In February 1997 the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) Special Operations Capable (SOC) landed at Porto Scudo, Sardinia for Exercise Island Thunder '97, a joint and combined exercise with the U.S. Army's Southern European Task Force (SETAF) and elements of the Italian armed forces. The 26th MEU and SETAF teamed up to begin the exercise with a joint service noncombatant evacuation (NEO) exercise. The NEO was followed by an amphibious assault, a joint fire support coordination exercise (FSCEX) and small unit infantry training for Battalion Landing Team 1/8.
Island Thunder was the first time the MEU had trained in a joint environment since the conclusion of its pre-deployment training. The exercise also marked a first for Marine aviation. The new night targeting system on Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 365's AH-1W Super Cobras was used to mark targets for AV-8B Harriers to drop 500-pound laser-guided bombs. By combining these assets, the MEU has added an air-delivered precision strike capability to its arsenal.
Island Thunder allowed the 26th MEU to showcase the skills they developed during the MEU training cycle. During follow-on training, BLT 1/8 and HMM-365 took advantage of wide-open ranges to conduct multiple live-fire exercises that aren't possible in most training areas. Included in Island Thunder was a full-scale live fire combined arms exercise. Indirect fire from U.S. Army, Marine and Italian artillery and Marine 81mm mortars was combined with rotary and fixed-wing aircraft fire as American and Italian forward observers tested fire support capabilities. The Hueys, Harriers and Cobras were augmented by U.S. Air Force F-16s from the 555th Fighter Squadron, of Aviano Air Base in Italy.
The fire support coordination exercise was an invaluable opportunity for the MEU to put air and ground-based fire support together in a combined arms package, and to "flesh-out" operating procedures for a joint environment.
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