CARTAGENA, Colombia --
Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force UNITAS completed the 64th iteration of the world’s longest-running multinational maritime exercise in the world here on July 21.
Throughout the exercise’s history, the United States and its partner nations have worked to improve and adapt the exercise to the evolving security challenges the world faces. This year’s UNITAS was no different as the SPMAGTF worked side-by-side with the U.S. Navy and partner nations to experiment with new equipment and test Force Design 2030 concepts.
“Compared to past years, we participated with an exponentially larger set of Marine Corps capabilities, drawn from across the Total Force, to support our Colombian and multinational friends in the region. This resulted in one of the most comprehensive iterations of UNITAS,” said Col. Guillermo Rosales, commanding officer of SPMAGTF UNITAS.
“Our mission, when viewed from this larger perspective, was to be the projection of power in an austere environment." Maj. Justin Adney, company commander of headquarters company, 23rd Marine Regiment
SPMAGTF UNITAS started the exercise with 23rd Marines’ headquarters company establishing an expeditionary advanced base via an intermediate staging base at Base de Entrenamiento de Infantería de Marina (Colombian Marine base) in Coveñas, Colombia. Headquarters company established security and initial command-and-control, linked up with partner nation forces and began patrols to collect intelligence, thus limiting the notional adversary’s ability to target the ISB.
“Our mission, when viewed from this larger perspective, was to be the projection of power in an austere environment,” said Maj. Justin Adney, company commander of headquarters company, 23rd Marine Regiment.
This initial training event also allowed Reserve Marines from various occupational specialties to put Force Design 2030 concepts into practice.
“[The Expeditionary Advanced Based Operations event] increased the Marines’ proficiency by exposing them to EABO, its use, purpose and intent as well as providing an opportunity to review basic rifleman skills and [tactics, techniques and procedures],” said Adney.
SPMAGTF UNITAS also built a sea control and sea denial training event into this year’s UNITAS, working closely with the Navy to test their ability to coordinate fires. Using the AN/TPS-80 Ground/Air Task-Oriented Radar, a newly fielded system in the Reserve Component, SPMAGTF UNITAS relayed information to ships at sea, enabling their ability to engage a notional target at sea.
“This was the first time the AN/TPS-80 deployed to the USSOUTHCOM [area of responsibility] and demonstrated our ability to provide integrated, multi-domain sea-control and sea-denial capabilities in support of a combined maritime force per our 2020 Tri-Service Naval Strategy,” said Rosales.
Ride The Wave
Photo by Courtesy Photo
U.S. Marines with 4th Amphibious Assault Battalion, 4th Marine Division, and Marines from multiple partner nations float down the Río Sinú during riverine operations and small boat training at UNITAS LXIV near Base de Entrenamiento de Infantería de Marina in Coveñas, Colombia, July 15, 2023. Through event-driven scenarios, UNITAS provides unique training opportunities both at sea and ashore in challenging and uncertain environments to conduct joint maritime operations through the execution of surface, air, amphibious and electronic warfare operations that enhance warfighting proficiency and increase interoperability among participating naval and marine forces.
The Navy also relayed information to Marines ashore, who brought a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, commonly known as HIMARS, that can be rapidly employed and can engage targets from further distances than legacy artillery systems.
“For a long time, the Marine Corps has been focused on fighting on land. We had to do that in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the current shift right now is to recognize how we need to be able to shift and support operations at sea,” said Lt. Col. Nathan Fleischaker, Inspector-Instructor for 3rd Battalion, 23rd Marines, who served as the ground combat element commander for SPMAGTF UNITAS.
In preparing for future conflicts, the Navy and Marine Corps team will need to be more integrated than ever, quickly relaying intelligence from ships at sea to Marines ashore and from Marines ashore to ships at sea.
UNITAS LXIV was also the first time unmanned aircraft systems were used during UNITAS. Combat Logistics Battalion 8, from 2nd Marine Logistics Group, served as the logistics combat element for SPMAGTF UNITAS and brought a Tactical Resupply Vehicle 150, a drone specifically designed to support logistics resupply.
With a maximum payload of 150 pounds, CLB 8 attached various supplies, including food and water, to test its ability to conduct limited resupply missions in an austere environment.
In previous conflicts, the Marine Corps relied on being resupplied from large forward operating bases, a luxury the Marine Corps will likely not have in a future conflict. Testing equipment such as the TRV-150 allows the Marine Corps to see what equipment and technology will be required to sustain operations in potential future conflicts.
Marine Forces Reserve’s newly created Marine Innovation Unit also participated in UNITAS LXIV, bringing technological expertise to help units as they experimented with new equipment and practiced new tactics, techniques and procedures.
Maj. Kristine Hall, a member of MIU’s advanced capabilities branch, assisted CLB 8’s testing of the TRV-150 and the spectrum guard pro, a device that measured the electromagnetic signature CLB 8 was emitting. The Marines first established an electromagnetic spectrum baseline and then tested how their various communication equipment emitted a signature. This allowed Marines to see how to limit their signature to prevent being detected, and ultimately targeted, by an adversary.
Guarding The Perimeter
Photo by Courtesy Photo
U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Justin Velez, an assault amphibious vehicle crewman with 4th Amphibious Assault Battalion, 4th Marine Division, guards the perimeter of a UH-1Y Venom landing zone during riverine operations training on the Río Sinú during UNITAS LXIV near Base de Entrenamiento de Infantería de Marina in Coveñas, Colombia, July 14, 2023. Through event-driven scenarios, UNITAS provides unique training opportunities both at sea and ashore in challenging and uncertain environments to conduct joint maritime operations through the execution of surface, air, amphibious and electronic warfare operations that enhance warfighting proficiency and increase interoperability among participating naval and marine forces.
Maj. Ryan Embree, a member of MIU’s commercial engagement branch, observed 4th Assault Amphibian Battalion’s riverine training alongside partner nation forces. MARFORRES recently procured multiple small boats for 4th Assault Amphibian Battalion and is still testing how these boats can be used in support of Force Design 2030.
“I think having an outside set of eyes from people who are technologically savvy and able to look at some of these problems…and then provide insights is value added,” said Embree.
SPMAGTF UNITAS accomplished all of this while operating in a disaggregated, multi-domain environment. The command element was split between the USS New York (LPD 21) and Coveñas, Colombia. The ground combat element operated at sea on New York and ashore in Coveñas and Cartagena. The aviation combat element operated from Cartagena, Coveñas, Soto Cano, Honduras and multiple locations in the continental United States.
“Future conflicts will demand that we operate in a distributed maritime environment, with an ability to command and control forces separated by thousands of miles. It's essential to create training opportunities that exercise our ability to control critical maritime terrain and sustain a force in support of a larger naval campaign,” said Rosales.
SPMAGTF UNITAS was able to meet the challenge of distributed operations the same way Marines have accomplished missions for over 245 years: trust in its small-unit leaders and Marines.
“Despite the challenges, every element of the MAGTF operated within the commander's intent and had my trust," said Rosales. "When needed, they exercised disciplined initiative to conduct missions successfully and safely. Although we hadn't trained together previously, I had no doubt that each Marine of the MAGTF knew their role, would perform to the best of their ability, and accomplish the mission.”
While UNITAS LXIV included new equipment, concepts and challenges, the overall goal of the exercise remained the same: bringing partner nation militaries together to strengthen partnerships, build relationships and improve interoperability.
“Learning to work alongside each other builds relationships among partners. These relationships create trust, and this trust strengthens partnerships," said Rosales. "By continuing to train together, in exercises such as UNITAS, we understand how to integrate our complementary capabilities and achieve the best possible outcomes.”