Whether in the face of the enemy or a deadly global pandemic, the U.S. Marine Corps not only stays ahead of the curve but also flattens it.
World War I destroyed numerous lives across the globe during the 1910 era but only claimed second place for deadliest disturbance. The 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic killed millions more, taking with it military personnel who intermingled with other countries without proper health protocol.
A century later, the Marine Corps learned from the past, and the Marines and Sailors with 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force, successfully deployed to Norway in May 2020 as Marine Rotational Force-Europe 20.2, Marine Forces Europe and Africa, which focuses on cold-weather and mountain-warfare training and military-to military engagements to enhance interoperability with allies and partners.
“COVID-19 was certainly a challenge to readiness,” said Lt. Col. Brian Donlon, battalion commander of MRF-E. “It imposed conditions on the battalion’s ability to train that were new and challenging, but COVID did not erase the requirement to be ready to deploy, to be expeditionary, and be prepared to execute our mission essential tasks.”
During the deployment process, the battalion mandated strict social distancing, hygiene protocol, and mask donning, and U.S. Navy Corpsmen continuously screened Marines and Sailors for any symptoms of the virus. Once in Norway, a 14-day quarantine was executed.
“We treated quarantine a lot like being on ship, and when we were in quarantine we did our prep for combat in the limited spaces available to us, and we created a battle rhythm that was essentially ship-board living,” added Donlon.
After a successful 14-day quarantine where the battalion saw zero COVID cases, Marines and Sailors immediately transitioned into the annual interoperability exercise, Thunder Reindeer, located in Norway’s Arctic Circle. The exercise included opportunities to practice live-fire and combined arms training as well as air integration.
On the ground, the Marines found themselves setting up camp in snowy, rocky terrain, much different than the humid, swamp land they were used to at their home station in North Carolina. In the morning the Marines tactically integrated with the Norwegians and provide support by fire.
Marine scout snipers maneuvered through forests across mountainous terrain to practice stealthy link up procedures with their Norwegian counterparts without giving away a position.
“This shows the flexibility of each country and our ability to quickly integrate after coming out of quarantine,” said Sgt. Stephen Michaels, a Marine scout sniper.
Marines also integrated with a Norwegian artillery battalion and learned how their NATO counterpart conducts a call-for-fire, an exercise held each year.
The Norwegians were able to integrate air, land, and naval assets to include F-35s in a joint setting at the battalion-level for the first time.
The Norwegian government announced its support for purchasing F-35s in 2008, and the first round of jets became operational in late 2019. According to Norway’s Chief of Defense, bringing capability to communicate with the jets is still a work in progress for the different army, navy, and air force units.
To assist in that progress, the Marines stepped in. During Thunder Reindeer, simulated air support was conducted with Norway’s 2nd Army Battalion, and it integrated Marine forward air controllers.
While out in the arctic climate and mountainous terrain of northern Norway, contact with participating F-35 jets was reached, a milestone previously unattained by 2nd Battalion. As a result, troops on the ground received the simulated support needed.
“It’s a personal feat for the Norwegians as they continue to progress with that sort of technology and being able to use them not only as air assets but air-to-ground,” said Capt. Sage Santangelo, a Marine forward air controller.
Lt. Col. Erling Nervik, commander of Norway’s 2nd Battalion, said making contact and having air support was an important asset to bring into the training and was very satisfied with his experience with the Marines.
“We are in many ways like-minded, and we have been good allies for many years and working together with the USMC is always a pleasure,” Nervik said. “After being at Quantico in America for a year at the Command and Staff College, I know the Marines, know the attitude, the mentality. I’m looking forward to the cooperation between two good allies.”
The Marines are expected to operate in Norway until the fall, and they and the Norwegians plan to hold various exercises during that time for continued inoperability and arctic training.