HELL, Norway -- As the Marine Corps amphibious assault vehicle accelerates up the steep concrete ramp, it pauses for a moment -- its nose pointing skyward at a precarious angle, the first two of its six tracked rollers touching nothing but air.
A Marine in a cherry picker bucket signals for the vehicle's operators to keep coming, and another burst of power shifts the amtrac's weight onto the train car platform, comfortingly horizontal once more.
"That was pretty sketchy," another Marine admits as the AAV reaches the end of the platform.
Yards away, locals in their vehicles begin to rubberneck in the train station's parking lot.
Earlier this month, Marines completed a first-of-its kind exercise: rolling enough military vehicles and equipment out of climate-controlled storage caves in Norway's Trondelag region to outfit the ground combat element of a 4,600-man Marine air-ground task force, as they would if called upon to respond to a major military crisis or contingency.
And they're already planning to do it again, but bigger and faster.
The Corps has stored ground, aviation and logistics gear -- along with two caves' worth of ammunition -- in Norway as part of an agreement that dates back to the Cold War.
A Marine serves as a safety lookout as an M1A1 Abrams tank maneuvers onto a flatbed train car May 9, 2017, at Hell train station, Norway. The Marines loaded four different fighting vehicles onto train cars to test out the loading process ahead of exercises elsewhere in Europe this summer. Hope Hodge Seck/Military.com
Norway owns the caves, which are maintained like spotless, well-lit warehouses, and pays for half of their upkeep. The Marine Corps periodically refreshes the gear, from M1 Abrams tanks to backhoes, and routinely pulls it out for use in local exercises, such as the biennial Cold Response.
But increased U.S. military interest in Europe amid rising tensions to the east and a fresh Marine Corps focus on cold-weather training mean the caves are getting more attention and use than they have in years.
The new concrete ramp at Hell train station, built by the Norwegian military at the Corps' request to enable it to send military vehicles from the caves to other parts of Europe, is only one example of how the program is changing to make the gear more accessible and deployable.
"In the last two or three years, it's gone from one [exercise using the gear] every two to three years, to four or five exercises every year," said Maj. Thomas Stona, prepositioning officer for Headquarters Marine Corps. "So now that we, the Marine Corps, are able to shift focus out of the desert a little bit more, and get back to fighting in any clime and place, Norway is getting a lot of focus."
In the recent Strategic Mobility Exercise, called Stratmobex by the Corps, Norwegian maintainers were notified April 27 that the service wanted to move nearly 1,000 pieces of gear out of three different caves. Some 100 Reserve Marines from Combat Logistics Regiment 45, out of Marietta, Georgia, and 2nd Transportation Support Battalion, out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, arrived to assist with the operation.
By May 2, the gear move had begun. By May 5, it was out of the caves and arrayed in long rows for accountability and maintenance.
With Marines moving gear 12 hours a day, the operation was completed within the estimated timeframe, but it could get significantly faster, officials said.
"If this were real, and we were really needing this equipment for a contingency, we would be running 24-hour ops," said Capt. Stephen Spicher, officer in charge of the exercise.
A Marine Corps Amphibious Assault Vehicle prepares to ascend a ramp May 9, 2017, at Hell train station in Norway during the Marines’ Strategic Mobility Exercise, or Stratmobex. Hope Hodge Seck/Military.com
Stratmobex had immediate collateral benefits. The Marines were able to load a trio of five-ton cargo trucks onto a train car at Hell station for an upcoming exercise in Sweden, and test out the steep new ramp to ensure its safety. Logistics Marines spent a morning guiding a light armored vehicle, an M1A1 Abrams tank, the AAV and a 7-ton truck up the ramp and onto a flatbed train car in preparation for exercises elsewhere in Europe later this summer.
But perhaps the biggest takeaway from Stratmobex is that the Corps needs to do similar exercises more often.
"Lt. Gen. [John] Wissler challenged us specifically that it's too slow," said Lyle Layher, prepositioning officer for Marine Corps Forces Europe and Africa. "So we'll have to put the data together and shake that for the after-action and see what happens next time."
Wissler, head of Marine Corps Forces Command, was among a delegation of Marine brass who visited the caves and Hell station during the final days of the prepositioning exercise.
Layher said the Corps plans to complete a Stratmobex at the caves every two years, with the next one tentatively set to happen in 2019.
And that exercise will likely be much larger, involving all eight prepositioning sites and every one of the more than 3,000 major pieces of gear.
"I've challenged our Norwegian and our Marine Corps partners to exercise all the equipment," Maj. Gen. Niel Nelson, head of Marine Corps Forces Europe and Africa, told Military.com. "So they're going to have to come back and tell me how they can do that. There will be some adaptations over the next couple of years to figure out how to take that guidance and actualize it, but I think they'll get there."