As part of Large Scale Exercise 2021, U.S. Navy Operations Specialist 3rd Class Jack Azzopardi tracks surface vessels in the combat information center aboard the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock Arlington on Aug. 8, 2021.

As part of Large Scale Exercise 2021, U.S. Navy Operations Specialist 3rd Class Jack Azzopardi tracks surface vessels in the combat information center aboard the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock Arlington on Aug. 8, 2021. U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class John Bellino

Globe-Spanning Wargame Puts New Naval Concepts to the Test

Large Scale Exercise 21 is connecting thousands of sailors and Marines to try out and develop warfighting concepts intended to be central to tomorrow's fight.

NORFOLK, Virginia—In a small blue-lit space deep within the guided missile cruiser San Jacinto, two sailors worked to turn the symbols on their consoles into a clearer picture of the potential threats offshore. 

But off which shore? Though a large screen on the bulkhead showed the blips to be air traffic or geographic points along the eastern U.S. seaboard, most of the thousands of participants in the massive wargame called Large Scale Exercise 21 would “see” those radar contacts as forces positioned off the coast of Norway.  

“I've never seen anything like this. Thirty-five years I have not seen anything of this scope and scale. It is really outstanding. And this technology allows us to do things at a level where we haven't in the past,” said Vice Adm. James Kilby, the deputy commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command.

Kilby’s command is one of several hosting LSE 21, a 14-day wargame that seeks to hone the Navy and Marine Corps’ ability to synchronize multiple fleets and to assess their newest warfighting concepts.

The exercise was developed at the behest of Adm. Mike Gilday, the chief of naval operations, whose Navigation Plan 2021 called in January for a wargame to refine three new concepts: Distributed Maritime Operations, Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations, and Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment. The concepts are key to the military’s new approach to fighting in all domains: cyber, space, on the sea and land, and underwater.

“By maneuvering across all domains, we will create operational dilemmas, exploit uncertainty and overwhelm our adversaries,” Gilday wrote.

The exercise, conducted by U.S. Fleet Forces Command, U.S. Pacific Fleet, and U.S. Naval Forces Europe, involves 25,000 participants across 17 time zones, the three Marine Expeditionary Force combat operations centers, 25 ships, and every numbered fleet except 5th Fleet.

“The threats out there are global. That's why we want to bring everyone together and see how we synchronize across the way,” said Ron Keter, the exercise’s technical director.

More than 1,100 people are overseeing the execution of the exercise, which began on Friday and whose center is the Navy Center for Advanced Modeling and Simulation on Naval Station Norfolk. Reporters were given access to the large secure room where the exercise is monitored and controlled. A raised circular desk sits in the middle of the room, with rows of computer stations radiating outward in quadrants.

About 140 people are in the center at any time and more of the exercise operators are spread out across Norfolk, the United States, and the globe. Assessment teams are also located with the participants to gather real time reporting and data to adjust the exercise when necessary, said Keter.

The exercise’s use of live, virtual, and constructive training technology allows it to be as complex and realistic as needed to test out the concepts without needing as many real ships, aircraft, or munitions. Participants can work via simulator centers and on real ships like the San Jacinto, allowing sailors to use the same equipment they would on a deployment. Sailors and Marines can see and interact with one another, and the exercise operators are able to add and adjust threats and enemies in the scenario.

LSE 21 consists of multiple exercise types already used by the Navy and Marine Corps, such as fleet synthetic training with a ship pierside, up to a joint force exercise, Keter said. The layering lets the naval exercise be conducted under one scenario but simulated in different ways depending on where the sailors and Marines are located and what position they hold.

The scale and scope of the exercise with the use of the training technology is what makes LSE21 stand out from previous global exercises and what they do on a daily basis, said Rear Adm. Douglas Beal, the vice commander at U.S. Fleet Forces Command and the exercise’s director. 

“It's unique that we have all the Navy component commanders, the four-star fleet commanders involved. It's unique that we're doing something on this scale as a naval exercise with the Navy and the Marine Corps. It's more than 25,000 folks that are all linked together and in the same battle problem all at once,” he said.

With everyone connected and operating within a single scenario, even one sailor or Marine’s decision can affect others in the exercise.

“For instance, they could shoot the wrong thing. They could shoot when they're not supposed to. They could not shoot, and then imagine losing a certain ship, like an aircraft carrier, and what capability is lost to that joint force then, right? So, there are a lot of impacts that one sailor has sometimes they don't realize,” Keter said.

Beal would not provide specifics on the exercise’s scenario but did say it involves the buildup to a worldwide crisis and the military’s reaction to it, with inputs from economic, diplomatic, and informational angles.

The global reach of the exercise allows ships like the San Jacinto, pierside at Norfolk, to participate under the command of U.S. Sixth Fleet thousands of miles away and operate virtually as if they are tracking threats in Northern Europe.

“There is a little bit of translation and gamesmanship to what you're talking about,” said Capt. Chris Marvin, the ship’s commanding officer about the exercise versus what is shown on the console screens. “At the watchstander level, it's kind of transparent, it's just geography. So it doesn't really matter where you are, you're going to take the same actions based on threats.”

The ship is currently in a maintenance availability ahead of a deployment with the USS Harry S. Truman strike group, and the exercise allows sailors to keep up their skills in air defense.

“It's a great benefit. You know, ’cause those folks that are sitting watch up there, they're not necessarily the ones that are fixing the ship. But they can practice their skills at the same time other people are turning wrenches, burning metal, that sort of stuff,” Marvin said.

Despite the size of the exercise and its aim to test warfighting concepts, watchstanders sitting at their consoles are focused on rehearsing their tactics, techniques, and procedures like they’ve always done, Marvin said. Tactical action officers and commanders are the first level where participants start to see the scale of the units and coordination involved.

Operations Specialist 2nd Class Matthew Falgoust, an anti-submarine tactical air controller on the San Jacinto, said the sailors are still able to grasp some of the bigger picture from where they are sitting.

“It's definitely opened my eyes a little bit more because you're starting to see things outside the box. We're not just working on the things that are known to work, and actually, we're learning a lot more from our TAOs, different rates in combat as a whole, to gain more knowledge and to kind of branch out,” he said inside the secure combat information center. 

The Navy will be taking the data gathered during the exercise and scrutinize it to improve the warfighting concepts, Kilby said. They also plan to use the data to inform future exercises for these concepts, including fleet exercises. This is also not the last large-scale exercise for the Navy and Marine Corps; future LSEs will expand to include allies.  

“We're not going to be like ‘Okay, we're done; we got it.’ This is gonna continue—because the adversary is going to keep advancing, we got to keep advancing. So to me, we're going to get better and better and better at this, but we're never going to hang up our cleats and say we're done,” he said.