Massive Marine wargame helps prepare troops for high-tech enemy

A force of 55,000 Marines and sailors, fighting with a Canadian army brigade, went ashore to bolster a U.S. ally threatened by an invading neighbor and criminal unrest.

And when the dust settled, the Marine Corps-led forces won, succeeding in helping unseat the well-equipped invaders and restoring a semblance of peace and security for its ally.

But it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park — and that was by design.

During Large-Scale Exercise 2016 that wrapped up Aug. 22, more than 3,000 troops across three southern California bases and a larger “virtual” force faced off against a conventional enemy whose military, cyber and communications capabilities matched or were better than those of the U.S. and its allies.

Lance Cpl. Login Loftis, a machine gunner with Company F, 2nd Battalion 5th Marine Regiment fires a M240 medium machine gun as Lance Cpl. Krikland Harrington, a machine gunner with Company F, 2/5, looks through his night vision optic to guide Loftis onto his target during Integrated Training Exercise 5-16 aboard Marine Air-Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms Calif., Aug. 18, 2016. (Photo: Marine Corps)

A Marine with Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment relays commands during Integrated Training Exercise at Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., Aug. 18, 2016. (Photo: Marine Corps)

The exercise, the largest MEF-level command battle drill since 2001, involved Marines and sailors with Camp Pendleton, California-based I Marine Expeditionary Force and a contingent of Canadian soldiers at Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms. It marks a shift from the heavy metal conventional threat of the Cold War era to the 21st century hybrid warfare, where military troops face formidable cyber and electronic warfare threats from highly-capable enemies and state actors across the warfare spectrum.

“For years, we have been able to physically outmatch our opponents on the battlefield. As we look forward, we see potential adversaries out there that we will not be able to physically outmatch,” Col. Doug Glasgow, director of I MEF’s information operations cell, said in an Aug. 21 interview at a tent complex at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station that served as the MEF’s command post.

“We have to think harder about how we are going to conduct the maneuver warfare that our doctrinal publication told us we would have to do against these potential adversaries that match the strength and the technology and that have been watching us for years,” he said.

That doctrinal pub, Warfighting, dubbed “MCDP 1,” includes a section addressing the mental and moral effects of warfare.

“The true thing I think we’re after is to potentially reduce the amount of resources — whether that’s time, blood or money — involved in defeating the enemy and in getting after the enemy commander’s will and want to fight,” Glasgow said. “Rather than brute force applications where you hit the enemy head on, we want to present the enemy with dilemmas.”

Such large scale exercises train MEF commanders and staff to plan and deploy units to operate and fight as a Marine air-ground task force, likely with coalition forces. Each MEF does the senior-level command exercise about every two years. I MEF, the Corps’ largest operational command, hadn’t trained to fight a conventional war against a peer-type opponent since 2001, even though it’s directed to prepare for the full range of military operations, with the focus on the highest end of major combat operations.

The exercise also evaluates how I MEF commands and operates with its subordinate command headquarters, including the 23,000-member 1st Marine Division.

The exercise, coordinated and overseen by the MAGTF Staff Training Program at Quantico, Virginia, put I MEF through the ringer and incorporated forces and threats including a sizable cyber component, both offensive and defensive.

Marines with I Marine Expeditionary Force and sailors with 553 Cyber Protection Team, monitor network activity during I MEF Large Scale Exercise 2016 at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., Aug 22, 2016. (Photo: Marine Corps)

Marines with I Marine Expeditionary Force and sailors with 553 Cyber Protection Team, monitor network activity during I MEF Large Scale Exercise 2016 at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., Aug 22, 2016. (Photo: Marine Corps)

“It was a struggle for dominance in the network, which our guys were successfully able to prosecute against a pretty effective, well-trained ‘red team,’ ” said Col. Matthew L. Jones, I MEF chief of staff.

Near the end, the MEF purposefully shifted into a scenario of lost comms and data, forcing Marines to use voice and single-channel radios entirely, “which is actually the first time we’ve done this in a MEFEX in the last three years,” Jones said. “They’ll just have to find different ways to pass their information.”

Surprise, confusion and disruption are key warfighting tools. In a high-tech battlefield, that could involve killing or interfering with communication, computer networks and satellites so the enemy can’t talk with superiors or coordinate subordinates.

Deception remains a tactic, too, using modern technologies that could even include social media. Officials don’t want to talk specifics; a good portion of what they’re doing remains under wraps.

“We want to leave him in a state where to continue the war is not to his best [interest],” Glasgow said. “We are trying to get to his will quicker than just trying to destroy all of his formations where he’s got nothing left in formations to fight.”

But that won’t mean heavy tanks, mortars and missiles will be shelved.

“We will continue to be very kinetic, and the Marine Corps will continue to be very lethal,” he added.

Glasgow heads the G-39, a newly-formed experimental cell under the MEF’s operations office that one officer described as “sort of like IO on steroids.” Information ops used to be an arm of the MEF’s fires-and-effects coordination center working lethal and non-lethal fires, but it wasn’t always fully staffed, Glasgow said. The prior MEF commander, Lt. Gen. David Berger, who’s slated to lead Marine Corps Forces Pacific in Hawaii, established the new cell — the first in the Marine Corps and in line with “J/G-39” offices at The Joint Staff and at combatant commanders.

The staff of 14 Marines are expert in areas including electronic warfare, military information support operations (formerly psychological operations) and offensive cyber ops.

“Most of those authorities are held at the national level, so we try to coordinate to have effects that will help the MAGTF,” said Glasgow. “We are not actually the executors, but we bring the expertise of what’s available and how to get that hopefully pushed down to the MEF.”

The cell also coordinates related capabilities including civil affairs, public affairs, military deception and physical security and seeks to measure the impact of the human dimension. With no longer a clear physical force advantage, in some cases, “how do we go after the will of a near-peer enemy?” Glasgow said. “So we’ve been thinking about it. We don’t have the answers. … But we’re exercising it. We are learning a lot of lessons.”

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