Friday, December 05, 2008

Essex Increases Joint, Combined Interoperability During Fall Patrol

By Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Greg Johnson, USS Essex Public Affairs

The amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2) leads a formation of U.S. Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ships during a photo exercise at the culmination of ANNUALEX 2008. The permanently forward deployed George Washington Carrier Strike Group concluded its bi-lateral training operations in the Pacific Ocean with Japan Maritime and Air Self-Defense Forces, which increased interoperability and strengthened its partnership. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class John J. Mike/Released)

SASEBO, Japan (NNS) -- The forward-deployed amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2) arrived in Sasebo after the completion of a successful fall patrol Dec. 4.

The Essex Expeditionary Strike Group (ESX ESG) departed Sasebo Sept. 19. Throughout the deployment, Essex Sailors, along with Marines of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), conducted numerous bilateral training exercises with countries throughout the region in an effort to enhance amphibious interoperability.

"This fall patrol was extremely successful, from training Marines to completion of [major training evolutions]," said Capt. Brent Canady, Essex commanding officer. "The enthusiasm and can-do attitude from Essex Sailors during this patrol was a great example of their professionalism and pride for being onboard."

Major exercises included the Evaluation Exercise (EVALEX), the Amphibious Landing Exercise (PHIBLEX), the Korean Interoperability Training Program (KITP), and ANNUALEX 20G.

From Oct. 2 to Oct. 10, EVALEX tested Sailors' and Marines' ability to work together during a series of virtually non-stop amphibious warfare evolutions. Well-deck operations included a variety of simulated beach insertions and reconnaissance missions and employed landing craft utility vehicles, combat rubber raiding crafts, landing crafts air-cushioned vehicles, and amphibious assault vehicles. Flight-deck operations were also extensive, drawing from the resources of the 31st MEU's Marine Attack Squadron 223 (VMA-223) and Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 262 (HMM-262).

"This year's exercise was particularly important because we were working with a brand new MEU," said Lt. Delbert Tony, Essex' assistant operations officer. "It's the first time we have worked together as a group. It would be a detriment if we had a real mission and had not yet worked together as a team; EVALEX really helps prevent that."

The exercise tested the perseverance of Sailors and Marines on the flight deck, with flight quarters often lasting up to 12 hours daily, incorporating AV-8B Harrier jet airplanes, CH-53E Sea Stallion, CH-46E Sea Knight, AH-1Z Super Cobra and UH-1N Huey helicopters. Despite long hours, ESSEX finished EVALEX on a successful note and carried that momentum on to PHIBLEX.

PHIBLEX, which involved two weeks of ground, air and naval integration training with the Armed Forces of the Philippines, took place Oct. 15-27. Training scenarios included live arms fire, small unit tactics, and boat-raid training exercises intended to improve both countries' collective war-fighting capabilities.

"The work we've done with our friends and allies in Japan, Korea and the Philippines is instrumental to our commitment to peace and stability in the Pacific region," said Canady.

After a successful PHIBLEX, Essex Sailors enjoyed a four-day liberty call in Subic Bay, where they conducted two community friendship-building projects at the New Cabalan Elementary School and the Social Development Center for Girls. Activities included minor repair work, painting, English lessons and personal interaction with the children.

"The main goal is to be ambassadors of goodwill and friendship," said Cmdr. Chin Dang, Essex' chaplain. "That goodwill works both ways. When a Sailor goes out and does something good for someone in need, it makes them feel good about themselves, too."

During KITP, Essex Sailors collaborated with their ROK counterparts through multiple amphibious training scenarios, including simulated air strikes and combined beach support operations.

U.S. and ROK forces hit the beach together, employing more than 50 AAVs and every type of aircraft in the 31st MEU's arsenal.

"Interoperability is very important," said Lt. Cmdr. Ben Sigurdson, Essex' assistant air officer. "It allows both countries to see the inner-workings of the other and how they operate together. We've done bilateral exercises like this in the past with ROK forces and learned a lot, and this exercise also proved beneficial."

ANNUALEX 20G gave Essex Sailors another chance to strengthen ties with one of the closest allies in the region. This time, the U.S. and Japanese Navies focused on enhancing military-to-military relationships, improving command and control, air, undersea and surface warfare through training.

With the deployment winding down in mid-November, Essex Sailors still found a way to stay focused for the ship's unit level training assessment-certification (ULTRA-C), which tested departmental training teams on their abilities to evaluate themselves.

"We tried to make our scenarios as realistic as possible," said Capt. Troy Hart, Essex' executive officer. "There is always some degree of simulation in what we do, but our scenarios and damage are as real as they can be, which is essential to good training."

Those scenarios challenged Sailors shipwide, forcing multiple departments to work together in a total ship survivability exercise (TSSE) and mass conflagration drill. Both drills were run simultaneously after a simulated missile struck the ship, prompting every department to spring into action.

The successful ULTRA-C was followed by a liberty call in Hong Kong. During the visit, Sailors had the chance to meet local citizens, experience local customs and traditions and enjoy the many recreational activities.

For many Essex Sailors, the cruise was their first taste of life underway.

"This was my first cruise, and I'd say my favorite part was definitely Hong Kong," said Master-at-Arms 3rd Class Alexis Stephens. "It was a great experience to be able to visit the waterfront and take in the scenery. It's something I definitely wouldn't be able to do if I wasn't stationed onboard."

With the Hong Kong port visit behind them, Essex Sailors had just one more major hurdle before returning home. The ship's unit level training assessment-engineering (ULTRA-E) ran Dec. 1-4 and tested the mettle of everyone in the engineering department as they went through an intense series of main propulsion equipment drills and fire drills.

Upon arrival in Japan, Essex Sailors immediately began a unit level training assessment-anti-terrorism/force protection (ULTRA-ATFP), designed to test their ability to defend the ship against a terrorist attack. Once completed, many Essex Sailors will be looking forward to spending the holidays at home.

"Being underway so much can be challenging, but it's a really good feeling to be home for the holidays," said Seaman Apprentice Justin Mitchell. "I'm really looking forward to just being able to take some time off and relax for a little while because we've worked hard for the last few months."

According to Canady, the hard work exhibited by Essex Sailors throughout the deployment has not gone unnoticed.

"I am proud to command and serve on board Essex. The Sailors here are the most professional and hard working in the Navy," said Canady. "It's great to finish fall patrol and come home and spend time, much deserved time, with our family during the holidays."

Essex is the lead ship of the only forward-deployed U.S. expeditionary strike group and serves as the flagship for CTF 76, the Navy's forward-deployed amphibious force commander. Task Force 76 is headquartered at White Beach Naval Facility, Okinawa, Japan, with a detachment in Sasebo, Japan.