DJIBOUTI – U.S. Marines with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s Low-Altitude Air Defense, or LAAD, section with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 261 (Reinforced) trained shoulder-to-shoulder with their air-defense counterparts from the French army Aug. 9 – 13 near Djibouti, Djibouti.
American and French service members spent several days getting to know each other and their anti-air weapon systems before culminating with a simulation scenario that benefitted from the arrival of French aircraft as simulated targets.
The American gunners sighted in using FIM-92 Stinger missile systems while the soldiers, from the 54th Artillery Regiment based out of Hyeres, France, used their Mistral missile. Both weapons have numerous similarities: both are infrared homing surface-to-air missiles, both have comparable range limits, they are roughly the same weight and size. Indeed, both Marines and French soldiers remarked at the likenesses of each missile launcher.
There are slight differences with the employment of each weapon and the unit task organization, however, although much of this revolves around the mission and make-up of the differing units. The 24th MEU is designed to be flexible, scalable and rapidly deployable while the French battery is organized as a slightly heavier force.
Cpl. Christopher Lawson, a LAAD gunner from Raleigh N.C., probably summed it up best when describing the weapons:
“Ours is more mobile,” he said. “And some of their equipment is better.”
The French battery has increased capabilities due to their size. It consists of six missile launchers, two 20 mm machine-gun trucks, a radar system, a forward air controller, a mechanic team, and a headquarters platoon, described Lt. Jean-Christophe Villard, a platoon leader with the 3rd Battery, 54th Regiment, who knows a bit about both the English language and America – he studied temporarily at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as part of an exchange program.
“The fact that they have a radar system organic to their unit is ideal,” said 1st Lt. Konrad Reese, officer-in-charge of the LAAD section. He added that radar capability greatly enhances the ability to detect and remain proactive against threats. This is the same sort of capability the LAAD section enjoys while providing air-defense for the ships of the Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group, the trio of amphibious vessels that carry the 24th MEU across the seas.
The greatest selling point of the Stinger system is that it is a MANPAD system; a man-portable air defense system. The Mistral claims portability as well, but it requires a tripod system and an additional person to help carry it on the ground, explained Lawson.
“The Marines’ SOP (standing operating procedures) is a three-man team, but we can do it with two,” he said.
August 12 -13 were eventful days for both Marines and French soldiers alike as they sighted in on a number of aircraft over the Djibouti horizon. French Mirage 2000 jet fighters, SA-342 Gazelles and Tigre attack helicopters appeared in the skies above the Marines and soldiers, who used the real aircraft as friendly and simulated enemy targets.
Although it’s much easier to see jets and helicopters in the daylight, both systems are also capable of nighttime engagement, and the Marines observed the capabilities of the French sight over their own.
“I like their thermal sights a lot,” said Cpl. Rory Zavrid, a LAAD team leader from San Diego. “The difference between ours and theirs is like the difference between a Nintendo 64 and a Playstation 3.”
The bilateral event wasn’t only about technical data and optical interfaces, however.
“Learning their weapon system is important, so we understand how each country employs air defense,” said Reese. “But we also explained some of our tactical focus points, such as defense-in-depth, and together we learned about each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It was enlightening for all involved because we figured out how we could complement each other if we ever find ourselves in a real-world joint operation.”
The French unit’s commanding officer, Capt. Frederic Mathieu, added to Reese’s comments by explaining the event’s benefits to his soldiers.
The soldiers and Marines learned a variety of things from each other, he said. The air-defense unit will be in Djibouti for several more months and are already planning to coordinate further events with the 24th MEU, both military-focused and perhaps social.
“Part of camaraderie is about just simply getting together and having a good time,” said Mathieu in well-spoken English. “We hope we can visit with the Marines more in the future.”
The LAAD Marines are part of a contingent of the 24th MEU currently ashore in Djibouti conducting various unilateral exercises and planning several events alongside the French military. The 24th MEU is currently deployed with the Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group as a theater reserve and crisis response force in support of the U.S. Central and Africa Commands in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility.