In the high-elevation Mojave Desert plains of Twentynine-Palms California, a disparate collection of Marine-centric, sibling-service and NATO-ally forces and capabilities – more than 10,000 strong – are preparing to conduct the first Marine Corps division-level, unscripted, force-on-force exercise in more than 30 years.
Dubbed MWX 1-20, short for Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Warfighting Exercise 1-20, it is a multi-regimental war game in which the Second Marine Division (2dMARDIV), commanded by Major General David Furness, will serve as the Ground Combat Element (GCE) for a notional Joint Task Force (JTF) higher headquarters, represented by MAGTF Training Command (MAGTF-TC).
All the elements of the MAGTF will participate in MWX across the sprawling ranges of Twentynine Palms — the Marine Corps’ largest base, by land mass — to include the uniquely-Marine Corps close-air support, integrated artillery fires, tanks, amphibious assault vehicles, and light-armored vehicles. The exercise will include significant numbers of troop transport vehicles, ordnance and small-arms. It will also provide the Division an opportunity to better understand and modulate its signature whether that be physical or across the electromagnetic spectrum as well as measure and better understand our own signature, how it looks from an adversary’s perspective, and how we can effectively command and control while minimizing our footprint.
While exercise scenario specifics remain a sensitive topic for operation security reasons, the exercise will ultimately enable 2dMARDIV to hone its skills at regimental-level operations in the defense, transitioning from the defense to the offense, and serving as a Combatant Command (COCOM) blunt force in order to reassure notional partners and allies and deter aggression in a given Area of Responsibility (AOR) and to set conditions for the reestablishment of a partner nation’s sovereignty.
According to Major General Furness, while MWX 1-20 is both large and complex, improving the division’s warfighting competencies against peer- and near-peer competitors is of paramount importance in an uncertain world; so, too is testing the division’s logistical reach by moving a division’s worth of manpower and materiel from coast to coast. Moreover, achieving these goals reinforces key elements in both the National Military Strategy- and Commandant of the Marine Corps-mandated objectives to improve warfighting readiness for major conventional operations.
“MAGTF Warfighting Exercise 1-20 is aligned with priorities at every level of the chain of command, up to and beyond the Department of Defense, to prepare for the future fight, to improve combat readiness and to modernize the force.
“Because of our Global Force Management commitments, and to a lesser degree the limited nature of the training space at Camp Lejeune to support division-level force-on-force training, we are long overdue for an exercise like MWX 1-20. It’s been more than 30 years in the making. In the exercise design, we will encounter a free-thinking ‘adversary force’ with tactics and capabilities as good as our own. We will employ and test some technologically advanced equipment, such as a much more accurate laser acquisition and targeting equipment set designed to make force-on-force training more realistic, all with an eye on modernizing our force. We will also conduct complex maneuver warfare training on a plethora of disparate and geographically-disbursed ranges in order to challenge and improve our Command and Control (C2) capabilities.”
According to Furness, the invite and active participation of NATO allies such as U.K.’s Royal Commandos, which will serve as part of the adversary force (ADFOR), reinforces the strength of our NATO relationships and validates the long-held understanding that when the U.S. goes into a fight it does not go alone. In addition to our NATO partners, MWX will include all the elements of II Marine Expeditionary Force.
The logistical support required to move the better part of a division’s worth of people and materiel cannot be overstated. Best characterized by the comedy movie title, “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” MWX 1-20 challenged logisticians a measure further by including the use of hundreds of contracted cross-country tractor trailer services and coast-to-coast rail lift. While daunting, 2dMARDIV’s Logistics team organized the strategic-lift requirements like a finely-tuned machine, reinforcing that, “amateurs study tactics while professionals study logistics.”
“Logisticians across the Division and supporting MLG units crafted a deployment and support plan to transport and sustain the more than 10,000 Marines and tens of thousands of end items in equipment for the duration of the exercise,” said Major Dan Pursel, G-4 Operations Officer, 2d MARDIV. “Managing hundreds of rail cars, tractor trailer loads, and aircraft through a half dozen different ports has proven the Divisions capability to mobilize.”
The division’s Operations team, responsible for all the operational planning aspects of MWX 1-20, reiterated the value of large-scale exercises in improving warfighting readiness and modernizing the force.
LtCol Ryan Gordinier, the Future Operations Planner for 2d MARDIV, stated, “You don’t see all of the friction that you will face in these type of operations unless you are willing to take all of your capabilities to the field. Training with these capabilities at scale allows you to see those hidden friction points that might otherwise be missed. In other words, you don’t know what you are capable of until you practice with all of your capabilities at scale and at speed.”
Gordinier added that exercises such as MWX 1-20, while ground-combat in nature, are not, at all, at odds with Commandant of the Marine Corps General David H. Berger’s recently-revealed priority to improve upon and perhaps even redefine the relevant and historically important Navy-Marine Corps relationship and sea-service interoperability.
“Any Naval action involving Marines will inevitably involve into-, intra- and even inter-theater transport and ship-to-shore delivery that can ultimately culminate in ground combat operations,” Gordinier said. “Readiness for such operations is where exercises like MWX 1-20 are worth their weight in gold, because while no plan survives first contact, through exercises like this we will undoubtedly refine processes and protocols, standardize procedures, rehearse interoperability, mitigate risk, and improve survivability – all of which will contribute to success in the future peer or near-peer fight.”
MAGTF Warfighting Exercise 1-20 will unfold in early November, and while there are sure to be lessons learned at the operational and tactical levels, success may well be defined by getting the division, and all the personnel and materiel that that entails, the 3000 miles required to prosecute the battle. The rest, said Furness, is Marines and Sailors doing what they do – overcoming all obstacles to accomplish the mission.