The Missing Exercise

By Robbin Laird

Frequently, USN and USMC officials noted that Bold Alligator 2012 was the “largest amphibious exercise in more than a decade.”  OK what was that exercise?  And what did it focus upon and do?

We asked a senior USMC officer to provide an initial answer and here was his response:

Operation Purple Star during 1996 timeframe the last large MEB/MEF  level Joint/Combined amphibious exercise we did.

It was U.S.-British exercise with about 38,000 U.S. troops and 15,000 British troops, but the reference to the last 10 years should be re-stated as the largest MEB level amphibious exercise in 10 years.

BA12 is closest thing to a MEB we have sortied since ATF East/West.  This is making reference to the fact that with the USMC involved in basically two ground  wars for the last 10 years, and that large-scale amphibious operations were not a priority at the time.  With the drawdown of both AORs, forces, ships, and assets are now available to re-focus efforts back out at sea.

Not only was it a MEB level exercise, it incorporated 2 x CSGs (one live, one synthetic).

Also, there were a total of nine countries participating.  It should be stated that in addition to a MEB level exercise, there was significant CSG/ARG MEU play  and certifications, experimental concept development, and coalition  participation.

It had a much wider scope than just a MEB exercise.

Scoping out the literature there is not much on Operation Purple Star but fortunately there was a piece published in Jane’s Defence Weekly on July 1, 1996 by Bob Morrison which provided insight with regard to the exercise.

The exercise took place from April 21 to May 20 1996.  It involved nearly 16,000 UK sailors, soldiers and airman with 38,000 US personnel.  This was the largest Allied peacetime amphibious and airborne operation since WW II.  It operated off of the East Coast of the United States.

It involved US Army as well as USAF forces.  The US Army contributed Airborne forces.  And command and control and deployment of air forces in conjunction with concurrent amphibious, land and airborne operations in an overseas non-NATO theater with coalition forces in a combined scenario was exercised.

From 30 April to 5 May, UK and US contingents cross-trained in the fictitious neighboring country of Telari, with soldiers having the chance to fire each other’s weapons and pilots flying sorties in the other nation’s aircraft. During parachute training and the subsequent airborne operation, US paratroopers used UK LLP parachutes and 5 Airborne Brigade used the US T10 model.

By 6 May, with Korona still refusing to back down, the CJTF set sail from Telari in preparation for a massive amphibious assault to terminate the Koronan aggression. Under the command of USN Vice Adm Vern Clark, 53 ships of the USS Enterprise Battle Group, the USS Saipan Amphibious Ready Group and the UK Task Group put ashore more than 13,000 Marines from II Marine Expeditionary Force, 24 Marine

Expeditionary Unit and 3 Commando Brigade on four separate beaches near Camp Lejeune.

Simultaneously, 5 (UK) Airborne Brigade and UK Special Forces conducted diversionary raids to pin down Koronan forces and secure an airfield for a Tactical Airland Operation (TALO).

By dawn on the 10th, the US and Royal Marines had secured the beachhead and advance units were fighting their way inland against sporadic Koronan counter attacks. Behind them the logistic build-up continued, although a tragic helicopter accident three hours into the operation, which cost 14 US Marine lives, severely curtailed the flying side of the operation for most of D-Day. Behind the beach US combat engineers had built a floating bridge over the Coastal Waterway which 3 Commando Brigade used to push inland.

After mopping up Koronan defenders occupying villages and towns in the coastal region, using well-rehearsed FIBUA tactics, 3 Commando Brigade joined with USMC Regimental Landing Team 8 to cross the New River estuary by helicopter and landing craft. Once across, they linked up with 5 Airborne Brigade, which had secured the region around the deserted Camp Davis airfield which was now being used both by the RAF Support Helicopter Force and C-130 Hercules transport aircraft.

One hour after last light on D+5, over 4,300 men of 5 (UK) Airborne Brigade and 82nd Airborne Division plus vehicles and equipment, were dropped by 40 C-141 Starlifter and 104 C-130 Hercules aircraft on three separate zones about 175 km inland of the beachhead. It was the largest Allied parachute drop since the Rhine crossing in 1945

As the Paras advanced against Koronans and linked up with US armour advancing from Telari, 60 UK and US helicopters flew 3 Commando Brigade forward in what is believed to have been the largest single UK airmobile operation ever undertaken. By 0900 on D+8, about 20 hours ahead of schedule, all objectives had been taken and Endex was called.

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