brig. Gen.l Christopher Owens, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Battalion, and French Army Col. Nicolas Jovanovic about the upcoming Bold Alligator 2012 exercise during an office visit on board USS WASP (LHD 1). Credit: USN

SLD: As the 2nd MEB commander, could you discuss the activities ashore of the 2nd MEB in Bold Alligator 2012?

General Owens: Second MEB, Marine Expeditionary Brigade is a subset of Second MEF. So, to build second MEB, we took a ground combat element, built around Second Marine Regiment, Regiment Landing Team Two, and took a slice from the rest of the division.  It included tanks, amphibious assault vehicles, light-armored vehicles, artillery, engineers, and so forth.

And we paired that with a combat logistics regiment from our second logistics group at Camp Lejeune.  We then paired that with higher-level maintenance, supply, and engineers.

And then, our air combat element, which was built around the Marine Aircraft Group 29 headquarters, rotary wing air group at New River, but taking slices from the other air groups to include the control group and the support group within 2nd MAW.

The MEB’s mission ashore was to seize a port and airfield in the northern part of the country of Amber in order to facilitate bringing in larger ground combat forces.

We would notionally think of an armored or mechanized division in this augmentation role.  But in this case, it turned out to be the remainder of 2 MEB, some more ACE assets and so forth in order to bring them in via both air, and black-bottom shipping.  The latter refers to the maritime preposition force shipping and other maritime sealift command shipping.

We had to project that force ashore, and maneuver them to a position where they could defeat the enemy forces that were in the vicinity, and secure that port and airfield.

Overall, it was a maneuver of about 200 miles from the point of landing.  This was the farthest point of penetration by the time we got to the end of the exercise, and had accomplished our mission.

SLD: The last big exercise of this sort was in 1996.  We wrote about this “missing exercise” but clearly one key difference was the threat envelope against which you were operating.

General Owens: One of the things that was different in this exercise from many previous amphibious exercise large scale is we executed in what we called a medium threat, anti-access, area denial, A2AD environment.  The threat focus is primarily on the area denial piece, which is closer in, but which is more realistic for the timeframe of the exercise.

The threat we faced at sea started with submarines, missile patrol boats, fast-attack craft, fast inshore attack craft, and some asymmetric threats with commandeered fishing boats, low slow-flyers, and some tactical air.  But of greater concern was coastal defense cruise missiles, initially fixed sites, as well as mobile, and then ultimately, just a threat of additional mobile sites.

And then, the most ubiquitous threat that we’re going to face is mines.  In the exercise, we faced a very robust mine capability.  We had a wide range of capabilities on the Navy side to help deal with those threats, but we also integrated the MEB in that, particularly our air.  These assets were used both in targeting threats to the amphibious taskforce ashore, as well as providing defense of the amphibious taskforce primarily with our aviation asset.  But we also involved some of our ground combat elements when they were aboard the ship.

That continued even after we went ashore.  And this is something that we really haven’t practiced; this full integration, of the Marine capability in the overall ability to both to project force, and to protect those naval assets that are projecting that force.

SLD: I would think a major challenge from the command side is to organize your assets flexibly to deal with the diversity and range of threats within a compressed time period.

General Owens: I think flexibility is a key word. In this exercise, we focused on today’s forces for today’s fight.  What it really was about was getting the greatest impact, the greatest benefit out of the capabilities we have.

For example, in our countermine effort, we recognize that in order to do countermine work here on the east coast of the U.S., it’s going to involve coalition participation.  So, we had Canadian mine hunters out working with U.S. divers in conjunction with Dutch divers, Canadian divers supported by the Coast Guard providing a cutter to help provide force protection for the mine hunters.

And our Navy forces provided close in protection for both the mine hunters, and then subsequently, for some of our maritime sealift command shipping that was coming into the same areas.

Thus, in addition to integrating the Marine and Navy pieces, we also expanded our search to what other capabilities that other countries, other services, for instance, the coast guard, and even the inter agency could provide.  We didn’t really touch on the inter-agency aspect too much in Bold Alligator 12, but it is an aspiration for the future.  We want to be able to we tap into capabilities that will help us defeat some of these asymmetric threats, in particular, in order to project force ashore.

From this point of view, the goal of the exercise was to shape an effective concept of operations with current capabilities. We’ve got to have the concept of operations in place as we integrate new capabilities going forward.

Marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) depart an MV-22 Osprey at Fort Pickett, Virginia, during an amphibious assault exercise as part of Bold Alligator 2012. Credit: USN

SLD: A key aspect of the exercise was shaping an approach to maneuver warfare, whereby the USN-USMC and Coalition team was looking to insert force across the battlespace.  What is your sense of the maneuver warfare approach practiced in the exercise?

General Owens: On the Navy side we need to show the agility and the flexibility to maneuver.  We’ve got to use our shaping capabilities for both kinetic and non-kinetic operations; we’ve got to use solid deception operations, demonstrations and so forth.

And we’ve got to basically show the enemy that we can hold his entire coastline at risk, and force him to make decisions either to spread his forces out that will allow us to find a weak spot.  Or force him to concentrate forces in the wrong area, in which we can go into an area that he either hasn’t reached yet or simply can’t cover because he doesn’t have enough forces.  We’ve got to hit them where they’re not.

In doing so, 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.  And once they know you’re coming to the island, there is no surprise left.

In most situations, we’re not going to be assaulting an island less than ten miles in length; we’re going to be holding a larger coastline at risk.  And we will force the enemy to make decisions, and through that, hopefully make mistakes that we can exploit.

And that’s kind of how the scenario played out in Bold Alligator.  We ended up landing where the enemy was not quite able to reach us yet, and even though we did have some threats in the beach area, we were able to mitigate those so that the forces came ashore without taking casualties.

SLD: Let us discuss the logistics side of the operation.  The goal of the approach to maneuver warfare we are discussing here is clearly SUSTAINABLE maneuver from the sea operations.  How important is the seabase going to be moving forward to the support ashore and within the seabase itself?

General Owens: The only way we’re going to build significant combat power ashore that involves motorized mechanized forces, or a relatively heavy force is from a ship.  I asked our logisticians to do a computation and figure out how many C-17 load equivalents we’re projecting from the MEB.  And right now, the initial rough estimate is somewhere between 500 and 1,000 sorties.  And that would be what we could offload from amphibious shipping over the course of about three days.

Granted you have to factor in the transit time for the amphibious taskforce, but once it comes time to project the force, you want mass.  You want mass and mobility. 500 to 1,000 sorties by air would take weeks, if not months.

Now, there are a lot of capabilities that can come in via air, the best thing to bring in via air is people right now. You can have people that come in to the airfields that we secure or if necessary that we build that will then marry up with additional combat capability.  They can come in via secured ports, via black-bottom shipping etc.

One of the obvious advantages of operating from the sea base is reducing that footprint ashore. And our traditional model is as the forces go ashore; they’re supplied initially from the amphibious warships.  And then, subsequent sustainment would come in via a port or airfield, and we would build what we refer to as an iron mountain ashore from which to supply frontline units.

Where we want to get to be a point where we can do selective offloading of these black-bottom ships, these maritime sealift command, maritime prepositioning force ships at sea, and provide that sustainment directly from the ships to the forces that will need them, to the consumer.

We can thereby cutting out that iron mountain, which not only increases the number of folks we have to put ashore to manage it, but also, the amount of transportation assets, to move it ashore.  And then, the force is required to protect it.

That in turn, increases our agility if we need to backload rapidly and move onto another crisis, there’s less materiel on the beach that has to be back-loaded or else abandoned if we don’t have the time to backload it.

Developing that selective offload capability, where we can put Marines aboard these commercial ships, and prepare and deliver the sustainment that’s needed, the ammunition, the fuel, the food, the water that what’s needed, and when it’s needed, we can limit that footprint ashore.

SLD: Could you discuss the Osprey and T-AKE supply ship pairing?  Amazingly, the Osprey came off of a supply ship to do the deep raid at Fort Pickett.

General Owens: The T-AKE is bringing in our dry cargo.  So they bring in beyond what the amphibious ships carry, they’ll bring in food, water, and they are ships that bring in our ammunition.  That was what we exercised using the V22s to land on the T-AKE, and we had our logistics regiment Marines posted aboard the TAKE to work on the distribution piece.

And this was the first time we had done that.

SLD: Could you discuss as well your sea-based “port” facility?

General Owens: Another aspect that we demonstrated that hadn’t been used in an amphibious exercise, at least on the east coast before, was the amphibious bulk liquid transfer system. With this system, a large medium-speed roll on/roll off ship, one of our maritime preposition force ships, the Obregon, came three miles off the beach, anchored, and then deployed this three-mile long set of hoses and pumps that would pump both fuel and fresh water ashore.

And what that does is it allows you to use fewer refuelers, refueling trucks, which is our primary means of getting fuel for vehicles and aircraft ashore.  And then also, once ashore, out to the consumer.

This allowed us to focus on just those refuelers we would need to get from the shore, into the pipeline out to the consumers.

It would be the equivalent in order to get that quantity and flow rate of fuel ashore; you’d have to have a port.  And this allows us to do it without a port.

But it’s a vulnerable asset.  You have this huge ship sitting three miles off the beach.  And it’s a very inviting target.  That’s where we brought in the rear marine forces to help defend.

And of course, the landing force, once ashore, was providing security as well.

But because it is a large vulnerable asset, and it was a single asset, we also had backup plans.  We could reach back to our aviation capability, in particular, are these our KC130s to provide a ground forward area refueling point for some of our vehicle fleet, specifically, we tie them in with our light-armored vehicles which were, in this case, heading out to form a screen line to protect the main ground combat element forces.

SLD: Could you discuss a bit further the distribution approach to the deployed combat consumer?

General Owens: If you want to talk current capability versus where we want to be, either by adapting our current assets, or getting new asset, it really boils down to selective offload.

Right now, our black-bottom shipping is basically set up so that when it comes into theater, it’s meant to offload the whole thing at a port.  And then, go back for more.  And then, go back for more.  What we want to be able to do and what really makes it the sea base is that we only take from the ship what we need when we need it.

The mobile landing platform ships that are being built now will facilitate this approach. And marry up with those LMSR ships, and allow a selective offload capability so that we can, again, so we can keep the bulk of our stuff afloat where it’s out of harm’s way, it’s protected to a larger degree from the environment.

And where we don’t have to put Marines ashore to manage it and to guard it until it can be distributed to the frontline units.

What we demonstrated with the T-AKE was a new approach.

The other piece of it, and this is where the mobile landing platforms really come in, is for the larger combat pieces.  For instance, the armored vehicles that are our maritime preposition for ships deliver.  We need to find a way selectively to offload those at sea, and again, take ashore what you need without necessarily having to have a port, or having to offload the entire ship in order to get a particular capability set that you’re looking for.

Another thing we did with the T-AKE was we put a platoon of AMTRAKs aboard her.  And since this is a roll on/roll off ship, it’s got a ramp.  Rather than putting the ramp level to offload to a pier, we put it all the way down, and the AMTRAK’s actually spliced into the bay.  They had no Marines aboard them, other than the crews, but we had them swim over to a grey-bottom ship, a LSD, and simulate loading more combat troops, and then, ferrying them ashore so that both the AMTRAK’s and the Marines inside would get into the fight.

In that way, we can use that sea base, that black-bottom ship to help reinforce our forces ashore.  It is both the sustainment piece, but also a reinforcing capability.

For the AMTRAK’s, we can splice them that way, for the non-amphibious vehicles, like tanks, trucks and so forth, that interfaced so that we could offload at sea is an area where we’re still offloading; and that’s where the mobile landing platform will come into play.

This is an exciting area of innovation.  And there is a lot we can do with our current capabilities.  And then, also getting a better handle on what we’re going to need for future capabilities to be able to do this both air and surface offload of these assets.

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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