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The US has re-entered an era of peer competition with Russia and now China as well. Supporting this new geopolitical reality is a flurry of activities to increase the rigor and scale of DoD’s training and education programs. Group Editor Marty Kauchak reviews some developments.

The US Defense Department’s training and education programs can’t seem to earn a respite after two decades of ground operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. After Russia’s 24 February invasion of Ukraine, American and NATO forces in Europe are on heightened alert. At slightly lower but still persistent and intense level of activity, the US is competing with China in the economic and political spheres of influence in the Pacific region, Africa and even Latin America.

Seismic Shifts

The plate tectonics of the normally traditional and staid education community are doing nothing less than quickly shifting, in particular in professional military education (PME).

In one instance, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. signed the charter last July for the US Air Force’s China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI), signaling the service’s intent to focus education, awareness and understanding more heavily on China’s growing military threat.

CASI conducts research on Chinese aerospace, to include air-, space-, cyber- and missile-related fields, directly enabling the warfighter’s understanding of Chinese aerospace and strategic thinking.

The institute is off to a quick start to more effectively align USAF, and even the broader US DoD, education portfolio to the rapidly evolving geopolitical environment. Dr. Brendan S. Mulvaney, CASI’s director, told MS&T recently that CASI continues to produce its video series on Competition with China. “The next couple of videos in the series, which come out every couple of weeks are: Strategic Perspective, PLA [People’s Liberation Army] Navy, Overview of China’s National Strategy, and the PLA Rocket Force. We will also hold our bi-annual conference May 17th at National Defense University. And, of course, we continue to publish our research, as well as translations of PRC strategic documents as part of our ‘In Their Own Words’ series.”

As a report card on other progress to date, the institute director emphasized, the organization has presented at all levels of education and training, from enlisted courses and basic officer training to the three-star general officer level, and literally every rank in between. “We have keynoted the PACAF [Pacific Air Forces] Commander's Conference, a CSAF [chief of staff of the Air Force] roundtable, and Space Command Commander’s conference, just to name a few. As well as untold hours supporting DoD wargame efforts.”

In February, the Air Force continued its momentum to address the ever-shifting dynamics of the global political and military landscapes by doing nothing short of overhauling other parts of its PME program.

This set of actions significantly increases classroom instruction covering the nation’s competitors, specifically China and Russia, at all levels of PME and in many of its other programs and courses such as the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies.

A service document noted, “With the start of academic year 2022 this past August, 40% of officer PME curricula is now focused on China and 60% on competition overall, including Russia. Considerable increases on competition were also made in all levels of enlisted PME and Air University’s officer accession programs, Air Force ROTC and Air Force Officer Training School.”

Due to enhanced US DoD operational security considerations, Air University declined to further discuss these PME changes.

Synchronizing Learning to Policy

The US Marine Corps Force Design 2030 is the premier US military service document articulating the Pentagon’s redirected mission focus from countering violent extremists in the Middle East to great power/peer-level competition, with special emphasis on the Indo-Pacific. The document calls attention to this profound shift in missions, from inland to littoral, and from non-state actor to peer competitor, and the necessary requirement for “substantial adjustments in how we organize, train, and equip our Corps.” Much like the initial shift in other major US DoD strategies and doctrines, the amount of change in current Marine Corps learning activities at this point appears deliberate and incremental. The tempo of evolution in USMC training and education is about to quicken and become more expansive.

According to Chuck Little, Deputy Assistant Chief of Staff, Communication Strategy and Operations, US Marine Corps Forces, Pacific, major changes are on this command’s horizon, with the Marine Corps in the Indo-Pacific expected to see a greater focus lent to experimentation, learning, decision-making, simulations, and wargaming.

Little further explained, “Our intent is to pursue training venues that allow for live, force-on-force training, putting leaders in positions to make decisions in real-time against a thinking adversary. We want our Marines to gain experience from repetition in these areas and it doesn’t necessarily have to take place in the field. We envision training our infantry squads to conduct multi-domain operations independent of a geographically co-located higher headquarters providing command and control. Rather, these infantry squads will be lighter, faster, equipped with a suite of communications tools, unmanned systems, and weaponry to be resilient and survivable inside contested maritime zones [often referred to as ‘gray zones’]. These changes to training are a logical response to the changing emphasis of national defense strategy, which now focuses primarily on great-power rivals rather than the terrorists who drew Marine units into extended operations on land after 9/11.”

Another trend is the greater focus on USMC interoperability and integration with allies, partners, and the joint force. The command executive emphasized that every day the Marine Corps sees increasing signs for why it’s important to combine efforts with allies and partners. “We live in a globally connected environment and this theater has been designated as the main effort in the National Security Strategy.” He continued, “Accordingly, our training exercises and other training engagements at the tactical and small unit level will prioritize bilateral or multilateral participation. The aim point is always improved interoperability and ability to share information with one another using advanced and resilient command and control. This training will occur through training exercises like RIMPAC, Balikatan, Marine Rotational Force-Darwin, and the Unit Deployment Program.”

One recent, key demonstration of this increased interoperability was the first-ever landing of the Marine Corps’ newest aircraft model, F-35B Lightning II, on the Japanese ship IZUMO off the coast of Japan last October. The IZUMO-class multi-purpose destroyers are helicopter carriers in service with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF). US Marines and sailors embarked aboard the IZUMO in support of the exercise.

And while the Marine Corps is increasing the scope of its exercises and other training events, the activities are concurrently becoming larger and inclusive, and more rigorous and complex.

In July-August last year, more than 25,000 Marines and sailors participated in Large Scale Exercise (LSE) 2021, the largest naval and amphibious exercise conducted since the Cold War era. Little noted LSE 2021 “created opportunities to improve naval integration, evaluate new technologies and demonstrate progress made toward implementing the Commandant's Force Design 2030 vision.”

The exercise demonstrated 24/7 global operations of the US Navy and Marine Corps through live, virtual, constructive (LVC) and scenario-driven training focused on Distributed Maritime Operations, Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations, and Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment. These three concepts highlight some of the major shifts in focus to Marine Corps training in the Pacific. We will focus more on these concepts and less on protracted ground engagements and counterinsurgency operations as we have over the past two decades.”

Another instance of the sea services’ increasing rigor in its training activities was the inclusion of the latest weapons platforms and strategies in the appropriately labeled Navy-Marine Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System (NMESIS)/SINKEX event during LSE 21. During the event, US joint forces conducted coordinated multi-domain, multi-axis, long-range maritime strikes in the Hawaiian Islands Operating Area during the sinking of the decommissioned guided-missile frigate ex-USS Ingraham, which concluded LSE21. “The point of the SINKEX was to demonstrate that the US Navy could work with other services collectively utilizing a common operating picture to strike in unison – from the land, air, sea surface, and beneath the sea, culminating in the successful sinking of the target ship,” the command spokesperson noted.

He added: “US Third Fleet’s Carrier Strike Group One launched F/A-18E/F Super Hornets to test the Joint Standoff Weapon; F-35C Joint Strike Fighters employed laser guided weapons; P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft tested the Harpoon weapon system; and the fast-attack submarine USS Chicago (SSN 721) fired a UGM-84 anti-ship Harpoon missile and a Mark 48 Advanced Capability torpedo.”

A huge, watershed LSE sub-event that helped further place the Marine Corps at the cutting edge of new tactics and doctrine was the NMESIS part of the SINKEX. In NMESIS, Marines participating in SINKEX employed a pair of Naval Strike Missiles which traveled more than 100nm (161 km) before striking the Ingraham. Little concluded that the live-fire, long-range precision strike mission was the first tactical demonstration of the flexibility and lethality enabled by Marine expeditionary advanced bases, a key component in the Marine Corps’ Force Design 2030 efforts. “The last documented time a Marine ground unit was credited with sinking a ship was 11 December 1941 during the defense of Wake Island. Battery L, of Wake Island’s 1st Defense Battalion, used 5-inch 51-Caliber guns to engage and sink the Imperial Japanese Navy destroyer Hayte.”

While these training events with leading-edge weapons platforms and systems occurred in the Pacific region, their applicability and lessons learned are transferable to units in other regions – including the European theater and Middle East.

Training and Education as Policy Enablers

As the US continues its national strategic and supporting defense pivot to the Pacific, it is concurrently focused on evolving events in, and adjacent to, the NATO area of responsibility. The training and education enhancements noted above, with more on the way, promise to change the scope and focus of training and education through the ranks of US service members, and carry over into unit and staff training readiness.

Editor’s Note: Some companies approached for comment declined on the premise of not upsetting customers in the Asia-Pacific region.

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