The Road to Readiness: ITX 4-18
As the sun slowly settled over the multi-colored hills and mountains, Marines quietly dug sandpits in preparation for an expected attack. After hours of digging, the sun was gone and the moon hung high in the sky and an enemy convoy came into sight several miles away. The Marines readied their rifles, machine guns and rocket launchers. Now was the time to put to use everything they had learned in training.
A whistling sound passed overhead and an explosion lit up the night sky. The impact rumble was felt a mere two seconds later. The command was given. “Fire!” The Marines immediately let loose a deafening barrage of rounds on the enemy. A momentary pause several minutes later gave a false impression that the attack was over, but then a Marine stood up, shouting, “Firing!” and the boom from a rocket launcher shook the ground. Again, the Marines fired their weapons without hesitation on the enemy—only, there was no enemy. This was the defense of a notional force that threatened to take over their domain.
The Marines were participating in the final defense of a three-day exercise called the “Air Assault Course” as part of Integrated Training Exercise (ITX) 4-18 at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif.
Since Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, Marine Forces Reserve (MARFORRES) has supported combatant commanders with forces focused on crisis response and prevention, theater security cooperation and combat operations around the world. One way MARFORRES has developed this combat readiness among the Reserve component is through the annual training event Integrated Training Exercise.
ITX is the capstone exercise of a five-year MARFORRES Force Generation Model. Years one through three generally are dedicated to conducting training during drill weekends and annual training exercises in preparation for year four. During year four, the Marines partake in ITX, which certifies participating units to become the “ready-bench”—first to augment and reinforce active component forces. During year five, ready-bench units conduct follow-on training such as Mountain Exercise in Bridgeport, Calif., where they further develop small-unit leadership and build familiarity and confidence operating in austere environments.
For ITX 4-18, Marines with 1st Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment; 1st Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment; Marine Aircraft Group 41, Combat Logistics Battalion 25 and a host of supporting elements from across the Reserve component, came together from June 2-July 4, aboard Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms as Marine Air Ground Task Force 23—so named because 23rd Marine Regiment, 4th Marine Division, fulfilled the command element role.
This four-week, live fire and maneuver exercise employed battalion and squadron-sized units in tactics, techniques and procedures, designed to prepare the units to seamlessly integrate with active duty Marines into a Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF). More than just a training exercise, ITX 4-18 served as the culminating event for certifying the 5,500 attending members’ capabilities for ready bench employment during the 2019 fiscal year.
“As everyone knows, we only have 48 drills a year,” said Colonel Steven White, commanding officer of 23rd Marine Regiment. “This is the best way to prepare for combat. Not just to improve readiness, but to prepare the Marines for what they could potentially face. This is an exceptional opportunity to mimic the mental and physical challenges of being on a desert floor, under stress, and that’s for a lieutenant colonel down to a private. You can never fully imitate combat. But with ITX, our focus is on improving our combat readiness.”
To meet the requirement for two ready battalions, 23rd Marines created Forager II, a force generation plan inspired by the 1944 Pacific War offensive “Operation Forager.” During Operation Forager, U.S. forces mounted against Japan in Palau and the Mariana Islands. The offensive was intended to neutralize Japanese bases in the central Pacific, support the Allied drive to retake the Philippines and provide bases for a strategic bombing campaign against Japan. Allied forces continued their ultimately successful campaign against Japan by landing in the Philippines the following October, and then landing on a number of surrounding islands in early 1945. With Forager II, 23rd Marines designed the exercise to prepare and employ every aspect necessary for Marines to conduct offensive and defensive operations as a MAGTF, including tactical abilities, logistical and administrative support, medical and dental readiness and command and control.
Ground Combat Element
The Marines with 1st Bn, 23rd Marines trained specifically for ITX 4-18 over the course of nine months. This included squad-level infantry tactics, company live-fire attacks and several fire support coordination exercises. Battle staff training at those same exercises also allowed company commanders and staff to gain experience in command and control—emphasizing problem framing, information management and assessment and the integration of tanks and aviation assets.
In early April, 1st Bn, 25th Marines conducted a four-day mission rehearsal exercise at Fort A.P. Hill in Bowling Green, Va. They were joined by detachments from Combat Logistics Battalion 25 and 4th Assault Amphibian Battalion, and were supported by Marine Corps MV-22 and CH-53 assets. They were tested on command and control, company-level supported live-fire attacks, fires integration and combat service support operations.
Months of training brought both infantry battalions to ITX 4-18 fully prepared to face the challenges of ranges 400 and 410A and their final exercises—the AAC and the Mechanized Assault Course.
On ranges 400 and 410A, infantry companies conducted attacks on fortified enemy positions, scout snipers took point to adjust fires and engineers prepared and executed breaches throughout the range, utilizing 60 mm mortars, medium machine guns, rockets and engineer support. Upon range completion, the Marines were debriefed by trainers from Tactical Training Exercise Control Group, often referred to as coyotes, on what went as planned and what they could have done to improve the outcome of the attack.
For their final exercise, each unit participated in either the three-day AAC or the two-day MAC. During the AAC, units provided supporting machine-gun fires from atop hills while other units assaulted an objective. On the final day of the exercise, the Marines conducted a night-fire operation where multiple supporting units called in fires on designated targets.
On the first day of the MAC, units cleared enemy positions with hasty breaching operations and performed a casualty air evacuation drill. During day two, units conducted a defensive counterattack on a notional enemy. Again, at the conclusion of each exercise, Marines were debriefed on performance and areas of improvement.
“This training is important so we can confirm and validate our current TTPs, our current doctrinal ways of conducting operations,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Eric Brown, the regimental gunner for 23rd Marine Regiment. “This training helps us identify where we lack proficiencies so we can hone in to correct them. That way we can retrain to do them better and to get an overall confirmation to assess where we’re at, or if we’re at a point where we can sustain the force into a ready battalion.”
Aviation Combat Element
While ground combat elements use a five-year readiness model, aviation units have to maintain a continual state of readiness to meet Marine Corps and Federal Aviation Administration requirements. Aviation elements, both active and Reserve, continuously emphasize readiness through effective aircraft maintenance programs, focusing on training practices and increased training capacity. This was no different for MAG-41 squadrons during ITX 4-18.
Prior to ITX 4-18, MAG-41 squadrons supported, and regularly augmented, a number of Reserve and active-duty operations.
MAG-41 brought a range of capabilities to the MAGTF and turned to other services to help fill shortfalls. The California Air National Guard’s 163rd Attack Wing partnered with MAG-41 to provide unmanned aerial system support via their MQ-9 Reaper. This training benefited both airmen and Marines. Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron (VMU) 4 was unable to participate in ITX 4-18, as it was receiving the new RQ-21A Blackjack system—a system that puts it on par with active component UAV squadrons, in turn enhancing readiness for future iterations of ITX.
“We’re identifying gaps and shortfalls and coming up with creative ways to fill them by making sure support to the GCE [Ground Combat Element] is robust as possible,” said Lieutenant Colonel Kevin J. Szepe, operations officer for MAG-41. “We’re not just using MAG-41 assets either. We’re reaching out to other MAGs, as well as Army and National Guard units for support services.”
The Aviation Combat Element (ACE) conducted a range of operations in addition to assault and close air support. On June 21, air elements were evaluated during a deliberate enemy attack on the base Strategic Expeditionary Landing Facility and follow-on Base Recovery After Attack. Marine Wing Support Squadron (MWSS) 473 was the primary squadron certified in everything from airfield security operations planning to immediate action drills of specific threats.
The exercise culminated with notional indirect fire, which damaged a portion of the airfield and surrounding facilities and infrastructure. Following the attack, engineers with MWSS-473 conducted battle damage assessment and repair. The sim—ulated attack had real-world associations and closely mirrored the Camp Bastion raid—a Taliban raid in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province on Sept. 14, 2012.
An objective of Integrated Training Exercise is to provide challenging, realistic training that produces combat-ready forces capable of operating as an integrated MAGTF. For the Marines of MAG-41, operating during the heightened demands of ITX 4-18 proved their resilience in sustaining operations under punishing conditions.
Logistics Combat Element
The Logistics Combat Element (LCE) of ITX was evaluated on multiple capabilities, to include command and control, motorized operations and support capbilities. Training for CLB-25 began when they conducted a Mission Rehearsal Exercise (MRX) with 1st Bn, 25th Marines, at Fort A.P. Hill, and another MRX with 3rd Battalion, 14th Marine Regiment, at Fort Dix in New Jersey. During these exercises, CLB-25 gained experience in building a command and control center that serviced the battalion headquarters, as well as two other service companies. During this time, they furthered their knowledge of command post operations and standard operating procedures that better enabled support to infantry units.
During ITX 4-18, LCE-specific training events culminated in a live-fire recovery mission, which requires units to conduct a complex recovery in restrictive terrain while engaging enemy targets from unknown distances. Once again working with their East Coast neighbors, CLB-25 Marines called in indirect fire support from 3rd Bn, 14th Marines.
“ITX has allowed me to learn a lot more about my MOS,” said Corporal Alex Ruppert, an ammunition technician with Supply Company, Combat Logistics Battalion 451, Combat Logistics Regiment 45. “Being here and learning so many new things has been a really beneficial experience for me, as I know it has for my fellow Reserve Marines.”
ITX is an essential component of the MARFORRES five-year training and readiness cycle and the principal exercise for certifying units for employment across a full range of military operations. Those MARFORRES units who attended the monthlong exercise demonstrated an increased proficiency in MAGTF interoperability and increased total readiness.
Many of the Marines who participated will gain further experience individually augmenting an active-duty unit or through the Unit Deployment Program (UDP) in which infantry battalions stationed in the United States deploy to Okinawa, Japan, for six months. Either way, with ITX 4-18 complete, Marines will return to their hometowns or civilian careers having proven their readiness to augment, support and reinforce the active component forces.
“It’s important we realize what the focus is,” said White. “And that is the Marine and Sailor on the deck. We’re here to improve their skills and that takes a variety of things. One of those is we have to go out there and execute this safely and use what we learned as a platform for future iterations of ITX. Now is the time where the tip has to be very pointed and ready to go for those operating.”