Marines Train for Near-Peer Threats Amid Resurgent Russia

The 3rd Marine Battalion, 5th Marines Regiment complete their final training exercise at Twentynine Palms, California, Nov. 15, 2016. (Defense Department photo/Amber I. Smith)
The 3rd Marine Battalion, 5th Marines Regiment complete their final training exercise at Twentynine Palms, California, Nov. 15, 2016. (Defense Department photo/Amber I. Smith)

TWENTYNINE PALMS, California -- The scene in the desert range where the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment demonstrated live-fire training was coordinated chaos.

The objective: push back the enemy, kill off errant militants and line a minefield full of C4 plastic explosive.

Even if something went wrong, the Marines didn't plan on stopping the training, which featured a range of war machines and weaponry, from AH-1Z Cobras to M1 Abrams tanks and Amphibious Assault Vehicles to mortars and rocket artillery.

To prime them for real-life war with a near-peer rival, Marines will no longer be subjected to 'fix-as-you-go' training, said Brig. Gen William Mullen, commander of the Marine Corps Air Ground Task Force Training Command, Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center.

"You're going to go through it just like everybody else so they can see what works and what doesn't work -- it's a good test," Mullen said.

In the last decade, "we've developed a lot of bad habits," Mullen told reporters after an integrated training exercise on Tuesday, observed by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Marine logistics teams and defense reporters.

"Now you look at things going on in Ukraine … and [realize] that we have to get a lot [more] like we used to be" before the counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.

Mullen said he watched recent Army training in which units made advances against a simulated opposition force -- an exercise that motivated the Marine Corps to start developing a similar approach as a way to "get back to survivability."

"You have to watch what's going on out there, and finding ways to make adjustments," he said, "and if you put an opposing force out there, especially if you let them start experimenting with things like [drones]."

The 3/5, popularly known as the "Dark Horse" battalion, will head to Okinawa in seven months after their final Marine Corps Combat Readiness Evaluation Test.

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After seeing the exercise, Carter said "full-spectrum" training is necessary because the extremist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, isn't the only threat the U.S. has to worry about.

Demolishing ISIS, a "cancer" that grew within Iraq and Syria is "just the beginning," Carter said.

"We have to stand strong against Russia, particularly in Europe, and against the possibility of Russian aggression, the kind that we saw in Ukraine," Carter said, addressing dozens of Marines at an amphitheater in Twentynine Palms, California on Tuesday afternoon.

To counter Russia's creep into Ukraine and its strong-arming of Baltic States such as Estonia and Latvia, "we are going to do more in Norway," Carter said.

The Norwegian government announced last month that a company-sized element of Marines will deploy to Norway in January.

"We are requesting more money in this budget … and we are going to do more next year," Carter said, "and your profile there is part of standing strong against the possibility of Russian aggression."

NATO and other European states have urged the U.S. to limit any future compromise with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin's ties to President-elect Donald Trump have worried many American observers. Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on Tuesday criticized Trump for talking to Putin about possible joint action against terrorism and the Islamic State. Many U.S. and European security officials worry Trump plans to curtail American spending toward NATO could cripple the alliance.

Carter didn't say whether experimental units like the 3/5 will deploy to countries near the Russian border. Russia has made advancements in electronic warfare and unmanned technologies in Eastern Ukraine, stifling the Ukrainian army in its quest to secure the border.

"The Marine Corps, like our military at large, is present in every continent [in] the world where conflict could occur," Carter said, adding it's about "protecting us against the great range of contingencies that we have to try to prevent by standing strong."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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