Marines Seek to Reclaim Beach-Assault Skills

By Dan Parsons

ABOARD USS KEARSARGE, Atlantic Ocean — A steady stream of Marines began storming the beaches of North Carolina Feb. 6 as part of the first full scale amphibious operation of its kind in a decade.
More than 14,000 Marines and sailors from at least five NATO nations have been floating off the East Coast for two weeks waiting for this day, the culmination of Bold Alligator 2012.
The exercise is aimed at both returning the Marine Corps to its classic role of an amphibious, quick-response force in the style of the World War II island-hopping campaign, and to justify the expense of such a capability in an era when the service’s budget will shrink.
After a decade of fighting as a ground force in landlocked countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, many of the Marines involved in the operation had never been deployed on a ship.
The Marine Corps’ message to decision makers in Congress: Marines need their sea legs back.
“The bench is not as deep as we would like,” Marine Col. Bill Jurney, commander of the 2nd Marine Regiment, said Feb. 5 aboard the Kearsarge. “What we’re doing is building the bench back up.”
Col. Scott Jensen, commander of Marine Air Group 29, which provided air cover for the landing, said rapid response to crises is the primary goal. “All the other stuff — technology, new planes, new ships — is great and we’ve got to do some of that. What we need to do is be sure we can answer the call when we are asked.”
Many enlisted Marines on the ship were participating in an amphibious exercise for the first time.
Gunnery Sgt. Gustavo Munoz, a landing support chief with the 2nd Marine Regiment, is in charge of marshalling vehicles and personnel as they arrive at Onslow Beach, N.C. Bottlenecks caused by vehicles becoming stuck in the sand and refueling schedules are only some of the headaches he anticipated the morning of D-Day.
“I’m worried about inexperienced drivers, Marines that don’t know how to do this stuff or aren’t as familiar as they should be,” he said as a convoy of French tactical trucks and wheeled tanks rolled in to be counted. “We’re not strangers to beach landings, but we’re not used to the size of this operation.”
The Marine Corps and the Navy are developing a standard operating procedure for launching amphibious assaults with a force the size of a Marine Expeditionary Brigade. There are at least 3,500 Marines involved in Bold Alligator.
Both the Navy and Marine Corps are committed to making the exercise a capstone event to be repeated every even year. In odd years, as in 2011, the same sort of operation will be carried out in simulations.
Massing troops and ships in such strength is costly but worthwhile, Rear Adm. Kevin D. Scott said aboard the USS Wasp two days prior to the landing. The same day a delegation of lawmakers, including House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, were ferried to the Wasp for briefings on the exercise. Scott said he hoped to convey the importance of amphibious warfare capability.
“You don’t get to practice this sort of thing unless you do it,” Scott said. “As they are seeing the size and scope of this operation, they will see that [amphibious warfare] can’t just be a pickup game. There has to be a conscious investment in this sort of capability.”
Scott’s Marine counterpart, Brig. Gen. Christopher S. Owens said he sought to show congressional delegates that amphibious warfare is a necessary skill.
Officials recognized that in these days of budget cutbacks, it might be tough to justify the high price tag for keeping a flotilla steaming for two weeks along the Atlantic coast of North Carolina and Virginia. Lt. Cmdr. George H. Pastoor, of the Netherlands Navy and a lead planner for the exercise, said that senior military leaders believe the expense if worthwhile.
The beach landing is only one of several scenarios played out in the Atlantic throughout the exercise. After invading North Carolina, which in the exercise stood in for a friendly nation that had been attacked by a neighbor, the Marines will push inland and continue field training for up to a week.
The day before the landing two U.S. and one French amphibious assault ships, and two Canadian mine sweepers practiced running a fictional trade chokepoint that had been closed by a hostile nation.
Both Navy and Marine Corps leaders stressed the importance of international cooperation not only in training but also in real-world crisis response.

Topics: Expeditionary Warfare

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