TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. --
With just days to go before the U.S. Marine Corps’ 2d Marine Division (2d MARDIV) kicks off the largest and most complex unscripted force-on-force field exercise in decades. Planners at all levels are hard at work finalizing the plans that will earn them victory over their “peer” adversary (ADFOR), a regiment (reinforced)-sized force comprised primarily of the 1st Marine Division’s 7th Marine Regiment, based at Twentynine Palms, Calif., along with elements of the Camp Pendleton-based 4th Marine Regiment, and a hardy complement of British Royal Marines’ 40 Commando Battle Group, and the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron.
Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Warfighting Exercise (MWX) 1-20 is about as “peer-like” a test as there is, according to Colonel David Wallis, 2d MARDIV’s lead planner, given the fact that the “adversary” will think like Marines, be equipped like Marines, and will be completely and uniquely familiar with the geographic area of operations (AO) – all thanks to innovations in exercise design introduced by MAGTF Training Command’s “ADFOR Academy,” located at Twentynine Palms, Calif.
“Twentynine Palms is home to 7th Marines,” said Wallis, “it’s their stomping ground, the Marines of that proud regiment, and they, and by association their British counterparts, will know every nook and cranny of this place. It’ll be tough to overcome that, but it’ll force us to think outside the box and get creative in order to develop a game-changing strategy and the requisite tactical advantage.
“But the ‘peer competitor’ aspect goes well beyond geography,” Wallis continued, “It’s really largely about the military application of emergent technologies, the testing of developing theories, the art and science of operational design – which can be culture-specific, and the indomitable spirit of the warrior in the fight,” he said.
Indeed, technology will play a significant if not unprecedented role in this warfighting exercise, the natural outcome of which should be both improved warfighting proficiency and a modernization of the force – two key priorities for both Commandant of the Marine Corps, General David Berger, and 2d MARDIV commanding general, Major General David Furness. According to 2d MARDIV’s deputy intelligence officer, Lieutenant Colonel PJ Croom, MWX is taking technology to the next level, in such a way that the peer fight actually may not be.
“Although they are a smaller force numerically, the (adversary force) has been equipped with several emerging technological capabilities that will allow them to realistically simulate many challenges (the ground force) might encounter when facing our pacing threats,” he said. Portable GPS jamming, small Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) swarming technology, advanced digital network probing and intrusion, and multi-faceted radio frequency disruption are just some of the means and tactics that both may be used in MWX and underpin Russian and Chinese warfighting capabilities and doctrine.
And while the Marine Corps maintains an enduring mandate to mitigate the advantage gap through technology, technology alone is not a panacea. “It is by design,” Croom explained, “that MWX will allow 2d MARDIV, at the individual Marine and collective entity levels, to struggle, learn, adapt andsuccessfully compete in an environment starkly representative of the battlefields of both today and tomorrow.”
Just one of eight active duty Marine Corps infantry regiments, the adversary force’s nucleus, 7th Marines, would, on any other day, be blood brethren with regiments of the 2d MARDIV, but during MWX each will seek to place the other in its crosshairs. From an intelligence standpoint, Croom says, nothing really changes.
“Analytic tradecraft doesn’t care whether the opponent is friend, foe or neutral. Understanding what the other side brings to the fight, in terms of weapons systems, command and control capabilities, surveillance and reconnaissance assets, and maneuver platforms is a fundamental requirement,” he continued, “In the MWX scenario, though, a healthy respect for the human factor could carry the day, and that’s the beauty of this unscripted exercise.”
Croom stressed that factors like the “who, what, when, where, why and how” of a commander’s seminal operational experiences can drive their tactical predispositions, and represent varsity-level intelligence questions for 2d MARDIV. “Answers to those questions – combined in this case with the adversary force commanders’ intimate prior knowledge of the Twentynine Palms terrain – should provoke some hard thinking and even harder decision-making for 2d MARDIV Marines, from the commanding general all the way down to that 18-year-old trigger puller,” he said.
At a minimum, 2d MARDIV is counting on the smaller ADFOR, Colonel Matthew Good and his 7th Marines, along with their NATO-counterpart forces from U.K. and Canada, to push the envelope of tactical and operational creativity at every turn. “We are literally playing in their sand box,” Croom noted. “The expectation is that they will drive us to our limits in the most unlikely and unpredictable of engagement locations they can conjure up.”
Furness notes that history is rife with examples where underestimated and numerically inferior forces have applied brilliant combat tradecraft – and determined grit – to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds and obtain victory. He says his planners and subordinate commanders are hard at work studying all facets of the ADFOR and preparing diligently in order to avoid making such an egregious mistake, especially since the peer/near-peer exercise today could be the real thing tomorrow.
“Look, the reality is all you have to do is pay attention to know that the geopolitical scene is fluid, and that the next fight we go into may well be a peer fight” he said. “It’s not by accident that we’ve been doing more with our European and partner-nation counterparts over the last decade than we have in a very long time – Marine Rotational Force-Darwin in Australia; Marine Rotational Force-Europe in Norway; and the Black Sea Rotational Force just to name a few. Open-source reporting would tell you that just last week we moved tanks to Lithuania,” he continued.
“As a ground-force commander my main focus is on ensuring my warriors are ready for the fight – any fight, in any clime or place. My decision to bring the better part of my entire Division from North Carolina to California, as well as to involve an ADFOR that thinks like us, has more advanced technology than we do, and is more familiar with the territory than we are, is all intentional,” he said, “and that’s because I see it is as a matter of when, not if, we next meet a peer competitor on the field of battle – I would argue that it will sooner than later, and we need to be ready in every way.
“For our part,” Furness continued, “the Marines will be ready, and that’s because through tests like MWX we study, we prepare, we execute, we analyze, we eek out the imperfections, and then we do it all over again. It’s kind of like the principle behind marksmanship,” he said: “We make all those adjustments leading up to qualification day so that when it really counts we can accurately and consistently place ‘two in the head and one in the chest’.”