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Essex Amphibious Ready Group tests flexibility and versatility

7th Fleet

Release Date: 10/8/2003

By Chief Journalist (SW/AW) Roger Dutcher, USS Essex public affairs

ABOARD USS ESSEX AT SEA - Call it a "mini ARG."

The USS Essex (LHD 2) Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) tested its flexibility and versatility Sept. 25-30 while off the coast of Okinawa, successfully completing the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) Special Operations Capable Certification Exercise (SOCEX). It was the first time in recent memory the Essex ARG conducted a SOCEX with a two-ship ARG configuration.

Four amphibious ships, USS Essex, USS Fort McHenry (LSD 43), USS Harpers Ferry (LSD 49), and USS Juneau (LPD 10) are permanently forward deployed to Sasebo, Japan, for utilization by the ARG.

In the normal three or four-ship configuration, the multi-purpose amphibious assault ship (LHD) will carry landing craft, air-cushioned (LCAC), the dock landing ships (LSD) will carry landing craft, utilities (LCU) and Landing Force Operational Reserve Material (LFORM), and the amphibious transport dock-class ship (LPD) will carry amphibious assault vehicles (AAV).

With Juneau supporting other operational commitments, and Harpers Ferry in port for a maintenance period, the ARG could only utilize Essex and Fort McHenry.

Operating with a different ship composition than usual has afforded the crews opportunities to practice a wide range of different skills necessary for handling the various landing craft.

Overall, the 31st MEU/ PHIBRON 11 team performed superbly despite numerous exercise and configuration constraints, said Lt. Cmdr. Tom Dejarnette, CTF-76 SOCEX certification officer.

"It is impressive how flexible and mission focused the ARG was in accomplishing 100% of the SOCEX objectives," Dejarnette said.

Completing those objectives certify the 31st MEU to execute 23 specific capabilities, including boat, helicopter and mechanized infantry raids, amphibious assaults, tactical recoveries of aircraft and personnel, and noncombatant evacuation operations. The SOC certification provides a capable crisis response force, permanently forward deployed and ready to respond to contingencies at a moment's notice.

This certification was due in part to each ship assuming additional duties to fulfill many of the same missions done by four ships.

Chief Warrant Officer Ron Herb, officer in charge of Naval Beach Group One, Western Pacific Detachment Alpha, emphasized the importance of each ship being prepared to launch and recover various landing craft.

"The challenge is mostly building a familiarity with different craft," Herb said.

For Essex, the transition from LCAC to LCU meant a longer ballasting time and many more well-deck Sailors for line handling and safety.

The well-deck crews had to also be prepared to operate independently and provide safe haven for different crafts in emergencies. Herb gave an example of that ability to adapt to a changing situation.

"We had a casualty to one of the LCUs flanking rudders, and the ship's force on Essex was able to rewind the small motor that goes with the flanking rudders and manufacture a pin for the rudders," he said. "That provides a needed maintenance capability."

"We, as the flagship, are the principal command and control platform," said Lt. Cmdr. Edward Flanagan, Essex operations officer. "This ship has as robust a capability as an aircraft carrier, in terms of command and control. We also have a flight deck that's able to launch both fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft that belong to the Marine Corps.

"In this theater I think we're going to continue to do split-ARG operations, where we'll see some components of the ARG doing a mission in one area while others are doing something somewhere else," Flanagan said. "This departure from the norm is only the beginning of a new trend in war fighting."

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