October 2016

Training to Fight … Or Fighting to Train?

Game changing capabilities
Volume 100, Issue 10

2ndLt Ian E.H. Kittle

LT Jeremy T. Mandia, USN
The battalion experienced operational shortcomings of the RQ-7B during ITX 1-15.
Photo by LCpl Harley Robinson.

With this vision statement and guidance from a previous Commandant and our current Commandant, respectively, as scene setters, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines (V13) deployed in December 2015 in support of forward deployed forces (FDF), Okinawa, Japan. Shortly after arriving, V13 Commanding Officer, LtCol Quintin Jones, received a reoccurring task from 3d MarDiv to FDF battalions: execute a long-range raid (LRR) in order to demonstrate and validate the ability to execute long haul command and control (C2); test new equipment, specifically KILSWITCH tablets; and to identify current GCE operational shortfalls as they apply across the continuum of operating environments. The mission spawned countless hours of planning and synchronization across the full MAGTF team. Specifically, without the assistance of MWSS-171, MWSS-172, VMM-262, HMH-466, HMLA-167, and MAG-36, V13 would have been unable to complete this mission rehearsal. While there were lessons learned through all phases of planning and execution, first and foremost the raid reinforced significant organic MAGTF capability shortfalls and training limitations concerning an infantry battalion’s ability to plan, coordinate, and conduct over-the-horizon mission sets.

The purpose of this article is to highlight these deficiencies and limitations so that the Marine Corps of 2025 can more effectively train as it will fight as a mission-specific task-organized force in what we have termed the 3D environment: geographically distributed, compositionally disaggregated, and physically dispersed. The specific issues that will be discussed include: 1) MAGTF organic long-range intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and fire support shortfalls, 2) emerging technology integration with the GCE, and 3) planning, support, and training recommendations to future long-range mission rehearsals. The authors assert that, should the Marine Corps fail to close these gaps in capability, then our Service will be ill-prepared to fulfil its unique role as the Nation’s force-in-readiness or force of choice.We define long-range based on MCWP 3-43.1’s guidance that a long-range raid pushes forces beyond the range of typical surface-based indirect fire assets assigned to support an infantry battalion or when air refueling is required for assault support aircraft.3 While we discuss long-range movement to the objective, the “planned withdrawal” aspect of a raid is not discussed in this document.

Increased Capability, Decreased Capacity

Likened with its predecessor, the MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor provides commanders at all echelons of the MAGTF with an assault support platform with increased endurance, lift, range, and speed. However, the USMC lacks a persistent, all-weather, multirole, beyond line-of-sight, digital C2 extension and fires platform which has left a sizeable gap in our organic ability to leverage–with acceptable risk–our primary assault support platform when it operates at enhanced range. Consequently, the MAGTF’s increased capability to provide more assault support at a quicker pace at increased range has outpaced the support mechanisms necessary to give the GCE embarked in the rear a marked advantage over the enemy and thus diminishes our capacity to project force at enhanced range–and win. The lack of adequate ISR has been identified on multiple occasions, most recently in a November 2015 I MEF Deliberate Universal Needs Statement (D-UNS).

Multi-sensor Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities in support of distributed operations and Company Landing Teams in an A2/AD environment are critical for the commander’s situational awareness and decision making cycle. Additionally, current MAGTF unmanned aerial system (UAS) platforms do not match the force projection capabilities of the USMC assault support and strike platforms.4

As identified in the D-UNS and experienced during V13’s LRR, “the current VMU [Marine unmanned aerial vehicle squadron] capability is unable to service the MEB/MEF fight due to operational range, endurance, and payload limitations.”5 Although VMU was not forward deployed in support of our operation, the increased range at which MV-22s can operate would negate its employment even if launched from the same location as the assault support element. To sum up the issue into a problem statement: the Marine Corps has no organic UAS capable of providing persistent ISR at long-range that can operate effectively with MV-22s and persist in the objective area long after the MV-22s have departed and left the GCE with little to no support overhead.

MAGTF ISR lacking the legs to keep with the MV-22 is just one aspect of a much larger capability issue. As V13 experienced during its execution of the LRR, MV-22s quickly outrun all U.S. military rotary-wing close air support (CAS) platforms. Thus, other than Okinawa based rotary-wing CAS, which were already located in vicinity of the objective area due to traditional Marine Corps basing in Japan, fires were virtually non-existent for this training. In a LRR or an extended multiday assault, rotary-wing CAS will not be the asset of choice because of range limitations, if they can even reach the objective area in the first place. A potential means to mitigate this gap is to forward stage these aircraft near the objective area or establish a forward arming and refueling point. However, these courses of action are by no means always advisable, practical, or even possible when conducting a real-world mission. Given rotary-wing CAS limitations when maximizing aspects of the MV-22’s potential, precision guided fires from naval platforms, and/or fixed-wing CAS or persistent, armed UAS will typically be required to enable ground force actions within an objective area. However, none of these platforms were available to provide support to V13’s LRR.

V13’s LRR simply reinforced that which was described clearly in the aforementioned I MEF and Marine Forces Pacific Group V D-UNS, the Marine Aviation Plan 2016,6 three years’ worth of Infantry Officer Course TALON REACH after-action reports, and UAS-related Urgent-UNSs dating back to 2004: the MAGTF’s improved operational mobility and reach warrant an over-the-horizon platform able to provide ISR, C2, and the full spectrum of fires–kinetic and non-kinetic in the form of electronic warfare (EW) and information operations (IO).

Catching Up

V13 experienced the operational shortcomings of the RQ-7B firsthand during the summer of 2015 at Integrated Training Exercise 5-15. In anticipation of the Air Assault Course and Battalion Assault Course, V13 worked in close coordination with the assigned VMU-1 detachment to facilitate ISR support with an associated downlink feed in the combat operations center. However, in both instances, a litany of issues associated with the RQ-7B platform prevented the UAS from providing any meaningful operational assistance. The complications, not isolated to one issue, included range limitations, payload malfunctions, platform overheating, and lack of communications between the UAS ground station and downlink element located at the combat operations center. Similarly, 1st Bn, 8th Marines’ after-action report from its execution of ITX 1-16 highlights the flaws associated with the RQ-7B:

VMU-1 was a Regimental collections asset that was pushed down to 1/8 for support during both the AAC and the BAC. Unfortunately, the communications equipment organic to the VMU, combined with the limitations of the RQ-7B Shadow, meant that the ISR support provided to the Battalion was nearly non-existent. Time was wasted planning for a capability that, based off of how VMU-1 operates, had little or no chance of providing support to the Battalion.7


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The U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, and U.S. Navy all employ land-based, medium or high altitude, long-range and long endurance UAS in the Pacific Command area of responsibility to meet their specific Service requirements. Key U.S. regional allies, such as Japan, South Korea, and in the very near future Australia, are doing the same.8 9 Furthermore, medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) UAS have proliferated to the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, in addition to key U.S. allies such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, Israel, Italy, and the Netherlands, etc.

While our own domestic government agencies and allies alike have clearly identified the vast potential of MALE UAS, our Service has been slow to adapt. Costing less than half of a new AH-1Z,10 the MQ-9 is a bargain11 to maintain and operate compared to other aircraft that the USMC has recently acquired.12 Plus, at $14.5 million per unit,13 the Reaper is a steal compared to a $72.4 million MV-22 or $101 million F-35.14 We acknowledge that the short-term, upfront costs to acquire the Reaper platform would be substantial. Yet, with the recent trend of mishaps, shortfalls,15 and reallocations16 that have afflicted our ACE, these costs would plateau and ultimately decrease once the capabilities and efficiencies of a persistent, multi-role UAS were incorporated into the MAW.

Though it may seem like an issue that can be remedied over time, our failures are limiting commanders today. Taking a route primarily over water, Special Purpose MAGTF-Crisis Response, currently forward-deployed in Moron, Spain, is approximately 1,350 nautical miles from Benghazi, Libya. According to our Marine Aviation Plan 2016, the MQ-21A Blackjack, with a 100 nautical mile range assuming one spoke, “enhances the capabilities of MEU and regimental-sized units by providing a long endurance, expeditionary, multi-mission platform that is shipboard capable.”17 Despite these vast operational and range limitations from an ISR perspective, the most glaring deficiency is its inability to provide fires in support of the GCE limiting the platform to only providing indication and warnings of pending attacks. However, if we heed the guidance of our Commandant and keep an eye on the future as well as any potential mission and adversary we may face, we can definitively predict that 100 nautical miles and no fire support hardly provides MEU and regimental commanders the capabilities necessary to reduce friction and facilitate decision making on a 3D battlefield.

Let All Consumers Test The Product

As the operational reach of the MAGTF has been greatly extended with the fielding of the MV-22, the tactical enhancements and technical capabilities of Marines embarked in the back have remained relatively stagnant. KILSWITCH software provides a graphics engine that allows for touch screen manipulation of maps and imagery on Android tablets. This software leverages the familiarity of our young generation with touch screen manipulation of tablets. While V13’s LRR was intended to parallel the Infantry Officer Course executed TALON REACH exercises, we did not have the same KILSWITCH functional capability as is traditionally allocated to that exercise force. What we lacked is the capability to interface our “stand alone” tablets with methods of data transmission and reception. Nonetheless, testing KILSWITCH with our young Marines at V13 would have provided a completely different set of data points than lieutenants at Infantry Officer Course, as well as from other Marines throughout the operating forces.

V13 did not get as much experience with the KILSWITCH as it would have liked. Even so, the battalion learned quite a lot about using it both in planning and execution. The night prior to execution, the platoon commander, located in the pickup zone, received updates on his tablet from the V13 sniper teams observing the objective. KILSWITCH’s efficacy to the GCE was most apparent when the platoon commander used it to brief updates concerning enemy positions and improvised explosive device placement on the friendly ingress route. All changes to the issued order and plan were briefed to the platoon leadership while huddled around the tablet. Yet, KILSWITCH’s potential to revolutionize information integration across the MAGTF is only reinforced by V13’s LRR. Its utility was spelled out very clearly in Marine Aviation Plan 2016:

Android tablets are emerging as one of the fastest and most effective ways to integrate new information sources into aircraft platforms, while ensuring security requirements. New aviation platforms come with highly integrated and complex operating systems that require years of development and testing prior to fielding. While necessary, this process is typically both time-consuming and costly. In many cases, incorporation of a federated tablet offers the aircrew or embarked Marines with new and relevant information without having to make modification to these operating systems.18

With the near future potential for beyond-line-of-sight data capability for MV-22s, software reprogrammable payloads, and SIPR (secure Internet protocol router network) on the move in addition to the above stated benefits,19 enroute collaborative planning tools must become more ubiquitous throughout the GCE. Further, training opportunities to use these capabilities–as a MAGTF–must increase significantly as well.

TEEP, Not Task

In order to prevent future FDF units from fighting to train by executing this mission rehearsal for the “first time, every time” without the aforementioned ISR, fires, digital C2 extension, and collaborative planning tools, V13 recommends the following: TEEP it, don’t task it. Without a codified place on the division’s or MEF’s training and exercise employment plan (TEEP), FDF battalions will continue to receive the long-range tasking without an official commitment from higher or adjacent units to support it. TEEPing the event would enable the use of an exercise life cycle, specifically outlining all planning conferences, in progress reviews, site surveys, and confirmation briefs. This level of dedicated support would build ever-increasing levels of proficiency in 3D operations for our MAGTF of 2025. Moreover, if this training is to occur on a consistent basis and serve as a data point for MAGTF capabilities in real-world scenarios, it would benefit from being tied to exercises where resources and funding are readily available and allocated, like Blue Chromite or Air Assault Support Exercise. The evolution could capitalize on lift already dedicated to echeloning assets, forces and logistics supplies and equipment to an exercise site. Ultimately, the integration of a LRR into a named exercise would push the limit of staff planning across the MAGTF team and demand veritable solutions to the real-world challenges that make operating in the 3D environment demanding.

To leverage assets not organic to the battalion and to establish appropriate levels of C2, future LRRs will likely require a command structure similar to that of a SPMAGTF-CR. Infantry battalions are not trained, manned, or equipped to independently conduct 3D operations without specific tasking and support from a higher headquarters. Clear communications and tasking should originate from the division and MEF level to guarantee that the appropriate level of support, to the GCE from the ACE, is made available with realistic tasking and C2 structures.

In addition to C2 structure challenges, V13’s LRR also reinforced that the standard infantry battalion does not have all of the required personnel to achieve the 2025 vision. The 3D security environment demands that an infantry battalion must be postured to rapidly respond to a wide range of contingencies that have strategic implications. If V13’s LRR was a real-world mission though, our capabilities would have been limited unless time permitted a mission-specific task organization to form. Integration of enablers such as—but not limited to—explosive ordinance disposal, military working dogs, small UAS subject matter experts, and signals intelligence Marines would facilitate expansion of the scenario problem set and widen the MAGTF training audience to a more realistic scope. At the same time though, due to limited personnel space on MV-22s, enabler assimilation into a LRR would force detailed, real-world planning that reinforces the Infantry Officer Course termed “earn your seat mindset.”20

While MCO 3502.3B, Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) and MEU Special Operations Capable (SOC) Pre-Deployment Training Program (PTP), (Washington, DC: HQMC, April 2012), lays out the capabilities and special skills required to qualify a MEU as baseline mission capable, the only language defining the specific skills necessary for FDF is core and assigned mission essential tasks (MET). Core METs include offensive, defensive, amphibious, and stability operations. Assigned METs add humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR) and noncombatant evacuation operations (NEO). With these additional assigned METs, battalions must be postured to respond to a HA/DR mission or NEO in the long-range 3D environment. Additional skill sets appropriate, and in some instances required for the area of responsibility include, but are not limited to, helicopter rope suspension technique masters, assault climbers, summer and winter mountain leaders, scout sniper basic course, and close quarters battle leader. Similar to PTP requirements for Operations ENDURING FREEDOM and IRAQI FREEDOM, theater-specific skills should be identified in the FDF SOPs so that units can resource training and allocate time to gain the capabilities that will allow them to be successful while supporting FDF.

As a result, the company landing team, augmented with the aforementioned skill sets and enablers, must be able to confront a wide variety of problems autonomously while separated from higher headquarters and robust support. If the corporal in Afghanistan and Iraq was “strategic,” the company landing team commander in 2025 will be “sage,” operating across the physical and information domains with the assets, firepower, global reach, and responsibility of today’s battalion if not joint task force commander. As the scope of a company landing team widens, the operational impact of a battalion commander will likely lessen, although he will still certainly be an advocate for and a force provider to his companay landing teams. His regimental commander will likely end up assuming greater responsibilities in manning, training, and equipping the force.

Parallels

Outside of U.S. Pacific Command, Marine Corps units are already operating in 3D environments. Elements of 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines, in coordination with enablers from the 26th MEU, are currently conducting operations in Iraq some 600 to 700 miles from the ARG from which they debarked. Fifteen years after the first successful armed Predator strike occurred on Taliban founder Mullah Omar’s bodyguards, these Marines lack a dedicated, persistent, all-weather, simultaneous multi-spectral, C2 extending, EW, information operations, and CAS capable, ISR platform. During this same 15 year time period, our MAGTF phased out limited lift and range CH-46s for hundreds of MV-22s that can and are employing increasingly smaller and more vulnerable GCE formations hundreds, if not thousands, of miles from their higher headquarters and closest adjacent units. While KILSWITCH has been a demonstrated force-multiplier across the GCE, these Marines deployed without the necessary hardware to rapidly share and transmit data between each other and external agencies.

Similar parallels can be found amongst our sister Services. As airmen from the Air Force 8th Special Operations Squadron deployed in support of Combined Joint Task Force–Horn of Africa (CJTF–HOA) found out in December 2013, the tiltrotor aircraft is extremely vulnerable to small arms fire without ISR coverage, digital C2 extension to enable sharing what the ISR platform is observing, and armed escort. Their 1,000 mile flight to rescue American citizens and refugees nearly ended in death and disaster after intelligence indicated they would be landing into a “permissive environment” with little to “no chance of catching any kind of fire at all.”21 The Special Operations Command experience in South Sudan in December 2013 foreshadows what will inevitably happen to our assault support aircraft–and Marines–should the Marine Corps fail to rapidly fill the aforementioned capability gaps.

Conclusion

On remedying these issues across the warfighting functions, our Corps does not have the luxury of time. We also do not have the luxury–or the money–to develop, from scratch, brand new, tens of billions of dollar programs of record. Instead, as Marines have done throughout our Corps’ history, we should identify “game-changing” capabilities that already exist for relatively low cost, bring them into our MAGTF, and then train with them in every clime and place–repeatedly–to ensure that we are trained, prepared, and ready to “fight tonight” in any 3D environment that our Nation requires.

Notes

1. Headquarters Marine Corps, Marine Corps Vision & Strategy 2025, (Washington, DC: June 2008), accessed 18 April 2016 at http://www.marines.mil.

2. Headquarters Marine Corps, Force Development Strategic Plan, Quantico, VA: October 2015), accessed 20 April 2016 at http://www.mccdc.marines.mil.

3. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCWP 3-43.1 Raid Operations, (Washington, DC: 2002), accessed 10 April 2016 at http://www.marines.mil.

4. LtGen David H. Berger, “Requirement For Beyond Line Of Sight Unmanned Aircraft System (Group 5) in Support of MAGTF operations,” (CG, I MEF, Camp Pendleton, 20 November 2015 Technical paper). Source additionally states, “MAGTF ISR projections capabilities must match MAGTF force projection capabilities in order to effectively conduct MAGTF operations. The MEF deep fight and the Special Purpose MAGTF–Crisis Response’s (SPMAGTF-CR) required distributed response requires a responsive UAS-enabled ISR capability over an expansive area of operations.”

5. Ibid.

6. Headquarters Marine Corps, Marine Aviation Plan 2016, (Washington, DC: 2015), accessed 20 April 2016. https://marinecorpsconceptsandprograms.com.

7. LtCol Justin J. Ansel, “1st Battalion, 8th Marines, Integrated Training Exercise 1-16 (ITX 1-16) After Action Review,” (Camp Lejeune, NC: 18 December 2015).

8. Kris Osborn, “Japan, South Korea ‘Going For’ Global Hawk Drones, Official Says,” Defense Tech online, 1 April 2016, accessed 4 April 2016 at http://www.defensetech.org.

9. David Wroe, “Combat Drones Could Take the Place of Some Joint Strike Fighters: Defence Chief,” The Sydney Morning Herald, (Sydney, Australia: 1 March 2016), accessed 4 April 2016 at http://m.smh.com.au./.

10. Headquarters Marine Corps, “Document: U.S. Marine Corps Fiscal Year 2017 Unfunded Priorities List, reported by USNI News,” (Annapolis, MD: USNI News, 7 March 2016), accessed 17 April 2016, at https://news.usni.org

11. Dan Gettinger, “Drone Spending: The MQ-9 Reaper,” (Annandale-on-Hudson, NY: Center for the Study of the Drone, 12 October 2015), accessed 18 April 2016 at http://dronecenter.bard.edu.

12. Jeremy Bender, “This Chart Shows the Staggering Hourly Cost Of Operating US Military Aircraft,” (NY: Business Insider, 30 December 2014), accessed 17 April 2016 at http://www.businessinsider.com.

13. Gettinger.

14. Bender.

15. Jeff Schogol, “The Marine Corps’ aviation fleet is in peril,” Marine Corps Times, (Springfield, VA: 27 April 2016), accessed 29 April 2016) at http://www.marinecorpstimes.com.

16. Richard Burgess, “Dunford: Marine Corps Osprey Force in Europe Halved to Support Stateside Training,” Seapower Magazine, (Annapolis, MD: 27 April 2016), accessed 29 April 2016 at http://www.seapowermagazine.org.

17. Marine Aviation Plan 2016, 88.

18. Ibid., 20.

19. Ibid., 21.

20. Maj Scott A. Cuomo, “IOC-EXERCISE TALON REACH AAR 140127-CDR-13071,” Lecture, 27 January 2014.

21. Aaron M.U. Church, “Blood Over Bor,” Air Force Magazine, (Arlington, VA: October 2015), 34-38.