August 25, 2021 – A massive CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter touches down on Farallon de Medinilla: a windswept, uninhabited tropical island in the middle of the Mariana Islands in the western Pacific.
Marines from the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) pour out of the helicopter’s tail, 53 strong, including a 10-Marine Tactical Air Control Platoon (TACP). Beneath the verge on Farallon de Medinilla – FDM for short – they set up mortar positions on the austere terrain and establish radio communications with USS America (LHA 6), its aircraft, and ships of the United Kingdom (U.K.) Carrier Strike Group (CSG-21).
Spread out across miles of ocean to the west, America, the Navy’s only forward-deployed amphibious assault ship, maneuvers into position along with HMS Queen Elizabeth (R 08) and CSG-21 to set the stage for fire support coordination (FSC), training for 31st MEU joint terminal air controllers (JTAC). In a contested environment, JTACs would request fire support from aircraft and ships to neutralize obstacles and adversaries to achieve key terrain and objectives.
The two-day FSC exercise (FSCEX), Aug. 13 to 14 kicked off two weeks of interoperability between the Amphibious Squadron (PHIBRON) 11, 31st MEU team, the U.S. military’s premier crisis response force in the Indo-Pacific, and CSG-21 as part of the U.K.-led joint strike group’s summer presence in the region.
“This summer has been a buildup of events with increased complexity and improved interoperability with our allies and partners,” said Capt. Greg Baker, PHIBRON 11 commodore. “Working alongside longtime allies like the U.K. and the Netherlands reinforces our mutual commitment to peace and stability in the region, while demonstrating the awesome combined power and capability our navies bring to bear.”
F-35B Lightning II aircraft from two U.S. squadron detachments – Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121 on America and VMFA-211 aboard Queen Elizabeth – provided firepower from above, while the big guns of HMS Kent (F 78), HMS Defender (D 36) and the Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen (F 805) struck from the sea, showing the combined force’s capability in both domains.
FDM is an ideal spot for the multi-domain training, providing ample sea and air maneuver space to accommodate the joint force.
“It was a privilege to take part in this joint exercise which showed how HMS Defender can quickly and seamlessly integrate into any multi-national task group and contribute effect,” said Royal Navy Cmdr. Vincent Owen, Defender’s commanding officer.
“For HNLMS Evertsen, it was a unique opportunity to conduct live joint fires with U.K. and U.S. partners,” said Royal Netherlands Navy Cmdr. Rick Ongering, Evertsen’s commanding officer. “It is seldom that this variety of nations and weapons systems have the opportunity to train together.”
Typically, the combat-credible “blue-green team” of PHIBRON 11 and the 31st MEU operate from the ships of the America Amphibious Ready Group and send Marines ashore in landing craft. The FSCEX, however, focused training on support Marines on key maritime terrain with firepower from sea and air.
Baker said that instead of amphibious ships and landing craft, the FSCEX involved cruiser-destroyer (CRUDES) ships from the British and Dutch navies, which provided naval surface fire support (NSFS).
“With the exceptional teamwork and close coordination among our staffs and ships, we were able to carry out some significant coordinated fires efforts from the air, sea and land. This brilliant demonstration should give pause to any potential adversaries that our coalition team is ready for the fight in the air, at sea or on land and can mass exceptional coordinated power quickly and decisively,” said Baker.
“Advanced coordination between PHIBRON 11 staff and CSG-21 ships was key to the exercise’s success,” said Ongering. “Comms were quickly set up and maintained throughout the exercise,” he said. “Spotters gave clear direction and were easy to understand – procedures ran smoothly.”
Standing on rugged terrain overlooking the seascape, Marine Capt. Andrew Bloem, 31st MEU Air Naval Gun Liaison Company (ANGLICO) detachment officer-in-charge, explained how face-to-face planning and coordination with partner nations was critical to success.
“What we do specifically is team up with foreign partners, physically place ourselves with them, liaison back to the command element and synchronize their actions with what the overall Marine and greater coalition forces’ mission is,” said Bloem. “We’ve had good comms with British and Dutch partners and we’ve organized to have them come and shoot for us,” he added as he gestured to Evertsen’s silhouette on the horizon.
Even before they put any ordnance on target JTAC personnel were guiding the Sea Stallion carrying supplies and ammunition to the landing zone to prepare for the exercise.
“We started FSCEX with simple reps – enough to get the minds working and repetitions built,” said Bloem. “This looked like simple call-for-fire and close air support. Once we felt that tempo was built, we poured on more coordination with all available assets. We even simulated friendly units in random places to challenge our quick analysis of geometry and safety of attacks,” he said.
The exercise started with close air support (CAS) from America- and Queen Elizabeth-based F-35s on the first day, interleaved with 81-mm mortar fires on the ground, and lasted until nearly midnight on the first day. The CSG-21 ships arrived offshore the next morning, established communications and coordinated NSFS with the JTACs. The exercise wrapped up with more CAS missions layered with both mortars and NSFS.
Defender used its 4.5-inch medium-caliber gun to provide NSFS, which Owen said benefited his crew just as much as it did the 31st MEU. “It was good continuation training for the ship’s company,” he said, adding “I look forward to continuing to operate with USS America over the coming weeks.”
Bloem qualified as a JTAC instructor – a force multiplier enabling him to train and certify additional JTACS and enhance the MEU’s capabilities – while five other Marines became proficient in controlling and coordinating fire support across multiple domains: ground-based mortars, fighters and helicopters from the air, and ships from the sea.
“The end-state was increasingly complex combined arms solutions,” said Bloem, “and of course, the cherry on top was being able to do it alongside the British and Dutch navies.”
“It was awesome to witness the combined firepower of ground, air and naval fires – a real show of force,” said Ongering, who thanked the joint force for the opportunity to train side-by-side.
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 operations to enhance interoperability with allies and partners, and serve as a ready response force to defend peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.