NEWS | June 30, 2021

From wet-well to feet-dry: Navy and Marines integrate to infiltrate on midnight raid

By Lt John Stevens, Amphibious Squadron 11

OKINAWA, Japan (June 26, 2021) – It is 2300 hours local time on a humid summer night, 500 meters off the small Okinawan island of Ukibaru.
Almost imperceptibly, a soft ripple breaks the heavy silence as a U.S. Marine boat company in combat rubber raiding craft – pitch-black inflatable boats also known as Zodiacs – advance stealthily toward their objective. Staff Sgt. David Nouchi and the rest of his rifle company, their faces mottled with camouflage paint, their weapons at the ready, are alert and prepared for any contingency. But they also have peace of mind.
A few miles from their position, the Navy keeps watch. Amphibious ready group shipping, along with a small flotilla of their own landing craft, has these Marines’ six.
“During an over-the-horizon transit, at night, surrounded by 80-plus young Marines, it’s good to know the Navy has our back,” said Nouchi, assigned to India Company, Battalion Landing Team 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines.
Fourscore Marines in 16 Zodiacs head for the beach on a simulated raid of a contested island during an exercise. Their goal: To secure the island, a known enemy early-warning station, as a foothold for future operations.
The Marines come from the Okinawa-based 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). The ships, from the Sasebo-based Amphibious Squadron (PHIBRON) 11, comprise the America Amphibious Ready Group (ARG).
Each ship is kitted-out with Sailors, systems, sensors, and specialized enablers from the MEU’s air, ground and logistics combat elements, all capable of a variety of amphibious missions. But there’s no precise playbook for this mission set, which is why the blue-green team relies on innovation to prevail in day-to-day competition.
“This raid demonstrated many things across the ARG-MEU team. Sure, we have great equipment and the tools we need to wage battle,” said Capt. Greg Baker, PHIBRON 11 commodore. “More importantly, however, we have Marines and Sailors developing innovative ways to operate with the gear and forces we have in an increasingly complimentary fashion.”
“The tactics we flexed in this raid demonstrated our seamless integration as an ARG-MEU, and our readiness to fight tonight,” Baker said.
With mission objectives established based on a desired outcome, the ARG-MEU team works as one to set conditions for victory through sea denial and sea control.
“Together, as a blue-green team, we partner, persist and operate forward, inside the enemy’s weapons engagement zone, negating the enemy’s ability to create adverse effects on us while posing a significant risk to them from multiple directions, across all domains,” said Col. Michael Nakonieczny, commanding officer, 31st MEU. “The flexibility and lethality of the ARG-MEU team comes from our ‘One-in, All-in’ mentality and our continuous development of high-performing, fast-learning teams, prepared to accomplish a multitude of missions.”
Once assigned their task and purpose, Marines aboard USS New Orleans (LPD 18) deliberately plan, brief and rehearse the raid. Then they grab their gear and prepare to move. But even before they hit the water, the raid force has help from above to set the stage.
F-35B Lightning fighters from the MEU’s air combat element aboard USS America (LHA 6) conduct a simulated night-time expeditionary strike to neutralize enemy targets and pave the way for the amphibious landing, while rotary-wing aircraft clear a mainland beach for the next step.
Gliding over the waves, fast and versatile landing craft, air cushion (LCACs) from New Orleans deliver High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) to a secure beach to the north of Ukibaru, poised to respond to a call for fire.
In the twilight hours leading up to the raid, New Orleans conducts an electronic attack – jamming enemy radar and communications on Ukibaru – denying the adversary’s ability to detect the Marines using the electromagnetic spectrum as they approach the beach. Under cover of darkness, they’ll also be invisible to red-force sensors – an added innovative advantage the ship can provide.
“Electronic warfare – EW – isn’t new, but it’s being used more in exercises and operations like this,” said Capt. Brian Schrum, commanding officer of New Orleans. “EW is an enabler to mission success, and it’s a tremendous opportunity for bridge watch standers, along with the folks in Combat Information Center to integrate, communicate, and transform into execution.”
Meanwhile, USS Germantown (LSD 42), steaming silently to the southeast, adds another layer of defense. A protective screen of landing craft, utility (LCU), rugged amphibious vessels that can operate in open ocean, provides cover against potential enemies afloat.
The LCUs carry Marine intelligence specialists capable of monitoring maritime traffic in the area, as well as a Navy Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS) team from Germantown that can visit and search a suspect vessel. On station before the Zodiacs splash, these elements complement and rely on each other to ensure the raid force is protected.
“Our VBSS team is only as effective as the intel we can provide to them,” said Navy Lt. Melissa Johns, Germantown’s operations officer. “Intel the Marines are able to gather organically enables us to determine if a vessel might be a threat to our operation and whether we need to take action on that vessel.”
Germantown’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Cullen Greenfield, said rapid coordinated planning and seamless execution showed why this blue-green team is the world’s foremost fighting force.
“More innovative use of our existing platforms and capabilities increases both the flexibility and lethality of our joint response as we confront aggression,” said Greenfield. “This raid illustrated our ability to quickly adapt to unique challenges and tasking.”
Splash – the raid force embarks the Zodiacs and exits New Orleans’s well deck.
Adding an additional layer of cover, New Orleans also sends a blue-green mix of their own VBSS team and Marine machine gunners in an 11-meter rigid-hull inflatable boat (RIB), dual-purposed as a radio relay from ship to shore as well as a maritime safety and security boat.
“The RIB provided search-and-rescue assets and established intermediate comms between the raid party and mission commanders on New Orleans,” said Ensign Eli Roberts, small boat officer. “After the raid party reached the beach, we remained on station to perform maritime patrol to protect against waterborne threats.”
L-hour: Covered from the air, land, sea, and even the invisible electromagnetic spectrum, the raid force from New Orleans digs their oars into the wet sand on Ukibaru and clambers out of their Zodiacs, ready to seize their objectives.
For a rifle platoon commander like 1st Lt. Robert Cummings, the Navy’s ability to provide innovative support and clear communication from the sea allows him and his Marines to focus on executing their mission with scalpel-like precision.
“The first thing that was really essential to us throughout this process was integrating with the Navy in every phase,” said Cummings. “Making sure the Navy is on the same page as us at every point has really been essential to our success once the insert is complete and the Marines are on the ground, ensuring that we’re still a lethal infantry force when the complicated insert-extract questions have been answered.”
Answering these tough questions by flexing all-domain power during routine training gives the ARG-MEU team a full kit of sharpened tools for real-world tasking, which can be more complicated and unpredictable.
“Innovation comes when we have things that happen – when curve balls get thrown at us,” said Schrum. “That could be weather, or it could be the adversary. So – how do we react? How do we flex?”
“This three-ship ARG-MEU team can do so many things, from well deck ops to air ops. How we coordinate and prioritize are key concepts,” added Schrum. “We’re always looking for opportunities where the Navy can continue to assist in supporting the Marine Corps in completing its mission sets.”
Together, the forward-deployed ships of PHIBRON 11 and elements of the 31st MEU are operating in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility to enhance interoperability with allies and partners, and serve as a ready response force to defend peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.