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First Expeditionary Strike Group deploys in the Pacific

7th Fleet News

Journalist 2nd Class Wes Eplen, Commander, Task Force 76 public affairs

Posted 5/21/2003

ABOARD USS ESSEX AT SEA - The Expeditionary Strike Group-Forward Deployed Naval Force concluded the biennial joint exercise Tandem Thrust 2003 (TT-03) off the Mariana Islands on May 5.

The ESG was part of a 17-ship force, including the USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) Battle Group, participating in TT-03. As part of this Tandem Thrust demonstration, the ESG-FDNF was in the unique situation of having two flag-level officers split command during the exercise.

During half the exercise, Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Timothy Ghormley was in command of the ESG, and during the other half Rear Adm. Rick Ruehe was ESG commander. Marine Corps, Army, and Air Force units also participated in this joint force exercise. The TT-03 Joint Task Force was commanded by Vice Adm. Robert Willard, Commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet.

The USS Essex (LHD 2) Amphibious Ready Group and 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit served as the core of the ESG-FDNF. The 31st MEU (SOC), USS Essex, USS Fort McHenry (LSD 43) and USS Juneau (LPD 10), were joined by USS Antietam (CG 54), USS O'Brien (DD 975), USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54) and USS City Of Corpus Christi (SSN 705) to form the ESG-FDNF. The Essex ARG is the Navy's only permanently forward deployed amphibious ready group.

The ESG concept sports a highly mobile, self-sustaining force, capable of conducting expeditionary warfare operations to support a full range of theater contingencies. Those missions could range from humanitarian and disaster relief to combat operations. The addition of cruiser, destroyer and submarine assets make the ESG capable of deploying independently as well as part of a larger joint force. Robust offensive and defensive capabilities offered by the additional ships, like Tomahawk cruise missiles and the AEGIS combat system, not only provide for better support of troops ashore, but also enable the group to act autonomously.

"Tandem Thrust '03 tested the ESG in the full range of warfare competencies, from special operations to undersea warfare to strike and air defense to amphibious assault," Ruehe, the Amphibious Force 7th Fleet commander, said. "The ESG proved that it provides highly adaptive and scaleable capabilities from high end strike and amphibious assault to covert surveillance and tier one force employment."

"The ESG will provide a Marine Corps/Navy team whose capabilities far exceed those inherent in today's ARG/MEU team," Ghormley, commanding officer of 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, said.

The ESG is part of Sea Power 21, a vision for future Naval engagements, released by Chief of Naval Operations, Adm.Vern Clark in 2002.

According to Clark, the dangers faced in this era have the potential to produce frequent crises, with little warning of timing, size, location, or intensity. "To counter that risk," Clark wrote in the October 2002 edition of the Naval journal Proceedings, "our Navy must expand its striking power, achieve information dominance, and develop transformational ways of fulfilling our enduring missions of sea control, power projection, strategic deterrence, strategic sealift, and forward presence."

The ESG combines an ARG and embarked MEU's power and capabilities with cruiser, destroyer, and submarine assets. Traditionally, an ARG is comprised of three amphibious warships; an amphibious assault ship, a dock landing ship and an amphibious transport dock. This arrangement provided the means to transport, land, support and extract Marine forces ashore. "We're bringing together a diverse Navy/Marine Corps team that can interlink and operate seamlessly with the Army and Air Force to deliver deadly combat power anywhere in the world in a quick and decisive manner," said Capt. Terry Pierce, ESG-FDNF operations officer and deputy chief of staff of operations for Commander, Amphibious Force 7th Fleet.

The ESG concept could increase the number of independent strike groups the Navy can deploy in the future, according to Ghormley.

"The ESG is not a simple addition, but a quantum leap in capabilities," he said. Precision weaponry has been rapidly evolving, but in the environment of international terrorism and potential threats from weapons of mass destruction, speed likewise becomes a dominant principle of war. The ESG will help provide joint task force and fleet commanders with the rapidly deployable expeditionary forces they need to counter these new threats, Pierce said.

"The desired effect of the ESG is to bring together a lean, lethal force that can go after terrorism," he said.

In addition to the obvious offensive and defensive weaponry additions are a host of yet unrealized capabilities, said Cmdr. Ulysses Zalamea, ESG assistant operations officer, adding that finding ways to integrate the forces and developing these new capabilities was a primary objective of the ESG during TT-03.

"We have to find out how we are going to integrate, for example, maritime interdiction operations," Zalamea said. "Where maybe before the cruiser would perform a VBSS [Vessel Board Search & Seizure] alone, now we have the Marines. It's the same with the submarine; we have to develop ways to integrate. Maybe we could embark the [Marine] recon platoon on the submarine, and use it to increase our insertion capabilities. These are all capabilities that we didn't have before, so we have to figure out how to best utilize them. It's very exciting."

But perhaps the biggest strength of the ESG is its flexibility. It can include amphibious ships, embarked Marines, a destroyer, cruiser, frigate, attack submarine, Naval Special Warfare, and even land-based aircraft such as the P-3C Orion, or any combination of these assets. These ESG combinations can operate alone, or as part of a larger joint task force, as done in TT-03.

During TT-03, the ESG-FDNF participated in a multitude of joint and maritime operations, including joint fire strike operations, direct action and assault operations, undersea warfare, expeditionary operations including urban combat and an airfield seizure, and the simulated launching of Tomahawk missiles. In this scenario driven exercise, the first deployment of an ESG proved a resounding success.

"Our job is to punch through, no matter how hard it is, and try to generate a lot of evaluated lessons learned - what is it in doing this that we found difficult and what's a better way to do it in the future," said Fire Controlman Master Chief Mike Lutman, ESG launch area coordinator and Commander 7th Fleet assistant Tomahawk officer.

Teamwork and collaborative efforts have taken the ESG from concept to a tangible, deployable reality. While the lean, 15-man ESG-FDNF staff coordinated to bring the many components together, Sailors, Marines, Soldiers and Airmen on shore and aboard ship worked to bring the ESG to fruition.

"I have been very impressed with the way everyone has come together. The teamwork has been phenomenal, between the staff, the PHIBRON, and all the ships," Zalamea said. "Everyone involved is just totally focused on making this happen."

ESGs are scheduled to form and train on both the East and West coasts in the coming year. The Navy's first regular deployment of an ESG will take place during the next year from San Diego. Under the command of Rear Adm. Robert Conway, with USS Peleliu (LHA 5) as flagship, ESG-1 will deploy with amphibious and cruisers and destroyers to form the strike group. The forward deployed ESG-FDNF will continue to operate in the 7th Fleet area of responsibility in September to test other Sea Power 21 elements.

To USS Fort McHenry's commanding officer, Cmdr. Adrian Jansen, these upcoming operations are vital to the concept's future development.

"The ARG has learned some invaluable lessons from this experience, but we truly need many more opportunities to exercise the ESG and fully experiment with the broadened capabilities it brings to the Navy/Marine Corps team," he said.

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