By Robbin Laird
During my visit to MAWTS-1 in November 2023, I had a chance several times to talk with the CO of the command, Col Eric Purcell, about the evolution of the three WTIs he has been in charge of since he took command.
Because I had visited in 2020, when MAWTS began to work on the shift in the USMC associated with the Commandant’s guidance which has been embodied in Force Design 2030, it was quite interesting to see how MAWTS has translated that into a force that has to fight tonight.
It is not about wargaming: it is about training for combat in today’s world. It is not about imaging new weapons that someday the Marines might have or working with a joint force of the future imagined by strategic planners, it is about engaging in conflict anywhere in the world when called upon to do so.
Thinking about a world with multi-polar authoritarian players does tend to focus your mind when you have to train to fight a variety of adversaries. And that is where we started our interview. Col Purcell noted that one of the major changes at the command is focusing attention on the developing capabilities of the kind of adversaries the Marines have to face.
Purcell noted that the Marines who come to the WTIs know learn about three categories of threats: those posed by Chinese forces; those posed by Russian forces; and those posed within the context of contingency operations.
The experience of the land wars and the historical legacy of fighting against Soviet equipment does not prepare today’s Marines for the conflicts in which they are engaged or likely to have to deal with. It is important to re-shape the curriculum to reflect real world dynamic threats, and Purcell noted that they were focused on doing so.
But major challenges face the Marines in doing so, and MAWTS-1 as the core warfighting training center which standardizes operational preparation needs to adapt its training approach to the evolving threat envelope.
One change which Col Purcell underscored was the need to re-focus on tac air and assault support integration. He noted that in the land wars, the two forces tended to operate somewhat in different spheres, but going forward integration was key.
In part, this is due to the range and speed requirements for a Marine Corps insertion force and the opportunity to leverage the advantages which as F-35/Osprey force provides to the USMC along with the arrival of a new generation heavy lift asset, the CH-53K.
But this also due to the changes within the assault force itself, as the Osprey adds new capabilities carried in the back of the aircraft, or its ability to contribute to new missions for the Marines such as ASW support.
A key focus of attention has been moving beyond the training to establish FARP/EABOs, to working on the more important point – what effect are you trying to create through FARP/EABOs.
With current capabilities, the Marines can create EABOs to provide for sensing capabilities, support for the transition of air elements, C2 node creation and support, but until a new generation of weapons show up, limited ability to provide for fires within a transitory EABO.
Col Purcell indicated that a primary focus within FINEX at the end of the course is bringing the different force elements together to test out their capabilities to deal with an integrated scenario.
Two scenarios were notable in our discussion.
The first was working maritime strike and support. Here the Marines would operate from Camp Pendleton with San Clemente being an enemy location which was being reinforced by red combat ships coming from the north. The U.S. Navy has provided ships for this purpose. Tac air provides the main means for interdiction of enemy shipping but simulate longer range strikes from Pendleton is involved as well.
A key capability of fifth generation aircraft is their ability to manage third party targeting which is a capability which the Marines will leverage going forward in terms of tapping into land-based strike, and one might assume this could by Army or Marine Corps ground strike capabilities.
Under the strike force, a TRAP force enabled by Ospreys operates and in FINEX, the Marines operated such a force and exercised it with the Navy and the USCG.
When the interdiction of the surface fleet threat was attenuated, the Marines shifted their attention to provide ASW support to the Navy, largely by providing sonobuoy deployment support.
A second key approach will be emphasized in next year’s spring WTI.
Here the integration of TACAIR and assault support will be the focus of attention against an appropriate scenario for using such a force. With the evolution of tac air capabilities supplemented with data provided from Reapers and other ISR sources, and the evolution of the payloads carried by the assault force, a variety of scenarios can be tested in the next WTI and future WTIs.
A major challenge though facing the USMC is the dynamic changes within the joint force itself. How does the USMC support the joint force if the Navy is in the thrust of significant change sorting through what they mean by distributed maritime operations? How does the USMC support the USAF if that force is in the process of sorting out what Agile Combat Employment means in practice?
I would add that the fires challenge is a key one.
Who is the fires authority in a maritime strike scenario? A USAF air wing? A Navy surface action group?
Until this is sorted out land-based weapons whether operated by the Army or the USMC cannot have the desired effect. And having an effective joint force rests on having the fires authority challenge met and managed.
As Col Pursell concluded with this dynamic area of joint force engagement: “Typically, we refer to Target Engagement Authority abbreviated to TEA.
“In land wars between the Combined Forces Air Component Commander (CFACC) and the Coalition Forces Land Component Command (CFLCC) we typically have this ironed out.
“But it has been such a long time since we have done true Joint Naval engagements that the process for engaging maritime targets and who exactly is the Target Engagement Authority (TEA) or can be the TEA is not as tried and true as it is for land engagements.”
Featured Photo: Col Purcell as seen in the end of course video from WTI-1-24. Credit: USMC