Story by 1st Lt. James Stenger, 2nd Marine Division and 1st Lt. David David, 2nd Marine Division
MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. - As America faces a world of increasing instability and conflict provoked by both conventional enemies and transnational threats, the Marines stand ready – ever training and preparing for new missions and deployments.
Eighth Marine Regiment, in conjunction with 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, conducted a large scale rehearsal for such missions, spreading themselves across four military bases in North Carolina and Virginia to conduct an alternate mission rehearsal exercise or AMRX, Nov. 16-23.
“The effort to bring this exercise together was monumental,” said Lt. Col. Phillip Laing, the operations officer for 8th Marine regiment. “From the planning in our operations to conceive the initial design, to pulling in aviation planners from 2nd (Marine Aircraft Wing), to pulling in (2nd Radio Battalion), and counter-intelligence… This is the first time I’ve seen anything like this from a regimental perspective.”
The Marines and sailors of 3rd Bn., 8th Marines began their training by occupying positions aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., Fort A.P. Hill, Va., and Fort Pickett, Va. The 8th Marines headquarters element was located separately at Marine Corps Auxiliary Landing Field Bogue, N.C.
Geographically spreading out the training simulated the dispersed operating conditions that the units will face as they deploy to various Mediterranean-adjacent locations in Europe and Africa in the coming months.
Eighth Marines will be based out of Moron Air Base, Spain, and form the headquarters element for Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force – Crisis Response. Third Bn., 8th Marines will split their forces between Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy and Romania's Mihail Kogălniceanu International Airport and form both SPMAGTF-Africa and the Black Sea Rotational Force.
According to Lt. Col. Trevor Hall, the commanding officer of 3rd Bn., 8th Marines, the AMRX was specifically designed to prepare both commands for the disaggregated nature of their upcoming assignments.
“The expectations were to be able to displace personnel long distances and still be able to maintain accountability of personnel and equipment,” he said. “Then to be able to communicate between all the different locations, and still be able to plan and execute missions and maintain command and control.”
While deployed, both command elements will be spread across two continents and will be responsible for supporting a variety of operations.
Special Purpose MAGTF-Crisis Response is a self-mobile and self-sustaining force whose mission is to respond across a full range of military operations to protect both U.S. and partner-nation security interests in the region, as well as strengthening partnerships throughout the U.S. European Command and U.S. Africa Command area of responsibility.
Special Purpose MAGTF-Africa and the Black Sea Rotational Force work with partner nations in order to assist U.S. Marine Corps Forces Africa and Europe, respectively, in strengthening and building relationships, increasing military capacity, and promoting a more stable region.
Previous rotations of SPMAGTF-Africa and BSRF have each been planned, coordinated and executed by a staff sourced from one battalion. Currently, SPMAGTF-Africa is directed by 4th Combat Engineer Battalion, a reserve unit based out of Baltimore. Similarly, BSRF is being commanded by 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, based aboard Camp Lejeune, N.C.
The next rotation of missions will be commanded instead by a single battalion, 3rd Bn., 8th Marines, with SPMAGTF-Africa set to rotate in January and BSRF in March 2014. This change is by design and is in accordance with a new idea referred to as the single battalion concept.
“The single battalion concept is using one infantry battalion as a base unit and applying that unit to various missions,” said Hall. “It means that we’ll be operating in a distributed posture across two separate combatant commands … The benefit that the combatant commands receive in the event of a crisis is that we can aggregate all these different forces under a single infantry battalion for employment to that crisis rather than just taking four separate disparate units and trying to piecemeal into a cohesive unit.”
Even with a single battalion, there were still challenges associated with forming a team that contained enough of all the right pieces to support multiple mission requirements in separate locations.
“A lot of these guys are pulled from different units, not only within 3/8 but outside of 3/8, so there are a lot of new faces in the battalion,” said Capt. Doug Bahrns, the operations officer for 3rd Bn., 8th Marines. “Getting them together and working together was just as important as the training objectives.”
“This exercise forced us to operate under different command relationships than what we’re familiar with,” said Hall. “It also required our various staff sections to split into an alpha and bravo command and still be able to maintain capability across the warfighting functions.”
Those warfighting functions would be tested and challenged by the slew of scenarios written into the AMRX. The exercise began promptly after all the units had completed movement and staged at their starting locations. Simulated intelligence reports indicated that an embassy within the area of operations was being threatened by protests and small-arms fire.
Eighth Marine Regiment immediately went to work. The short time frame forced the headquarters element to focus their planning efforts on the potential crisis and its operational requirements.
Communications Marines such as Sgt. Erik Contreras ensured that the flow of information was maintained and uninterrupted.
“We’re here to provide local commanders with the communication necessities of both classified and unclassified data communications as well as voice over internet protocol phone services,” he said.
Intelligence was collected and due to the distances between locations, an aviation insert was the decided course of action. This plan would normally require an infantry regiment or battalion to request air assault support from the Marine Corps’ Air Wing, but because of the relationships built in response to the emerging mission set, the Marine Air-Ground Task Force was already equipped to handle it.
“This exercise really challenged us to plan through the problems of distance and integrate everything we have available and to use those things to maximum potential. I think we’re lucky for this staff to have three senior aviators to help integrate how aviation is going to play a role in this crisis response force,” said Lt. Col. Travis Powers, the executive officer for the upcoming SPMAGTF-Crisis Response. “We’re going to have to rely heavily on the aviation side of the house not only for transport, but logistics and as a communications conduit. Because of the distance we’re going to have to cover, aviation is going to clear that gap for us.”
After the deliberation, Kilo Company, 3rd Bn., 8th Marines was called upon to take action. Their mission: to protect the embassy and its personnel by quickly reinforcing the embassy’s security forces.
Logistical plans for Kilo Co.’s movement and sustainment were put into place, while the medical personnel were planned into the mission as a force protection measure. Legal and public affairs briefs were provided to the Marines in order to guide them in potential interactions with the simulated civilians, protesters and embassy personnel.
“This was the emerging and forming of the SPMAGTF under real-world conditions. It highlighted the challenges of combat power and force projection over extended distances as it relates to contingency planning and response to a crisis,” said Laing. “All of those warfighting functions were challenged, command and control, fires, intelligence, maneuver, logistics, and force protection.”
As evening came, word was received that Kilo Co. would need to be ready to leave within an hour of notification. That notification came early the next morning.
The Marines loaded into MV-22 Ospreys and executed the mission as planned. The mission went well, but the exercise was going to throw a wrench into the planning; the embassy that had just been reinforced would have to be evacuated.
The changing mission set was designed to simulate the ever changing conditions which both 8th Marines and 3rd Bn., 8th Marines could face while deployed. The challenges of maintaining mission flexibility under tight time constraints were built in to the AMRX.
“The design of the AMRX, I won’t say it’s perfect, but it’s absolutely what is necessary to exercise that skill set and mission roles outside of a synthetic environment. This could be replicated in a simulation center, but out here, you’re dealing with real world movement of troops and dealing with real world challenges such as long-range communications and tying in aviation assets,” said Laing. “Communication is perfect in a simulation. Airplanes fly perfect in a simulation. Those things aren’t perfect in the real world.”
But regardless of the challenges they faced at the AMRX or that they will face on deployment, the Marines upheld their legacy of adaptation and innovation with an ever expeditionary mindset.
“The Marines have done phenomenally. This new mission that we’re going to go do, people are excited about it. You can tell that people are really buying in to this exercise, and it shows by the effort people are putting into it,” said Powers. “It’s not just for us, but for the future of the Marine Corps. What we learn, we can pass on to whoever takes over after us, and it’s just going to keep building. I think people are really excited to be a part of the Marine Corps' future.”