For one senior leader in the Pacific, the changes coming to the way Marines fight were acutely demonstrated by the small teams zipping around in Polaris ATVs during a recent exercise.
Brig. Gen. Joseph Clearfield, the deputy commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces Pacific, recalled how years ago he had to move around in Humvees or amphibious assault vehicles, and stop to put up a 30-foot antenna whenever he wanted to talk to the rest of his unit.
The commander of MAGTF-7’s battalion landing team “is running all around Oahu right now with four [ultra-light tactical vehicles], so these little dune buggies with four Marines each, and he’s able to communicate on the move and do and have better capability than I did in 11, 12 years ago,” Clearfield said at the bi-annual Rim of the Pacific exercise, or RIMPAC, in July.
The Marines are experimenting with a new way of operating in the Pacific: with agile teams that carry radar and weapons to confront enemies from the sea, land, and air.
These changes in the Pacific, and across the service, are being brought about by the Marine Corps’ Force Design 2030 plan. The service formed a new type of unit on Hawaii—the Marine Littoral Regiment—to execute missions from sea denial to operations far ashore. The unit, which carries systems and equipment typically seen at higher echelons, has particular applicability to the first island chain in the western Pacific. Marines are also contributing to the concepts of expeditionary advanced base operations, or EABO, and stand-in forces and figuring out how they apply to Pacific operations.
While Marines have long been expected to be one of the first military forces to arrive at a crisis, the stand-in forces concept aims to have them in place before any trouble starts: working with allies, monitoring for threats, and reacting when necessary.
The Marines already have what they consider stand-in forces in the Pacific, including in Japan, Hawaii, and a newer base in Guam that will be the new home of some 5,000 Marines moving from Okinawa.
RIMPAC was just the latest opportunity for Marines to put their redesign, concepts, and training to the test.
“So it’s this idea of the stand-in force, and it’s this littoral maneuver. We spend a lot of time on that,” Clearfield said. “How we’re going to littorally maneuver the stand-in force around the archipelagos in the first island chain, and RIMPAC helps us with this.”
One of the newest elements is the 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment. Stood up in March, the unit is intended to operate forward in contested areas, gathering and sharing information for the joint force and contributing firepower.
The 3rd MLR now has three battalions, for anti-air, combat logistics, and combat. This fall, the combat team will add a medium missile battery firing the Naval Strike Missile with the Navy/Marine Corps Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System, or NMESIS, according to Col. Tim Brady, who leads the regiment.
“We were taking these capabilities that normally traditionally resided up at the three- and two-star level, and we brought them down to a singular O-6 command…to then be able to operate forward inside the enemy’s weapons engagement zone,” Brady said in July. “Be light, maneuverable, able to persist, hard to target by the enemy as a part of just one unit of the stand-in force.”
This year’s RIMPAC was the second major exercise the 3rd MLR has participated in and the first with all its subordinate battalions, giving these Marines the opportunity to demonstrate their multi-domain abilities to the more than two dozen international militaries.
“For the scenario itself and RIMPAC, we are tasked to conduct expeditionary advanced base operations for specifically two reasons,” he said. “One is to be able to provide sea control and sea denial in support of a carrier strike group, maritime choke point transit. And the second is to be able to conduct EABO and provide all-domain effects and long range precision fires to support both an amphibious assault as well as other maritime maneuver.”
The unit is also using RIMPAC to learn what they are capable of now and in the future, Brady said.
“We employ and are capable of C5ISRT and yes, we have Group 1 and Group 2 small [unmanned aircraft systems], as well as a multitude of other capabilities where we can both actively and passively pull and share information and targeting information,” Brady said. “So we can gain and maintain that target ourselves, as well as share that information and or pull that information from somebody else, acquire the target, and then pass it on to somebody if necessary.”
During RIMPAC, Marines from 3rd MLR established several expeditionary advanced bases around Hawaii, including communications systems to link to other units and to their higher headquarters, Combined Task Force 176. The Marines had to figure out how all the participating militaries could see and share information, according to Maj. Brent Logan, a communications officer with 3rd MLR.
“RIMPAC is that opportunity to get on the ground with them with their actual operator, figure out how we can connect all of these systems together in the most efficient fashion, so that we can accomplish kill chains and kill webs in a quick as fashion as possible, while still adhering to, you know, all of the important procedures and rules of engagement that we follow when executing these things,” Logan said in July.
The exercise’s huge scale meant they “basically employed almost our whole team to set up linkages with all of our partners,” Logan said. “Even though we’re a regiment, our communications architecture almost looks like a division’s worth of communication systems, just because we’re operating out of multiple expeditionary advanced bases.”
Having to set up, take down, and move their combat operations centers during the exercise helped Logan’s Marines find ways to reduce the size of their physical footprint.
“The big takeaway that we learned is that we can improve, we can get faster and better and smaller, and still be able to communicate to the same capacity and capability that we can with a larger footprint, which is very, very encouraging,” he said.
The Marines operating around Hawaii in the Polaris “dune buggies” were part of MAGTF-7, under the command of Lt. Col. Jason Copeland. About 300 of them came from California on the USS Essex as part of an amphibious ready group, joining up with hundreds of other Marines from nine other countries including Mexico and Sri Lanka.
When they arrived in Hawaii, “we spread out to different training areas to do the integration that needs to happen,” Copeland said. “So our focus has been some of the operations in urban terrain, knowing that the cities and landscape of some of the littoral areas you’re going to have an urban population in there.”
They also worked live-fire training, which Copeland said was hard because RIMPAC participants brought various levels of experience.
“For example, the Tongans have not shot live fire since 2012. Ten years is a long time. And a lot of the forces have not done it in a firing-and-moving scenario to where they’re actually going forward after an adversary,” he said in July.
But Copeland said his Marines also learned from the visiting forces.
“The Mexican forces have a totally different mission set for their military than we would see, so we learn a lot from them as far as how to do some internal collections and sniper training, which we do a lot of as well, because of their mission set with with the cartels and everything that they’re usually focused on. So it’s been great for us to see the different perspectives.”
One of the most interesting experiments of RIMPAC, Clearfield said, was coordinating MAGTF-7, which was conducting an amphibious assault, and 3rd MLR, which was already ashore.
For Copeland, the main lesson was what it takes to work with different militaries, especially having the right leadership in the right spot. He said exchanging liaison officers between U.S. and foreign units—was of “extreme value” because it fosters understanding and sharing information, especially military terminology. The challenge, he said, is that U.S. units are not built to pull an officer out of his or her job to go liaise.
Brady at 3rd MLR said he focused on “understanding the people, processes, and systems to quickly close kill webs is extremely important. And we’ve refined those tactics, techniques and procedures to do it more quickly during RIMPAC 22.”
February 2023 will bring the first exercise built specifically for littoral regiment training in the Marine Corps’ service-level training exercise series, Brady said. Then in the fall, Marine Corps Forces Pacific will have their “force design implementation capstone demonstration of a multitude of capabilities,” said.
3rd MLR will reach initial operating capability at some point during the fiscal year, with a goal of reaching full operational capability in 2025, he said.
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