MCAGCC, Twentynine Palms, Calif. -- First Tank Battalion got down and dirty Dec. 3 through 7, taking the desert by storm for Exercise Steel Knight 03.
The battalion-level field exercise is in its 13th year and continues to be a challenging and rewarding experience for participants. Elements from several units including the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, Delta Company, 3rd Amphibious Assault Battalion, Marine Air Support Squadron 3. Combat Service Support Group 11, the 5th Battalion, 11th Marines from Camp Pendleton, Calif., and others helped make it a successful evolution.
"This annual exercise is the only time the whole battalion gets to go to the field at once," said Maj. Daniel L. Smith, executive officer, 1st Tank Battalion. Over time the exercise has grown to a regimental-, division- and even Marine Expeditionary Force-level exercise but this year it's back to a battalion-sized effort with support from several units.
According to Smith, the battalion ran through three phases during Steel Knight and faced a simulated enemy consisting of three mechanized infantry battalions and a tank battalion.
The first two phases saw the tank companies work on small-unit tactics and work with 1/7 Marines to take objectives. 1st Tank Battalion's Headquarters and Service Company also worked on convoy operations and ambush reaction drills. Phase three consisted of battalion-level maneuvers, such as the deliberate breach of an enemy-held fortified position, night defense and movements to contact.
During the breach and throughout the exercise, 1st Tanks took advantage of the overwhelming fire support of 5th Battalion, 11th Marines. Tanks also coordinated with the Direct Air Support Center from Marine Air Support Squadron 3 to bring in close-air support assets, including Air Force B-1B strategic bombers from Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D.
"The B-1B bombers providing close-air support was significant because they don't normally fly those types of missions in support of Marines," said Smith.
Cobras and F-18s could also be seen buzzing the hills of the Combat Center's training area in support of Steel Knight. The Watchdogs of VMU-1 also shared the sky, lending reconnaissance support from out-of-reach areas to commanders.
Tuesday, the morning after the deliberate breach, 1st Tanks personnel woke up to another threat: the possibility that they would be hit with a simulated chemical or biological weapon. They reacted to the threat by donning their Mission Oriented Protective Posture and continued with their missions.
Bravo Company sustained casualties when the hit finally came, and worked fast to move victims and contaminated vehicles to an operational decontamination area.
The last day of the exercise, 1st Tanks personnel were put through a mass casualty/shock trauma drill. Marines and Sailors from Combat Service Support Group 11's Shock Trauma Platoon were called in to handle the overflow of casualties and eventually took on all patients so 1stt Tanks could proceed with their mission.
"The lessons learned during this exercise were from the private up to the lieutenant colonel level," said Smith. "We really improved on our ability to provide local security within our organization but still have a ways to go."
Lance Cpl. James A. Rodriguez, tank driver, 3rd Platoon, Bravo Company, has been with 1st Tank Battalion for four months, and felt as though his combat readiness was drastically improved through Steel Knight.
"I learned a lot driving in the training area. At school we learned basics, so out here we had to quickly learn things like how to drive without hurting the other crewmembers on our tanks," said Rodriguez. "We worked on important things like keeping the tank level during firing and staying in formation. The training was intense because here we're actually doing everything we've been told about."