ORANGE, CALIF. – As the 13-year counter-insurgency campaign winds down in Afghanistan, Marines are quickly shifting attention to readiness for potential large-scale contingencies, often in not-so-subtle hat tips to regions ripe for instability — like the South China Sea, Ukraine and the Russian-annexed Crimea, and the now incredibly violent swath stretching between Iraq and Syria.
The 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade is leading more than 5,000 Marines, sailors and soldiers through the weeklong Large Scale Exercise aboard Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms. The exercise, which began on Aug. 8, includes ground, aviation and logistics elements. More than 100 Canadian army personnel along with several British military personnel are conducting the training beside the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade, said Capt. Staci Reidinger, a spokeswoman for 1st MEB.
The event specifically tests the MEB's command element and provides commanders a chance to work out muscles atrophied during sustained operations in Iraq or Afghanistan, said Lt. Col Doug "Lucky" Luccio, the G-3 current operations officer for 1st MEB.
"The MEB, at the command element, now has a chance to look at something other than counter-insurgency," Luccio said. "It's a kinetic fight."
Officials designed the exercise around a fictitious scenario in which a country they dubbed "Dakota" has invaded a U.S. ally called "Acadia," its southern neighbor, according to a Marine Corps news release. Dakota's aggression is part of an apparent plot to take over a larger country named "Fredonia."
The MEB acts as a pre-positioned maritime force in the scenario, charged with fighting back the Dakotians, the release states.
Luccio said the exercise provides a look at what Marine operations will be like post-Afghanistan, but flatly denied any relation to the world's most prominent regional hot spots.
"The exercise scenario being used for LSE-14 is based on a fictional situation that is not related to any current contingency taking place at this time. Instead, this exercise offers U.S. and Canadian military members the opportunity to train through a full range of military operations that they may encounter if required to conduct conventional warfare operations regardless of locale," said Luccio.
"I'm not the commandant of the Marine Corps, but if I were, I'd be looking at this," he said.
Though Marine officials at the LSE come well short of directly pointing a finger at any region or country, the types of contingencies the exercise prepares Marines for closely mirror current scenarios unfolding around the world.
Marines could respond to this very scenario across a variety of international hotspots, said Dakota Wood, a retired lieutenant colonel and senior research fellow for defense programs at the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation.
Wood said the exercise echoes situations like the Islamic State moving from Syria into Iraq; Iran's forces in Iraq; fighting militias in Libya; or mujahedin in Afghanistan that sweep into Pakistan. It also reflects Russia's recent annex of Crimea and apparent foray into east Ukraine, Wood said.
Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, said the crisis in Ukraine will continue to escalate militarily. He said he believes it'll lead to Russia putting troops in the region, but it remains to be seen exactly how that might occur. If it does, NATO must mount a strong response, and contingency operations like the ones drilled at Twentynine Palms could become incredibly relevant, he said.
Years ago, officials in Moscow might have viewed the Marine exercise as provocative, but today — in the context of the ongoing sanctions between Russia and the West, with an ongoing deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations — the exercise seems less threatening, Bremmer said.
If the Corps answers the call to respond to those few escalating contingencies, Wood said a MEB has the "just right" level of command and control capabilities to handle what Marines might encounter. Its commander is senior enough to work with other forces and governments that are likely to be involved, Wood said.
Wood said the Corps has always done this type of work, including in the Asia-Pacific while forces were simultaneously deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, Marines need to be ready for combined armed maneuvers at a multi-battalion level, he said.
"It's one thing to conduct small unit patrols, calling for fire support as needed for relatively small engagements and quite another to execute larger-scale combat actions," he said.
While the Large Scale Exercise only includes about a fifth of the approximate 20,000 Marines that typically make up a MEB, some of the missing forces will be provided via simulators. Luccio said training a full MEB would've been too expensive, but the combination of real and simulated training will make a thoroughly lifelike exercise.
"As far as we're concerned, from where we sit, it's all the same," he said.