Royal Marines on exercise with their American counterparts

Royal Marines ‘fought’ their American counterparts on one of the world’s biggest mock battlefields.

Around 800 commandos have been pitched against troops and air power of the US Marine Corps – normally their brothers in arms – on a vast military exercise area in the California desert.

The men of 45 Commando from Arbroath are the guinea pigs for a new initiative by the head of the US Marine Corps, General Robert B Neller, who is determined to better prepare his men for battle – by pitching them against their peers.

Such training has largely been out of fashion over the past 15 years as both Corps concentrated on dealing with unconventional insurgency-driven warfare.

The environment is challenging, especially terrain, but it’s been a great experience.

Marine Fergus Donaldson

But with more conventional threats re-emerging, marines on both sides of the pond are re-evaluating tactics – prompting this ‘peer versus peer’ training in the Mojave Desert.

The 998 square miles of exercise area at Twentynine Palms is roughly twice the size of Greater Manchester – allow troops to unleash live firepower on a scale impossible in the UK.

The US Marines send their units through the combat range at least once every two years, while all Royal Marines formations about to take on the mantel of Lead Commando Group – sent into action around the globe at immediate notice by the government when needed – pass through the training ground.

45 Commando are about to take on that role for the next two years and the Arbroath marines form the bulk of the Brits taking part in the six-week workout, Exercise Green Dagger.

But they been joined by the gunners of 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers, Bravo Company from 40 Commando based near Taunton, and the Royal Marines’ Viking armoured vehicles from Chivenor in North Devon.

The US Marines have thrown two battalions, plus Harrier jets, Huey and Cobra battlefield helicopters and drones into the ‘battles’.

Artillery and mortars “dropped some lead” on the expansive ranges after first making use of hi-tech simulators; infantry moved through ‘kill houses’ to practise house-to-house/close quarters battle; commando and Army engineers carried out demolitions and breaches;  Vikings carried mortar units into battle for live shoots to support troops attacking on the ground; and two five-day urban battles, with British search and attack dogs from the Royal Veterinary Corps, helping the commandos clear out houses.

Twentynine Palms’ pièce de resistance is Range 220, a mock town, dubbed Hidalgo by the troops. Part of the town is built on a grid – like most US cities – while another ‘district’ mirrors the winding, narrow lanes and confused streets of European and Middle Eastern towns.

It features grocery stores, shops, petrol stations, even a hospital. Upwards of 100 civilians bring the town to life – making the training more realistic, but also more challenging, as does

simunition – similar to paint balling – or live arms.

What both Corps learned from the desert fighting was that both would make formidable foes on the battlefield.

“The Brits had a lot of capabilities that were near peer,” said Lieutenant Jason Hunter, a 23-year-old USMC platoon leader. “They used air power, indirect fire and vehicles well – it really was a difficult problem they posed for us.”

Marine Fergus Donaldson, a 26-year-old serving with 45 Commando’s Yankee Company, added: “It’s been great working alongside the US Marines – the change of pace when it comes to the climate has been a welcome change considering the weather at home.

“The environment is challenging, especially terrain, but it’s been a great experience.”

His commander, Major Don Rogers, in charge of Yankee, said the six weeks in the desert had tightened a bond between two bands of brothers going back two decades.

He continued: “3 Commando Brigade and the US Marine Corps have a very close working relationship having conducted operations together over the past 15 to 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ll continue to work very closely around the world.”