NOVEMBER 3, 2014, VIRGINIA CAPES (NNS) – When I first checked onboard USS Kearsarge (LHD 3), I knew absolutely nothing about amphibious assault ships. I had never heard the term “Gator Navy”, and I kept hearing about something called “Bold Alligator.” To be honest, I wasn’t all that interested. To me, a ship was a ship and naval nicknames were a dime a dozen. But, being the person that I am, I wanted to know more anyway. I can’t help it. I like to know things. So, I started my investigation by asking my shipmates.
“Amphibious assault ships go to places we have to go and deliver the mission. We carry Marines to where they need to go,” said Boatswain’s Mate Third Class Oscar Gotayvega.
Got it. That explains the enormous storage capacity that I wander about everyday. Marines have a lot of stuff.
“The ‘Gator Navy’ refers to the relationship the amphibious team has with the Marines,” said Chief Legalman Nita Fay Holliday.
That makes sense. While alligators aren’t really amphibians, they do travel by land and water and they are lethal. I can see the correlation.
“Bold Alligator is when a bunch of ships come together, Marines and foreign ships, and they do a bunch of exercises,” said Seaman Taryn Fuller.
Roger that shipma…wait. What?
While my shipmates were helpful, I still didn’t really grasp the whole Bold Alligator thing. It seemed like a pretty big deal; the topic came up at least once or twice a week, but everyone I asked told me pretty much the same thing. The explanations I was getting just didn’t cut it. There had to be more to it than that. I decided I needed to find out more.
So I contacted a close, personal friend of mine who has never failed to steer me in the right direction whenever I had a question I just couldn’t answer…Google.
Google did not disappoint. I waded through thousands of articles and stories…okay, not really. I did what everyone else does and clicked on the first legitimate-looking link that popped up. But whatever, I still learned something. I learned that Bold Alligator is a large, multi-national, joint and combined amphibious exercise which started in 2011.
I suppose that’s cool and all, but I still didn’t see the awesomeness that everyone else seemed to see. So I said ‘thanks for everything’ to Google and dug deep to remember the old-school research skills that those of us who were born during the pre-Google years try to pretend we never learned or had. I’d explain the process, but I’d prefer my younger readers believe I used magic.
So I magically found someone more informed than Google. I found retired RADM Michael Nowakowski, Department of Operational and Strategic Leadership at the Navy War College and former Amphibious Group 2 Commander.
“I think, very simply, the Commandant of the Marine Corps and the Chief Naval Officer decided that, ‘hey, we need to get back to our roots and we gotta be able to operate from the sea as a fighting force. That’s how we’re going to be operating in the future’,” said Nowakowski.
Now I was getting somewhere! Say what you will about the information highway, but sometimes you’ve got to go right to the source to find out what’s what. Finally, I was getting the low down on Bold Alligator.
“In 2011, it was just a synthetic exercise,” said Nowakowski. “Then in 2012, Bold Alligator was a large, underway, coalition exercise. A number of foreign countries participated, as well as joint Air Force, Army and Special Forces from the United States military. It was a large exercise, probably the largest amphibious expeditionary exercise that had been conducted in 10 plus years. We did it in conjunction with the Second Marine Expeditionary Brigade. 2013 was back to synthetic…done pretty much alongside the pier in Norfolk and down at Camp Lejeune.”
I could tell I had definitely come to the right place. Not only had Nowakowski participated in Operation Enduring Freedom back in 2003, but he had been embarked on none other than USS Kearsarge (LHD 3). Now here he was, a decade later, returning in an advisory capacity. A lot of things have changed since then, but not so much in the amphibious world, according to him.
“The ships that are out here now, a lot of them were participants in 2003. With the exception of a few names, and the new LPD 17 class, the amphibious shipping has pretty much remained the same, “said Nowakowski. “The internal capabilities, command and control, and the things that make for good command and control, have been installed on these ships, and I think that it’s a lot smoother than it was back 11, 12 years ago.”
I began to have an idea of what the fuss was all about, but it wasn’t until our conversation turned to Bold Alligator 2014, MY Bold Alligator, that I was able to fully appreciate how truly awesome my ship, my Navy and this exercise actually are.
“This year, of course, it’s an underway exercise again,” said Nowakowski. “It’s larger, but with a little bit different focus. I think, this year, it’s more realistic than it has been in the past and it’s still involving a lot of coalition partners. There are 18 or 19 nations that are participating.”
The “different focus” is crisis response. We train like we fight, readying ourselves to surge with partner nations to provide immediate support around the world. On Kearsarge alone 3,280 people are onboard for this exercise – that is more than deployment!
Many of those 3,000 are Marines.
Nowakowski pointed out that the Marine Corps wasn’t involved in expeditionary “from the sea” missions for more than a decade during the ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Now they’re back as Marine Expeditionary Units. They are an afloat contingency force, the 911 force of the United States, if you will, that provide humanitarian assistance, disaster relief…those kinds of things that we as a nation, and certainly as a Navy-Marine Corps, participate in all the time,” said Nowakowski.
So now that I finally understand the Bold Alligator thing, I want to know if this year is up to snuff. We have some pretty big shoes to fill!
“I’ve been talking to the young Sailors and Marines on this ship, and they are just as enthusiastic, professional and competent as they were 11 years ago. In fact, probably more so,” said Nowakowski. “Their IT prowess is something that I won’t even try to get. It’s just unbelievable the way they can manipulate and disseminate information. The systems that the ships have now provide the commanders with information they need to make good command decisions. I think it’s become seamless.”
“Some would say that the Navy-Marine Corps team is a little rusty, but I’m not seeing that. I’m seeing it as smooth as it was back 10, 12 years ago,” said Nowakowski. “It’s a good thing.”
It is a good thing at that, Sir.
Today, I’m no longer the new, ignorant (and, admittedly, slightly disinterested) new check-in. I know what an amphibious assault ship is, I’m familiar with the term “Gator Navy” and I know what Bold Alligator means. But the best part of all that? I now know more than Google!