Practicing En Masse on the Open Sea

December 2010
By Rita Boland, SIGNAL Magazine


U.S. Navy officers monitor the defense systems aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln during an exercise off the coast of Southern California. The Lincoln carrier strike group recently conducted a joint training event with the USS Nimitz, giving personnel the chance to rehearse dual-carrier operations.

U.S. Navy takes advantage of chance to train an expeditionary strike force, adding a deeper level of complexity to combat preparation.

Sailors assigned to the USS Abraham Lincoln and USS Nimitz carrier strike groups had an uncommon training opportunity recently when they conducted a joint exercise in the waters near Southern California. Though carrier groups often operate together to respond to real-world events, disparate taskings and locations usually prevent combined rehearsals. But thanks to fortuitous schedules, the Lincoln and Nimitz assets were able to meet up in the vast Pacific, enabling personnel to combine resources in preparation for future mission requirements.

The joint training came as part of a regularly scheduled 22-day composite training unit exercise (COMPTUEX) aboard the Lincoln group to prepare it for deployment. Members of the Navy’s Commander, Strike Force Training Pacific, under Third Fleet, carried out the exercise. They conduct integrated strike group training and composite training for carrier strike groups, amphibious readiness groups and Marine Expeditionary Units. Because the Nimitz group was going to be in the same area at the same time carrying out a self-assessed sustainment exercise, staff recognized the chance for the two to train together.

They worked as an expeditionary strike force—a combination of the groups—only for approximately five days. During the remainder of the exercise, the Lincoln group focused on other facets of the COMPTUEX, and the Nimitz group carried out its own activities. However, they remained in a close proximity to one another during the entire 22-day period.

Cmdr. Kent Rushing, USN, the assistant chief of staff for intelligence and cryptology at Commander, Strike Force Training Pacific, explains that the training experts conduct joint events when opportunities present themselves, but scheduling makes bringing two strike groups together difficult. When the groups can co-exercise, it enhances training because at the beginning of most military operations, multiple strike groups and task forces operate jointly in one location. According to the commander, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, three carrier strike groups gathered for response actions, and such activities are normal. Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Toriello, assistant intelligence officer of Commander, Strike Force Training Pacific, adds that in the last 10 years, every time an operation kicked off, multiple carrier groups or carrier and amphibious groups were postured concurrently.

The history of multiple strike groups operating together stretches even further into the past. Lt. Cmdr. William Wood, USN, flag cryptologist, Commander, Strike Force Training Pacific, shares that, “[We can] go back to the Battle of Midway for why we train dual-carrier operations. We got lucky there. We don’t want to be lucky in the future. We want to be ready and to execute as planned.” To make that a reality, trainers try to replicate as best they can the theater conditions, whether those are amphibious or related to carrier strike groups.

Though the type of training the Commander, Strike Force Training Pacific conducted with the Lincoln is a routine part of preparation for deployment, the addition of the extra carrier strike group increased the difficulty. According to Cmdr. Rushing, as the number of ships and aircraft working together in a confined geographic area grows, “complexity is increasing exponentially.” Executors of the event have to consider multiple safety issues and present a reflective opposition force that will simulate the activities officials want. Trainers also have to manage the intelligence injects and other facets that ensure realistic training. “It does get much more complex than just the single strike group,” Cmdr. Rushing says.

In the recent event, the Lincoln served as the expeditionary strike force commander. Trainers evaluated how that ship’s commander and his staff worked with Nimitz staff to perform mission deconfliction. The joint training featured an array of activities including mine exercises, surface and subsurface warfare tactics and air missions to bombing ranges in California and Nevada. More than 140 combat aircraft and hundreds of munitions were used to carry out the simulated operations.

Carrier strike groups have to manage safety of flight and navigation among cruisers, destroyers, submarines and aircraft, including the P-3 Orion maritime control aircraft and other strike platforms. They also might have to work with NATO partners’ capabilities and potentially with sister service resources. Cmdr. Rushing explains that a lot of management of assets occurs to ensure the command and control (C2) structure is in place to avoid injuries and maximize training to the best possible extent in the simulation of real-world conditions.

The recent exercise involved the full spectrum of military options ranging from humanitarian response and assistance-at-sea missions all the way through combat operations. Setting up realistic disaster relief scenarios is difficult, so the training team put together taskings that reflect response activities. Participants then plan through those various events. The approach forces them to think about issues that otherwise might be overlooked. Another facet of the training involves preparing for piracy and maritime security operations to deal with emerging world threats.


An F/A-18F Super Hornet assigned to the Black Aces of Strike Fighter Squadron 41 launches from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz while the ship conducts a sustainment exercise (SUSEX). During its SUSEX activities, the Nimitz carrier strike group rehearsed as part of an expeditionary strike force with the USS Lincoln platforms.

An internal challenge that exists, whether one or multiple strike carrier groups are involved in an exercise or operation, is holistic integration of command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) across all activities. “We look at it as the central nervous system of the strike group,” Cmdr. Rushing explains. The training staff has to ensure it can simulate and control the exercise through the entire C4ISR system. The trainers work closely with the Navy’s N-2/N-6 Directorate to ensure that “integrated” exercises truly are. During the joint event, participants had to establish a common tactical picture linking the multiple ships and aircraft that make up the carrier strike groups and shore facilities.

The involvement of the two carrier strike groups also enabled personnel to exercise the effect of bandwidth limitations, which come in to play especially in dual-carrier operations. Participants had to determine how to share the bandwidth available to them in the environment.

Lt. Cmdr. Toriello explains that he and his colleagues look not only at the planning aspect of carrier strike groups operating together but also at training to maintain equipment procedures and processes. They work to ensure that the various systems such as intelligence and communications operate at peak efficiency.

The trainers stress the communications and C2 pipes as well as alternate paths along those lines. Capt. John Nolan, USN, chief of staff at Commander, Strike Force Training Pacific, explains that before an exercise, many units have worked individually but not with others. This seclusion eliminates the need to consider different circuits, chat rooms and other methods of information sharing. The captain explains that his staff put pressure on all those systems to ensure that personnel can link and communicate through alternative methods.

“It’s easy to say you’re ready to go until you find out the alternate control path isn’t all it should be,” Capt. Nolan says. He and his staff work to feed information and intelligence to strike groups in the most realistic ways possible whether by simulating higher headquarters contacts, record message traffic or classified means such as imagery or signals intelligence. The trainers try to tailor the intelligence to exercise the correct skill sets.

The effort ensures that strike group cells understand their equipment, how to use their gear and how to work together. In situations where detachments come on board as part of a response to mission requirements, the people involved may never have worked together before. As the demand for signals intelligence has increased over time, the crew numbers on ships have not been able to increase at the same pace. Cmdr. Rushing explains that the vision of the Navy is to crew ships 100 percent to fill requirements, but in certain cases that means bringing detachments out to the vessels. Ensuring these different groups have competency with each other and their operational counterparts is a key part of the exercise opportunity.

Less technical but no less critical tasks also become more difficult with the addition of another carrier group. Capt. Nolan explains that air wing commanders have no trouble telling their pilots how to fly, but when another set of similar assets moves into the same area, the entire process becomes more complicated.

Even without the addition of another strike group, the COMPTUEX is an important activity, marking the first time the entire carrier strike group truly comes together to practice and execute in a real-world environment and conditions. Cmdr. Rushing likens it to a graduation event that ensures the personnel and assets are prepared to support numbered fleet commanders forward in their theater missions. Commander, Strike Force Training Pacific focuses on training to the skill sets of Commander U.S. 7th Fleet, which has responsibility for the Western Pacific and Indian oceans, and to those of the U.S. 5th Fleet, which operates in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility.

Whether with multiple carrier strike groups or only one, the mechanics of the exercise remain the same. Certain actions must be checked and specific objectives met. The difference comes in the amount of effort and time required to integrate the additional assets into the training. With a higher number of participants, training becomes more robust. Adding resources to an exercise makes it more challenging for the people involved to maintain a complete operational picture and make decisions.

U.S. Fleet Forces Command sets the standard of execution, also delineating what constitutes successful standards. The training staff from Commander, Strike Force Training Pacific informs participants how they fared in terms of the criteria. Cmdr. Rushing says the unit focuses on quality mentoring and coaching and tries not to dwell on the checkpoints. “But there is a report card,” he adds.

Commander, Strike Force Training Pacific stays in contact with its sister command on the Atlantic side to ensure best practices across the fleet. It also stays in constant communications with different fleet staffs. Units learn how to assess themselves in certain ways and give the training staff feedback so they can put more time into improving certain functions. For example, a group might carry out a successful visit, board and seizure mission, but have weak C2 and reporting. The trainers then could concentrate on those problem areas during their time onboard.

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