US completes large-scale Middle East exercise, even with amphibious forces stretched
AQABA, Jordan — Although officials insisted the annual multinational Eager Lion exercise that ended here Sunday was unrelated to sectarian violence across Jordan’s borders, regional tensions nonetheless affected the course of the two-week exercise.
Just days after the exercise began, the USS Bataan was ordered to the coast of Libya to be ready for a possible evacuation of U.S. personnel amid escalating fighting there.
Officials said the ship’s departure had minimal impact on the exercise.
“Bataan’s departure was demonstrative of the inherent flexibility of our amphibious forces,” Brig. Gen. Gregg Olson, commander of Task Force 51/59 and in charge of the amphibious forces deployed to U.S. 5th Fleet, said in an interview with Stars and Stripes.
Other units were retasked to assume different roles, and other nations stepped up to fill the gaps.
“I had no doubt that we were going to be able to do Eager Lion as close to originally planned as we were able to,” Olson said.
The ship left a significant portion of its embarked 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit Marines and equipment in Jordan to continue the exercise, and many were left wondering how they would get back to the ship.
Olson said some would board other ships, others would be flown out and the equipment, which includes light armored and amphibious assault vehicles, would be loaded onto the USS Gunston Hall.
The 22-nation exercise involving more than 12,000 personnel, about half of them American, took place amid the backdrop of escalating sectarian violence in neighboring Syria and Iraq. However, officials said the exercise, now in its fourth year, was not connected to any potential increase in U.S. assistance to the Syrian opposition, which President Barack Obama said in a recent foreign policy speech he would work with Congress on.
Jordan, a longtime U.S. ally, is seen as potentially vulnerable with the civil war raging next door in Syria. After last year’s Eager Lion exercise, the U.S. deployed F-16 fighter-bombers and Patriot missile interceptors to Jordan to boost its military capabilities. Some of the personnel from those units participated in this year’s exercise, but officials said there were no plans to leave any additional resources behind this time.
Officials emphasized that the purpose of the exercise was to improve coordination and cooperation.
In one demonstration to the media and civilian observers in a remote desert area, U.S. and Jordanian forces conducted a massive live-fire demonstration of a counterattack on an enemy position using close air support from various nations. In another, at a Jordanian naval base, U.S. and Jordanian Special Forces used helicopters, inflatable boats and patrol craft to demonstrate how they would regain control of a hijacked ferry and conduct a sea-based assault on a target ashore.
“There was true cooperation out there. That cooperation was fostered over the course of 10-days of training together, eating together, sharing the privations of the field together, working in concert with each other,” Olson said. “It’s a great piece of geography because of the ranges and the airspace available, and the welcoming of our partner nations.”
Interacting with the Jordanian troops was a highlight for American servicemembers.
“Even though we can’t speak the same language, we kind of speak the common language of our field,” said 1st Lt. Joshua Harvey, platoon commander of a 22nd MEU artillery battery. His unit spent three days with a Jordanian artillery battery. During that time he and members of his unit even learned a celebratory Bedouin dance called Hejeni, that is customary at weddings.
Harvey believes the interactions to be a worthwhile investment, even though it may be a different unit involved next time.
“If they have good experiences with us now, they will remember that when future operations happen,” he said.