OKINAWA, Japan – You can’t see it hiding in the dense jungle at the edge of the beach, draped in camouflage netting. But it’s there, and it’s waiting for the call to action.
It’s mobile, it’s lethal, and it can take out a ship at 100 nautical miles. It’s a U.S. Marine Corps unit equipped with vehicle-mounted missiles, and it’s just one of the future-Navy technologies and tactics Marines are employing in exercises this summer.
Since 2019, Amphibious Squadron (PHIBRON) 11 and the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), the Navy’s only forward-deployed amphibious force, have been routinely working together to test future EABO capabilities Noble Union, the fifth installment of the Noble exercise series, took the next steps toward that goal, Aug. 17-23 on and around Okinawa.
“Expeditionary advanced base operations are an expeditionary pillar of distributed maritime operations,” said Capt. Greg Baker, PHIBRON 11 commodore. “Conceptually, they can be a number of things. In this case, a lethal package designed to be inserted in the places and at times of our choosing to bring devastation to enemy maritime forces. The fact that we can surreptitiously insert a package designed to shorten a kill chain against combatants afloat brings tremendous power and agility to our team.”
Noble Union built on cumulative lessons learned during the four previous Nobles – Wind, Thunder, Fury, and Tempest – to achieve four main objectives: incorporate allies and partners, maneuver ships to support emplacement of EABO capabilities ashore, employ aircraft against air and surface threats, and conduct fire support coordination (FSC) against naval targets.
The USS America (LHA 6) Amphibious Ready Group (ARG)-MEU team has operated with allies and partners all summer, and this exercise was no exception. The HMS Queen Elizabeth (R 08) Carrier Strike Group (CSG-21) is operating in the Indo-Pacific this month with the America ARG.
“We began integrating with CSG-21 ahead of Noble Union,” said Baker. “While afloat, we conducted daily synchronization meetings and met face-to-face while in port Guam. The planning and teamwork reaped significant dividends as we ultimately conducted joint naval surface fire support for our Marines ashore with HMS Defender, HMS Kent and HNLMS Evertsen.”
The exercise itself happened in three phases designed to answer several fundamental questions, and prompt new ones, about EABO.
To set the scene, reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance set favorable conditions for landing force insertion and EABO emplacement.
A Marine amphibious reconnaissance platoon (ARP), with the help of a Naval Special Warfare platoon, went ashore to clear a safe path for EABO, conducting reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance – that is, identifying suitable locations to set up EABO capabilities while taking out simulated enemy forces and sensors capable of finding, fixing, tracking and targeting the MEU’s incoming ground, air and logistics combat elements.
Once the stage was set, it was time to send in the troops and their gear. Under the cover of darkness, Marines in woodland camouflage filed into the tails of several heavy aircraft turning on USS America’s (LHA 6) flight deck. They kept a low profile, using visual signals and limited radio communications as they lifted for the long-range raid.
Closer inshore, the amphibious dock landing ship USS New Orleans (LPD 18) launched landing craft, air cushion (LCACs) carrying High-Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) and light armored vehicles.
“New Orleans made a total of 15 LCAC runs ashore, some with HIMARS and expeditionary vehicles, which the Marines use to establish firing positions ashore. This high capacity surface connection capability is the bread-and-butter of the LPD and their high-speed landing craft,” said Baker. “This enables the Marines to place HIMARS in key positions so they can deny enemy threats at sea, which provides a layer of protection for ARG shipping and helps to provide maritime superiority. It’s a great example of the symbiotic relationship between the Navy and Marines in expeditionary warfare.”
Once the bulk of the landing team is ashore, they need mobile commanders, communications, consumables, and corpsmen to persist in conflict.
"Once ashore, or perhaps, once Marines fall in on pre-positioned assets already ashore, the EABO units of action must fall back on our naval roots, but do so by creating a new naval future,” said Col. Michael Nakonieczny, commanding officer of the 31st MEU. “Across all warfighting functions, EABO demands we utilize combat credible, risk worthy naval platforms with weapons and sensor capabilities that are low signature, low maintenance, network optional, and able to persist at duration as we seize and defend key maritime terrain. In doing so we will sustain, C2, execute fires, provide medical support, etc. via use of new and emerging technologies coupled with the field craft, discipline, lethality, and toughness that has always been synonymous with the title of United States Marine.”
During Noble Union, the MEU used MRZR light tactical all-terrain vehicles kitted-out with communications equipment and capable of moving in and out of cover and concealment. This was the first step in establishing a foothold, providing forward command-and-control with minimal reliance on fixed infrastructure – a mobile head-shed capable of moving from jump-site to jump-site quickly and quietly. Throughout the exercise, Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 3/5 continued to develop the capabilities of its MRZR C2 node in conjunction with the 31st MEU to ensure the BLT can seize and defend key maritime terrain to contribute to the defense of the Fleet in support of sea denial.
“The Marine infantry will do many of the same tasks it has always done: seize and defend key maritime terrain. What is different is the requirement to persist inside an adversary’s weapons engagement zone and leverage joint fires capabilities to ensure we can neutralize adversary threats in support of fleet maneuver,” said Lt. Col. Benjamin Middendorf, commanding officer of BLT 3/5. “The battalion squads and platoon operated in a distributed manner that created multiple dilemmas for the adversary, both afloat and ashore. To support these small distributed units, the battalion’s mobile, low signature, waveform diverse, and sustainable Command and Control node maintained a common tactical picture and allowed the battalion to leverage joint fires in support of the maritime scheme of maneuver.”
As for battlefield medicine, the MEU has employed a handful of experimental methods throughout the summer, including live person-to-person blood transfer – or Valkyrie – and even a landing craft-turned-waterborne ambulance. For Noble Union, they focused on increased medical mobility, bringing emergency physicians and nurses closer to the front lines, medication and blood storage in portable coolers, and jungle medicine tactics.
“Our focus during Noble Union was to find answers to the many challenges that EABO presents for the medical team. A lot of the traditional medical capabilities that the MEU employs, such as the Battalion Aid Station (BAS) and the Shock Trauma Platoon (STP), depend heavily on heavy equipment and other assets not likely to be deployed in an EABO environment,” said Lt. Cmdr. John Haggerty, 31st MEU surgeon. “We were able to place some of the personnel and critical care equipment from the STP onto MRZRs. The result was a significant increase in medical capability and mobility, bringing emergency physicians and nurses, and the equipment we need closer to the fight.
In anticipation of simulated hostilities, the exercise took a red-force turn once established units ashore had what they needed to persist. Simulated enemy ships closed the island, so the blue-green team struck back with naval power from the air, land and sea.
Persistent control over key maritime terrain enables the ability to respond to, and deny, enemy threats from the air and sea.
After simulated enemy reinforcements descended on Okinawa in the third phase of Noble Union, the PHIBRON-MEU team collaborated to take out red forces around the island and far out to sea.
Striking back to the island chain, a maritime screen from New Orleans and America enabled the MEU’s tactical air control platoon (TACP), on deck in Okinawa, to coordinate fires from rotary-wing or fixed-wing aircraft. This time around, they simulated close air support (CAS) with helicopters from New Orleans. They also have the capability to coordinate deep air support (DAS) against over-the-horizon targets, providing over-watch for units ashore.
Flexing DAS capability, F-35s from Queen Elizabeth landed on America’s flight deck Aug. 21 – the first F-35 cross-deck at sea in history – to pick up inert ordnance in support of a simulated air strike against anti-aircraft and anti-surface emplacements. Once these were neutralized, ARG ships were able to maneuver safely into a screen where they could communicate with units ashore to provide support, sustainment, and targeting data.
So, what about bad-guy ships still lingering and loitering on the far side of the island? Remember the HIMARS, hiding in the jungle, waiting to strike?
Using assets in their toolkit, along with sensing data provided by P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, F-35s and partner nation units, relayed through America, forces ashore simulated a Naval Strike Missile (NSM) launch from a Navy-Marine Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System (NMESIS) Remotely Operated Ground Unit Expeditionary (ROGUE) Fires Vehicle, a concept proven during this summer’s Large Scale Global Exercise in a maritime strike against an enemy ship using NSMs.
Innovating further to achieve an ARG-MEU solution, the blue-green team also used targeting data to simulate coordinated distributed fires from naval surface fire support at sea and HIMARS ashore, including some data from Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) partners aboard the tank landing ship JS Shimokita (LST 4002).
“Owing to the flexibility and agility of the JMSDF, we were able to link up with multiple Japanese ships for additional ad hoc training,” Baker said. “Just as the ARG-MEU is greater than the sum of its parts, always operating in lock-step, we must also incorporate our partners and allies’ robust capabilities at every opportunity.”
Additional training with JMSDF included joint amphibious operations between New Orleans and Shimokita, as well as an MV-22B Osprey cross-deck from Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to JS Ise (DDH 182).
Big-picture, Noble Union seeks to validate or invalidate the family of naval concepts, which feeds into force design for the future.
Along with EABO, the family of naval concepts includes distributed maritime operations (DMO) and littoral operations in a contested environment (LOCE). Noble Union sought not only to test and prove these concepts, but to prompt questions for the next iteration to answer.
“The primary purpose of Noble Union is train where and how we will fight, if called on by our nation to do so. Every patrol in the 31st MEU is a rehearsal and this was no different,” said Nakonieczny.
“Additionally we use Noble Union to inform Force Design 2030 via live, virtual, and constructive experimentation that will refine force structure and capabilities,” he added. “Over the course of the Noble series, the 31st MEU and our PHIBRON 11 partners looked to not only validate, but invalidate the family of naval concepts. We tested and refined the ideas of these concepts and we then shared our tactics, techniques and procedures across the Corps.”
“Our lessons learned provide a foundation for expansion of these concepts into doctrine and allow us to serve as the pacing asset for change, while demonstrating our skill and resolve to fight now, with our partners, allies, and the joint force.”
“The capabilities we flex during Noble Union get our ‘foot in the door’ in a long-term contested environment,” said Baker. “As the premier crisis-response force in the Indo-Pacific, we are the ones who are ready for the ‘fight tonight’ with our allies and partners. As the Indo-Pacific 911 force, we will be the first to respond on the scene of a crisis and we must be ready to take the fight to the enemy.”
“Through Noble Union, the Navy and Marine Corps team demonstrated that low-signature naval platforms can readily negate the advantages of high signature adversary platforms, despite their expensive stand-off capabilities,” said Nakonieczny. “We utilized forward postured stand-in engagement capabilities and validated our ability to create a new competitive space that will better deter aggressor ambitions with disruptive impositions relative to cost, time and risk. In the jungles of Okinawa, our Marines persisted, while being hunted by a peer adversary force and demonstrated an ability to inflict significant cost to billion-dollar assets with equipment that costs only millions.”
“As directed by the Commandant, we brought a knife to a gun fight and through field craft, signature management, all-domain capabilities and small unit leader discipline and toughness, we won,” Nakonieczny added.
Together, the ships of PHIBRON 11 and elements of the 31st MEU, the Navy’s only forward-deployed ARG-MEU team, are operating in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility to enhance interoperability with allies and partners, and serve as a ready response force to defend peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.