Blue-Green team jells at ESG Workshop

4 Mar 2004 | Capt. David Nevers

It's standing room only in the ward room of the USS Saipan, where some of Expeditionary Strike Group Four's key players are delivering to their commanders a carefully choreographed confirmation brief.

The briefers, queued up along the wall, await their part in the roughly 120-slide Power Point presentation, which represents the culmination of a quick but thorough planning effort that began just six hours earlier.

One by one, each will run through his role in the mock mission, in this case a raid to destroy a cache of surface-to-air missiles squirreled away in a far-flung target of the War on Terror.

It's the kind of mission that the assembled Marines and sailors of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit and the Saipan Strike Group may tackle when they deploy later this year.

For now, during the four-day workshop that brought them together for the first time last week, their task is to learn the fundamentals of the Rapid Response Planning Process, or R2P2.

Even more important than that, leaders agree, the two groups must get to know each other.

"Personal relations are what drive the MEU," said Col. Vic Riley, who heads up the Special Operations Training Group for II Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Lejeune.  "Trust and confidence between the MEU [commander] and commodore are vital."

Col. Ron Johnson, commander of the 24th MEU, and Commodore Chris Chase, the Navy captain in charge of the seven vessels of the ESG, know each other well, having worked closely together during the run-up to last year's war in Iraq.

Johnson served as the operations officer for Task Force Tarawa, formed largely around the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, and Chase was his counterpart with the Navy's East Coast-based amphibious task force, responsible for embarking the MEB and transporting it to the Arabian Gulf.

When Chase later learned that Johnson was slated to take charge of the 24th MEU, the commodore asked for command of the amphibious group due to sail with it.

That flotilla is now an ESG, a post-Sept. 11 innovation that combines the MEU and the three amphibious assault ships of the traditional Amphibious Ready Group with a destroyer, cruiser, frigate and attack submarine.  The idea is to add punch to the traditional ARG and distribute the Navy's firepower more widely across the globe.

The ESG Workshop, Chase said, is the first opportunity the Marines and sailors have to begin forging the personal bonds so crucial to operational success.

"It's critical," he said.  "We get together in one place for one week, getting to know each other, putting names with faces, getting to know the capabilities we bring to the table."

Chase, the self-described "duty squid" in a family full of retired leathernecks, added that the education isn't entirely between "blue" and "green." Even within the Navy, among those wearing the same uniform, sailors find cultural differences.

Though the commodore has made six deployments with Marines, several of his commanders, the captains of the vessels that round out the ESG, don't have much experience with the "Gator" Navy.

"My surface combatant commanders were surprised and impressed with what the expeditionary Navy brings to the fight," he said.

Following two full days of classes and briefs hosted by the Expeditionary Warfare Training Group at nearby Naval Air Base Little Creek, the workshop shifted to the Saipan, the ESG's command ship.  There, for two more days, participants practiced the art of efficient planning, MEU-style.

Since a MEU must, if necessary, be able to begin executing a mission just six hours after receiving the order, mission planners have no time to waste.  They must receive an intelligence brief, conduct a quick analysis of the mission, develop possible courses of action, let the appropriate commander decide which option to use, then plan the mission in detail, while leaving enough time for those executing the mission to rehearse it.

The R2P2 construct, a streamlined version of the Marine Corps Planning Process, is the method the MEU uses to organize, focus and accelerate its efforts.

While most of the Marines were familiar with the drill, their Navy counterparts enjoyed a crash course.

"SOTG has six months to prepare a MEU to go down range," said Riley, who has helped guide 10 of them through predeployment training.  "Sometimes the education comes fast and hard."

Many of the Marines, meanwhile, were dealing with their own disorientation.

"A lot of the young officers have never been aboard ship," Riley said, praising the decision by Johnson and Chase to conduct the R2P2 drills on the Saipan.  "They're walking around [asking] 'Where's the ward room?'"

The idea is to ease what Johnson calls environmental stress.

"Being aboard ship allows us to get familiar with shipboard equipment and the unique features of shipboard life," he said.

After its first week together, the ESG is off to a solid start, Johnson and Chase agreed.

Even so, they want their Marines and sailors to stay focused

"It's a long road ahead," Chase said.  "This is not [their] father's ARG deployment.  We're cutting new water here."