Hunkered down behind a wall of snow, two US Marines melt slush to make drinking water after spending the night digging out a defensive position high in the Sierra Nevada. Their laminated targeting map is wedged into the ice just below the machine gun.
Nearly 8,000 feet up at a training center in the California mountains, the air is thin, the snow is chest high and the temperature is plunging. But other Marines just a few kilometers away are preparing to attack, and forces on both sides must be able to battle the enemy and the unforgiving environment.
The exercise is designed to train troops for the next war — one the US believes will be against a more capable, high-tech enemy like Russia, North Korea or China. The weather conditions on the mountain mimic the kind of frigid fight that forces could face in one of those future hotspots.
“We haven’t had to deal with these things. We’ve been very focused on Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Maj. Gen. William F. Mullen, head of the Marines’ Training and Education Command. “What we really have to do is wake folks up, expose them to things that they haven’t had to think about for quite a while.”
After 17 years of war against Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked insurgents, the military is shifting its focus to better prepare for great-power competition with Russia and China, and against unpredictable foes such as North Korea and Iran. US forces must be able to survive and fight while countering drones, sophisticated jamming equipment and other electronic and cyber warfare that can track them, disrupt communications and kill them — technology they didn’t routinely face over the last decade.
The exercise is designed to train troops for the next war, one the US believes will be against a more capable, high-tech enemy like Russia, North Korea or China
“If you were to draw a line from here to the DMZ between North and South Korea, both of these sites are on the 38th parallel. And so the weather here accurately replicates the weather that we would encounter in North and South Korea,” said Col. Kevin Hutchison, the training center commander. “What you’re seeing here is Marines fighting Marines, so we are replicating a near-peer threat.”
As a snowstorm swirls around them, Mullen and Hutchison move through the woods, checking in with the young Marines designated as the adversary force of about 250 troops who must prevent more than 800 attackers from gaining control of nearby Wolf Creek Bridge. An Associated Press team was allowed to accompany them to the Marine Corps’ Mountain Warfare Training Center south of Lake Tahoe and watch the training.
Lance Cpl. Reese Nichols, from Pensacola, Florida, and Lance Cpl. Chase Soltis of Bozeman, Montana, dug their defensive position a day ago, and they’ve been watching all night for enemy movement, while using a small burner to melt snow to stay hydrated.
The hardest part, said Nichols, is “boiling water 24/7. And the cold. It’s cold.”
The cold and wet conditions force the Marines to use snowshoes and cross-country skis to get around. They wrap white camouflage around their weapons, struggle to keep the ammunition dry and learn how to position their machine guns so they don’t sink into the powdery snow.
“It’s kind of overwhelming coming up here. Many of them have never been exposed to snow before,” said Staff Sgt. Rian Lusk, chief instructor for the mountain sniper course. “You’re constantly having to dig or move up the mountain range. So, it’s physically taxing, but more than anything, I think, it’s mentally taxing.”
The Marine Corps has changed its training in the mountain course and at Twentynine Palms Marine base 400 miles south. Instead of scripted exercises, trainers map out general objectives and let the Marines make their own battle decisions, replicating a more unpredictable combat situation.
Published in Today’s Muslim, February 21st 2019.