“First, the MAGTF’s effectiveness in complex terrain must be qualitatively improved.”
—Gen James T. Conway, Commandant of the Marine Corps, Marine Corps Vision and Strategy 2025, June 2008
Located on 46,000 acres in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains between 6,800 and 11,300 feet in altitude, the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center (MCMWTC) in Pickel Meadow, CA, is arguably the Nation’s most comprehensive training facility for preparing units to operate in complex, mountainous terrain. The Marine Corps established the MCMWTC in 1951 as a result of then ongoing combat operations in Korea, where Marines learned firsthand that fighting in complex environments constitutes far more than a mere change in conditions. Rather, it results in a fundamental change to warfighting tasks.
Since its founding the MCMWTC has gone through a series of ebbs and tides associated with the threats of the day. Although the center served a valid role throughout the Cold War in preparing units for cold weather operations associated with the Marine Corps’ “northern front” mission in Norway, it also suffered through periods of extended neglect, such as that precipitated by the Nation’s focus on jungle counterinsurgency operations during the Vietnam conflict. The emphasis on mountain operations in general—and the resources provided to the MCMWTC in particular—have never again matched those associated with the Korean era.
Recent operations in Afghanistan and, arguably more important, current intelligence threat assessments, strongly suggest that this needs to change. To adequately prepare for current and emerging threats and their associated operational areas, the Marine Corps must place a greater emphasis on training Marine air-ground task forces (MAGTFs) to operate in complex, mountainous terrain. Fortunately, an opportunity currently exists not only to formalize and resource a credible training program for complex terrain operations but also to create a unique joint training venue for complex terrain centered around the MCMWTC.
The Operational Imperative
A quick look at current unclassified threat assessments, such as those produced by the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Marine Corps Intelligence Activity (MCIA), would indicate that training Marines to fight in complex terrain is nothing short of an operational imperative. Not only will Afghanistan continue to present challenges, but a majority of MCIA’s “states of interest,” to include Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, and Ethiopia, among others, include vast expanses of complex, mountainous terrain. To date, with the competing demands associated with Operation IRAQI FREEDOM and a short preparation cycle, the Marine Corps has not been able to meet this imperative.
The majority of units and training teams that have deployed to the mountainous portions of Afghanistan have participated in short, voluntary, informal, and inconsistent training programs at the MCMWTC. Moreover, although the MCMWTC’s formal courses and training programs have developed considerably to prepare units for Operation ENDURING FREEDOM (OEF), these programs have not nearly reached their potential. With foresight and only a modicum of additional resource investment, the MCMWTC can play an integral part in the Marine Corps’ comprehensive preparatory training program for future conflict and address this operational imperative.
As emphasis and resources waned at the MCMWTC following the Korean War, the center naturally gravitated toward the niche skills for which it was funded. This specialized skills training focused primarily on mountain mobility and cold weather survival. Consistent with the Marine Corps’ Cold War mission in Norway, the center placed particular emphasis on open Nordic plain mobility. Over time instructors focused on skills, such as vertical assault climbing and telemark skiing, which were of marginal value to the Operating Forces as a whole.
Many were left with the impression of MCMWTC being a high-adventure opportunity with little applicability to the operational environment. Recent and current efforts by the Training and Education Command (TECom), the MAGTF Training Center (MAGTF-TC), and the MCMWTC cadre are focused on reversing this trend and ensuring that each of the center’s formal schools courses and its unit training programs impart MAGTF units and their leaders with the skills to fight and win in complex terrain. In doing so, the center’s leadership seeks to leverage the MCMWTC’s strengths while mitigating its weaknesses.
Leveraging MCMWTC Strengths
The MCMWTC’s strengths are considerable. First and foremost, it is the only training venue in the Marine Corps with truly complex terrain. Complex terrain is best defined as an environment in which the features of the terrain compartmentalize the units operating in it, causing them to disaggregate and greatly complicating their movement, maneuver, command and control (C2), and sustainment. Complex terrain exceeds a mere change in condition.
Rather, it changes the fundamental nature of tasks across all six of the warfighting functions. By comparison, training in noncomplex terrain alone can be deceptive in its simplicity. For example, to seize the “key terrain”—the few pieces of high ground—in most plains or desert environments affords tremendous advantages in line of sight communications (C2), the employment of direct fire weaponry (fires), and advanced warning (force protection). None of this, however, is applicable in truly mountainous terrain, such as that in large portions of Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea, and the MCMWTC.
Purely environmental training (desert, jungle, arctic, etc.) is important because the unique conditions associated with these environments necessitate changes to tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP). But complex terrain—specifically mountains and large-scale urban areas—changes more than just the TTP; it changes the nature of the warfighting tasks themselves.
Of course, the MCMWTC provides a unique venue with regard to environmental conditions training as well. Marine operational units can replicate training in the heat and at sea level at their home stations, but among Marine installations, only the MCMWTC affords a truly cold weather and high-altitude venue. In the mountains around Pickel Meadow, units learn that cold weather and altitude demand adjustments to their TTP.
Simple movements, for example, sometimes require employing specialized equipment, such as ropes, snowshoes, crampons, or skis. Operating at increasing altitudes also requires specific preventive medicine techniques to avoid the debilitating effects of altitude sickness and cold weather injuries.
These extremes in terrain, weather, and altitude point to an MCMWTC strength with which most are familiar. These characteristics bring out the best and the worst in leaders at all levels, and they build unit cohesion. The mountains help commanders distinguish those unit leaders who can lead by example from those who become insular and have to be prodded out of the sleeping bag. Indeed, the mountains themselves serve as the unit’s best instructors.
Similar to achieving effect on target with the rockets on the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center’s famed Range 400, operations at the MCMWTC are pass/fail events. Either a unit can move, communicate, and sustain itself in the mountains or it cannot, and arguably, if you can perform these critical warfighting tasks in complex terrain, you can do so anywhere.
Finally, the MCMWTC affords unit commanders at all levels an opportunity not found to any great extent at other TECom venues—the ability to participate in training design. With the one-to-one deployment-to-dwell cycle, operational commanders have voiced frustration that they have little ability to design and implement their own training programs with consideration to their respective units’ strengths and weaknesses.
As with the atrophy the Marine Corps has encountered in amphibious and combined arms training due to present operational commitments, we may also be failing to train our younger officers and staff noncommissioned officers in training design. Unlike other directed, one-size-fits-all training programs, however, the MCMWTC accommodates the training unit’s goals, objectives, and essential tasks and assists the unit’s leadership in tailoring an exercise to meet them.
Mitigating Historical Weaknesses
While seeking to leverage these strengths, the MCMWTC’s leadership also focuses on mitigating two historic weaknesses—land management constraints that inhibit combined arms live fire training and a lack of consistent resources for training enablers, such as an equipment allowance pool, an exercise control/white cell, and role-players. The Department of Defense does not own the majority of land upon which the MCMWTC is situated.
Rather, this land is managed by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) under the Department of Agriculture. The land is open to public use, and military operations understandably cannot adversely impact civilian use or the environment. Similarly, the Federal Aviation Administration manages the airspace over the MCMWTC. For the great majority of training activities, this has no significant impact, with the notable exception of combined arms live fire. The MCMWTC itself has only a small number of stationary live fire ranges that afford training units little more than they can get at home station.
To mitigate this weakness, the MCMWTC has established a close relationship with Hawthorne Army Depot (HWAD) in Nevada. Located approximately 60 miles east of the MCMWTC and connected by an unimproved road through U.S. Government property that affords a unique motorized operations training opportunity, HWAD includes a number of platoon and company live fire and movement ranges in complex terrain.
HWAD, which closely replicates the terrain and weather of Afghanistan’s Regional Command South, also includes training support infrastructure and high-angle fire ranges, as well as a company-sized urban complex and combat outposts recently constructed by the MCMWTC.
Traveling north from HWAD another 60 miles along an unimproved motorized convoy route connects training units to additional ranges, training areas, and training support infrastructure at Naval Air Station (NAS) Fallon. Among other highlights, Fallon includes a battalion-sized urban training facility as well as new Afghan villages in the “dumb bomb” portions of the aviation ordnance ranges.
Like the MCMWTC, NAS Fallon has been designated a joint national training capability (JNTC) and can tap into additional resources through joint training design. Most significantly, NAS Fallon controls the airspace over its ranges and training areas, thereby affording expanded combined arms training opportunities not available at the MCMWTC.
Cumulatively, the MCMWTC, HWAD, and NAS Fallon provide a joint “training complex for complex terrain” uniquely suited to address the operational imperative described earlier. In June 2009, TECom will thoroughly test this concept by hosting Exercise JAVELIN THRUST at the three venues combined. JAVELIN THRUST will include the entire 4th Marine Logistics Group serving as both a special purpose MAGTF (SPMAGTF) command element (CE) and as the logistics command element (LCE); the 23d Marine Regiment headquarters with 1st Battalion, 23d Marines (Reinforced) as the ground combat element (GCE); and detachments from the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing as the aviation command element (ACE).
The exercise will tie a 12th Marines’ firing event at Fort Hood, TX, into the scenario play and leverage the joint tactical exercise network to add robust notional play. JAVELIN THRUST promises to fully test the joint and MAGTF training opportunities afforded by the MCMWTC-HWAD-NAS Fallon complex. Leveraging the capabilities afforded by this complex addresses the MCMWTC’s historic weakness in applying kinetic fires. It also disaggregates training units over extended and complex battlespace, forcing them to operate as they do in OEF.
Addressing the MCMWTC’s second historic shortfall—training enablers—merely requires recognition of the operational imperative and the redirection of resources. Currently the MCMWTC is funded only for its TECom approved formal schools courses. Accordingly, the center is working with MAGTF-TC to formalize its unit training programs and acquire the resources needed to fully support them. In the interim, the MCMWTC will continue to work with multiple agencies to fulfill training support requirements on an exercise-by-exercise basis.
For example, the center has arranged for east coast units to temporarily loan motor transport and communications equipment from their west coast counterparts and arranged for its transportation to Pickel Meadow and Hawthorne. The MCMWTC staff has leveraged global war on terror funding to contract exercise control (ExCon) support. It has also worked closely with U.S. Joint Forces Command to combine Army and Special Operations Command (SOCom) training with Marine unit training at the MCMWTC under the designation of Exercise WHITE MOUNTAIN as a JNTC event.
By so doing, the MCMWTC is able to resource contracted role-players to augment those available to the training units. Resourcing the MCMWTC’s exercises in this fashion, however, remains haphazard and prevents the center’s training programs from reaching their potential. The solution is to make the resources currently available to Exercise MOJAVE VIPER likewise available to the MCMWTC’s Exercise MOUNTAIN WARRIOR.
Similarly, the MCMWTC staff does not have the level of expertise necessary to assess battalion-, squadron-, or SPMAGTF-level performance. To address this shortfall, the MCMWTC has been working with the MAGTF-TC and the new Marine Corps Tactics and Operations Group (MCTOG) to gain assistance in assessing GCE combat operations center (COC) operations as part of MOUNTAIN WARRIOR.
In the long term, the best means of assessing units at the battalion level and above would likely entail creating deployable cells from MCTOG for the GCE, from the MAGTF Staff Training Program for the CE, from Marine Aviation Weapons Tactics Squadron 1 for the ACE, and from the evolving logistics equivalent for the LCE. Bringing representatives from each of these groups together for exercise assessment would minimize redundancy in personnel and have the added benefit of making their assessments less venue-specific. Exercixe JAVELIN THRUST will exercise this concept.
Formal Schools Courses and the Unit Training Program
In its ideal form, Exercise MOUNTAIN WARRIOR is a 21-day SPMAGTF exercise with a one- or two-battalion GCE. The exercise may be viewed in four phases, with the first phase consisting of Mountain Warfare Formal Schools (MWFS) courses and the subsequent phases designed and conducted by the Mountain Warfare Unit Training Group (MWUTG). Each element of the MAGTF identifies its key unit leaders and warfighting function enablers to attend specialized training courses during Block I of its predeployment training program (PTP).
These MWFS courses include the Basic and Advanced Mountain Leaders Courses, the Mountain Survival Course, the Mountain Scout/Sniper Course, the Mountain Medicine Course, the Animal Packers Course, and the Mountain Communications Course. Additional courses currently under development include the Mountain Sustainment, Mountain Reconnaissance, Mountain Machinegunnery, and Mountain Mortar Gunnery Courses.
The MWFS courses vary in length from 2 to 6 weeks, and they prepare key unit leaders to incorporate mountain operations training and considerations throughout Blocks II and III of their respective unit’s PTP. Although not required, units that leverage the MWFS courses find that they are far better prepared when they arrive at the MCMWTC and that their units advance more rapidly in mountain operations training throughout MOUNTAIN WARRIOR. The MWFS courses also provide units that are unable to participate in the MWUTG programs a base level of expertise with which to enhance their home station training and help them prepare for operations in complex environments.
The exercise’s second phase begins with the initiation of reception, staging, onward movement, and integration as the unit’s advance echelon arrives in the training complex. SPMAGTF, GCE, and LCE COCs can be located at the hardstand forward operating bases available at the MCMWTC’s lower base camp and/or at HWAD.
Similarly, the ACE can operate out of NAS Fallon, HWAD airport, Sweetwater airstrip, the MCMWTC expeditionary airfield, or any combination thereof. Phase II includes a notional relief in place followed by preenvironmental and basic mountain mobility training. Preenvironmental training allows units coming from sea level a few days to acclimatize to the change in altitude, while concurrently teaching them the basics of mountain survival, including prevention and treatment for cold weather injuries and altitude illnesses.
Basic mountain mobility training initiates units at all levels in complex terrain movement skills, such as steep earth negotiation and river crossings. While small units are engaged in mobility training, unit staffs at the battalion level and above receive the Mountain Operations Staff Planning Course (MOSPC). MOSPC, which includes 2 days of classroom instruction and planning followed by a tactical exercise without troops, covers the differences in planning for mountain operations by warfighting function.
MOUNTAIN WARRIOR’S Phase III is a company-level “round robin” tied to key terrain features, ranges, and training areas at all three installations. Each lane contains multiple training events, such as near, far, and complex ambushes (based on after-action reports of actual ambushes encountered in Afghanistan); reaction to all types of improvised explosive devices; tribal interaction and tactical information collection in multiple Afghan villages (replicated by realistic, relocatable housing units in the mountainous terrain); steep earth movement, river crossing, and over-the-snow movement (seasonal); military operations on urbanized terrain; live fire and movement ranges; high-angle fire; enemy prisoner of war handling; mountain communications; mountain sustainment; and combat outpost defense, to name but a few.
Transitioning between lanes also incorporates critical training events associated with motorized operations between the MCMWTC and HWAD over the unimproved, motorized convoy route. While company-level units are engaged in the lane training, their parent command(s) must maintain administrative tracking via long-haul C2; coordinate long-haul, multifaceted sustainment (e.g., integrated motorized, heliborne, and animal packing operations); and shake out their COC procedures (with MCTOG assistance when available), to include displacing to tentage, rehearsing transfer procedures between the forward and main command posts, and exercising the jump command post.
Exercise MOUNTAIN WARRIOR culminates with a field exercise (FEx) as Phase IV. The FEx distributes platoon- and company-sized units throughout the MWTC-HWAD-NAS Fallon complex, with each GCE company having an area of operations (AO) that coincides with its last lane in Phase III. The ExCon provides white cell injects and supporting scenario-based intelligence products to the SPMAGTF and subordinate element headquarters for each AO in a holistic scenario.
The training units begin receiving these injects prior to their arrival at MCMWTC, and they continue to receive them throughout exercise Phases II and III. The FEx scenario drives a number of training events that range from stability and counterinsurgency tasks to the requirement to reaggregate two or more distributed companies in order to address a battalion-sized objective. The SPMAGTF and its subordinate commands must continue to conduct long-haul C2 and sustainment throughout the exercise.
The scenario may also drive the CE to displace its COC and to conduct alpha-bravo split operations. The FEx regularly includes common OEF tasks, such as conducting combat delivery system drops as part of mountain operations sustainment. Frequently the MCMWTC is able to integrate SOCom units into the play by leveraging its JNTC manager. By so doing, units are exposed to short-notice deconfliction and integration planning, as well as cordon security and quick reaction force responsibilities.
As mentioned, one of the MCMWTC’s chief strengths is its flexibility in training design. Thus, the outline for Exercise MOUNTAIN WARRIOR described above serves only as a template for the possible. If a training unit desires to train to more, less, or different objectives and critical events, the MCMWTC can adjust accordingly.
Through a series of planning conferences, the MCMWTC works with the training units involved to identify their mission essential tasks and subordinate training objectives, and then suggests training events to accomplish those objectives based on the training time they have available. The MCMWTC staff works with the USFS, Bureau of Land Management, HWAD, and NAS Fallon to place those events appropriately in the training areas available and, where needed, to conduct preenvironmental surveys and gain special permissions.
The Marines, sailors, and civilian Marines assigned to the MCMWTC have worked extensively with MAGTF-TC and TECom to transform the center from a specialized skills training site to a true training complex for operations in complex terrain. Student critiques and unit after-action reports suggest that the MCMWTC has leveraged its limited resources to create a core of formal schools courses and an exercise template that contribute measurably to preparing units for operations in Afghanistan and other areas characterized by complex terrain.
Current and emerging threats suggest an operational imperative for fully and consistently resourcing these programs and for operational units to include Exercise MOUNTAIN WARRIOR as part of their OEF and long war PTPs.