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Navy, Marine forces train in Japanese-led exercise

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In a display of flexibility, coordination and efficiency, more than 1,100 Marines, sailors, and assets assigned to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, embarked aboard the forward-deployed amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2) and the forward-deployed dock landing ship USS Tortuga (LSD 46) at White Beach Naval Facility during an in-port reconfiguration, Nov. 9-11.

The reconfiguration reunited the USS Essex with Amphibious Squadron 11 (PHIBRON 11) in preparation for Annual Exercise 21G (ANNUALEX 21G) scheduled for Nov.12-18.  ANNUALEX 21G is an annual, bilateral exercise conducted between the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) and U.S. Naval Forces.

The Japanese-led exercise is designed to improve both forces’ capabilities for coordinated, bilateral operations in the defense of Japan. In particular, ANNUALEX 21G will focus on enhancing military-to-military relationships, improving command and control, air, undersea and surface warfare.

“This deployment is a great opportunity for our Marines to play a part in ANNUALEX,” said Gunnery Sgt. Jorge Jerez, combat cargo assistant, Ship Company, PHIBRON 11. “I’m sure everyone is excited to be a part of the great relationship we have with the JMSDF.”

The USS Essex is commanded by U.S. Navy Capt. Troy Hart and is the lead ship of the only forward-deployed U.S. Amphibious Ready Group. The vessel serves as the flagship for Command Task Force 76 (Task Force 76), and Hart is the Navy's only forward-deployed amphibious force commander. Task Force 76 is headquartered at White Beach Naval Facility, Okinawa, Japan, with a detachment in Sasebo, Japan.

“We always look forward to embarking the 31st MEU,” Hart said in an interview with a USS Essex reporter. “Their professionalism has always been a major factor to our success working together, and this is another chance for us to build on that success,” explained the Lansing, Mich. native.

That professionalism and great working relationship allowed the Navy and Marine Corps team to reconfigure in less than two days for ANNUALEX 21G.

While embarking aboard the USS Essex and USS Tortuga, combat cargo and MEU Logisticians moved approximately 15 Helicopters, 90 vehicles and 250 pieces of MEU equipment. Additionally, they streamlined the cross-decking of Marines and sailors from the 31st MEU’s Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines (BLT 2/5), Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 265 Reinforced (HMM-265 REIN), Marine Attack Squadron 513 (VMA-513) and Combat Logistics Battalion 31 (CLB-31) aboard the two ships.

The reconfiguration demonstrated the flexibility of the 31st MEU and PHIBRON 11 to jointly realign and distribute assets after reuniting with the USS Essex. 

The embarkation on the USS Essex came after the 31st MEU and PHIBRON 11 completed two major bilateral exercises despite not having its lead ship the USS Essex. 

 They completed Amphibious Landing Exercise 2010 (PHIBLEX ‘10) with the Armed Forces of the Philippines and Korean Incremental Training Program 2010 (KITP ‘10) with the Republic of Korea Marine Corps.

In addition to these exercises, the Navy and Marine Corps team were also embarked aboard the forward-deployed transport dock ship USS Denver (LPD 9), the forward-deployed dock landing ship USS Harpers Ferry (LSD 49) and USS Tortuga (LSD 46) during two unexpected humanitarian relief missions less than a month ago.

            U.S. forces provided aid to the Republic of the Philippines after several typhoons unleashed torrential downpours that flooded the region, and in the Western province of Sumatra, Indonesia in the aftermath of several earthquakes.

The longstanding history and experience between the 31st MEU and PHIBRON 11 enables the teams’ smooth interoperability.

According to Col. Paul L. Damren, 31st MEU Commanding Officer, “The MEU itself traces its history back to the Vietnam War when it was initially formed as Special Landing Force Alpha in March of 1967.  Interestingly, the MEU was teamed up back then with U.S. Navy ships from Amphibious Ready Group Alpha or Task Group 76.4 which is the designator for Amphibious Squadron 11, our modern day Navy partners.”