Win the adventure of a lifetime!

UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!

Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

"Gators" Take to The Air During Operation Iraqi Freedom

Navy NewStand

Story Number: NNS030428-12
Release Date: 4/29/2003 4:01:00 AM

By Chief Journalist William Polson, USS Tarawa Public Affairs

ABOARD USS TARAWA, At Sea (NNS) -- Northern Australians will tell you that river crocodiles may not be known for flying, but they'll surprise you by how far they can jump from the water into the air if they want something bad enough. After Operation Iraqi Freedom, Rear Adm. W. Clyde Marsh, commander, Task Force 51, could say something similar about his "Gators." The amphibious forces under his command jumped into fleet air defense identification in some new ways to unseat Saddam Hussein's regime. And somewhat like the Australian "jumping crocs," this group of Arabian Gulf "Gators" had seemingly insurmountable problems to overcome.

"Operating in the Gulf was complex just because of the sheer magnitude of the forces," said Marsh, who led all coalition amphibious forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom. "We had over 130 ships, with three aircraft carriers in the North Arabian Gulf and two in the Mediterranean. That required close coordination, especially with the aircraft."

The numbers of military aircraft in the Arabian Gulf air space, which Marsh briefly tallied, told a tale of overcrowding in an area approximately the size of New Mexico. Amphibious ships under Task Force 51 brought more than 200 aircraft, and the United Kingdom added approximately 75 more. In addition to the planes from the three aircraft carrier wings, there were a number of Air Force flights -- from nearby U.S. bases and from the United States - as well as commercial flights from the surrounding Arabian Gulf countries.

"And, oh by the way, when missiles were launched, many of them came through this area," said Marsh. "So, everything had to be de-conflicted and controlled precisely."

To de-conflict and precisely control this congestion, three entities were established, said Marsh. They were named Red Crown, Green Crown and Blue Crown. Red Crown controlled the maritime air space in the North Arabian Gulf for the aircraft carriers' fixed-wing aircraft. Green Crown provided a similar function for amphibious ships, and that duty initially went to the San Diego-based guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill (CG 52). The third, Blue Crown, was created by one of Marsh's staff members, Capt. David Buckey, the commodore in charge of Tactical Air Control Group 1.

"Blue Crown established an area of our own that covered the amphibious forces up north, primarily the United Kingdom coalition forces operating close to the beach," said Marsh. "Blue Crown provided the air coverage and the picture so that anything that flew in that area could be identified and classified and processed - and this was handled primarily by USS Tarawa (LHA 1) and USS Boxer (LHD 4)."

The "Crown" assignments, more so Green and Blue Crown, marked a first for amphibious forces at a task force level. Traditionally, Aegis-class cruisers had provided fleet air defense identification for large Navy surface groups. However, during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Bunker Hill and other cruisers in or near the Arabian Gulf were heavily tasked with strike missions, escort duties and maritime interdiction operations. To allow the cruisers to perform these duties without losing the fleet-air-defense-identification capabilities they provided, Navy leaders needed an alternative. They found their answer in the Gator Navy.

"We already had very capable people and systems in our various component commands that had handled fleet air defense identification duties on a smaller scale for the amphibious ready groups," said Buckey. "But we had never done anything like this in real life for something the size of an amphibious task force."

For approximately two months starting in mid-March, the Blue and Green Crown assignments rotated between Tarawa, Boxer and USS Saipan (LHA 2), based on their locations in the Gulf. During the peak of air operations against Iraq, personnel associated with fleet air defense identification on these amphibious assault ships took on expanded responsibilities. The tactical air control squadrons, combat information centers, and helicopter direction centers pooled their resources and capabilities to defend approximately 30 U.S. and coalition amphibious ships in the North Arabian Gulf.

The Green and Blue Crown assignments covered a 1,600-mile area that stretched from the southern border of Kuwait across the North Arabian Gulf to Iran and everything north of that, according to Wilson. This proverbial umbrella of air defense identification extended into Iraq, providing support for the Marine Harrier jets and helicopters, which in turn supported the Marines that battled towards Baghdad along the Tigris River valley.

"We oversaw a lot of the helicopter forces that were used to support the 15th and 24th Marine Expeditionary Units, as well as much of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force," said Wilson.

For the Green and Blue Crown operations, it was almost poetic that an important measure of success came in a color-coded term: zero "blue-on-blue" engagements.

"There were no incidents where any coalition ships in the Arabian Gulf shot down or killed a friendly aircraft," said Wilson. "We're proud to say that the measures we put in place allowed us to go through an evaluation process and identify contacts before we got to the point where we had to engage them. We didn't lose a single person."

Join the mailing list