It’s a cool day in Oceanside, California. A breeze chilled by the cold northern Pacific blows in over the arid desert landscape of Camp Pendleton just north of San Diego. The Marine Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company (ANGLICO) Team welcoming us to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (1 MEF) Battle Simulation Center seems surprised to discover that it is actually more sweltering in southern Ontario than it is here. But things are about to get a lot hotter: the 33rd Canadian Brigade Group (33 CBG) Headquarters has arrived to take part in a major exercise with elements of the 1 MEF in just a few short days.
The exercise, code named “Javelin Thrust”, takes place in the fictional land of “Acadia” for which the area around San Bernadino and 29 Palms Marine Corps Base stand in. In fact, the geography of the western United States has been transposed into five fictional nations inter-related in a regional struggle like the breakup of a bad marriage. In the alternate history of the land, the Federation of Dakotian Republics broke apart in the 1980s, not unlike the Soviet Union, fracturing into the states of Severnadia, Cameno, Madera, Acadia, and Kirtland. Severnadia and Cameno are the regional bad actors; the former is the strongest power with the biggest military, and Cameno is its cat’s paw through which Severnadia pursues its aims. Madera is a major financial and technological hub, but has a small military and suffers from occasional earthquakes which have prompted Severnadian “humanitarian assistance” in the past. Acadia is a pro-Western multiparty democracy with a successful market economy, but wrestles with Cameno over scarce water resource in a parched environment. Kirtland is a strong ally of the United States, but plays little role in this exercise.
The “situation” is that Cameno has seized an important Acadian watershed in the north of the country and is now poised to invade the central part of it in order to swing its forces north to consolidate the annexed territory. Its aggression has been quickly condemned by the United Nations and the US, with the support of Canada, has deployed forces quickly into the region in the hopes of deterring further aggression. Of course, no one expects this will work and the spectre of all-out war looms as the Brigade HQ prepares its plans.
The Canadians are clearly in over their heads here, and LCol. James McKay, the deputy commander of the Brigade for the exercise, knows it. The Brigade Group is well armed with LAV IIIs, Leopard II tanks, M777 artillery guns, engineer and electronic warfare units, and an aviation detachment of Chinook and Griffon helicopters and 3 large UAVs. But the CF-18s have not been deployed, nor does it have any air defence assets. Worse, the Brigade Group will have to hold an area that has a frontage of 180km, an enormous area for a force of just 7700 soldiers. In front of them are three divisions of enemy forces including a small air mobile one – roughly 35,000 troops – whose intentions are not yet fully understood. “We’re essentially a speed bump for the invading forces, but you have to keep in mind the wider campaign plan. In behind us are the still deploying (at least in the scenario) US Army follow on forces which will tip the force balance to essentially win the war.” 33 CBG is there to buy these forces some time.
Of course, no war is about to break out, and aside from the 60 HQ personnel deployed for this exercise, there aren’t even any Canadian boots on the ground. Next week, the MEF’s 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade will launch real operations at 29 Palms, however, 33 CBG part will be purely “virtual”. The Brigade’s order of battle, including the Hastings and Prince Edward County regiment (the Hasty P’s), the Governor General’s Footguard of Parliament Hill fame, the Ontario Regiment, and the Cameron Highlanders, have all been entered into a variety of computer data-bases that will do the actual manouevring for the Canadian units. The Marines, meanwhile, will actually race around the desert surrounding the town of Barstow, California.
While the Canadian supplied forces are small, for the Marines the value is in learning to work with a coalition partner within its fighting organisation. Col. Howard Coombs, the 33 CBG commander, notes that the Marines do not do much coalition work as a rule, although they try to incorporate them when they can. Having to work with a Canadian unit in their midst, with all the problems of support, security, and trust that coalitions bring, will be a valuable learning experience for them. For the 33 CBG HQ, this will also be a rare opportunity to learn how to work together as a team.
33 CBG is a reserve formation, part-time soldiers, composed of university professors and high school teachers, policemen, software engineers, supply management specialists, occupational therapists and a variety of other occupations. The unit is also a conglomeration of officers and soldiers from militia units across eastern and central Ontario who work as a group only occasionally. For them, this exercise will be a bit of a “getting to know you” exercise. Indeed, this will also be like working in a coalition itself. There are intra-army tensions between the big three regular force regiments each militia unit is attached to (the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry, The Royal Canadian Regiment, and the Royale vingt-deuxieme regimente) which will all have to be managed. There will be the organisational lack of familiarity that confronts all “composite” units. The formation’s Chief of Staff, LCol. Steve Molaski notes that even though the Brigade would most likely be employed in a domestic operation like the ice storm of 1998 or the Red River floods of 1997, the intense challenge posed by a warfighting exercise is a good test of its ability to work together.
At the moment, an uneasy phony war characterizes the conflict. The Camenian forces sit in their northern redoubt, waiting for relief. Canadian and American forces are rushing into the region to support the beleaguered Acadians. And over the border, the 74th and the 67th Mechanized Infantry Divisions, and the 35th Air Assault Division loom threateningly. In the headquarters, the staff races to complete the operations order and its various annexes which will tell the units what they are to do when those forces storm over the border.
Next: Planning the Mission
Dr. Paul T. Mitchell is a Professor of Defence Studies at the Canadian Forces College and an alumnus of Wilfrid Laurier University. This is part 1 of 5 in the series.