ABOARD THE USS WASP: For the first time, Marine and Navy planners have melded a carrier strike group into the Marine Corps’ premiere amphibious operations wargame known as Bold Alligator. This appears to bridge what had appeared to be a growing divide between a Marine Corps eager to build more amphibious ships and a Navy intent on saving its existing carrier fleet. It also offers very concrete proof of the Marines recommitment to amphibious warfare, which they regard as their core competency.

This year also marks the first time military leaders conducted Bold Alligator with live ships, soldiers and aircraft. Called the largest amphibious exercise in 10 years, it was designed to replicate a sea-to-shore assault spearheaded by U.S. and coalition forces against enemy troops from a fictional country. This year, enemy troops from the country of “Garnet” invaded the neighboring country of “Amberland”. Just like last year’s virtual exercise, American and coalition forces were sent in to push back the invading forces. But unlike last year, the Navy and Marine Corps decided to bring the USS Enterprise with them.

The addition of the carrier group to Bold Alligator, which Marine Corps leaders have touted as a touchstone event in the service’s effort to get back to the shoreline, comes at an interesting time. A number of top service brass, including Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos, has been pushing the Pentagon to add more amphibs to the Navy fleet. The ships, he argued, can compliment or — to a certain extent — replicate a carrier’s capabilities at a much lower cost. They are also key to the service’s return to its amphibious roots. For its part, the Navy argues that carriers, including the new Ford-class, will be critical to supporting the department’s pivot from Southwest Asia to the Western Pacific. Looming defense budget cuts, set to begin in fiscal year 2013, has only inflamed that rhetoric inside the beltway. But both arguments got a shot in the arm in recent weeks.

Defense Secretary took the Marine Corps variant of the Joint Strike Fighter off the budget chopping block earlier this month, lifting the DoD-imposed probation on the program set by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. But only weeks later, Panetta announced the White House and DoD were fully committed to maintaining 11 carrier strike groups, which essentially spared the Ford-class ship from the budget axe. Adding a carrier element into the Marine Corps’ showcase for amphibious ops could be seen as an effort to shoehorn the carrier fleet into those missions. However a number of top U.S. and coalition military leaders say that is not the case.

The USS Enterprise, along with the associated cruisers and destroyers that make up a carrier strike group, will be a “complementary” force to the fleet of amphibious ships that carried out the beach assault today, Lt. Cmdr. George Pastoor, a Dutch naval officer tied to Navy Expeditionary Strike Group 2, told reporters. ESG2 and the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade were the lead U.S. forces in the exercise. The carrier group’s ships were used to protect the amphib ships supporting the assault, Pastoor said. The air assets on the Enterprise could also be used to lighten the load of the Marine Corps helos and fighters, letting them concentrate on supporting ground forces as they push inland from the beach, said 2nd MEB chief of staff Col. Scott Aiken.

Specifically, the Navy F/A-18s were used to help Marine air units to “shape the battlespace”, Col. Scott Jensen, commander of the 2nd Marine Air Wing told reporters aboard the USS Kearsarge yesterday. Once the beach assault began, Marine airpower shifted from those ops to providing overwatch for landing forces, he added. “There has been a handoff at this point,” Jensen said regarding the shift. That type of cooperation is the true hallmark of the Bold Alligator exercise, a top Navy official said.

Sharing air, land and sea capabilities that “cut across all [service] lanes” is a major goal of the combat drill, Rear Adm. Kevin Scott, ESG2 chief, said. If the U.S. is to be able to fight and win wars from the shoreline, the services have to look at all the warfighting capabilities on the table, according to Scott. “We are not just in our own amphibious cocoon,” he said.