Some 8,000 Marines and sailors of the First Marine Division (Reinforced) participated in division-level combined arms, live-fire Exercise Steel Knight 2013, Nov. 29-Dec. 13, 2012. Held simultaneously in the training areas at the Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center (MCAGCC) Twentynine Palms and Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., the division’s largest annual exercise focused on traditional Marine combined-arms doctrine, with live-fire armor, artillery, infantry and air operations.
“This was the first time since 2003 that the exercise was conducted as a division-level combined arms live-fire exercise,” said the 1stMarDiv’s commanding general, Major General Ronald L. Bailey. “In past years, the COIN [counterinsurgency] requirements of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom overshadowed the Marine Corps traditional combined-arms emphasis, but Steel Knight showcased our return to core competencies.”
“Our goal was to stress the command and control abilities of 1stMarDiv’s combat operations center and fire support coordination center,” said Major Thomas Kisch, Plans Officer, 1stMarDiv. “We brought together infantry, artillery, armor [tanks, amphibious assault vehicles (AAVs), light armored vehicles] and reconnaissance.”
Kisch also noted that the air-ground team flavor so important to Marine operations was added by the Third Marine Aircraft Wing based at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., which provided close air support, the Direct Air Support Center, assault support and a low altitude air defense element. Logistical support came from the First Marine Logistics Group’s Combat Logistics Regiment 1.
The 8,000 Marines were split approximately evenly between Camp Pendleton and Twentynine Palms, with the division headquarters at Camp Pendleton. The ground combat element included First and Fifth Marine regiments, 11th Marines, 1st Tank Battalion, 3d Assault Amphibian Bn and 1st Reconnaissance Bn. The guiding scenario was a Pacific-focused assault that included a notional beach landing that segued two days later into notional fighting and an enemy counterattack at Twentynine Palms.
With four maneuver battalions working simultaneously at Twentynine Palms, Steel Knight took 75 percent of the available training areas. A realistic wartime tempo was set on the morning of the first day, Kisch explained, when a U.S. Air Force communications satellite failed, which quickly spiked above the expected stress levels of the exercise.
Such a large-scale exercise provided training opportunities within training opportunities. Since the annual combined Marine-Singapore Armed Forces training in Exercise Valiant Mark was ongoing at Camp Pendleton, and at Twentynine Palms, the Tactical Training Exercise Control Group (TTECG) was working on transitioning from the Enhanced Mojave Viper predeployment training package to the new, updated Integrated Training Exercise (ITX) scenario for preparing Marine units to deploy, both these efforts were folded into Exercise Steel Knight.
Multiple Regiments and Multiple Battalions Equal Many Stories
Lieutenant Colonel Howard F. Hall
3d Assault Amphibian Bn
“We have 2012 Marines operating 1960s vehicles, but these old machines remain the backbone of the Marine air-ground task force,” said LtCol Hall. Hall’s AAVs were playing a significant mobility and firepower role in Steel Knight. Although among the oldest pieces of equipment in the Marine Corps arsenal, the amphibious assault vehicles provide the ground combat commander with a variety of options ranging from delivering 18 combat-ready Marines onto a contested beach to delivering 10,000 pounds of humanitarian or disaster-relief supplies into earthquake- or typhoon-stricken villages.
“Our role in Steel Knight was one of support and training,” Hall explained. He added that amtracs give the Marines the ability to attack from the sea and continue inland and carry Marines into the fight just as demonstrated at Twentynine Palms in Steel Knight.
Maj Robert Bell
Current Operations Officer, TTECG
MCAGCC Twentynine Palms, and the ITX
“We’re a cog in Steel Knight’s bigger wheel. During the exercise, we worked with the battalions as they filled in their white space [available time] training,” said Maj Bell. “When they weren’t in their formal exercise, we supported them with additional training.
“As we adjust from Enhanced Mojave Viper to ITX [Integrated Training Exercise], the emphasis will switch from platoon-level stability operations to company-level and larger combined arms. It’s a reordering and redesigning of priorities where the training has two weeks of live fire, and then followed by a week of stability ops. While COIN and stability operations are still an important part of our core competencies, the emphasis now has returned to combined arms, thus, our participation in Steel Knight.
“The Marine we turn out from here is a jack-of-all-trades. While the emphasis is now ‘Guns up,’ our stability operations training has shifted from COIN to the HA-DR [humanitarian assistance-disaster relief] basics of food and water distribution, medical assistance, NEO [noncombatant evacuation operations], population control using entry control points and vehicle control points, plus counter-IED [improvised explosive device] training. We can also tweak the training to the specifics required by each MEU or unit going on the Unit Deployment Program.
“Steel Knight was our opportunity to work with the participating infantry battalions and practice prior to January’s ITX, and we assisted by having our Coyotes [TTECG staff nickname] telling the Marines readying the live-fire exercises where the notional enemy was assembled.”
The 3rd Bn, Singapore Guards
And Valiant Mark
Exercise Valiant Mark is an annual training effort between U.S. Marines and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) designed to improve military-to-military operations and mutual combat capabilities. This year the 3rd Bn, Singapore Guards joined 2d Bn, 5th Marines and 3d AA Bn in live-fire training as well as the types of amphibious, urban and helicopter-borne operations likely to be encountered in the littorals—the area from the open ocean to the shore that must be controlled to support operations ashore and the area inland from the shore that can be supported and defended directly from the sea.
Commanded by LtCol Fredie Tan, the 3rd Bn, Singapore Guards specialize in rapid deployment and are considered one of the elite units of the SAF. Trained as heliborne troops, the Guards have specialized warfighting skills that give them added combat versatility.
Much like the U.S. Marines, the 3rd Bn is trained to fight in urban areas, built-up areas and against fortified objections. The unit also trains in amphibious warfare and is capable of seizing airfields, beachheads, depots and enemy strongholds. Additionally, the unit prepares to handle non war-related operations such as humanitarian assistance and peace support operations.
Valiant Mark alternates locations every year, explained LtCol Tan. This year the Guardsmen traveled to Camp Pendleton, while next year the Marines will go to Singapore to train with their Pacific allies.
“We have never been to a range like this one before,” said Sergeant King Chi, section leader in the 3rd Bn. “We are becoming accustomed to the terrain and weather and are very excited about being here and working alongside the Marines.”
Chi added, “Marines are very experienced in combat. I think we can learn a lot from them. It is a great opportunity to be able to train with them.”
Describing training with the Singaporean forces, LtCol Jason Perry, the commander of 2/5, said: “We trained side by side and exchange[d] tactics with the Guardsmen.”
In addition to the squad- and platoon-size assaults on enemy objectives, the Guardsmen learned the functions of the Marine heavy machine-gun weapon systems and employed them on a live-fire range. The joint training allowed both units to refresh their basic infantry skills and small-unit tactics, said Captain Jordan Jones, the Company F, 2d Bn, 5th Marines commander.
“The training benefits the Guardsmen because they get to take advantage of Camp Pendleton’s huge training grounds,” said Jones. “And it’s beneficial to us because we are able to learn from each other’s culture, tactics, techniques and procedures.”
During the training, some Marines noticed certain similarities between their tactics and those of their Singaporean counterparts. “It surprised me how similar their tactics were to ours,” said Sgt Tim Davis, a “Fox” Co squad leader. “They moved to engage the enemy together, and their section leader controlled his section just as our experienced squad leaders control their squads.”
While the need for COIN’s “Clear-Hold-Build-Transition” training has lessened as Marine forces in Afghanistan continue to be drawn down, the need for training for multinational operations is growing, especially in the increasingly important Pacific Rim, and Steel Knight provided an excellent combined training platform. The training instilled confidence in the men of the two battalions and clearly demonstrated that the 3rd Bn, Singapore Guards is an important partner to the Marines.
Wrapping It Up
Steel Knight 2013 was all about divisional command and control while under the stress of combat. With so many of the maneuver battalions and Marines having served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the challenge was for division and regiment headquarters to coordinate and focus 8,000 Marines, integrate allied forces and build an effective air-ground team, as they accomplished required Mission Essential Tasks.
While this was the division staff’s first large-scale exercise, it clearly demonstrated that the division is up to the task. While, as always, a great many lessons were learned and relearned, Steel Knight 2013 was a success.
Editor’s note: Andrew Lubin is a frequent Leatherneck contributor and has embedded with Marine units in Iraq and Afghanistan numerous times and accompanied units inside the United States on operational efforts such as responding to Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath in New York City and also during training exercises such as this one.