The 21st-century security environment has the potential to see the Marine Corps fighting across a more diverse range of terrain and climates. From the littorals to dense urban city blocks, jungles, mountains, and deserts, the service needs to be prepared to fight in any climate or place. Given this reality, operations in mountainous terrain and cold weather represent a particularly difficult challenge to a force that hasn’t fought there in generations.
In the “Marine Corps Operating Concept,” published in September 2016, Commandant General Robert B. Neller states, “The profession of arms is unforgiving; mistakes are paid for in blood, and incompetence can lead to catastrophic defeat.”1 Given that the Corps lacks a suitable large-scale venue to prepare for mountain warfare, it should consider relocating its current small training center for this purpose to a location that can support Marine expeditionary brigade (MEB)–level exercises. Alaska is just such a place.
The Current Threat
Regarding operations in mountainous terrain and cold weather, North Korea immediately comes to mind. While this threat has been present since the 1953 armistice was signed, that nation’s progress in its nuclear and long-range missile programs makes a conflict on the peninsula increasingly possible.
In addition, Russia has reemerged as a great power competitor, and any conflict with it could involve cold-weather operations. From Georgia to the Ukraine to Syria, the Russian military has demonstrated it is still a viable threat to the United States and its interests around the world. Further compounding this threat is the increased Russian interest in the Arctic. In 2014, Russia stood up “the Northern Fleet’s combined strategic command” as an “attack force in the Arctic.”2 The former Soviet Union certainly learned from Finland’s annihilation of the Red Army’s 44th Motorized Rifle Division in 1940. The United States has responded to the recent Russian threat with new NATO exercises in the Arctic region, but periodic drills that include a fairly small Marine Corps contingent will not adequately prepare the service for a future large-scale fight.
Changing World, New Demands
Although U.S. forces fought in Korea nearly 70 years ago, their experience at the Chosin Reservoir offers a difficult and costly lesson still relevant today.
The Marine Corps of the 1950s faced the Chinese Army as a force ill-equipped and ill-trained for mountainous terrain and extremely cold weather. In 1950, as the Chosin Reservoir battle still raged, the Marine Corps sought a site to train Marines in mountainous and cold-weather operations. In 1951, it found such a place in the Toiyabe National Forest and originally designated it Pickel Meadow. Located in Bridgeport, California, the training site went through several name changes before finally being designated the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center (MCMWTC) in 1963.
The center was placed in caretaker status in 1967 during the Vietnam War, but by the spring of 1976, it was back in full swing. By the 1980s, MCMWTC’s role in cold-weather and mountain operations training increased, as exercises with Norway began. This continues today, with MCMWTC serving as the service’s primary location for this type of training.
According to the official U.S. Marine Corps website, MCMWTC can host six Marine air ground task force–level exercises per year, as well as numerous year-round formal schools and joint forces training. This is a significant capability, and the Marine Corps also hosts training for several other countries from around the world. Yet it may not be enough to confront contemporary and future threats.
Limitations include the Corps’ inability to accommodate MEB-level exercises and constraints on training with mechanized vehicles and combined-arms live fire. The service has tried to supplement MCMWTC training by sending Marines to other service installations, such as Camp Ethan Allen in Jericho, Vermont, or Fort McCoy in Wisconsin. These locations do not fully mitigate the limitations, however, thereby denying Marines the large-scale quality training they must have.
MCMWTC has served the Corps well for more than six decades, but today it is no longer suitable. The Marine Corps needs all the training capabilities of its sister services on its own installation. Only one place suits the Corps’ needs: Alaska. More than twice the size of Texas, Alaska’s ample space surely could accommodate mountainous territory for a new training site. The training area at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, California, is approximately 1,000 square miles. If an area twice that size were prepared in Alaska, it would account for just one-third of 1 percent of the total land area in that state.
The new MCMWTC should model its training and capabilities after Twentynine Palms. Entities similar to the Tactical Training Exercise Control Group could supervise and evaluate training, while the Exercise Support Division could provide vehicles and equipment. Such an arrangement would result in the new MCMWTC essentially becoming the Twentynine Palms of mountainous and cold-weather training, where the Marine Corps would be able to conduct MEB-level, combined-arms exercises.
Shutting down the current MCMWTC, moving it more than 3,000 miles north, and expanding its capabilities would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. In a time of tight Department of Defense and Marine Corps budgets, this recommendation could be scoffed at. But General Neller’s warning about incompetence leading to catastrophe should be heeded. If the Corps is to provide Marines with their best chance at success in the cold mountains, it should prepare them before another Chosin Reservoir, not after.
1. Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps, “Marine Corps Operating Concept: How an Expeditionary Force Operates in the 21st Century” (Washington, DC, September 2016), i.
2. “Army: Creation of Arctic Attack Force Enables Re-Establishing Russia’s Presence in Arctic Ocean’s Strategic Areas – General Staff,” Russia & CIS Military Daily, Interfax, Moscow, 2017.