Navy, Marines go it alone in Alligator Dagger exercise

U.S. Marines with the 4th Marines, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, rush over a berm during a mock high-explosive battle drill conducted as part of Exercise Alligator Dagger at Arta Beach, Djibouti on Dec. 12, 2016.


By CHRIS CHURCH | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 22, 2016

MANAMA, Bahrain — The Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group and 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit completed a two-week exercise with no shore-side assistance near Djibouti Thursday, officials said.

Alligator Dagger showed combatant commanders and allies that the ARG/MEU is a flexible, combat-ready land, sea and air force that can respond quickly to any threat in the region, said 11th MEU commander Col. Clay C. Tipton.

Djibouti is located in the Horn of Africa, across the Bab el Mandeb strait from Yemen. In October, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels fired cruise missiles at U.S. Navy ships in the strait — one of three vital maritime commerce chokepoints in the Middle East — and the Red Sea on several occasions, not far from where the exercise was conducted. However, officials said the decision to conduct the training in Djibouti wasn’t in response to those attacks.

The exercise was unusual in that it brought the entire ARG/MEU together and was entirely sustained by Naval forces with no shoreside assistance, said a U.S. Naval Forces Central Command spokesman.

“Everything that we did, we were tied back to the ARG shipping,” said Tipton. “That included making water. A large portion of the exercise we had 1,500 Marines or more ashore conducting training … They were drinking water that our Marines were making on the beach.”

To be successful, the Navy and Marine teams had to work together on a number of tasks, including transporting fuel trucks to and from the beach to fuel ashore assets, Tipton said.

It’s the type of exercise U.S. Naval Forces Central Command has wanted in the past and was pleased when it came to fruition, said  NAVCENT spokesman Lt. Ian McConnaughey. Officials would like every ARG/MEU team that comes into the theater to conduct this kind of amphibious and combat training.

“This is a unique theater where plenty of things can happen,” the NAVCENT official said. “We want to make sure we are prepared, and people know we are prepared to respond to any kind of emergent crisis.”

Alligator Dagger, which was announced Dec. 7, used all three of the ships in the ARG — the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island, the amphibious transport dock ship USS Somerset and the amphibious dock landing ship USS Comstock. It also involved a variety of MEU assets including ground and aviation combat elements.

It focused on a variety of mission sets including amphibious assaults, helicopter-borne raids, visit, board, search and seizure operations, air strikes, and defense of the amphibious task force.

Amphibious ready groups are considered a Swiss Army knife for the U.S. military because they can conduct a vast array of operations at sea, on land and in the air. Their components can work in concert or individually.

For instance, during most of the USS Wasp amphibious ready group’s deployment last summer, the Wasp, an amphibious assault ship, conducted air operations from the 6th Fleet area of operations over Libya, while the other two ships operated throughout the 5th Fleet area of responsibility.

The ships are also able to come together and work as an aggregated force, a sort of force multiplier, as they demonstrated during Alligator Dagger.

“One of the things we always stress on the blue-green team is readiness,” said Capt. Mike Crary, the commander of Amphibious Squadron 5. “[We] always want to be ready for any tasking our commanders give us, so the reason we did it was to make sure our skill sets are refined and ready to go.”

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U.S. Marines with the 4th Marines, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, take part in an unknown distance range shoot as part of Exercise Alligator Dagger at Arta Beach, Djibouti on Dec. 12, 2016.