New leader, new mission at Twentynine Palms

Lance Cpl. D. J. Wu
Marines with Company B, 1st Battalion 4th Marine Regiment, watch a platoon sized attack from Machine Gun Hill Nov. 30 during Exercise Steel Knight 2013.
2012-12-29T11:57:51ZNew leader, new mission at Twentynine PalmsGretel C. KovachNorth County Times
December 29, 2012 11:57 am • Gretel C. Kovach
The Marine Corps’ premiere combat training center is getting a new commanding general next month, just as the service introduces a pre-deployment exercise for the post-Afghanistan era.
Brig. Gen. George Smith Jr., head of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center and training command at Twentynine Palms, is relinquishing his post Jan. 11 to Maj. Gen. David Berger.
Berger just finished his tour as commanding general of 1st Marine Division (Forward) headquartered at Camp Leatherneck, where he ran Marine ground combat operations in southwestern Afghanistan.
Smith, who took command of the Twentynine Palms Marine combat center in 2011, oversaw major infrastructure upgrades at the base. He also helped usher in a new combat exercise that begins next month for battalions and squadrons preparing to deploy overseas.
The Integrated Training Exercise replacing Enhanced Mojave Viper scales back counterinsurgency operations in favor of more conventional warfare maneuvers, such as tank battles and artillery attacks.
The Corps is rebalancing training to plan for a wider range of conflicts than the desert wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, including expeditionary battles where troops must support themselves as they move across terrain, and sea-based operations.
“This training will bring us back to general, or conventional, war-oriented training while retaining the lessons learned from the present conflicts,” the Marine Corps announced.
“Our central training challenge is to find the ‘sweet spot’ between the high (combined arms) and low (COIN/stability operations) ends of the range of military operations.”
The change is part of a broader push by Training and Education Command to prepare Marines for the next war while incorporating knowledge acquired during more than a decade of sustained combat.
The new training program at Twentynine Palms has its roots in the Combined Arms Exercise dating from 1975, which focused on large-scale battles involving brigades and battalions of Marines moving on foot and in vehicles.
That exercise was revised and scaled back in 2004 with an eye toward occupation duties in Iraq instead of fast-moving invasions.
Its replacement, Mojave Viper, was a monthlong exercise adding security and stability operations training formerly conducted at March Air Reserve Base. The “enhanced” version introduced in 2009 boosted counterinsurgency operations, such as interactions with civilians and tribal leaders in mock cities and villages.
Enhanced Mojave Viper brought together as many as 5,000 ground combat, logistics and air wing Marines training with live-fire small arms, artillery, mortars and bombing runs.
In the past some 1,000 role players posed as Iraqis or Afghans. Now Marines will act as local personnel during urban operations, while more geographically specific training continues at the Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning, at Quantico, Va., the Corps said.
The outgoing exercise, which had its last run in September, helped prepare the Marines to fight and win in Afghanistan and “any future contingency operation,” Col. Kip J. Haskell, commanding officer of Technical Training Exercise Control Group, said in a release.
The new regimen, called ITX, includes 129 events integrating ground, logistics and air operations. Infantry battalions are expected to rotate through the training every two years.
Twentynine Palms will continue to host the Corps’ most extensive combat training. “This is the best training venue where combined arms training, in a full-spectrum environment, can be performed,” Haskell said.
The combat center received the Commander-In-Chief’s Installation Excellence Award in 2012 for the third year running, a first for a Marine installation. Smith’s leadership was integral to modernization of the base, including construction or renovation of five barracks buildings, a new family housing neighborhood, and recreational and family centers for the base’s 28,000 full-time personnel, the Marines said.
Smith is deploying to Afghanistan to serve as deputy commander of the incoming 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force in Helmand province.
Under Berger’s leadership, the infrastructure overhaul and expansion of renewable energy projects will continue, the Corps said.
The Twentynine Palms base, located about 175 miles northeast of San Diego, is more than 900 square miles, the largest in the Corps. Last year, it opened a new mock city with more than 1,500 buildings in a space the size of downtown San Diego.
The Marine Corps hopes to expand the base by two-thirds in coming years to allow for larger live-fire exercises with an expeditionary brigade of perhaps 15,000 Marines.
Off-road enthusiasts have criticized the proposed move into Johnson Valley, on land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. A decision by the Navy Department expected in September was delayed to allow time to review more than 1,000 comments on an environmental impact report, many highly opposed.
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