Issue Date: September 13, 2004
Corp’s CAX changes glean mixed reviews
Experts believe training for Iraq threat is wise
By Christian Lowe
Times staff writer
It has been a mainstay of large-scale Marine Corps training for decades, and the only place other than the battlefield where many leathernecks would see all the pieces of a land battle — air, infantry and artillery — come together in one nearly monthlong, bone-jarring, live-fire experience.
But the Combined Armed Exercise, or CAX, will soon be a thing of the past — at least temporarily — and news of drastic changes to the Corps’ signature live-fire exercise has gotten mixed reactions from defense analysts and military theorists.
Some warn that shortening the exercise to 11 days — about half its current length — gives officers and noncommissioned officers little time to practice planning and strategy for major operations. Others say the new focus on training for the kind of insurgent warfare the Corps faces in Iraq is exactly what’s needed.
Still others see CAX as a relic of a bygone military era and rejoice that it has been changed.
Clearly, the Corps recognizes that the world has changed and that it needs to prepare its units for a kind of entrenched warfare that has continued to vex commanders in the field. But could the shift in focus of CAX away from large-scale maneuver warfare training — skills the Corps used to great effect little more than a year ago as it drove the I Marine Expeditionary Force north to Baghdad — leave Marines less prepared if the United States finds itself in another, more conventional war?
“When I’m training, I want to focus on the next six months and what’s going to keep my Marines from getting killed,” said Frank Hoffman, a research fellow with the Corps’ Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities based at Quantico, Va. “But I want to stress people’s minds in a lot of ways. I don’t want to put them in a little box and make them think they’re ready for something — the future is not templatable.”
The Corps also has changed the way it prepares its newly minted officers for the fleet. The final exercise at The Basic School at Quantico has been changed to reflect operations in Iraq. The large-scale maneuver exercise dubbed “The War,” which saw officers storming through the forests of Quantico, calling in simulated air and artillery strikes and seizing territory, has been given a distinctly urban operations feel that focuses on convoy security, vehicle checkpoints and village patrols.
Marine officials admit the U.S. military has been criticized for focusing on training for the last war. The revised CAX and TBS “War,” although emphasizing today’s conflict, at least prepare troops for immediate threats, they say.
“We need to make what we’re doing now reflect what they’re going to see,” said Col. Jeff Bearor, chief of staff for Training and Education Command at Quantico. “That doesn’t negate the good things we got out of the normal CAX. ;It’s just that’s not what Marines need at this point.”
Retired Marine Col. Gary Anderson agrees. “There’s nothing wrong with focusing on the problem at hand,” said Anderson, who last commanded Marines in Somalia and now works as a consultant with the Pentagon. “You accept a certain amount of risk that a war will break out in Iran or North Korea that will require a larger, combined-arms approach. But that’s a calculated risk you have to make in these types of situations.”
And it’s also not new for the Corps to shift training, he said.
During World War II, the Corps changed training to focus on the needs of island hopping after the battle of Tarawa, then changed back as it prepared for the invasion of Okinawa, Japan. And the Corps isn’t alone. One of America’s strongest allies in the Middle East has been struggling to balance immediate training needs with preparations for future combat.
“The Israelis have been having this argument for a long time,” Anderson said. “They’ve been concerned that if they suddenly had to go to war with Syria, they’ve concentrated on the West Bank and they’d have a problem.”
But one strategist known for his unconventional thinking believes CAX should have been sacked long ago.
“From its inception [CAX] has been so bad that the Marine Corps would be better off without it altogether,” said Bill Lind, director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation and a frequent participant in Marine Corps and Pentagon war games. “It is perfect training to be the French army of the 1930s.
“It is, and always has been, completely antithetical to maneuver warfare,” he said, explaining that to properly prepare for large-scale combat, CAX should include engagements that pit two forces against each other, which it does not.
To Lind, the shift to Iraq-specific training is a good start. He believes the Corps needs to train its troops to fight stateless, guerrilla insurgent movements — what he calls fourth-generation warfare.
But, in Lind’s mind, there’s no need to look back.
“CAX should be taken out and shot and buried,” Lind said. “It is a military museum piece. It is a relic.”