DJIBOUTI — Fine clouds of dust form so thick it distorts visibility, as Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (15th MEU) arrive ashore in U.S. Navy landing craft, air cushions assigned to Assault Craft Unit 5 aboard the amphibious transport dock ship USS San Diego (LPD 22), bringing with them everything they need for combat operations and sustainment for the next two weeks during Exercise Alligator Dagger.
Beneath the unforgiving sun, Marines unload tanks and equipment in temperatures nearing 110 degrees. Neither Mother Nature nor the Marines show any sign of yielding to one another as they continue to press on in the extreme environment.
“I’ve never felt heat like this before,” said Cpl. Pablo Lopez, a field artillery cannoneer with the 15th MEU. “Performing our jobs under these conditions means that we need to be ready to operate on another level. I can’t imagine another way to better prepare us for real world operations in our new battle space than to practice it out here.”
Heavy armored vehicles carrying Marines and equipment set out on a convoy across the open desert in search of a location that will be used as a temporary outpost.
“This is a full mission rehearsal for combat operations in severe conditions,” said Maj. Toby Hlad, future operations officer for Naval Amphibious Forces, Task Force 51, 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (TF 51/5). “Alligator Dagger allows for a full demonstration of the Navy and Marine Corps team in action preparing for combat operations in the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility. With TF 51/5 as CENTCOM’s area of responsibility’s crisis response headquarters centered around the capable and rehearsed Amphibious Readiness Group/Marine Expeditionary Unit (ARG/MEU) team, Alligator Dagger allow us to integrate adjacent forces in theater, rehearse likely and planned operations and provide a highly capable force for crisis response and combat operations.”
Exercise Alligator Dagger is the largest regional amphibious exercise to integrate and synchronize TF 51/5’s warfighting capabilities and those of adjacent U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and Special Operations Forces units. The America ARG and the 15th MEU are able to rehearse critical amphibious combat proficiency training launched from international waters off the coast of Djibouti and executed on land in the vicinity of Arta Beach to ensure they are postured and prepared to execute operations at sea, from the sea and ashore.
The country of Djibouti sits at the seam between the CENTCOM and U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) areas of responsibility. Through cooperation with AFRICOM, Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa, and the Djiboutian government, the America ARG and the 15th MEU Sailors and Marines made use of the arid ranges near Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, as well as used the camp’s facilities and resources, to conduct the exercise.
“Alligator Dagger affords our men and women the chance to demonstrate the modernization of ship to shore operations in this area of responsibility,” said Lt. Andrew Reichard, the Naval Beach Group (NBG) 1 representative for the America ARG staff. “This exercise make you appreciate the resilient nature our Navy and Marine Corps possess in getting the mission and training accomplished.”
Half way through the convoy, Marines encounter a natural choke point – a perfect location to practice counter ambush techniques by posting security. As they move into position, they quickly discover they’re not alone.
“At one point we were surrounded by donkeys,” said Sgt. Keith Lake, a field artillery cannoneer with the 15th MEU. “We even saw a couple of camels, whose curiosity got the better of them and they came over to see what we were doing. It was something we hadn’t planned for but it lightened the mood and served as a reminder that we need to be flexible and prepared to respond to unplanned events.”
With security drills and small arms training completed, the Marines continue along their journey in search of shelter for the night.
“We’re self-sufficient out here because we have to be,” said Lake. “When we are called to respond to a crisis in the region, we don’t have the luxury of having immediate support on the ground. We need to train as we fight and Alligator Dagger provides us with that sense of urgency we would have in a real crisis.”
Within an hour of arriving at their destination, the Marines transform once barren land into a forward operating base equipped with command and control, sleeping quarters, hot meals, 24-hour security patrols and they begin working on turning non-potable water into drinking water – everything they need to sustain throughout the entirety of the exercise.
With day two of the excise complete, the Marines and Sailors still have a long road ahead of them before they’ll finish all required training that includes additional amphibious maneuvers, Vessel Board Search and Seizure, Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel as well as air assault evolutions.
“The CENTCOM AOR is a dynamic battle space and we need to be ready to operate in the most severe conditions,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brendan Maguire, air operations officer for TF 51/5. “We don’t know which challenges we’ll be faced with but we do know that TF 51/5’s ARG/MEU team is ready to operate in the toughest environment and win.”