Marine Corps Training Shifts to Great Power Competition (UPDATED)

 In China, Iran, GDI, Defense, Cyber/ICT, Air, Environment, Information

Marine Corps Training Shifts to Great Power Competition (UPDATED)

Photo: Stew Magnuson

TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. — It was high noon in a mock city the size of down­town San Diego locat­ed in the California desert. Automatic rifle fire could be heard in the dis­tance and the sound of a drone — heard but not seen — buzzed in the blue skies above.

A Marine Corps lieu­tenant stuck his rifle out a win­dow and used its scope to recon­noi­ter a block of near­by build­ings. Six of his men had just been declared dead by an offi­cer who was adju­di­cat­ing the exer­cise. There was a sniper near­by. It was only a mock bat­tle, but emo­tions were run­ning high.

“Hey Animal. On that uni­form 10 alpha and char­lie. The round went through the roof and explod­ed on the sec­ond floor. That’s all I know…”

“No KIA?”

“Don’t know. We can’t observe from inside the build­ing.”

Several min­utes lat­er, a report came back neg­a­tive. The sniper had escaped.

Range 220 at Twentynine Palms, California, con­sists of some 1,200 build­ings and resem­bles the urban bat­tle zones of the Middle East. But the sev­en-day Marine Air-Ground Task Force War­fighting Exercise, also known as MWX, in mid-November was not intend­ed to repli­cate the coun­terin­sur­gency bat­tles of the past 20 years, explained Col. Matt Reid, deputy exer­cise direc­tor. That will always be an ele­ment of the Marine Corps mis­sion, but this ser­vice-lev­el train­ing exer­cise has been retooled to teach Marines to fight peer or near-peer com­peti­tors such as the ones named in the National Defense Strategy: Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.

“We want to get good at that again,” Reid said. “It’s not just about train­ing the tac­tics. It’s about sys­tems. It’s about thought process­es. It’s about — when you’re fac­ing some­body that has equal or bet­ter equip­ment than you, that is as ded­i­cat­ed to the fight as you — can you make rapid deci­sions by tak­ing in infor­ma­tion and then imple­ment those deci­sions across kind of a domain chal­lenged envi­ron­ment to take action?”

MWX was orga­nized by the Marine Corps’ plans, poli­cies and oper­a­tions office. It pit­ted the 2nd Marine Division and the 7th Marine Regiment against each oth­er. Troops were drawn from Twentynine Palms, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina and near­by Camp Pendleton, California, along with some units from the United Kingdom and oth­er allies.

Both sides had armored vehi­cles, the use of unmanned aer­i­al vehi­cles, the abil­i­ty to call in close-air sup­port and elec­tron­ic and cyber war­fare tools at their dis­pos­al, just as a near-peer mil­i­tary would.

“What’s excit­ing about this force on force is that these Marines want to win. They are keyed up. You can feel the ten­sion between them. … Some of these guys know each oth­er so they can talk smack after­wards,” Reid said.

The exer­cise was spread out over 237 square miles of the base, but the focus that day was on Range 220, a war­ren of build­ings, streets, alley­ways and tun­nels renamed “Hidalgo City” for the pur­pos­es of the exer­cise. The mock city was orig­i­nal­ly built for the Iraq con­flict and can absorb 10,000 troops. While there might be a shift to fight­ing “great pow­ers,” the Marine Corps believes urban war­fare is here to stay, Reid said. Clearing the city was one of the orga­niz­ers’ objec­tives.

“Whatever the nature of war is going for­ward, peo­ple live in build­ings and cities and towns. We’re going to have to fig­ure out the urban fight. … This is a sus­tain­able tech­nique, tac­tic and pro­ce­dure that we have to con­stant­ly improve upon,” he said.

To that end, there were about 100 civil­ians role­play­ing the parts of the city’s res­i­dents. There was a “white cell” that could put out fake news­casts report­ing how that day’s fight­ing was going. Like any civil­ian pop­u­la­tion, the res­i­dents have a hier­ar­chy, which includes the may­or. The 7th Marine Division — play­ing the red team called the Dakotans — could employ par­ti­san or irreg­u­lar fight­ers, mean­ing coun­terin­sur­gency tac­tics were still in play.

“We have to keep that in our train­ing. That part of war­fare is nev­er going to change,” Reid said.

The news­casts can change in tenor depend­ing on how well the blue team is fight­ing. The may­or could go on TV and declare the Marines are a bunch of mur­der­ers slaugh­ter­ing civil­ians, Reid said.

“We’re try­ing to teach this gen­er­a­tion [of Marines] that peo­ple live where you’re going to fight. And they may not be able to evac­u­ate. There may be refugee prob­lems. … How are you going to deal with that?” he said.

Because this is not a live-fire exer­cise, the bat­tle unfolds over the course of the week unscript­ed. A live-fire exer­cise, for safe­ty pur­pos­es, is high­ly con­trolled. In this case, Marines wear har­ness­es with elec­tron­ics that indi­cate when they have been hit. The ref­er­ees — called “coy­otes” — wear orange back­packs to dis­tin­guish them from the par­tic­i­pants. They can declare a Marine dead, or “wound­ed,” neces­si­tat­ing the need to exe­cute a med­ical evac­u­a­tion. The one action that could not be sim­u­lat­ed was artillery fire.

The coy­otes told the Marines when they were under indi­rect fire.

As for junior and senior lead­ers, the mock casu­al­ties pre­sent­ed real prob­lems. “It’s war­fare. It’s going to hap­pen. You’re going to face attri­tion. You have to adjust,” Reid said.

Along with mede­vac, all ele­ments are being trained, said Reid. Explosive ord­nance dis­pos­al teams were on hand because the Marine Corps expects road­side bombs to be employed by near-peer com­peti­tors or their prox­ies. EW teams were try­ing to jam their oppo­nents’ com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Someone was oper­at­ing the UAV that buzzed over­head through­out the day to pro­vide sur­veil­lance. Reid had no idea which side was using it.

Marines used col­ored smoke grenades to send sig­nals to each oth­er, indi­cat­ing that they were oper­at­ing in a degrad­ed com­mu­ni­ca­tions envi­ron­ment.

“Each unit will assign a vari­able mean­ing to the col­ors. It could mean move for­ward, clear a build­ing, clear a floor. Bring up the armor. Bring up the squad. … In an urban envi­ron­ment, com­mu­ni­cat­ing between build­ings is real­ly hard,” Reid said.

Maj. Hank Nesbitt, who coor­di­nat­ed the urban exer­cise por­tion of MWX, said: “In the con­text of fight­ing a peer com­peti­tor on the bat­tle­field, we are employ­ing EW on both sides. The Marines are expe­ri­enc­ing the chal­lenge of that.”

And like any force, the troops had to be resup­plied.

Lt. Col. Catalina Kesler, exec­u­tive offi­cer for com­bat logis­tics, reg­i­ment 2, 2nd Marine Division, said she had a dual role. One was to take care of the Marines who were on the base trav­el­ing from Camp Lejeune, but she also had to par­tic­i­pate in the exer­cise itself by fig­ur­ing out how to trans­port food, water and ammo to the force. It hadn’t hap­pened yet, but attack­ing her sup­ply lines was fair game.

“This is real­ly chal­leng­ing for us because we have a liv­ing, think­ing ene­my try­ing to win the fight,” she said.

Meanwhile, depend­ing on weath­er and avail­abil­i­ty, air wings from near­by Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and Naval Air Facility El Centro could par­tic­i­pate as well, pro­vid­ing close-air sup­port, resup­ply or troop trans­port. Harriers, F/A‑18s, Ospreys, Super Cobras and Super Hueys took part dur­ing the course of the week-long exer­cise.

Because much of the Twentynine Palms base was being used in the exer­cise and was fair game, spot­ters have been sent to land­ing zones to pro­vide recon­nais­sance. If six V‑22 Ospreys are seen tak­ing off, they can radio ahead the pos­si­bil­i­ty that an air-assault is com­ing.

“I can’t con­trol that. We set this sce­nario. And yeah, that’s what they did,” Reid said. One side would even­tu­al­ly gain air supe­ri­or­i­ty over the oth­er, he said.

The exer­cise was also an oppor­tu­ni­ty to test new equip­ment. Some of the tech­nol­o­gy is new to the force and will be incor­po­rat­ed into Marine Air-Ground Task Forces. Others are still under devel­op­ment and being eval­u­at­ed.

“It’s dif­fer­ent equip­ment across dif­fer­ent capa­bil­i­ties,” Reid said. Since most of it was geared toward the “near-peer” fight, he didn’t want to pro­vide any details and tip the Marines’ hand.

“We are absolute­ly eval­u­at­ing ways to be more effec­tive in the con­ven­tion­al fight across all domains,” includ­ing cyber and elec­tron­ic war­fare, Reid said.

Brig. Gen. Roger Turner, com­mand­ing gen­er­al of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force Training Command and the Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, said the Marines at MWX are train­ing for the “gray zone,” and hybrid war­fare where there is a lot of ambi­gu­i­ty. The adver­sary is lever­ag­ing uncon­ven­tion­al capa­bil­i­ties with both uni­formed and non-uni­formed spe­cial oper­a­tors. And there are civil­ians who might have oth­er moti­va­tions that lead them to par­tic­i­pate with the adver­sary.

Marines “have to fight at the high-end con­ven­tion­al, but also at the low end in that sort of dynam­ic envi­ron­ment,” he said.

At the MWX’s con­clu­sion, there will be an after-action report to pro­vide feed­back for the par­tic­i­pants.

“The over­all end state is to present both the adver­sary force that we use and the exer­cise force with that sit­u­a­tion, see their abil­i­ty to com­pete and oper­ate in that envi­ron­ment, learn lessons from that, devel­op lead­ers, and devel­op new tac­tics, tech­niques and pro­ce­dures,” Turner said. 

 Correction: A pre­vi­ous ver­sion of this sto­ry misiden­ti­fied the 7th Marine Regiment.

Topics: Training and Simulation, Marine Corps News

Source: NDIA

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