A boost for higher level staff training: Bold Alligator (BA) 13 allowed US amphibious units and staffs, and their international partners to strengthen their mission sets in a synthetic environment, Group Editor Marty Kauchak reports.   

The US Navy-Marine Corps team advanced the state-of-art in operational headquarters training in the synthetic domain during this April and May’s Bold Alligator (BA) 13. The 2d Marine Expeditionary Brigade, Expeditionary Strike Group 2 and Carrier Strike Group 12 along with coalition partners refined their tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) at the unit and staff levels in the event. At the same time the operational commanders and their staffs and units, explored the realm of possibility for new tactics to support forces in the contemporary operational environment.

Thirty commands, including seven ships, and approximately 3,500 personnel from 16 countries and Strike Force NATO participated in the exercise. A partial list of participating nations in addition to the US included Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands.

Exercise participants were onboard ships in port, in Navy and Marine Corps training buildings and in command shelters in the field.

BA13 was latest in the series of synthetic, scenario-driven exercises written to train staffs from each command to continue revitalizing and improving their ability to complete large-scale operations from the sea. The Pentagon’s civilian and military leadership remains interested in the continued improvement of the Navy-Marine Corps amphibious team’s mission sets in amphibious warfare following more than ten years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Brigadier General John Love, Deputy Commanding General, II Marine Expeditionary Force, and Commanding General, 2d Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB), told MS&T from USS Battan (LHD 5), the exercise flagship, that BA 13 was designed to improve operational capabilities and competencies above the amphibious readiness group (ARG)-Marine expeditionary unit (MEU) level “all the way up to a MEB level exercise.”

BA13 and other exercises in the Bold Alligator series also allow US amphibious forces to train for and refine operations based on the Arab Spring and other recent events. Rear Admiral Ann Phillips, Commander, Expeditionary Strike Group Two, also embarked on the flagship, pointed out these exercises “allow us to take what we saw and learned to more broadly apply today’s modern force, and develop new TTPs that fit better with how we want to project power with our maritime expeditionary forces in the future.”

“Combination of the Two is the Way to Go”

At a cursory glance, training in a synthetic environment continues to provide many advantages for a widely dispersed, disparate training audience, as in BA13, where participating units were arrayed across the US.  “This technology helps us work through the full range of a training continuum – a spectrum that we might need to work such missions,” Philips said, and continued, “It gives us the opportunity to be very flexible on how we train and then to modify it on the fly if we want to, which would be much more difficult to do with forces at sea.”

Asked if the turbulence of sequestration, continuing resolutions and other turbulence on training readiness budgets will force their services to more carefully weigh the advantages of synthetic training and migrate more live training into the virtual and constructive domains, Love responded, “We will continue to assume that there is no substitute for live training. We will try to conduct live training whenever the resources permit. And clearly there will be some tough decisions in the future. And so I can see it would be feasible to just say there will be an uptick in synthetic-type training, complementing to a greater degree the live training that is conducted.” Speaking in his capacity as a force commander and not a senior policy maker, Love also noted that Pacific Fleet amphibious forces, unlike their Atlantic counterparts, complete robust-like synthetic events early in the same pre-deployment training cycle in the same year, before they transition to live training. “I think a combination of those is probably where the ‘sweet spot’ is. It would certainly include a synthetic phase or phases woven into the training continuum,” he added.

Opportunity to Evaluate Doctrine

The services’ training audiences used the synthetic environment to examine recent developments in doctrine, policy and guidance.

In one of many efforts the BA13 staffs addressed the rapidly evolving anti-access area denial (A2AD) threat strategy. In the A2AD environment, the Carrier Strike Group (CSG) conceptually has the main effort in the advanced force operations phase of an amphibious operation. “The innovation here was that instead of having the CSG and Navy assets out there trying to roll back the threat on their own, the Marine Corps placed two of its MEUs, and the Navy two of its ARGs under the tactical control of the CSG so the amphibious forces could conduct raids and other shore activities to roll back some of the A2AD threat. This demonstrated the “Blue-Green” capabilities in the A2AD fight,” Love added.

From the Navy’s perspective, ESG2 was able to evaluate how to better incorporate a Tactical Amphibious Squadron (Phibron) into the ESG staff. “What we’re doing this year is going back to a concept that is in doctrine and standing it to be more like a ‘mock’ maritime operational center-type headquarters where the Phibron staff is working at the headquarters level to execute the event – within the composite warfare commander structure, which they would have done anyway.” Phillips said.

Technology Underpinnings

From a technology perspective BA 13 was an incremental step forward to enhance synthetic, distributed training.

The training audiences used their services’ two legacy simulations, the Marine Corps’ Marine Air Ground Task Force Tactical Warfare Simulation (MTWS) and the Navy’s Joint Semi-Automated Forces (JSAF) as the backbone for the event. From a technology perspective, “this was a classic, distributed exercise,” Tom Cariker, the Director of the II MEF Simulation Center at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, told MS&T.

But, beyond the use of existing legacy networks, Cariker pointed out this exercise was another, iterative step toward his service’s vision of Large Scale Exercises. In this instance, the Camp Pendleton, California-based 11 MEU, participated by way of MTWS. “As they ‘maneuvered’ their force, that was all represented to us. So 2,500 miles away or right down the hall in our simulation center, it really doesn’t matter,” he said. The service training authority said that in his five years in this management position, this was the first time a West Coast-based unit participated in one of his center’s events.

Cariker also noted on US DoD’s horizon for distributed, synthetic training is a collaborative effort among the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, and the services’ training leadership to establish the Joint Training Enterprise Architecture (JTEA). The conceptual system would be supported by cloud computing, Web 2.0 technologies and other attributes. With an envisioned cloud architecture and other innovations, the JTEA would also offer cost reductions. Cariker noted one projected area of JTEA cost savings. “In the budget out years how can you still provide realistic simulations with maybe not as many hardware stations which drive periodic updates, upgrades and those types of things.”

The service training official further emphasized that as the department’s embryonic JTEA matures its’ technology designers should remember “something that is very critical to whatever we do and should be protected at all costs – the  network.” Cariker said a number of networks terminate at his simulation center, including his service’s Aviation Distributed Virtual Training Environment. This recent capability allows simulator-based pilots to participate in ground training missions.

Cariker’s Navy counterpart, Michael Ogden, the Assistant Chief of Staff for Synthetic Training and Technology at Commander, Strike Force Training Atlantic, recalled that for BA12, primarily a live training event, “about 50 percent of the forces were synthetic at the very beginning. They moved toward more and more synthetic, as we moved along in the exercise. So one challenge there is how do you mix live and synthetic in safe manner? We’re going to carry that through potentially with BA14, simply because we don’t have the number of opposition forces to train, much less the range space, so we end up using synthetic to a considerable point.”

Ogden, in his capacity as the Navy’s Exercise Director, also noted a future, dual-lane technology and operational avenue the services are going down “is getting more interaction between live and synthetic forces so I can have a live carrier strike group out at sea, a carrier strike group that’s playing shipboard pier side, and live amphibious forces out at seas and a mix of synthetic and live opposition forces. Everything short of the visual connection, we can still have interaction between the two.”

Regarding that more robust, higher fidelity synthetic environment, the former Marine Corps aviator declared, “We are not there, yet, with regards to the systems onboard ships dealing with both live and synthetic at the same time. We can have a ship pier side in the exercise and attack a synthetic, inbound aircraft and can synthetically shoot the weapon. It cannot do that when it is out at sea when it sees a synthetic contact. That is the next step – to get that interaction between live participants at sea with synthetic, virtual players.”