No ‘surrender’ — What really happened between US and British Marines at a training exercise
Don't believe the hype.
“Royal Marines force US troops to surrender just days into training exercise.” The headline appeared last week in the UK’s Daily Telegraph. The article beneath had an almost breathless tone to it, unusual for a paper that is considered a serious broadsheet. A Royal Marines Commando (battalion) had “eliminated almost the entire (US) unit,” “dominating them” and forcing them to “ask for a re-set half-way into the exercise.” So thorough was this drubbing, apparently, that the Commando’s “killboard” was chock full of destroyed U.S. equipment.
The truth might be considered less newsworthy for those who prefer to see the U.S. and U.K. militaries as peer competitors rather than allies – but is quite impressive all the same. The exercise which the Telegraph mistakenly calls “Green Dagger” was the Marine Corps’ biannual Marine Air Ground Task Force Warfighting Exercise, or MWX for short. During these events, battalions, regiments and sometimes entire divisions face off against one another in a free-playing force on force exercise that replicates the conditions of warfare against a peer nation. In this particular exercise, the 7th Marine Regiment, playing on home turf, was the adversary force, pitted against the Hawaii-based 3rd Marine Regiment who were the attacking force.
The British 40 Commando was a subordinate unit under the 7th Marines, alongside a Marine Special Operations Company and a Marine infantry battalion (2/5). Opposing them under the 3rd Marines were two battalions of Marine infantry along with various supporting units. There was no part of the exercise in which 40 Commando was pitted alone against a U.S. Marine unit and would have thus had the opportunity to “dominate” them. At no time did a unit surrender during the exercise, nor was any unit almost completely eliminated by 40 Commando. The exercise does not involve an objective means of scoring, although casualties are recorded and dispatched to a “Zombie FOB” until resurrected, and the use of killboards is a subjective, usually inaccurate, means by which units attempt to track the destruction of enemy assets. The exercise was halted for a period of several hours while all participating units searched for a truck platoon that had gone missing – but there was no “re-set” to allow any units to recover.
In short, among several statements made in the opening four paragraphs of the Telegraph article, none was accurate. I know this because – as they say – I was there.
Nevertheless, the article caused quite a ripple, as no doubt its author Dominic Nicholls, defense security correspondent for the Telegraph, had intended, sparking a succession of similar stories in the U.K. and international press. The Telegraph itself doubled down on the story, with a follow on article about how the exercise had demonstrated the value of the Royal Marines to U.K. national defense policy (there’s a clue here), and another that focused on bizarre comments by U.S. Senator Josh Hawley, who far from challenging Nicholls’ contention, was keen to turn it into political capital by attributing the inferior performance of U.S. Marines to Department of Defense leadership’s preoccupation with such matters as “white rage” and “critical race theory.” There was also the mandatory statement on the topic by a former Royal Marine — a tough customer indeed if his glowering picture is anything to go by — who yarns about his time in the Corps in which U.S. troops repeatedly showed themselves to be not up to his standards.
Attempts by the US Marine Corps to put the story in perspective served only to propagate the claim of British superiority. Official statements by a Marine public affairs officer were buried below headlines in which “US Marines” appeared as the object of verbs such as “trounced,” “dominated” and “embarrassingly defeated”. It was a classic case of how half-hearted denial can lend momentum to fake news. Because fake news is exactly what this story comprised – a sad occasion for a paper as storied as the Telegraph.
Nicholls’s article touched a nerve. It reinforced a sentiment that is not far beneath the surface of U.K. military culture: one of British superiority over their U.S. military counterparts. Inherent to this sentiment is the belief that the U.S. military is focused on resources and equipment, while our British counterparts are imbued with the kind of small-batch quality that distinguishes good whisky and elite units. “The one attribute of which the British military is most proud – is simply that they are not American,” Simon Akam, a former British Army officer and journalist who has spent much time covering the UK military, told me recently.
The response to Nicholls’s article reveals the truth to Akam’s contention. “As a British soldier, there’s no feeling quite like getting one over on the Americans. All that money, all that tech, all that firepower. But battle scenarios … require far more than just force. They need tactical intelligence, psychological strength and supreme fitness levels too,” crowed Garth Timmins in a subsequent article, also in the Telegraph. Timmins – a former Royal Marine with six years of service – goes on to describe how that time taught him how much better he and his fellow Royal Marines were than their U.S. counterparts. “Training exercises …. ended the same way: with the British coming out on top in just about every area.” Timmins recounts several other incidents in which he and his comrades just proved to be too physically tough for their pusillanimous American imitators – from climbing mountains to running obstacle courses. “This week was just a training session. We don’t know exactly what happened out there in the desert,” he concludes with a faux attempt at fairness. “But take away the kit, the tech, the money and there’s no comparison between the US and UK marines. The US learned that again this week – and the British commandos will be reveling in it.” It’s hard to imagine the Royal Marines I met during the exercise “reveling” in a story that they know to be inaccurate, but thanks to the Telegraph article, the truth may have been the first casualty of Exercise Green Dagger (which is the name given by the Royal Marines).
This is a tired trope that British service personnel have nurtured for as long as I can remember, growing up in the U.K. and serving in the British Territorial Army. “Don’t be like the Yanks” was a common refrain that covered a wide swath of military sins from having a rusty weapon to using drugs.
It was a sentiment clearly in evidence during the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom where it took the form of a supercilious attitude about counter-insurgency. “Watch us – we’ve done this before, and successfully,” was the implicit message. That theme, often repeated, became increasingly shop-soiled as U.S. troops adapted to a tough counter-insurgency fight in unforgiving places like Anbar province in Iraq, while the British lost control of Basra – despite it being a much more benign part of the country. Nevertheless, the theme persisted in Afghanistan even when U.S. Marines essentially had to rescue British troops in Helmand Province after a series of poor tactical decisions led them to be overstretched.
In “Changing of the Guard”, author Simon Akam offers a critically acclaimed book about the modern British Army. In it, he provides a detailed discussion of the British military’s shortcomings in Iraq and Afghanistan and suggests that the British military unconsciously cloaks itself in this myth of superiority to disguise the fact that it is no longer very good at fighting wars. It is a theme that has been picked up by several serious books and articles.
Akam’s book is on the reading list of the Royal United Services Institute, the prestigious U.K. think tank – but it will find few fans among readers of Britain’s tabloid press. After the last MWX in which Royal Marines participated, the Sun newspaper front page read “Brit of a Coup: Strike Squad of Just 100 Brit Marines smashed 1500 US troops in War Games Drill.” That story was, of course, equally preposterous, but not unexpected fare for a newspaper that until recently displayed topless women on its page 3. Yet it was unusual for the premise of Akam’s book to be found in such fact-free analysis in the pages of the Daily Telegraph.
There is a reason, however, why this story appeared in a prominent paper and rocketed to prominence. Over the last few years, the British military has been shrinking under a series of remorseless budget cuts. This year has seen an ongoing series of defense reviews that has all branches of the U.K. military on edge as to their future. It was the Telegraph that only a few months previously had quoted Minister of Defense Ben Wallace, who warned against any temptation “to use the shield of sentimentality to protect previously battle-winning but now outdated capabilities,” adding that to do so would be to “risk the lives of our people”.
These conditions led to a perfect storm in which the story of a Royal Marines triumph in an exercise intended to test future operating concepts was bound to gather momentum.
The Royal Marines, which numbers less than 8,000 personnel, are facing competition for relevance. Given their size, and the nature of their primary mission (amphibious assault) it is understandable that they are concerned about perceived obsolescence as a force. Advances in defensive systems mean it is now easier to find, identify and engage military forces with much greater lethality and at much greater range. These so-called Anti-Access/Area Denial capabilities (known as A2AD in military jargon) will make it much harder for theater entry assaults to get near their objective. To put this problem in perspective, states such as China have made technological and operational advances in areas such as long-range precision missiles that render the concept of amphibious assault, as currently practiced, obsolete. Even non-state actors with reasonably low-grade coastal defense munitions can deny access by maritime task groups. It is this problem that has had both the U.S. and Royal Marines searching for another role – and which has led to the MWX series of exercises replicating the experience of going to war against a “near peer competitor” (China).
In June of last year, the Royal Marines unveiled their Future Commando Force – intended to meet these challenges and thus secure – as the title implied – a future for Royal Marine Commandos. Two Littoral Response Groups (LRG), each of a few hundred commandos and supporting elements, will deploy on roughly six-month cycles to respond to crises ranging from humanitarian disasters to conventional warfare. It is envisaged that one LRG will be permanently east of Suez, with the Royal Navy facility in Bahrain acting as a staging post. The second group will focus on Nato’s northern flank, working closely with Norwegian amphibious forces, and the Mediterranean.
Despite the chest-thumping stories about the prodigious physical attributes of Royal Marine Commandos – it is a very different dynamic that dominates this kind of warfare against an enemy with long-range sensors and precision fires – it’s called the kill chain. The term “kill chain” is used to describe the process of an attack. It consists of initial target identification, a “fixing” phase which involves determining a target’s location and other relevant details while preparing to strike, the final decision and order to attack, and – finally – the destruction of the target. The term is used for any method of attack whether launched by drones, manned aircraft, artillery, or a ground force. It is also used to describe operations in the information or cyber environment. The more efficient the kill chain becomes, the less advantageous it renders traditional forms of maneuver involving ground-mobile units. In MWX, the movement of infantry uncovered by kill chains has proven time and again to be suicidal. When this happens – it is because the unit involved has invariably failed to set the conditions by neutralizing the enemy’s kill chain before moving — not, as Sen. Hawley claims — because they have been distracted by race and gender equality training.
The requirement to employ responsive sensors as part of a functioning kill chain is even more acute now for Marine ground combat units preparing to take on Chinese forces in the Pacific. Even the humble Puma drone, equipped only with electro-optical cameras, has – in the hands of a skilled operator – become worth its weight in gold. MWX is the opportunity for units to test future war concepts such as the kill chain in a highly dynamic environment. The exercise design itself is an impressive achievement. It is no easy task to put together a realistic force on force exercise involving aviation, drones, and full use of effects in what is called the electromagnetic spectrum – which covers everything from satellite imagery to cyber to electronic jamming and geo-location. MWX is invariably a humbling experience for participating units that must employ unfamiliar tools in order to compete effectively. It involves a different perspective on warfighting – one in which ground maneuver, the traditional action of closing with and destroying the enemy – takes a back seat to the primacy of the kill chain.
All of this is to say that MWX creates a steep learning curve for all units involved – regardless of background or nationality. The Royal Marine 40 Commando participating in this year’s exercise was an exceptionally capable unit, and the U.S. units involved certainly were able to learn lessons from them about the use of sensors, logistic resupply and just plain old-fashioned ground reconnaissance. And, as I am sure that they would be among the first to acknowledge, 40 Commando – in common with all participating units – made plenty of mistakes. That is what exercises are for.
It is this story, about the changing role of warfare and how the U.S. military and its allies become best postured to adapt, that is worthy of serious discussion by a reputable news outlet such as The Daily Telegraph instead of a poorly researched piece of jingoistic journalism. But rest assured that this episode will do nothing to derail a strong relationship. The U.S. and Royal Marines will continue to work together in preparing for the real fight ahead.
Andrew Milburn retired from the Marine Corps as a colonel in 2019 after a 31-year career as an infantry and special operations officer. His last position in uniform was Deputy Commander of Special Operations Central (SOCCENT), and prior to that commanding officer of the Marine Raider Regiment and Combined Special Operations Task Force – Iraq. Since retiring, he has written a critically acclaimed memoir, When the Tempest Gathers, and has had articles published in a number of national publications.
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