TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. — Beyond the dusty berms, concertina wire and armed guards, in the center of adjoining tents set up like spokes on a wheel, Marines sat at computers, monitoring incoming communications while huge screens full of blue and red icons illustrated the position of friendly and enemy forces.
The icons were updated in real time, but not all of the “troops” were real.
In the command operations center, Marines prepared for the arrival of a fictitious Army unit. The air support coming to the aid of the real and virtual troops was being flown in simulators 150 miles away. The enemy’s movements were being controlled by Marines in the next tent.
The high-tech training exercise — “Large Scale Exercise 2014” — integrated troops on the ground, Marines in simulators and virtual forces, as part of the Marine Corps’ aggressive 10-year plan to prepare units to deploy anywhere, anytime.
“We’re talking about a lean, agile and responsive force that provides options to senior military leaders and national command authorities in times of crisis,” said Brig. Gen. Carl “Sam” Mundy III, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade.
That kind of readiness requires training — and trying something new.
New standing units
Traditionally, 2,200-person Marine Expeditionary Units go through six-month training cycles to prepare for a range of scenarios, then deploy on ships for six or seven months, responding to crises as they arise.
Larger units, including Marine Expeditionary Forces that can number in the tens of thousands, train for major campaigns that have been identified.
But in March, the Marine Corps released a restructuring plan designed to make the Marines “the right force in the right place at the right time.” The plan includes having a third of the operating forces deployed at any given time, having forces ready for rapid crisis response, and creating standing units larger than MEUs and smaller than MEFs, called MEBs.
The Marine Corps has used MEBs off and on for years; the Marines of Task Force Tarawa at the start of the Iraq War were an MEB, as were the Marines who surged into Afghanistan’s Helmand province in 2009, and those who responded to the deadly typhoon in the Philippines last year. But while those units were created for specific purposes, the new MEBs are supposed to be ready for anything.
However, as the first MEB began to plan, leaders realized that putting together a 12,000-strong unit and sending it the Corps’ combat training center in the middle of the California desert wasn’t feasible or fiscally responsible.
So the unit decided on a new approach, combining about 5,000 Marines on the ground with thousands more virtual troops.
‘Ready for whatever’
One of the smaller units participating in the August training was the 3rd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, which is based here and spends much of its time training in the desert. The first morning of the exercise, as the sun beat down on the camouflage netting shielding their gun trucks and they readied their M777 A2 light Howitzers to fire at the enemy over the mountains, the Marines said the only real difference from their usual training was the name of the larger unit they fall under.
Several miles away, in an air-conditioned building, Marines were “traveling” in modified Humvees and seven-ton trucks attached to a computer simulator, as turret gunners manned rubberized weapons and scanned a virtual image of the actual route outside.
The big-screen graphics are closer to early Nintendo than recent “Call of Duty” titles, but the weapons and vehicles looked and felt almost the same as the real thing.
The MEB’s headquarters camp and combat operations center, out of sight from the other outposts and surrounded by stark desert and mountains, had the feel of a base in Afghanistan.
And like recent operations, the training incorporated joint and combined elements, including a handful of Air Force and special operations troops, plus about 100 soldiers from the 5 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group, who traveled here to participate.
However, unlike training for Iraq and Afghanistan, the exercise wasn’t focused on counterinsurgency. Marines called their training enemy a “peer force,” a foe with similar strengths and capabilities.
In the scenario, the military of one country, Dakota, had pushed into another, Acadia, cutting off access to the ocean for Acadia and a third country. The Marines’ job was to kick out the Dakotans.
The scenario is just the first of several possibilities that the MEB will train for under the new organizational structure, Mundy said. Future exercises will include more amphibious operations and partnering with the Navy.
The Marine Corps “is still America’s 9-1-1 force,” said Lt. Col. Doug Luccio, the MEB’s operations officer. “I’ve got to be ready for whatever the world throws at me.”
Col. Dany Fortin, commander of the 5 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group, said that while troops should draw on the lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s critical they prepare for other scenarios and for doing joint operations with other countries.
“It’s hard to say where we’re going next,” he said, but it has become increasingly hard for one military branch or one nation to go it alone.