MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C. – --
In a cramped, mud riddled back lot on the quiet northern quadrant of Cherry Point, a cadre of 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing Marines are packing up their gear and preparing to go home. It is May 19, 2016, and their job here for the past two weeks, away from the comforts of cool daytime work spaces and soft beds at night, is over … if you could ever consider preparing for war as something that could ever be “over.”
This group of Marines, some 300 strong, came here as a reminder that combat units fight battles in the field – not from a desk in a building on a base five minutes’ drive from the nearest hamburger joint. The core of this unit was the 2nd MAW battle staff, composed of primary and special staff sections across the Wing. The battle staff supports the aviation combat element’s ability to operate, plan and execute all functions of Marine Aviation across the range of military operations. And for the past two weeks, they have been participating in Marine Expeditionary Force Exercise 16 – or “MEFEX” – an exercise that included select units from every corner of II MEF, training to the mission essential tasks of the MAGTF.
“For the MAW, one of the key mission essential tasks is to conduct Tactical Air Command Center operations,” said Maj. Jonathan C. Howard, call sign “Hojo”, the deputy operations officer for 2nd MAW during MEFEX. “This crucial capability brings together the six functions of Marine Aviation and is the means by which we provide outstanding support to the MAGTF.
“2nd MAW must be ready to rapidly deploy and conduct aviation operations in support of the MAGTF to fight and win today,” he added. “MEFEX gave us a clear picture of what the MAW is doing right, and what still needs improvement.”
The planning that went into the exercise was extensive, and spanned over a year. The two-weeklong exercise created a situation where all elements of the MAGTF were forced to work together and communicate to accomplish the mission. Scenarios that kept the MAW team on their toes ranged from cyber-attacks; mock chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear attacks; and other aviation related tasks.
“The MAW was still forward deployed in Afghanistan three years ago when I first entered the fleet,” explained Sgt. Cameron Eckhaus, an intelligence specialist with 2nd MAW. “So doing this training now shows me the relevance compared to three years ago.”
For the past 16 years, the Marine Corps has been engaged in an unconventional fight against an unconventional enemy, so being able to train against an enemy with similar capabilities to ours, and still operate efficiently is a valuable experience for all echelons of the Wing, added Eckhaus.
“One of the best things we can do is anticipate,” said Maj. Gen. Gary L. Thomas, commanding general of 2nd MAW. “Our job is not to sit and wait, but it is to understand what the enemy is going to do and what the MEF needs us to do in response to that.”
While the MAGTF is already an elite fighting force, the exercise was a way for the command, in a dynamic, risk-free environment, to improve its capabilities for future combat operations.
“We need to understand which capabilities can bring a threat to bear, and how that threat can bring a change to our battle rhythm,” said Thomas. “Having our planners better understand the whole battle picture, in this aspect, is what makes MEFEX a valuable tool to integrate aviation capabilities across the MAGTF.”
Despite the fact that MEFEX is over, the after action reports generated by the exercise will reflect the actions needed to be taken so that operations within 2nd MAW and the MAGTF can be more effective.
“I appreciate what the planners have done, and what the staff did to make this exercise as realistic as we needed it to be,” said Thomas. “Every step that we take to develop the battle staff is a step in the right direction to continue developing our abilities to defeat emerging threats and support our counterparts across II Marine Expeditionary Force.”