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Marines and Sailors Learning to Coexist Aboard Ships

ABOARD AMPHIBIOUS ASSAULT SHIPS WASP AND KEARSARGE — During a combat-rehearsal exercise this week, the Marine Corps has sought to reclaim its maritime skills after a decade of ground wars. For many Marines, that means gaining familiarity with working in close quarters with Navy crews. Sailors in turn might have to adjust to having larger numbers of Marines aboard ships than what they've been used to.

Bold Alligator 2012, which culminated in a practice invasion of North Carolina beaches by thousands of Marines, was designed specifically to test the interoperability of the Navy and Marine Corps in an amphibious assault scenario. Leaders from both services will analyze the exercise for friction points and use the lessons to inform future cooperative exercises.

Senior officials insist that Marines will transition from land to sea relatively smoothly, and might have to learn to live in many cases by the Navy's rules.

“We have become more integrated than ever before,” said Rear Adm. Kevin D. Scott, commander of Expeditionary Strike Group 2. “It’s all about the relationship. Two years ago, there wasn’t this relationship. I can remember when I was a junior officer, in the mid-to-late '80s, we were doing this sort of thing every two years on the West Coast with 60 ships.”

More than 14,000 Marines and sailors from several NATO countries went to sea for the operation. Though U.S. sailors and Marines interact aboard ships every day, not since 2003 have they gone to sea together in such numbers.

The goal is to generate a "standard operating procedure for how we do this at this level,” Brig. General Christopher S. Owens, said aboard the USS Wasp.

While enlisted men ironed out their inter-service relationships, Navy and Marine Corps brass were concerned with big-picture integration.

New to Bold Alligator 2012 is the inclusion of the USS Enterprise Carrier Strike Group with a Marine Expeditionary Brigade. In a real-world conflict, the carrier would hover over the horizon, providing long-range air cover for the Marines’ amphibious assault.

“The force and might a carrier strike group brings is very powerful and there’s a certain amount of self-protection we need in an operation like this,” Scott said.

That frees up shorter-range Marine Corps helicopters and Harrier jump jets to soften up the landing zone, said Marine Col. Scott Jensen, commanding officer of Marine Air Group 29.

“As this scenario has progressed, originally the Enterprise was here to prepare the battle space,” Jensen said. “It frees up my airpower to cover the beach assault. Marine air is more focused. That’s how we contribute to the joint force with this type of amphibious doctrine.”

But the amphibious assault is only one of several scenarios tested during the exercise. V-22 Ospreys from the USS Wasp simulated the deep insertion of a Marine Special Operations team hundreds of miles inland to Ft. Pickett, Va. Search-and-rescue helicopters will also practice rescuing a pilot shot down by enemy fire while covering the beach landing. Both scenarios could occur in a real-world amphibious assault, such as when Marine Corps helicopter pilots extracted a downed Harrier pilot who was shot down during the Libya campaign.

The air campaign in support of Libyan rebels, in which the United States delivered the opening salvo then handed the reins to its NATO partners, played a sizeable role in the development of Bold Alligator, said Dutch Lt. Commander George Pastoor, a principal planner for the operation with Expeditionary Strike Group 2. For that operation, the U.S. military was joined by sailors and Marines from Italy, Spain, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

“It’s all about interoperability,” he said of the exercise. “We’re looking to integrate more and more. In Libya the question was could Dutch Marines communicate with U.S. Marines? The answer was, we couldn’t. Now how do we fix that?”

A day before the landing, two convoys of ships simulated running a trade chokepoint, with both Navy and Marine Corps officers speculating that such skills would be valuable in a crisis-response operation if Iran closed the Straits of Hormuz.

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