Marines join Senegalese marines and Nigerian sailors on a river exercise. African troops may partner more with Marines as the Corps boosts its presence there. (Master Sgt. Grady Fontana/ / Marines Corps)
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The Marine Corps is redesigning the predeployment training that thousands of Marines conduct each year at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., scaling back urban and counterinsurgency exercises in favor of scenarios and challenges customized to the needs of the deploying unit.
For nearly a decade, the 30-day Integrated Training Exercise and its predecessor, Enhanced Mojave Viper, prepared Marines to deploy to the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan. But as the Marine Corps looks to a diverse post-2014 mission that includes partnership training and crisis response in the Pacific, Africa and the Americas, predeployment training will be changing, too, said Maj. Gen. David Berger, the combat center’s commanding general.
Berger, who spoke with Marine Corps Times by phone, said ITX would begin to customize training this fall.
“We’ll take the basic template and we’ll work with [the deploying unit’s commander], saying, ‘Where are you going, and what do you think are the most likely kind of scenarios if you get into a scrap over there?’ ” Berger said. “And then we’ll make adjustments to the scenario and to the template to try to test him in areas that he thinks he needs to be tested in.”
In practice, this will mean adjusting the proportions of training elements to simulate the anticipated tempo and challenges of the upcoming mission, be it a Unit Deployment Program pump to Japan, or a special-purpose Marine air ground task force called on to provide embassy security. The combat center is fully capable of providing all of this, Berger said, but it represents a wider spectrum of training than has been required since the beginning of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While this training will span the range of future theater security, sustainment and crisis response missions that the Marine Corps has identified for itself, it could also include training for prospective combat against a conventional military force with a full complement of air and ground assets, he said.
“For the last ten years, our training has been on a very narrow portion of the spectrum, counter-insurgency,” Berger said. “Now we’re going to widen that so that the left and right limits are wider ... you tell us the left and right limits of ‘this is where I think conflict might pop up.’ We’re going to adjust the left and right, and what we’re going to throw at you during your 30 days out here is probably a little bit of a hybrid.”
The spectrum could include guerrilla warfare, stability operations, enemy air attacks, armored ground operations and more.
COIN takes a backseat
As combat center officials expand the range of possibilities at ITX, they will also scale back the focus on counterinsurgency operations. COIN, with its emphasis on nuanced missions in urban population centers, was a cornerstone of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, spurring cultural education courses and highly developed training locations designed to simulate urban environments.
Twentynine Palms has one of the largest of these urban training centers, a 1,560-structure Military Operations on Urban Terrain training range on 274 acres. The $170 million facility allowed Marines to conduct realistic training missions, from improvised explosive device disposal to vehicle checkpoints, and to interact with native Afghan roleplayers.
Marines won’t stop using that MOUT facility, Berger said, but they will be spending less time there in the future.
“We need to keep that in play, because if you don’t do that for a few years, it’s really hard to get that kind of skill set back, working in a really tight, confined urban area, where civilians and dogs and cats and kids and everything are mixed up together,” Berger said. “So we’re not going to completely stop that, but we need to scale it back.”
From companies to brigades
The Marine Corps recently rolled out a new element of its post-2014 mission: Expeditionary Force 21, a concept focused on rapid crisis response that could see Marine units as small as companies sent to trouble spots anywhere in the world to operate unsupported, perhaps for weeks.
Berger said the combat center would easily accommodate training for this new small-unit concept, a significant contrast from the large-unit missions typical of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“This place is large enough that you can give a unit enough missions where they’re spread out pretty far,” he said. “... We can give them missions that cause them to helicopter a platoon or a company 10, 15 miles away. Absolutely, this place kind of lends itself to company, platoon-size forces operating for limited periods of time.”
The combat center’s expansion into neighboring Johnson Valley, to which Congress gave final approval in December, will add nearly 90,000 acres to the 930-square-mile base, increasing its footprint by about 18 percent.
This additional space, Berger said, will make it even easier to isolate a small Marine unit for training purposes.
Conversely, combat center officials are also preparing the additional acreage for large-unit training of the sort Twentynine Palms has never been able to accommodate before: a full brigade-size element of up to 15,000 Marines engaging in the same exercise.
Marine officials have been planning this base expansion since before the Marine Corps force plus-up began in the mid-2000s, and have cited plans to hold twice-a-year brigade-size exercises, including three reinforced battalions; and air, tank and logistics elements, and more.
Prior to the expansion, Berger said, “We could train elements of [the Marine expeditionary brigade], but we couldn’t train the whole package. The value of training the whole package is you learn to fight the way you’re actually going to fight in a conflict, at that size level.”
But the first of those brigade-size exercises is still at least a year off, Berger said. The base, he said, remains in negotiations with private residents for some property parcels.
Then, combat center officials will work to relocate the desert tortoise, a threatened species native to the region, and to test the health of the population. There are also mines and other geographic elements that need to be prepared for training, Berger said.
“There are a whole bunch of steps, as you might imagine when you buy a piece of real estate. You want to train on it, you want to drop bombs on it and roll tanks across it,” Berger said. “I think what’s going to happen is — early on, maybe later this year — we can start to do limited stuff in certain areas. ... But our goal is by the fall of 2016, we’ll be full up 100 percent, using it like we use the rest of the combat center here today.”
Amid the changes, some things at ITX will stay the same, Berger said.
The exercise will remain at its current length of 30 days, which Berger said has been found to be about right for predeployment training. And the combat center will maintain its tempo of five iterations of ITX per year, focusing on battalion-size elements that are next to deploy.
As for the name, which was changed to ITX from Enhanced Mojave Viper in 2012, Berger said that won’t change — at least for now.
“There’s no plans to change the name right now,” he said. “Don’t write it in pen, maybe, but you don’t have to erase it this year.”■
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