A Marine air traffic control team coordinates a max performance demonstration of a CH-53 helicopter on Friday, Aug. 11, 2023, in eastern North Carolina during the Navy and U.S. Marine Corps’ Large Scale Exercise 2023.

A Marine air traffic control team coordinates a max performance demonstration of a CH-53 helicopter on Friday, Aug. 11, 2023, in eastern North Carolina during the Navy and U.S. Marine Corps’ Large Scale Exercise 2023. (Caitlyn Burchett/The Virginian-Pilot)

(Tribune News Service) — The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower was in a battle in the Mediterranean Sea without ever leaving the pier at Naval Station Norfolk.

The carrier had been teleported into the 6th Fleet area of responsibility as part of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps’ “Large Scale Exercise 2023.” The live, virtual, constructive exercise uses real-world intelligence as part of a simulated scenario, putting 25,000 Sailors and Marines on a “road to war” in which they interact with each other and adversaries in a cyber battlespace — little different than a multiplayer video game.

“We would execute this much akin to if we were underway in the 6th Fleet AOR today, and as a matter of fact, the Gerald R. Ford is underway right now in the 6th Fleet AOR and we can literally see their tracks as we are in the virtual environment next to them,” said Rear Adm. Marc Miguez, commander of Carrier Strike Group Two, while aboard the Eisenhower on Friday.

The goal of the exercise, which began Aug. 9 and will run through the 18th, is to improve the services’ cohesiveness, test new technology, identify gaps in capabilities, and put pressure on military members from the deck plate to the highest level of leadership.

“We have a responsibility to duty to be able to respond globally to threats and vulnerabilities, to peer adversaries and competitors. And the only way you get great at that is by practicing that and you have got to practice it at the highest levels,” said Adm. Daryl Caudle, commander of Fleet Forces, in a media roundtable held Friday.  

The exercise is following “a very aggressive percolating event that will eventually turn into kinetic warfare,” Caudle said. Simultaneously, opportunistic second and third parties will try to take advantage, “with the hope that the U.S. has its eye off the ball a bit and doesn’t have the capacity to deter those other opportunistic events going on.”

“Large scale exercise is a demonstrative way to let put the world on notice that we’re watching it all. And we are able to, with our global force, operate anywhere in the world, and be a force for good there,” Caudle said.

This is only the second Large Scale Exercise; the first was conducted in 2021. It spans 50 commands across the Atlantic, Pacific and Mediterranean, including six carrier strike groups, three amphibious readiness groups, 25 submarines and ships live and 50 virtually. Three Hampton Roads-based carrier strike groups are participating: the Dwight D. Eisenhower, George H.W. Bush and Harry S. Truman.

The Naval Warfare Development Center at Naval Station Norfolk is serving as the hub of the exercise, controlling the scenario and simulated adversaries, and replicating decisions that would be made by higher headquarters and combatant commands, like the Secretary of Defense. More than a dozen retired flag or general officers are representing combatant commands to simulate decisions the most senior of defense leadership might make during a time of war.

Of those, is Adm. James Foggo III and Adm. Scott Swift.

“Obviously, we have a limited number of things — ships, aircraft, people — and there’s going to be tugging and pulling as the scenario progresses,” Foggo said. “Somebody’s got to sit back in Washington and balance that out and say, ‘Well I can’t give you more of that.'”

This, Foggo explained, creates “healthy tension.”

“We are stressing the force. There’s just not enough stuff to go around. So, somebody’s going to get what they need here. Somebody else here may have to wait a little bit. But where are the priorities? Where is today’s battle?” Foggo said.

Approximately 150 miles from Norfolk, dozens of Marines from Combat Logistics Regiment 2​ were feeling the stress. They have been camped out in Oak Grove, North Carolina, since Aug. 6, reacting to simulated challenges, as well as realities of the real world while acting as an arming and refueling point.

“The fuel tanks haven’t been used, so when we tried to fill them with fuel, we noticed something like leaks, either from dry-rotted hoses or cracked pipes — stuff that we are not able to identify unless there’s fuel in the tank itself,” said Sgt. Nicolas Casson, a bulk fuel specialist, serving as the forward arming and refueling point officer in charge.

Capt. Jason Motycka, a pilot training officer acting as site lead for Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 464, said the austere environment has also presented challenges in operating and maintaining the aircraft.

“We have had some some maintenance challenges, but the marines responded extremely well. We have integrated with other units to get the support we needed to fix our aircraft to continue to operate. So overall, we’ve responded the way we wanted to,” Motycka said.

Meanwhile, back at Fleet Forces headquarters in Norfolk, Caudle meets with Adm. Stuart Munsch, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe, and Adm. Samual J. Paparo, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, daily to synchronize operations across the globe, discussing their challenges, what can and can’t be solve independently and what resources require more coordination.

For the first time, the three 4-star generals, with Caudle in person and Munsch and Paparo appearing via a video conference, met with media Friday to discuss how they are being stressed.

“The scenario is already stressing that our unified command plan carves up the world into areas of responsibility for our combatant commanders to operate forces to conduct warfare if called upon in certain geographic areas. Of course, our adversaries and competitors understand this perfectly well. And so it is in their best interest to see if there’s a soft underbelly there and work those seams to understand whether or not we are well coordinated to handle cross flow and coordination,” Caudle said. 

On a global scale, coordinating forces across operational areas during even a simulated war is “the most challenging part.”

“We are very cutting edge out here and watching what’s going on in the world and very quickly adopting the behaviors we see and the performance we see in technology. I can’t go into the specifics there. But it’s something as recent as what I was briefed on this morning is folded in to the exercise this afternoon,” Munsch said.

In a watch room lined aboard the Eisenhower, crew are standing by 24 hours of day, seven days a week to participate in Large Scale Exercise 2023 virtually — about a dozen screens hang from the steel walls, showing a map of the 6th Fleet area of responsibility.

“It’s probably one of the most dynamic and most stressing situations that we put our watchstanders through and our air crew through, where we actually simulate in the training environment, us being shot at by threat aircraft, threat ships, and threat of land based — we call them cruise missile defense threats — that we could incur if we go into a combat operation once we deploy,” Miguez said.

The Large Scale Exercise, he said, gives the crew more opportunities to hone their “reps and sets” prior to their next deployment. The Eisenhower is scheduled to deploy later this year.

“My mantra with all my worker commanders is nothing is stable. Every time we go into an environment, the weather could be different, the adversary could change, we could have a bad intel that we think we’re rock solid on. And then all of a sudden, we’re in a crisis situation,” Miguez said.

“We do prudent planning all the time. But there are occasions where we get thrown a curveball, and it is how we deal with it. That’s why we that’s why we are in here doing this right now, so we are prepared for the unknowns.”

©2023 The Virginian-Pilot.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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