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Twentynine Palms

Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center

Twentynine Palms, California
Marines conduct live-fire training exercise in Johnson Valley

By Courtesy Story by Kelly O’Sullivan | Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms | August 24, 2018

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A decision by the Federal Aviation Administration to establish a Controlled Firing Area over the Johnson Valley Exclusive Military Use Area paved the way for Marines of India Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, 7th Marine Regiment, to make history Friday, Aug. 24, 2018, when they conducted a live-fire training exercise in the area.

Utilizing 60mm mortars, rockets, the Anti-Personnel Obstacle Breaching System (APOBS) and small arms, “Darkside” Marines under the command of LtCol Jimmy Birchfield took three objectives near Bessemer Mine in the Galway Lake Training Area. The new training area is part of 107,000 acres added to the Combat Center for exclusive military use when the National Defense Authorization Act of 2014 was signed into law, expanding the base from 935 square miles to 1,107 square miles.

The 40-minute exercise, Darkside’s last training event before deploying to the Middle East next month, was observed by BGen Roger B. Turner Jr., Combat Center Commanding General, and VIP guests from the offices of Congressman Paul Cook, California State Sen. Jean Fuller, California State Assemblyman Chad Mayes, the city of Twentynine Palms, town of Yucca Valley and Yucca Valley Airport Commission. Also observing were personnel from Government and External Affairs and Range Safety.

“It’s a really important day for all of us,” Turner said after departing a helicopter to greet his guests, who convoyed to the area in buses, pickup trucks and SUVs. “We couldn’t have done it without the cooperation of the communities (surrounding the Combat Center).”

The Marine Corps began working in 2006 to expand the Combat Center’s training lands to support scalable Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) training required to allow units to train as they fight — utilizing air, ground, command and logistics elements in realistic scenarios. The Combat Center is the only Marine Corps installation in the world that is large enough to conduct this type of comprehensive training.

Marines conducted limited trained in the Exclusive Military Use Area and adjacent Shared Use Area during Large Scale Exercises in August 2016 and 2017 with the support of Temporary Special Use Airspace granted by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Permanent Special Use Airspace establishment needed to support live fires from both ground- and aviation-based weapons systems during Large Scale Exercises and other combined-arms training exercises conducted in the Exclusive Military Use Area and Shared Use Area is pending FAA approval. In the interim, the Controlled Firing Area established last week will remain in effect through August 2020. It will be activated up to 16,000 feet, when needed to support specific ground-based live-fires in the Exclusive Military Use Area, and will be deactivated at the completion of each training day.

While the general public is prohibited from accessing the Exclusive Military Use Area by ground, non-military aircraft can continue to fly over the area until Permanent Special Use Airspace is established. Controlled Firing Area activation allows units to conduct certain ground-based live-fire training without impact to general aviation. Units involved in the training will post air sentries at strategic locations in the training area while the Controlled Firing Area is active. Air sentries will notify Combat Center Range Control when non-participating aircraft approach the airspace and training will be suspended until non-participating aircraft depart the area.

No military or non-military aircraft entered the Controlled Firing Area during Friday’s exercise.

After initial mortar suppression from a staging area near the landing zone, Turner and his guests moved to a hillside observation post across the valley from Bessemer Mine. Twentynine Palms Mayor Daniel Mintz Sr., Yucca Valley Mayor Rick Denison and Yucca Valley Airport Commissioner Bob Dunn joined the general for a quick ribbon-cutting before the exercise resumed.

“This is an amazing day for the Combat Center and the surrounding communities,” Turner said, snipping a large red ribbon in two. “The Johnson Valley training area is open for business.”

Seconds later, a barrage of live fire erupted as India 3/4 used mortars and rockets to clear the way for a platoon of riflemen who shouted to one another and fired toward the objectives during their advance.

Wearing flak jackets and Kevlar helmets, the guests took photographs and videos of the scene unfolding in front them. Turner and Birchfield spoke to them against a backdrop of small-arms fire punctuated by loud booms as mortars and rockets made contact near the objectives.

“This is a huge thing for us,” Turner told Beth Bogue, field representative for Assemblyman Mayes. Earlier, Bogue and Denison presented the general with certificates of recognition commemorating the event.

White and yellow smoke provided additional cover for the advancing rifle platoon, and several guests jumped as an ear-shattering “BOOM” echoed through the valley when an APOBS made impact, sending up a large plume near trench No. 2.

“Now they’ve breached the lane,” Birchfield said. Shortly after, his radio crackled to life with notice that “there are no more targets” and the Marines on the desert floor cheered as they continued advancing toward trench No. 3.

Small-arms fire echoed at a rapid pace as they progressed, gradually slowing as the last 12 Marines in the fight moved in to secure the last trench.

“It’s so quiet because that last unit is the only one that can shoot,” Birchfield said. “That’s why it’s so important to get them as close as possible.”

Forty minutes after the first mortar round made impact, the call of “white flags, white flags” came over the radio, signaling the end of the exercise.

Birchfield said the opportunity to train on new terrain was invaluable as 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines prepares to deploy.

“The training areas we have at Twentynine Palms are the best in the Marine Corps,” he said. “Complex terrain forces unit leaders to make complex decisions” and terrain they haven’t utilized before adds a new element of complexity.

Col Kyle B. Ellison, 7th Marine Regiment Commander, observed the Marines in action from the desert floor before walking up the hill to join the group.

“The fact that we can expand outside Mainside … gives us flexibility in our training,” he said. “Marines that are home-stationed fight on a lot of the same terrain and that’s not always good for their decision-making. This is an opportunity to mix it all up on them.”

More space means more realistic training, and it gets Marines out of their comfort zone, Ellison said.

“If you want to bust complacency, move them and test them,” he said.

Turner said that in addition to expanding the Combat Center’s ability to provide world-class training to units throughout the Marine Corps, other branches of the U.S. Armed Forces and America’s allies, the ability to use the expanded range areas as intended opens up more opportunities for tenant units.

“A lot of time, the home-station units get pushed out of the training ranges by our big exercises,” he said. “This expansion will allow (them) to train, too.”

Those invited to observe the training exercise said they were impressed with what they saw.

“I’ve never seen a place where they can use the tools they did today,” Yucca Valley Town Manager Curtis Yakimow said. “This is a monumental moment. We will continue to support the base every opportunity we have.”

Denison said he’s followed the expansion over the years and was excited to attend the live-fire exercise.

“I love our Marines. I love our sailors. It’s nice to see them move forward,” he said.

“The experience of coming out here to the open desert to watch the Marines work together is something I’ll never forget,” Mintz said. “Listening to the senior staff talk so enthusiastically about preparing those young Marines really impressed me. They want to bring them home safe.”

Airport Commission President Bob Dunn, a private pilot who flies in the region, has worked with the Marine Corps to inform general aviators about training and the airspace status in Johnson Valley. Dunn said he plans to meet with flight instructors in the area to discuss what he saw. He also will discuss it with those who attend the commission’s meeting in September.

Mortars that travel a quarter-mile in 23 seconds, “that’s a pretty good arc,” he said. “You don’t want to run into that.”

Bogue said the Combat Center “does a fantastic job putting together opportunities for the Marines to practice real-life situations” and it’s imperative that local governments continue to work together with the Marine Corps to ensure that training continues.

“It keeps the Marines safe, and it keeps us safe,” she said.
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