MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. -- Static crackles sporadically over the tactical field radio until it is interrupted by the command the artillery Marines are waiting for.
Without missing a beat, the Marines on the gun line echo the command back loudly.
They reach for their Kevlar helmets and run to their designated position next to an M777 Lightweight Howitzer. The Marines execute the fire mission by loading and firing 155 mm artillery rounds, providing their brothers in the infantry with indirect fire support.
Marines serving with 2nd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, participated in Exercise Desert Scimitar here, April 29 through May 6. This is the first time in more than a decade that 1st Marine Division has conducted the combined-arms, live-fire training exercise.
“After several years of focusing on Iraq and Afghanistan, a counterinsurgency fight, artillery was located on a forward operating bases,” said 1st Lt. Michael Rhoads, the executive officer of Kilo Battery, 3rd Battalion, 12th Marines, attached to 2nd Battalion, 11th Marines. “We haven’t really gone out and exercised the shooting, moving and communicating like we are doing here for Desert Scimitar.”
With operations in Afghanistan winding down, the Marine Corps is shifting its focus back to expeditionary and more conventional warfare.
“We are a full artillery battalion, shooting and moving with the grunts,” Rhoads said. “We’re exercising the traditional relationship we’ve had in the past that somewhat broke down due to the last few years of war.”
The exercise focused on training 1st Marine Division as the ground combat element of a Marine Air-Ground Task Force. It included division units from 1st, 5th and 11th Marine Regiments, as well as 1st Reconnaissance Battalion and 1st Tank Battalion.
During the exercise Kilo Battery supported 5th Marines.
“We provided them with timely, accurate artillery fire support,” said Rhoads, a native of Portland, Ore. “If they are pinned down or their direct fire weapon systems aren’t able to touch or hurt the enemy, they will call for us.”
The gun line also participated in 24-hour operations, launching high-explosive and illumination rounds well into the night.
“During night, we can illuminate an entire grid square (100,000 square meters) for the infantry,” said Cpl. Edwin Aguinaldo Jr., a section chief serving with Kilo Battery. “Basically if our brothers are conducting night patrols and they think they see enemy combatants, we can shoot an illumination round and light the sky.”
Aguinaldo, a native of Kapolei, Hawaii, but also considers Hinesville, Ga., home, has spent his entire career with the artillery battalion.
“In addition to illumination rounds, we have white phosphorous, and high-explosive rounds,” Aguinaldo said.
They also have the capability to put delays in the rounds’ fuses to help with targeting an enemy bunker, he said.
Aguinaldo’s section operated with the minimum amount of Marines to man a howitzer, six cannoneers and one section chief. With the battalion practicing mobility in support of the infantry, setting up and breaking down the equipment must be done in a timely and efficient manner.
“It’s a lot of moving parts,” Aguinaldo said. “We have a 7-ton (truck) and our triple seven. With safety being paramount, all my Marines have to pull their weight to get the job done.”
When the section first arrives at a new firing position, Marines move quickly to their places and begin completing their assigned tasks.
Training to move from their position at any moment provides the ability to be an agile force, as well as a deadly one, which is essential to conventional warfare, Aguinaldo said.
“We all know what we have to do, and we have to do it quickly,” he said. “We want to get the howitzer set up as fast as possible.”
The Marines demonstrate their speed and intensity in other ways besides the deployment and redeployment of their weapon. Before the smoke leaves the chamber of a recently fired howitzer, they are already loading the next round. They understand how their job impacts the infantry.
“Artillery changes the battlefield,” Aguinaldo said. “When our brothers are out there and things don’t go their way and they need our help, we’ll get them out of that tight situation.”
With the Marine Corps returning to its expeditionary roots, Marines with 2nd Battalion, 11th Marines, have returned to theirs, supporting the infantry through indirect fire and maneuver.