For the better part of two decades, the United States military has focused its training on counter-insurgency and anti-terrorism warfare with good reason: the troops moving through the training cycle had a specific kind of fight ahead of them, and the force wanted to ensure they were properly equipped for the challenges at hand.

Now, with the national focus shifting once again toward the possibility of going to war with a state-level opponent, the military has also had to reassess their training practices. After all, it has now been decades since the United States squared off against an opponent that posed anything more than a regional military threat. Although China and Russia both face cultural, diplomatic, and economic hurdles before they can assert themselves as truly global players, each of these nations already poses strategic threats to American interests both abroad and at home. More troubling, however, is that each are working diligently to expand the reach and capabilities of their military forces with an eye toward leveraging American weaknesses.

Some have characterized this renewed era of posturing as a “new Cold War,” though it bears little resemblance to the ideological battle between economic systems that characterized the long simmering conflict between the United States and Soviet Union in decades past. This new brand of arms race may be a cold war of sorts, but unlike the last one that was born out of World War II, this new race between nations includes three powerful states that haven’t engaged in warfare against a powerful opponent in longer than most of their troops have been in service.

The United States Marine Corps is aware of how their methodologies have shifted toward counter-insurgency tactics. Fighting against terror cells in fortified positions without advanced technology or air support requires very specific approaches to the fight that often don’t translate to open war against a nation with comparable or even better equipment. The Marines are well trained when it comes to fighting against the ambush tactics of terror cells… but how would they fare against a military force with air and satellite support, communications jamming equipment, equivalent firepower and tactics?

Well, that’s exactly what Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert B. Neller intends to find out. In the first of what promises to be a number of rounds of force-on-force training exercises, British Royal Marines will travel to the Corps’ Air Ground Combat Training Center 29 Palms, in Southern California.

While significantly smaller than the U.S. Marine Corps, British Royal Marines serve as amphibious light infantry troops under the Royal Navy (WikiMedia Commons image)

“The Royal Marines are going to be there this winter, they’re going to be our first (opposing force),” Neller said. And I’m talking with the Canadians to see if they’ll come down and fight us. And then I’m sure the Army would love to come over and get a piece.”

While this event is sure to spur some patriotic competition among participants and spectators alike, the greater value is really in allowing American and allied troops an opportunity to go against the best the world has to offer, make hard choices, and even to come up short from time to time.

“We need to give leaders opportunities to get out there and make decisions, and if they make mistakes out there, that’s fine,” he said. “We need to have people feel the effects of failing against a peer.”