One of the company landing teams with 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines, will test the Legged Squad Support System, or the LS3, in rough Hawaiian terrain. The LS3 holds up to 400 pounds and will help the Marines with 3/3 travel lighter. (Sgt. Michael Walters/Marine Corps)
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When the Marine Corps unveiled its new 10-year road map — Expeditionary Force 21 — in April, one of its fundamental principles was that small teams of Marines must be ready to deploy to, and sustain themselves in, isolated, austere and hostile environments.
In an experiment next month, the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab will take a hard look at the challenges that await them.
About 700 Hawaii-based Marines and sailors will deploy across three widely dispersed training areas in Hawaii during Rim of the Pacific 2014, the world’s largest international maritime exercise. This year’s five-week-long RIMPAC exercise on and around the Hawaiian Islands includes 23 nations and roughly 25,000 U.S. and allied troops.
Members of 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines, out of Marine Corps Base Hawaii, will split into three company landing teams and cope with the challenges of self-sustainment. But they won’t be completely on their own; they’ll be taking an assortment of robots to help carry the load and other gear to provide their own water and power.
In addition, one of the company landing teams will arrive via amphibious assault vehicle. Some of the equipment they’ll be using will be transported by a small-scale prototype of the Ultra Heavy-Lift Amphibious Connector, viewed as one possible solution to the Marine Corps’ amphibious assault needs. The ship-to-shore connectors the Marine Corps has now are not a good fit with its blueprint for amphibious operations.
The Marines participating in the various aspects of the two-week experiment will be observed by members of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, which is hosting the event, and more than 125 subject matter experts.
The experts will assess how well a special-purpose Marine air-ground task force can command and control multiple company landing teams from sea across a vast area.
The experiment follows the April release of the Corps’ new 10-year concept of operations, called Expeditionary Force 21, which details future mission types based around rapid crisis response handled by units as small as company landing teams.
“It’s our belief — and I think it’s reflected in EF21 — that the days of landing on Iwo Jima with 66,000 Marines on an island three miles by five miles are over,” said Vince Goulding, a retired colonel who serves as the director of the Warfighting Lab’s Experimental Division. “Now we’re talking about putting a company on something probably larger than that.”
The dispersed battlefield is a dangerous place for units of that size, he added. And asking them to sustain themselves in an austere environment for a week or two won’t come without challenges.
“How do you take care of injured Marines? How do you sustain that unit when it’s ashore?” Goulding said. “We’ve got a limited number of aircraft, so do we really want very expensive high- demand, low-density assets like [an MV-22 Osprey] flying MREs and batteries around the battlefield? I don’t think so.”
During RIMPAC, the 3/3 Marines will be tasked with powering through some of those challenges.
The RIMPAC exercise simulates an unstable situation in the Pacific following a natural disaster, said Lt. Col. Charles Berry, head of the Warfighting Lab’s Field Testing Branch. Two of the three teams of 3/3 Marines will be inserted to the area by air and one by amphibious assault vehicle, Berry said. The Marines landing at Bellows are expected to come ashore aboard a prototype of the Ultra Heavy-Lift Amphibious Connector, a high-tech craft being developed as an option to replace the Landing Craft, Air Cushion.
Each of the teams, which will also include some coalition troops, will have a different mission. One will be conducting counterinsurgency operations in rugged, mountainous terrain at the Kahuku Training Area on O’ahu. Another will secure an airfield at the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, and the third will establish a fire support base at Marine Corps Training Area Bellows.
The Marines will encounter about 250 role players who will act as opposition forces. Some will be played by Marines, Berry said, and some by contracted role players hired to give the experience a more realistic feel.
In order to assist the Marines in finding ways to sustain themselves in a dispersed maritime operation, they’ll be testing new technology over the week-long experiment. Berry said the warfighting lab will provide the Marines using the gear with training in the weeks leading up to the exercise so they’ll have familiarity with it before getting out to the field. That’s important, Goulding said, because if they don’t understand how to work it, they might not even try using it during the experiment.
“Typically, if we invest ahead of time, making them comfortable with [the gear], we’ll get an honest assessment of it from a knowledgeable customer,” Goulding said.
The gear includes unmanned vehicles for those in the rugged terrain at the Kahuku Training Area, Berry said, including the Legged Squad Support System, or the LS3, popularly known as RoboMule. And the Marines at Bellows will be using a water purification system, he said.
And all the Marines participating in the experiment will be linked up to new communication technology so they can test how a sea-based SPMAGTF commands and controls their company landing teams.
Also in play will be several air assets that have been essential to small-unit deployments of late, to include MV-22 Ospreys and KC-130J Super Hercules aircraft. They’ll also be using several West Coast-based heavy lift CH-53E Super Stallions.
The lab will survey each of the Marines, sailors and coalition forces participating in the experiment once it’s complete. Goulding said they hope to get a lot of honest feedback because they’ll be pushing the Marines outside their comfort levels, asking them to do and try things they likely haven’t done before. But it’s important, he added, since the type of missions they’ll be practicing could become the new norm.
For example, Marines with 3/8, out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, are spread across Europe for missions there and in Africa. About 1,000 of them are assigned to the SP-MAGTF Crisis Response, which is based in Spain and responds to emergencies across Africa. Another 150 are assigned to SP-MAGTF Africa, which conducts partner training missions with African militaries. And another 300 are based in Romania, and working with partner nations in Eastern Europe.
The infantry unit is spread across two combatant commands, but most fall under the same Spain-based headquarters element. The idea is to provide unit cohesion in a region where all three units could be called to come together in order to respond to a large contingency. The Marine Corps has plans to operate similarly in the Middle East in coming years under a SP-MAGTF based there.
Learning how to best conduct missions that way, in which as few as 100 Marines might go off to an isolated place to operate independently requires careful assessment, Goulding said. Since it could become the Marines Corps’ “new normal,” he said, they want to be sure they’re able to report clear findings and gaps to the Marine Corps Combat Development Command.
The warfighting lab tasked Plans, Policies and Operations with providing expert observers with specific skill sets to travel to Hawaii to collect data on the July experiment.
“We need educated eyeballs out there to say, ‘We cannot do this because the training’s not right, the current equipment doesn’t facilitate it,’ or any number of things that potentially could stand between the Marine Corps and its ability to conduct the sorts of operations that EF21 and other concepts envision,” Goulding said.