CAX: A primer for maneuverists and over-the-horizon guys

by Capt Jeffrey W. Prowse

1stLt N. Van Taylor’s article “Why the Marine Corps Needs the NTC” (MCG, Jun99, p. 49) echoes the concerns that many Marines have voiced recently concerning the Combined Arms Exercise (CAX) program. For Marines raised on the doctrine of maneuver warfare and operational maneuver from the sea (OMFTS), CAX can at times seem an exercise in frustration. Is CAX truly in tune with the maneuver style of warfare and contributing aggressively to its evolution, or is it anchored to another style of warfare less oriented to maneuver and tempo? The question that is repeatedly asked is why does a company of M1A1 tanks stop, dial up indirect fire, and wait for close air support (CAS) to get on station prior to assaulting a stack of tires representing a platoon of BMPs? Why does a section of AH-lW gunships, loaded for bear with Hellfire missiles, and eyes on a target, hold for 30 minutes before being cleared to engage? These things happen regularly at CAX and at first glance seem anachronistic, markedly so in an organization that professes to ascribe to the doctrine of maneuver warfare. In this article I will advance the argument that combined arms training, as conducted at CAX, is the foundation of the Marine Corps’ ability to successfully apply the doctrine of maneuver warfare and OMFTS.

CAX and Maneuver Warfare: A Perception

The overall scenario at CAX, that of the seizure of a friendly Third World nation by a hostile belligerent, seems a perfect vessel for the application of maneuver warfare. Confronted with this scenario a Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF) staff applying the techniques of maneuver warfare develops a plan to defeat the aggressor. Prior to ground intervention a period of battleshaping would seem in order, replete with direct air support, battlefield air interdiction, and other cool aviation stuff. A thorough intelligence preparation of the battlespace will lead the staff to identify the surfaces and gaps in the enemy order of battle and disposition. Prior to arrival at CAX the staff formulates a plan that will exploit enemy weakness and exercise maneuver warfare. Man, this CAX thing is gonna be great! Upon arrival at CAX the staff is told in effect: not so fast, Guderian-CAX doesn’t work that way; there will be no points given for battleshaping or the exploitation of strategic or operational gaps. You are going to hit every surface and ignore the gaps. This first impression fosters a belief that CAX reinforces an attritionist mindset and flies in the face of our current doctrine.

So What’s the Deal?

The deal is this: What ends up happening at CAX is a series of seemingly protracted offensive, defensive, and movement to contact engagements that are conducted with a huge emphasis on fire support. CAX assumes that the MAGTF staff can make decisions about how to shape the battlefield, how to interdict the enemy’s rear areas, and how best to exploit his gaps. These are operational considerations that if effectively addressed might place the enemy in such an untenable situation that he capitulates before we ever cross the line of departure. But what happens when we hit the one surface that remains in place despite our best efforts to obviate it? What happens when the enemy, with a will of his own, places us on the horns of a dilemma? As for OMFTS, what happens over-the-horizon, alone and unafraid, when the enemy center of gravity isn’t as vulnerable as we had predicted? The answer is that we apply combined arms; we deliver fires in consonance with maneuver to achieve our objective.

Encountering a surface that must be addressed is what CAX is all about. The training objective at CAX is combined arms, which presupposes the ability to execute fires in consonance with maneuver. This is maneuver warfare at its lowest level, and it thus forms the bedrock of our doctrine. As observed by Robert H. Scales:

Employment of combat forces as a “combined arms team” has been an immutable tenet of maneuver warfare. Infantry, armor, and artillery must be employed in concert and orchestrated by the maneuver commander to gain full advantage of each individual arm’s potential. The same applies in principle to firepower. Artillery, helicopter, and tactical air are nothing more than van,ing means to deliver explosive power.1

At CAX, a MAGTF must deliver fires in consonance with maneuver in order to achieve success. This uncompromising emphasis on fires in consonance with maneuver permeates the CAX. It is a critical, fundamental skill that is the foundation of a doctrine that embraces maneuver warfare, it is akin to blocking and tackling in football. At the fire team level it’s using squad automatic weapons, M-203s, and individual rushes against an enemy bunker. At the battalion level it’s using M1A1s, heavy machineguns, TOWs, artillery, mortars, fixed- and rotary-wing CAS, and a company flank attack against an enemy strong point. CAX isn’t about how to outmaneuver the enemy. It’s about using combined arms, the primary tenet of maneuver warfare, against whatever surface we might be forced to address-after we’ve shaped the battlefield and shot the gaps.

O.K., I’ll Give You the Maneuver Thing-But What About Tempo? The biggest affront to our maneuver mentality at CAX occurs when, faced with an unavoidable surface, a plan for fires to support the scheme of maneuver is developed. In a typical scenario a company halts outside the threat ring of the enemy’s direct fire weapons systems and methodically brings the weight of supporting arms to bear prior to engagement. This 20 to 60 minutes of perceived inaction is seen by some as a loss of tempo. In using tempo as a weapon it is not necessary to be in constant action against the enemy. Maneuver warfare demands coordination, and coordination takes time. An overemphasis on tempo at the expense of coordination may lead us to employ sequential rather than combined arms. Sequential arms by definition equates to maneuver without fires and fires without maneuver. Dependant on the threat this can be a very bad thing. In combined arms battle the method we use to deliver fires upon the enemy to support the scheme of maneuver is called fire support coordination.

When fire support coordination works it does so because Marines within all facets of the MAGTF know their critical maneuver and fire support tasks and are proficient in their execution. Maneuver commanders and fire support coordinators must at some point practice live fire combined arms in close proximity to friendly troops. Maneuver warfare doctrine demands proficiency in these basic, yet critical, skills if we ever hope to meet with success in combat. Effective fire support coordination is a skill that is difficult to teach and subsequently perishable when not routinely exercised, as the U.S. Army learned in Vietnam:

The application of all in combination creates a synergism of effect that makes the whole of the system more lethal than its component parts. To apply them properly requires as much skill in orchestration from a fire support coordinator as does the exercise of combined arms from a maneuver commander. . .. Try as it might, the Army school system was no more capable of teaching young artillery captains the intuitive sense of time and space necessary to orchestrate complex firepower battle in Vietnam than it was of inculcating a similar intuitive feel for the relationship between fire and maneuver in young infantry commanders.2

Fire support coordination is a skill that can only be taught through practical application, preferably in conditions as close to combat as the limits of safety and funding will allow. The time required to coordinate fires in consonance with maneuver is largely a function of the levels of experience of those in key leadership billets. At CAX we seek to train all facets of the MAGTF in combined arms; in short, everybody’s learning curve is high, for some it’s vertical.

Live fire as conducted at CAX replicates battlefield geometry on the friendly side of the forward edge of the battle area with live rounds and actual gun target lines that must be understood and deconflicted. The levels of understanding that this system of training generates is unparalleled by any other approach to fire support training. One of the primary tasks of the fire support coordination center (FSCC) is to understand battlefield geometry and to control and manage it with fire support coordinating measures. For the FSCC the objective of all this is to safely deliver effective fires in support of the maneuver commander. For the fire support players the situation can get zany in a hurry: Reinforcing by fire was complicated by the confusion of combat and the large number of objects flying through the air near the contact. Medevac helicopters had to be brought directly into the fight to take out the wounded; . . . The FO [forward observer] was busy adjusting artillery close to his position. Artillery trajectories would be converging from all directions. Attack helicopters would be down low, trying to keep under artillery trajectories, but difficult to see. Air Force FACs [forward air controllers] and a continuous string of strike aircraft would soon arrive to further crowd the airspace, not to mention the occasional frightening appearance of enemy antiaircraft fire.3

Without CAX there would be nowhere to gain the training equivalent of the situation described above. This is why the tank company and the AH-1Ws must wait for the artillery to adjust onto the target and the fixed-wing to report on station. If the maneuver occurs without all supporting arms the training objective is lost. It is in dynamic situations with friendly units on the move supported by direct, indirect, fixed- and rotary-wing aviation delivered fires that a true appreciation for the complexity of integrating fires is gained. If we kill it all with 120mm main gun rounds and Hellfire missiles at standoff range, we miss the fire support coordination training objective. Proficiency in fire support coordination is the foundation of our doctrine. As any fire support coordinator, FAC, FAC(A) (airborne), fire support team leader, FO, artillery liaison officer, or maneuver commander who has been there recently can tell you, this critical knowledge is gained at CAX.

What About This Complex and Wacky “SEAD Package”?

1stLt Taylor makes the statement that “the suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) package has virtually never, if ever happened, in the history of warfare.” He goes on to imply that the technique of combining SEAD and fires to support maneuver in a nonstandard SEAD “package,” is far too complex to be executed in combat. 1stLt Taylor really expresses two concerns. First, is SEAD for CAS aircraft necessary given the time it takes to plan and execute? Second, is a complex program of fires that ties direct, indirect, and aviation delivered fires executed in support of exposed ground maneuver a valid technique on the modern battlefield? These are both very valid concerns that demand detailed answers.


SEAD for fixed- and rotary-wing CAS and assault support aircraft has been successfully employed by numerous combatants. Many examples can be found in the study of conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, the Mid-East and Afghanistan.4 In some cases the threat was such that without SEAD, aircraft losses were high enough to preclude CAS and/or assault support operations. The proliferation of MANPADs (man-portable air defense systems) on the modern battlefield makes the exposed maneuver of aircraft, especially rotary-wing aircraft, increasingly risky. This trend was especially marked in Afghanistan where the presence of “somewhere between 150 and 300 Stingers have absolutely driven the Russian Air Force out of the skies.”5 The Stinger Basic missiles that frustrated the Russians are now old technology. The second and third generation MANPAD systems now in service are far more lethal. Aircraft maneuver in the face of unsuppressed enemy weapons systems, especially when we have the means to suppress them, is a suboptimal technique.

Through the employment of CAS aircraft we seek to deliver ordnance on a target. In maneuver warfare this is often done to support the exposed maneuver of ground forces. In order to deliver on the target, two basic requirements must be met. First, the pilot must acquire the target, and second, the aircraft must fly a delivery profile that will allow ordnance to hit the target. To aid in satisfying these requirements, we mark the target and suppress known enemy weapons systems that can engage the CAS aircraft. The mark provides visual cueing; suppression allows the pilot to fly an optimal delivery profile unhindered by surface-to-air missiles, antiaircraft artillery, or small arms fire. This is called surface-delivered SEAD.6 In order to conduct assault support operations in close proximity to the enemy, we suppress those enemy weapons systems within range and line of sight to the exposed maneuver of the aircraft. Suppression for CAS or assault support aircraft need not come from indirect fire agencies. If a company delivers a heavy volume of small arms fire on the enemy to cover the exposed maneuver of aircraft, the suppressive effect, while arguably less effective than a synchronized application of direct and indirect fires, is achieved. The SEAD maxim is this: Exposed maneuver of aircraft without suppression on known threats decreases survivability as well as the chances for first pass success. In short SEAD, whether surface or air delivered, is a requirement for the effective use of CAS in the presence of a credible enemy air defense threat.

“The Package”

As Marine Corps Warfighting Publication 3-23.1 (MCWP 3-23.1) points out, “One of the most difficult functions performed by an FSCC is the integrating of CAS with surface fires.”‘ Doctrinal artillery SEAD procedures establish three types of artillery delivered SEAD timelines: continuous, interrupted, and nonstandard. We know that we want to fire a SEAD program in support of rotary- or fixedwing CAS runs. We also know that these CAS runs will be supporting our scheme of maneuver. The CAS runs will provide effective suppression to support maneuver, but we need suppression for a duration that CAS alone may not provide. Indirect fire can provide our scheme of maneuver a longer period of suppression. For this we need a quick fire plan. A technique that has proven effective at CAX is to tie a SEAD package together with a quick fire plan. In essence the “SEAD package” is an expeditious means to tie artillery, mortars, aviation delivered ordnance and in some cases direct fire to a single timeline. It is essentially a means to plan and execute a quick fire plan in a doctrinal nonstandard SEAD format. The economy of force achieved by incorporating suppression for maneuver and CAS aircraft on the same timeline provides the commander with a flexible tool to support his scheme of maneuver with combined rather than sequential arms. This is the infamous “package.” The objective of fire support in combined arms battle is to bring numerous weapons systems to bear on the enemy at a specific place and time. Regardless of how it is planned and executed, the need to coordinate the simultaneous fires of numerous agencies in a congested area will not go away in the foreseeable future. Is there a better way to achieve this objective than the package, given the advances in communications and weapons technology? Right now, given our current equipment, the package seems to provide the most responsive fire support. As new systems become available our tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) for fire support will surely change with them. CAX is the perfect arena to evaluate these new systems and TTPs.

What of NTC?

The primary argument advanced by 1stLt Taylor’s article is that since CAX falls short of meeting our training objectives, the National Training Center (NTC) should replace it as our vessel for combined arms training. There are significant doctrinal differences and organizational realities that separate the Army and the Marine Corps. If OMFTS is the road down which we are headed, does NTC support that doctrine better than CAX? What are the fire support requirements that will be unique to OMFTS? Will NTC allow us to exercise those MAGTF functions that will be critical in OMFTS? Once again these are question that rate answers.

OMFTS and Fire Support

CAX in its present form supports OMFTS in a way that force-on-force MILES (multiple integrated laser engagement system) gear training cannot. The application of live fire supporting arms, most notably CAS, at CAX bears little resemblance to anything that occurs at NTC. The training derived from the delivery of live aviation ordnance in close proximity to friendly troops cannot be underestimated. CAS as applied at CAX is one of the primary tenets of OMFTS. OMFTS doctrine states that we:

generate operating tempo by combining ship-to-shore movement and what has traditionally been called “subsequent operations ashore” into a single, decisive maneuver directly from the ship.8

This means that in the initial phase of an operation we can expect to rely heavily on aviation delivered supporting arms while mortars and artillery are readied to accept calls for fire. In the OMFTS scenario presented by LtCol Timothy C. Hanifen in “The MV-22 Osprey, Part III: Warfighting and Related Acquisition Challenges” (MCG, Jul99 p. 68) he states, “we are looking at a period of 2 to 5 hours (or more) in which the aerial delivered fire support will be the GCE [ground combat element] primary standoff fire support means.” If ever there was an argument to support the emphasis on the CAS TTPs taught at CAX, OMFTS is it.


The MAGTF concept, which is the cornerstone of our warfighting doctrine, is fundamentally violated if we deploy our battalions and squadrons piecemeal to NTC, presumably with operational control to the Army. If we go to NTC, it is essential that we maintain MAGTF integrity. The freeplay exercises with MILES gear conducted at NTC would give a MAGTF commander a superb opportunity to employ maneuver warfare at an operational level. That said, it must be understood that CAX and NTC have differing training objectives. NTC should not replace CAX, but augmenting CAX with a trip to NTC for some force-on-force freeplay training would undoubtedly prove valuable. The question then becomes one of funding. Do we want to spend the money that sending a MAGTF to NTC would require? Could we better allocate funds to buy more ammunition or reverse the declining levels of training and readiness throughout the Corps? (See LtCol Drew A. Bennett’s article “CAX: It’s Time To Raise the Bar, Not Lower It,” MCC, Jun99, p. 46.) Probably so.

CAX is where the foundations of our maneuver warfare doctrine are laid. CAX provides a generic template for combined arms operations, that may be adjusted to reflect the needs and assets available to a combat commander. The uncompromising focus on combined arms that characterizes the CAX is the absolute bedrock of our ability to fight the MAGTF, regardless of its size or composition. There are profound lessons to be learned from the NTC approach to training, particularly in the force-on-force arena. In the end it must be stressed that NTC was not designed, nor is it likely to achieve, the training goals that CAX delivers.


1. Scales, Robert H. Fire Power In Limited War. Novato, CA: Presido Press, 1995 p. 103.

2. Ibid., 1995 p. 103-4.

3. Ibid., 1995 p. 104.

4. Ibid., 1995 pp. 18, 110-112.

Dunstan, Simon. Vietnam Choppers: Helicopters in Battle 1950-1975. London: Osprey Publishing, 1988 pp. 61-68, 190-191, Garland, Albert N. A Distant Challenge: The U.S. Infantryman in Vietnam, 1967-1972. Nashville, TN: The Battlefield Press, 1983 pp. 183-191.

Grau, Lester W. The Bear ent Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan. Fort Leavenworth, KS: National Defense University Press, 1996 pp. 77-105.

Lester, Gary Robert. Mosquitoes to Wolves: The Evolution of the Airborne Forward Air Controller. Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 1997 pp. 70-72.

Van Crevald, Martin. Airpower and Maneuver Warfare, Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 1993, p. 186.

Werrell, Kenneth P. Archie, Flak, AAA and SAM: A Short Operational History of Ground Based Air Defense. Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 1988 pp. 138-147.

5. Werrell, Kenneth P. Archic, Flak, AAA and SAM: A Short Operational History of Ground Based Air Defense, Maxwell Air Force Base, A1z Air University Press, p. 166.

6. MCWP 3-23.1. “Close Air Support, “pp. 3-32.

7. MCWP 3-23.1, “Close Air Support, ” pp. 3-30.

8. MCDP 3, Expeditionary Operations. p. 92.