CAMP GONZALVES, Japan --
Thick vegetation, nearly vertical slopes and a constant battle with the unknown are just some of the many obstacles faced by students going through the Jungle Warfare Training Center’s reconnaissance and surveillance course.
U.S. Marines with Battalion Landing Team 1/5, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, attended Okinawa’s JWTC for a 10-day course from Jan. 4-14, aiming to sharpen their mission capabilities in contested areas. This course is a small look into a larger initiative from the Marine Corps’ Stand-in Force concept, which emphasizes lethality and survivability in austere environments.
“This course is designed to break the Marines out of their comfort zone, and create a mindset that will make them successful in a Pacific jungle environment,” said Staff Sgt. Matt Kearney, the Reconnaissance and Surveillance Chief Instructor. “The course caters to any ground reconnaissance assets. Effectively employing them to provide the ground force commander with situational awareness to make decisions.”
With the nation’s focus shifting away from the Middle East, jungle-based operations have taken on a more significant role in the reconnaissance and scout sniper communities. The SIF concept calls on the Marine Corps to prioritize operating as a lethal, low signature and mobile team. This affords the force another layer of depth in the reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance initiative.
“Over the past 20 years, the Marine Corps’ focus was on a desert environment. We had the luxury of owning the sky through unmanned aerial vehicles which assisted us in reconnaissance and surveillance, but that won’t always be the case out here,” said Kearney. “When facing a peer-level, or near peer-level threat coupled with dense overhead canopies and limited visibility on the ground, the most effective tool our commanders have is a well-trained ground reconnaissance team with their boots in the mud.”
“The goals are to become a more self-sustaining and lethal force, with the ability to conduct longer operations while leaving a smaller footprint.” Sgt. Connor Claiborne, BLT 1/5 scout sniper team leader
During the course, the Marines received classes to hone their skills in a jungle environment such as jungle medicine, land navigation, observation techniques and communication devices. Following the classes, the Marines conducted practical application of what they learned through different mission sets such as zone and route reconnaissance, as well as stalking.
Stalking normally refers to training where Marines receive one or two static objectives that they must observe without detection, said Kearney. The teams would normally start in one location, work their way up to an objective and observe it, then sneak out undetected.
Emphasizing different techniques and strategies in a challenging environment is a major teaching point for the course. To do this, the instructors implemented a 360-degree stalk. A 360-degree stalk opens up the entire jungle environment for use, allowing Marines to minimize and mask a detectable signature.
“This jungle environment is very distinct training,” said Kearney. “Seemingly small obstacles can quickly turn into significant friction points. Additionally, this environment gets cold enough to make you uncomfortable, and hot enough to make you wish you never came. So their mental toughness is tested as well.”
The Marines were more than willing to take on the training.
“Just like in real life a 360-degree stalk is not just one lane, it encompasses multiple objectives which are very unique training to us,” said Sgt. Connor Claiborne, a scout sniper team leader with BLT 1/5. “Most of the training we’ve received involves a static observation post where the adversary is only looking forward. Here, both the objectives and our teams have the freedom to maneuver which adds an entirely new dimension to the training.”
Photo by Lance Cpl. Christopher England
Sgt. Edgar Alvarez, a scout sniper with Battalion Landing Team 1/5, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit gathers necessary gear for a two-day area reconnaissance mission at the Jungle Warfare Training Center in Okinawa, Japan, Jan. 11, 2022. Scout snipers play an integral part in the Stand in Force Concept operating as the eyes and ears of the ground force commander, allowing for a more efficient decision making process. The 31st MEU, the Marine Corps' only continuously forward-deployed MEU, provides a flexible and lethal force ready to perform a wide range of military operations as the premiere crisis response force in the Indo-Pacific region.
To make the training more authentic, the course instructors acted as the objectives for the students, regularly changing locations and keeping the students on their toes. This forced small unit leaders to make ground-level decisions similar to how they would in a real-life situation.
“The goals are to become a more self-sustaining and lethal force, with the ability to conduct longer operations while leaving a smaller footprint,” said Claiborne. “We are the projected eyes forward in a clandestine manner. Showcasing we can effectively employ all of our mission essential tasks is key to developing confidence, not only at the team or platoon level but for our commanders as well.”
Currently, the JWTC is the only of its kind in the Marine Corps, and one of the only two jungle training centers in the Department of Defense. Its courses train Marines and other services to thrive in harsh, tropical environments commonly found in the first island chain. Not only does it teach basic jungle survival skills, but it has laid the foundation for educating Marines to thrive and rely less on logistical, maintenance and personnel support inside of a contested environment.
“We were lucky to be afforded the opportunity to attend this course,” said Sgt. Brenan Demerit, a scout sniper team leader with BLT 1/5. “This course offers us something completely different than anything we have back in the United States. On the east coast you have some swamps and forests but nothing in comparison to here. You’re in a completely new land.”
Every aspect of the course was designed to help units better prepare for future operations in a jungle environment, whether it be through learning the basics of how to survive in the jungle to observing how an adversary performs targeting.
“This course is extremely beneficial and I hope more units are allowed the opportunity to attend,” said Demerit. “It helps us become more proficient in a different terrain which can only make us more effective against our pacing threats.”