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A U.S. Marine with 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion, moves his Assault Amphibious Vehicle to setup in a defensive position while demonstrating amphibious landing capabilities during Steel Knight 2017 at Camp Pendleton. Photo by Lance Cpl. Skyler E. Treverrow
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Steel Knight prepares Marines for ‘near-peer’ threats

OCEANSIDE — The “war” was going well, a Colonel with the 1st Marine Division said, adding there was a feeling they were tipping towards defeating the enemy.

But the win wouldn’t be coming without high losses.

“I think you may be surprised if you look at our simulation at the amount of loss that we’ve taken,” said Col. Mike McFerron, who, along with more than 25,000 Marines, was participating in another iteration of the Steel Knight training exercise, which ended on Monday.

While full numbers on simulated casualties over the almost two-week-long training exercise weren’t released, in one day for example, the Marines took more than 100 casualties in one engagement, explained 1st Lt. Matthew Gregory, a public affairs officer with the 1st Marine Division. One hundred losses in one day hasn’t been something the Marine Corps has seen in decades, he explained.

“It’s a simulation, thank goodness,” said McFerron. “I’m not a political figure, but I would say our nation is probably not prepared for the type of casualties that we would expect in a near-peer fight.”

Steel Knight began back on Nov. 30. The senior-level training exercise was preparing the 1st Marine Division to fight against a near-peer army — an essentially more sophisticated enemy similar in size and scope to the U.S. military, explained Master Sgt. Dan Tremore.

“In today’s day and age, it’s more the near-peer hybrid threat type of environment, so that’s what we try to model it (the exercise) after, a military that’s more like us with similar capabilities to ours,” Tremore said.

Though the exercise is providing training for a larger scope of warfare against an organized military, it also incorporates the lessons learned over the past 15 years of fighting a seemingly “unconventional” war against insurgents and smaller armed forces.

“You can look at warfare in a very binary way — and that’s a conventional war and an unconventional war,” McFerron said. “I don’t prescribe to that. I think every war, going back hundreds of years, was on the spectrum of conventional and unconventional somewhere…we can talk about the true declaration of war by our civilian leaders, but the fact is warfare has taken place, there has been war, we are in a war, so to suggest or accept there is a new war and that’s going to carry on through infinity — that that’s how we fight a war — I think is a false premise.

“We’re not accepting the premise that warfare will be a snapshot of today and that will go on for decades or years,” McFerron said. “We’re accepting the premise that we are prepared for what we are doing today, and we’re ready for whatever’s going to come tomorrow.”

The exercise has, so far, identified a lot of “deficiencies,” he said, though adding nothing that was a major concern.

But that’s what the exercise is about — identifying those deficiencies and improving upon them.

Spanning three bases, including an amphibious assault exercise on Camp Pendleton’s Red Beach, Steel Knight also included training at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms and Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz.

“This is tying together all the division to include elements of the Marine, Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTAF) to come together and fight as one,” Tremore said.

“It’s far above the platoon level training or company level training that you would do,” he added.

“We’re trying to incorporate so many different pieces throughout the Marine Expeditionary Force that it becomes almost as a larger MAGTAF,” McFerron said. “But it’s good, because that’s how we’re going to fight. We’re going to fight as a MAGTAF.”