The commandant of the Marine Corps has ordered troops to ditch high-tech gear in favor of maps and compasses, and at least one unit is taking him at his word.
Last spring, elements of 2nd Marine Regiment simulated a large-scale cyber attack during pre-deployment training in Twentynine Palms, California, forcing troops to return to analog methods of communication at various points — just the way they would if an enemy brought their network down.
Commandant Gen. Robert Neller has repeatedly discussed his desire to wean Marines off their dependence on technology, anticipating that a near-peer competitor may someday be able to interfere with networks and global positioning systems, rendering many of the Corps’ high-tech tools useless.
Marines, he said, should be able to plot their location on a paper map, not just monitor it on a Blue Force Tracker. And, he said, troops’ ubiquitous cell phones may create their own vulnerability.
“You’re going to live out of your pack. You’re going to dig a hole, you’re going to camouflage, you’re going to turn off all your stuff, and you’re going to sit there and try to sleep,” Neller said during an address at the Center for Strategic and International Studies last August. “And you’re going to try not to make any noise, and you’re going to have absolutely no signature. Because if you can be seen, you can be attacked.”
Ahead of their deployment last fall, the Marines of Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Africa took Neller at his word.
During a post-deployment debrief this month, unit commander Col. Dan Greenwood said the task force, built around 2nd Marine Regiment, deployed to Twentynine Palms as a Marine air-ground task force command element from April to June, in addition to a three-week training session at the base’s Marine Corps Tactical Operations Group, or MCTOG.
During the predeployment Integrated Training Exercise and training at MCTOG, the unit “went analog” multiple times, Greenwood said.
“We shut down [communications networks], shut computers off, and simulated a cyber attack so we had to go back solely to voice on the radio, and forced people to work through that,” he said.
Outside the command element, infantry Marines were also operating with stripped-down tools, including maps and compasses, Greenwood said.
“They were absolutely training with what we all grew up with … training to those skill sets,” he said.
However, Greenwood said, the Marine Corps still faces challenges in its ability to operate offline in a deployed environment. In Africa, which is more than twice as wide across as the United States, the challenge is set in especially stark relief.
“The scope of the continent is such that there are different satellite bands we have to use depending on where we are on the continent, and they’re different from what they are up in Europe,” he said. “If we had forces in Entebbe, Uganda, and we were located somewhere 3,000 miles away, it would be the equivalent of operating in [Washington,] D.C. and Twentynine Palms, California. That would absolutely be a challenge if you didn’t have satellite communications.”