ABOARD THE USS WASP — A small group of Marines trudged onto the beach sands in pitch-black night with an armada of U.S. Navy warships sailing just off the shore. Their mission: root out insurgents that threatened to attack another American force to the south.
The careful operation under cover of darkness wasn't an assault in the Middle East or Asia. It was a training exercise on the coast of Virginia and North Carolina, designed to return thousands of Marines to their amphibious roots and train for a more modern version of the well-known beach assaults conducted during World War II.
Military officials say the operation being conducted in Virginia and North Carolina is the largest amphibious training exercise they've attempted in at least a decade. Marines have been fighting wars in landlocked countries like Iraq and Afghanistan for years, and many have never even set foot on a Navy ship. That's of particular concern as the military shifts its strategic focus toward the coastal regions of the Middle East, such as Iran, and the Pacific, where North Korea and China are drawing increasing attention from the U.S.
"Sooner or later, the nation is going to require a sizeable force to go somewhere where folks don't want us to go. So, no, the image is not Iwo Jima, Tarawa and so forth, but nevertheless, when we go to shore someplace where we're not wanted ashore, we have to be ready to defend force to accomplish the mission and then to sustain the force once it's ashore," said Brig. Gen. Christopher Owens, deputy commanding general of 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force.
About 3,500 Marines made landfall on the beaches near Camp Lejeune, N.C., and Virginia Beach beginning Monday, days before an aerial assault and insertion of Marines launched from sea is made on Fort Pickett in Virginia.
About 6:30 p.m. Monday, between 120 and 150 Marines traveled by landing hovercraft from the USS New York — an amphibious landing dock ship — to the cold shores of Fort Story, a military base along Virginia Beach hidden away from nearby high-rise resorts.
After unloading equipment about an hour and a half later, they made their way about 2.5 miles to raid a mock village playing host to a terrorist training camp. The Marines were receiving reconnaissance from about 10 of their brethren who had been hiding out undetected for the past few days gathering intelligence after swimming ashore.
Suddenly, among the wooden darkness, gunfire, pyrotechnics and shouting filled the bitter air as about 50 Marines entered the camp. Helicopters circled low overhead and light armored vehicles neared the village to tend to any wounded and clear the site.
Once clear, "killed" enemy combatants were searched for intelligence, civilians were moved to a secure location and the Marines blew up a booby-trapped weapons cache before returning to the beach and to their ship — all within four hours.
The raid was operated at night to simulate typical conditions in which such raids are made.
"You train like you fight," said Gunnery Sgt. Issac Sweeton with the Special Operations Training Group at Camp Lejeune, N.C. "At the end of the day, we own the night."
In the scenario developed by military leaders, the Marines coming ashore at Camp Lejeune are landing in a fictional, friendly country called Amberland, whose southern neighbor, Amber, has been invaded by Garnet. The Garnet army has rapidly advanced northward along the coast to roughly Wilmington, N.C., overtaking its port and airport, and U.S. forces have been asked to halt the advance.
Amberland is also a country that has a cadre of insurgents operating in it under the direction of the hostile, invading Garnet nation. Canadian minesweepers have helped set the stage for the landing, while U.S. forces also practiced evacuating hundreds of civilians before the raid.
All told, more than two dozen Navy ships and more than 20,000 service members are participating in the exercise along with allies from eight countries. That is at least twice the number of personnel that were involved in a similar West Coast training exercise two years ago, and it provides a more realistic scenario for how the U.S. would likely conduct amphibious landings in the future.
The amphibious invasions of the past, when the U.S. took thousands of casualties in a single battle, are not likely to be repeated. The new approach military leaders are using in the exercise known as Bold Alligator involves a more nuanced approach that relies on allies and friendly countries. That means relying on multi-nation coalitions and deciding whether to stage ships in port or out to sea because it could disrupt the host nation's economy. Navy leaders prefer to operate out of a "sea base" away from shore.
This week's exercise has been in the planning stages for several years, but it also occurs days before the president will submit his defense budget proposal to Congress. Several members of Congress visited the USS Wasp, an amphibious assault ship serving as the exercise's flagship, in the days leading up to the assault.
"We didn't put Bold Alligator together to send a message to Congress, but there may be, you know, there's always second-order effects," said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert.
As part of the Defense Department's budget proposal, some ships will be retired earlier than expected while the purchase of others is being delayed.
Amphibious assaults were common during World War II, when Allied troops landed on various islands in the Pacific. And perhaps the best-known amphibious assault was the Normandy invasion of German-occupied France — depicted in "Saving Private Ryan" and other films — when U.S. troops stormed Omaha Beach. Since then, such landings have become far more rare, though amphibious assaults were conducted during Operation Desert Storm and the recent Iraq War.
The Navy is concerned about developing an amphibious mindset for the future. Adm. John C. Harvey, commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, issued a memo last year urging every sailor in the Atlantic Fleet to read the Navy's doctrine on amphibious operations, as well as three books about the 1982 conflict between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands.
Likewise, Lt. Gen. Dennis Hejlik, commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces Command, also told his Marines to beef up their knowledge of historic amphibious battles.
However, for Marines like Sgt. David Smith, an amphibious assault vehicle section leader, he knows there's nothing like getting his crews and others who aren't accustomed to amphibious warfare live training to prepare for coming ashore.
"We've been working with these guys a lot, and we'll do a lot of training and we'll head out in the field and head out to the beach for a couple days, but you can't mock coming out of a ship unless you're actually doing it," he said. "Some of those drivers who have never done it, it's their first time on a ship. You can't beat that."
Felberbaum reported from Virginia Beach.