SAN DIEGO: Two AH-1W Cobra gunships pop over distant peaks; it’s combat power no enemy wants to see. The mere sound incites terror. The ominous Cobras lead off during 3rd Marine Air Wing’s launch in Steel Knight 2019, a massive training exercise led by 1st Marine Division on Dec. 5, at Twentynine Palms, Calif. This highly-coordinated air assault is an imposing tactical dance, challenging warfighting skills in a vast battlespace.
I stand high on a rocky ridge under the belly of a Cobra. In combat, the gunship carries a 20 mm Gatling cannon, Hydra and Zuni rockets, along with tube-launched TOW missiles, Hellfire air-to-surface, and Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. The rush of the rotors’ batabatabata is 100 feet overhead.
A short time earlier, my cameraman and I were escorted inside the wire at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center (MCAGCC). Capt. Paul Gainey and Master Sergeant Matthew Holly, both from CommStrat, 1st Marine Division, were our embed companions. MCAGCC sits at an elevation of 1,988 feet in the high (Mojave) desert and covers 930 square miles. The steeply-sloped mountains and flat valleys offer austere, wild, and remote country for Marines to up their game.
To capture Steel Knight.
Under cold, cloudy skies, with our camera equipment, we trek across the hills to record the aircraft assault arrival, unsure if rain will come. Scattered rifle cartridges mark the warrior turf. Twisted concertina wire winds, like a snake, through the sandy topography, where real vipers live, but are too cold to bite.
Roughly 200 Marines support the air assault portion of Steel Knight. The force includes a reinforced infantry company, a combined Anti-Armor Team, and an 81mm mortars section.
“Exercise Steel Knight pushed and tested the boundaries of the Division with a complex operational design,” says spokesperson Gainey.
We waited for launch news on the walkie.
Aircraft stands by in El Centro for visibility clearance, as MCAGCC’s silent vastness sucks us in. Our presence is noted by snipers on overwatch. We look for any sights, sounds, or radio chatter that signals the assault troops are airborne.
Under Division’s command, two separate regimental headquarters are set to conduct simultaneous and distributed operations over the giant area before us and fly back to Camp Pendleton to the coast. To understand the complexity of Steel Knight is to know there are four companies to a battalion and four battalions to a regiment. All work like perfectly-timed gears of a clock.
Deployed units vary in size with the mission and available manpower. Flexible, maritime maneuverable, Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) units prove very effective in insurgency warfare. In contrast, Steel Knight constructs training scenarios for a peer or near-peer military adversary. A near-peer threat is reactive, thinking, opposing force with advanced technology, such as Russia or China.
Steel Knight (SK19) is designed to strengthen Marines’ response to a peer or near-peer force.
Thousands of Marines amass to conduct ground combat maneuvers and live fire ranges across southern California. Unit command and control, interoperability, and fundamental warfighting skills are refined, played out with dynamic realism. How are Steel Knight planners so successful?
The Marine Corps is very good at dispersing leadership through the ranks. Leaders maintain initiative in the grunt or infantry by ‘telling them what needs to be done and not how to do it’. Don’t ask me why the term ‘grunt’ stuck. However, the affectionate term equates to a highly-trained warrior, capable of amazing feats of battle.
The worst of circumstances brings out the best in them, as they fall back on training, instincts, duty.
Two Cobra gunships signal a cargo of hyped-up warriors are coming.
Finally, we get word that the launch is a go. The first to arrive are two Cobras, a welcome sight as dark skies move in to kick the weak off the mountain. The Cobra pilots secure the Landing Zone (LZ). They fly pass after pass to identify threats and scour the unwelcoming wilderness. There is scant brush – hiding places are slim and scattered.
No rifle fire cracks, no anti-aircraft tracers strobe the air, and no anti-aircraft weapons pound the eardrums. Then it happens, along with nature’s thunder and the driving rain, two lead and two secondary CH-53 helicopters approach us. The four fly majestically against the jagged hills, as the Cobras continue their heady watch.
To our surprise – the CH-53s choose the air assault LZ behind a ridge. Blocked from view, we must labor hard to get our objective. Gainey waves on my cameraman and they hike ridge after ridge for a line of sight. The Marines have arrived.
Taking over Range 215: a test of Spartan-like endurance.
Spartans became one of the most feared military forces in the Greek world. They were committed to war – invincible, fearless, and organized. Thankfully, the Spartan’s brutal training methods are left behind with history.
Invincible, fearless, organized. Steel Knight’s displaced, distributed troop movement tests these Spartan-like traits in their advance to reach Range 215, a Military Operations on Urban Terrain (MOUT) complex. The range simulates the streets and buildings of a foreign city or village, so maneuver forces are able to train realistically. Enemy role players assist and wear authentic clothing.
“During the planning of missions – the commander will deliver a desired ‘end state’, what he wants the battlefield to look like once the dust settles,” says Major Josef Patterson, a 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing lead spokesperson.
Patterson commanded a rifle platoon that endured some of the most deadly fighting of the war in Afghanistan, in Sangin 2010. He saw ‘invincible, fearless, organized’ at its finest.
Any (actor) enemies at Range 215 were in for a simulated showdown. In battle, the clash of wills is ill-matched. When the enemy attacks with an AK, the Marines escalate and fire back harder or simply, drop a bomb.
Reliance on training to fulfill command ‘end state’.
Commanders, leaders taste when things go wrong and things go right. Some carry stinging memories of loss from hard fought/hard won deployments. With an ingrained core of training, a battle force can rely on collective ability, knowledge, skills, loyalty, and duty. All ranks bind together to achieve…no matter what lies in wait.
Steel Knight Division planners land the ground troops far from Range 215 MOUT complex, in order to master tactical choreography over distance.
“There were two waves of the assault force – the infantry company and the Combined Anti-Armor Team; more than meeting a time – the two elements had to synchronize their actions over time and space to bring about the desired effect on the enemy,” says Gainey.
For the next tactical dance may be a ‘fox trot’ over a foreign desert of IEDS, a ‘quickstep’ clearing village compounds with murder holes, or a fiery ‘tango’ with terrorists in a mountain stronghold. Or the war dance could be a near-peer confrontation who knows where. No actors, training rehearsals, or going back.
“Retreat, hell! We just got here,” was the infamous cry of Marine Capt. Lloyd W. Williams, during the Battle of Belleau Wood, 1918.
The Marines out danced the hell-bent Germans in what seemed an impossible fight to the French. Lessons learned from war to war help shape modern day training.
Ospreys wing their way to deliver the last bastion of troops.
Thankfully, our camera sees the disembarked troops through clouds of dust the MV-22s kick up on the valley floor. The grunts spread out in a pattern, each carrying a heavy pack, including ordnance. We witness, in this final scenario, U.S. Marines on track to disrupt and deter enemies in the shadows at Range 215.
Infantry carries M16 and M27 rifles, M240 machine guns, and M224 60mm mortars.
The Combined Anti-Armor Team adds .50 Caliber machine guns, mk-19 automatic 30mm grenade launchers, and a TOW missile system. A line of ridges lies before the infantry collective, as well as wet, sandy ground and rain.
“The greatest challenge of the air assault was coordination among all the different ground elements after landing near our objective. We had our assault force, the [Combined Anti-Armor Team] CAAT vehicles and personnel, and adjacent integrated scout sniper teams all working together to carry out our plan,” says Capt. Jeremy Fisher, Assault Force Commander, B Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines.
“We overcame this challenge through the use of rehearsals and communicating our plan to every Marine involved in the air assault,” adds Fisher.
If technology fails the troops, Marines plan to succeed anyway.
Communications are complex in war operations. “Troops utilize centralized planning to allow for decentralized execution,” says Patterson, who employed the formula in Sangin. Radios and other technology and code words are all used to communicate but they always have a plan for when technology fails. This ensures everyone without technology can be made aware of occurring events.
For example – he or she knows when “that happens” “I go here” or “I do this when that happens” without anyone telling them to do so. Marines clamp off failure via “no comm” planning, “signal plans”, “mission type orders”, and “connecting files” (when leaders see what Marines next to them are doing).
This inspires initiative and prevents Marines from asking permission to continue on to the next action.
What is organic to a Marine infantry operation is more real for me.
During Steel Knight, I felt fortunate to see for myself why my beloved country remains free. The sun lowers and clouds darken with still no troops at the objective. It gets colder, wetter and we call it a day. We leave, thinking about Marines still pushing forward in twilight to Range 215.
Fisher relates, “B Company, V15, reached the objective around 1600. We cleared through the objective to our limit of advance around 1930.”
Reflection begins on the journey home where it is warm and dry. They will sleep under the stars, in the vastness, in damp and cold for us, for America. We saw what they achieve is good, yet what they become is greater – these Spartans of freedom.
Freedom calls up the mighty to serve.
“Less than 1% of Americans serve in the military and only 25-30% of those who screen are eligible,” says LtCol. Aixa R. Dones, Command Inspector General, 1st Marine Division. “The Marine Corps looks for men and women who are fit, want a challenge, appreciate structure, are law abiding…moral people – with a good work ethic and a want for responsibility,” says Dones, adding, “Marines earn their title.”
Marines are there for us in a world increasingly violent.
Steel Knight is one of 1st Marine Division’s largest training events of the year, but there are multiple ongoing training exercises. One coming up is Iron Fist, where the Japan Self-Defense Force trains with Marines and Sailors aboard Camp Pendleton. East and West forces join up on a live-fire mortar range.
As twinkling Christmas lights mesmerize me in their glow – troops out in some austere foreign battlespace see the blinding glow of explosives. While we exchange gifts with family and friends – they give nations freedom.
While the graceful Nutcracker ballet headlines a local theater, our brightest and best do, without fame, a dangerous war dance on a world stage. The sharp sword of Steel Knight wields its might where it counts to make sure we all sit comfortably around our Christmas trees.
Featured Photo: TWENTYNINE PALMS, December 5, 2018. CH-53s carrying Camp Pendleton Marines approach landing zone in Steel Knight 2019 air assault. Video AVtek Productions DVIDS photo LCpl. Rhita Daniel