MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C. (Feb. 15, 2012) --
U.S. Navy amphibious ships can carry the personnel and air power needed to conduct military operations in a myriad of locations throughout the world. During Exercise Bold Alligator 2012, every aspect of Marine aviation was used in the full range of air operations to showcase the advantages of seabasing.
Bold Alligator, which took place Jan. 30 through Feb. 12 afloat and ashore in and around Virginia and North Carolina, was the first Marine Expeditionary Brigade level amphibious exercise of its size in the past ten years. It granted valuable experience to pilots and aircrews as they reacquainted themselves with the shipboard working environment.
Col. Scott S. Jensen, commanding officer of the aviation combat element for the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade during the exercise, likened the exercise to softball practice. The members of a good softball team already know the mechanics of a double-play whether they practice or not. When the team is getting ready for a tournament, however, they perfect their techniques. Marine aviators know the mechanics of working on a ship but need things like Bold Alligator to get ready for the big tournament.
The ‘tournament’ of Bold Alligator was Feb. 6, when Marines of Regimental Landing Team 2 stormed Onslow Beach, N.C. While RLT-2 Marines secured their frontline positions, and the aviation arm consisting of an array of aviation assets practiced operations supporting the landing.
“Prior to the Marines landing on shore, we’ll spend time clearing the airspace in order to get air superiority,” said Capt. Johnathan P. Stouffer, an AV-8B Harrier pilot with Marine Attack Squadron 231. “Once we have that, we’ll conduct shaping operations to prepare the battlefield for the Marines. Based on intelligence we’ll strike where all the enemy positions are so they can’t harm our Marines while they’re landing on the beach. Once they get on the beach, we’ll transition to close air support and strike where they see the enemy.”
AH-1W Cobras also provided air support during the operation, conducting all air strikes inside authorized bombing ranges at Camp Lejeune. Marine F/A-18 Hornets supported the operation from Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, which role-played as an expeditionary airfield. More Hornets operated from the USS Enterprise. MV-22 Ospreys inserted Marines and coalition troops to take critical objectives. Jensen said inserting troops by Osprey and helicopters provide important advantages in maneuver warfare.
“It’s all about mobility. Our assault helicopters, our MV-22’s and our CH-53’s are just as necessary to move our landing force ashore, to evacuate casualties and be able to connect the ships to the shore in conjunction with the landing craft,” Jensen explained. “The helicopters present rapid mobility; you don’t have to stay on roads. You can get there quick and take care of things that might need to be taken care of.”
This rapid warfighting strategy was represented by a Marine reconnaissance raid into Fort Pickett, Va., to strike against a high value target behind enemy lines. The mission was made possible by the Osprey, because it has greater speed and range than conventional helicopters.
Aviation also practiced long range strikes against strategic targets away from the main battlefield. On two occasions, Marine aviation struck notional missile launch sites, using a package of EA-6B Prowlers for protection against anti-aircraft defenses, AV-8B Harriers and Hornets to engage enemy aircraft and strike the target, and KC-130Js to refuel the aircraft.
Amphibious aviation assets are for more than dropping bombs. According to Jensen, the squadrons have to be ready for any kind of aviation mission. Marine expeditionary units are a 911 force capable of anything, from helping refugees and casualty evacuations to dropping bombs on the enemy. A Marine Expeditionary Brigade, the size of the force used during Bold Alligator, has a more defined purpose when assembled but still maintains a wide range of capabilities.
“If you look back on the island hopping campaigns back in World War II, any time they cut short the artillery preparation of the battlefield casualties were always a lot higher,” said Stouffer. “If we skip out on Marine aviation, it’s going to take a lot more lives to accomplish the goal. Having us there is saving lives.”