NORTHERN MARIANA ISLANDS -- Marines are known for operating in the most severe environments. For the Marines of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, we often operate in these conditions, not alone, but with our sister services, and alongside our allies and partners. Not only do we all operate in these conditions, we excel in them.
Exceling in these environments is accomplished through tough, realistic training. From Aug. 13 to 14, Marines and Sailors from the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit and Sailors from USS America (LHA 6), along with partners and allies from the United Kingdom Carrier Strike Group 21 participated in a live-fire Fire Support Coordination Exercise (FSCEX) to enhance interoperability between our nations and increase coalition lethality.
In the Marianas Island chain, there exists a small, uninhabited island that is used for training such as FSCEX. Known as Farallon De Medinilla (FDM), the island gives Marines and Sailors, along with partners and allies, the opportunity to flex their muscles while strengthening interoperability in the Indo-Pacific region. FSCEX included surface-to-surface fires from both mortars and naval surface fire support, and air-to-surface fires from F-35B Lightning II aircraft from both the USS America and HMS Queen Elizabeth.
The exercise started with Marines and Sailors geared up and staged in the hangar bay aboard USS America. After careful pre-mission checks and inspections, flight serials are called over the intercom and Marines and Sailors pick up their packs and weapons to board MV-22B Osprey tiltrotor aircraft and CH-53E helicopters from Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 265 (Reinforced). They take off and insert onto the small island of FDM. Upon landing, Marines offload and start tactical movements to their positions.
On the ground are six Joint Terminal Attack Controllers, or JTAC, for short. JTACs are trained to terminally control air and surface fires in support of ground schemes of maneuver. They are responsible for the safety of aircraft from the ground, delivering various sizes of ordnance, and sequencing fire support effects with adjacent maneuvering elements. During a training mission like this one, JTACs train to build and maintain proficiency.
As Marines are settling in on the island, a CH-53E Super Stallion carrying an external load of ammunition and supplies is guided by one of the JTACs to the location where it will drop its sling-loaded cargo. Marines grab the ammunition and supplies and begin preparing for upcoming events.
Once all units are in place and ready, a JTAC calls in the first strike from an F-35 from USS America, the flagship of Expeditionary Strike Group 7. JTACs cycle through the training to ensure each gets repetitions calling in close air support. As the first section of F-35s return to USS America, more arrive on station from HMS Queen Elizabeth to flex their muscles.
In between close air support (CAS), the mortar platoon is putting rounds down range in their designated firing box. With both air to surface fires and surface to surface fires, there is a successful combined arms effect.
The mortar platoon and close air support go continuously into the night. Training continues well past sunset as Marines and Sailors train to low-light standards. Just prior to midnight, all fires cease in order to reset for the next day.
The second day begins bright and early with more mortar fire. Aircraft were not due to arrive until midday but naval vessels from the U.K. and the Netherlands arrive. HMS Defender (DDG – UK), HMS Kent (FFG – UK), and HNLMS Evertsen (FFG – NL) position themselves to the west of FDM and begin hailing Marines on pre-established communications nets. Once established in fire support areas at sea, each ship conducts three dry-fire missions to build cohesion with observers ashore. Live-fire followed, which was intricately tied to CAS missions.
“JTAC’s coordinate air and surface delivered fires in conjunction with ground schemes of maneuver,” said Captain Andrew J. Bloem, a joint terminal attack controller with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit. “FDM was an excellent training site to allow us to flex all the muscles of conducting close air support, mortar call for fire, and naval fire support. We experienced very few language barriers between our British and Dutch partners and relied on standard message formats which made synchronizing effects more rapid.”
CAS missions continue throughout the day and are overlaid with more mortar and naval fires. Each mission is carefully but quickly built by each JTAC to ensure safe and effective delivery. In some instances, mortars and ships fire, while aircraft deliver ordnance from higher altitudes – a deadly demonstration of combined arms.
“The ability for us to work as one team and achieve a combined arms effect in this training shows that we are ready to fight and win,” said Colonel Michael Nakonieczny, commanding officer of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit. “If it’s one of our ally or partner ships in the area, we know that they can effectively provide us immediate and effective naval surface fire support. If it’s their aircraft in the area, we know our JTAC’s can talk to them, they can talk to us, and we can put ordnance on target. This combined training shows that no matter where we are, or who we are with, we are one in, all in. Even more so, we are ready to fight, together.”
The 31st MEU is operating aboard ships of the America Expeditionary Strike Group in the 7th fleet area of operation to enhance interoperability with allies and partners and serve as a ready response force to defend peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.