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Cold war in the Sierra Nevada: Marines train for winter operations

Cold war in the Sierra Nevada: Marines train for winter operations
A Marine participates in advanced cold weather training at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, Calif. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Hunkered down behind a wall of snow, two U.S. Marines melt slush to make drinking water after spending the night digging out a defensive position high in the Sierra Nevada. Their laminated targeting map is wedged into the ice just below the machine gun.

Nearly 8,000 feet up at a training center in the Sierra Nevada, the air is thin, the snow is chest-high and the temperature is plunging. But other Marines just a mile or so away are preparing to attack, and forces on both sides must be able to battle the enemy and the unforgiving environment.

Marines walk along a snowy trail during their advanced cold weather training at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, Calif. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

After 17 years of war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda-linked insurgents, the U.S. military is shifting its focus to better prepare for great-power competition with Russia and China, and against unpredictable foes such as North Korea and Iran. U.S. forces must be able to survive and fight while countering drones, sophisticated jamming equipment and other electronic and cyber warfare that can track them, disrupt communications and kill them — technology they didn’t routinely face over the last decade.

“If you were to draw a line from here to the DMZ between North and South Korea, both of these sites are on the 38th parallel. And so the weather here accurately replicates the weather that we would encounter in North and South Korea,” said Col. Kevin Hutchison, the training center commander. “What you’re seeing here is Marines fighting Marines, so we are replicating a near-peer threat.”

“It’s kind of overwhelming coming up here. Many of them have never been exposed to snow before.”

Staff Sgt. Rian Lusk, chief instructor for the mountain sniper course

Marines gather for a debrief during advanced cold-weather training. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)
Marines boils water in a trench during advanced cold-weather training. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)
Empty MRE packages are covered in snow. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)
A Marine walks into a tent during advanced cold-weather training at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)
Clockwise from top left; Marines gather for a debriefing during advanced cold weather training; Marines boil water in a trench; a Marine walks into a tent at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport; empty MRE packages are covered in snow. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

As a snowstorm swirls around them, Mullen and Hutchison move through the woods, checking in with the young Marines designated as the adversary force of about 250 troops who must prevent more than 800 attackers from gaining control of nearby Wolf Creek Bridge. An Associated Press team was allowed to accompany them to the Marine Corps’ Mountain Warfare Training Center south of Lake Tahoe and watch the training.

After 17 years of war against Taliban and Al Qaeda-linked insurgents, the military is shifting its focus to better prepare for great-power competition with Russia and China, and against unpredictable foes such as North Korea and Iran. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Marines to use snowshoes and cross-country skis to get around. They wrap white camouflage around their weapons, struggle to keep their ammunition dry and learn how to position their machine guns so they don’t sink into the powdery snow.

“It’s kind of overwhelming coming up here. Many of them have never been exposed to snow before,” said Staff Sgt. Rian Lusk, chief instructor for the mountain sniper course. “You’re constantly having to dig or move up the mountain range. So, it’s physically taxing, but more than anything, I think, it’s mentally taxing.”

Marines walk along a snow-covered trail during their advanced cold-weather training. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)
A Marine sits in a trench at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)
Marines walk along a snow-covered trail, left, during their advanced cold weather training. A Marine sits in a trench at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

The Marine Corps has changed its training in the mountain course and at the Twentynine Palms Marine base 400 miles south. Instead of scripted exercises, trainers map out general objectives and let the Marines make their own battle decisions, replicating a more unpredictable combat situation.

Rather than fighting from forward operating bases that stretched across Iraq and Afghanistan, complete with security forces and chow halls, troops now have to be more independent, commanders say, providing their own protection and support. And they must prepare for a more formidable, high-tech enemy.

Marines walk along a trail in the Sierra Nevada. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)
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