The soldiers were methodical as they went through their gear and prepared to venture into the jungle Tuesday. They had just arrived by helicopter at the Army's jungle warfare school in Wahiawa—known as the Lightning Academy—after conducting a beach landing by boat and launching a simulated raid at Marine Corps Training Area Bellows.
After they accounted for their equipment, they moved carefully into the thick jungle as rain began to fall and humidity gripped the air.
They're members of the Army's elite 75th Ranger Regiment who have been in Hawaii the past two weeks. In the past two decades, the unit was continually deployed, conducting dangerous raids in Iraq and Afghanistan as Rangers were thrust into some of the most intense battles of those conflicts.
Rangers are considered some of the Army's best-trained and most capable soldiers. But for members of the 2nd Ranger Battalion's Bravo Company out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, training in Hawaii proved to be a humbling experience. The Pentagon has been shifting its attention to the Pacific amid tensions with China, and soldiers are training for the potential of a very different sort of war.
As a special operations formation that conducts sensitive missions, members of the unit are normally not authorized to speak to news media, but an officer with Bravo Company spoke to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on the condition that his name not be used.
"The intent of the trip was to get Bravo Company Rangers exposed to a jungle environment because we have relatively minimal exposure, " the officer said. "We've got a lot to learn, for sure. I think we've got to force ourselves to kind of fight some institutional knowledge and thinking that we've developed over time and probably the last two decades, and constantly find ways to force our Rangers to think differently than they have in the past."
The officer said operating in the water introduced challenges, noting that although Rangers train on boat operations while attending Ranger School, they really get only "intermittent touches " of training in the water and that landing a raid force at Bellows forced Rangers to operate "in a way that in recent history we're not super familiar with."
"The Marine Corps' facilities located at Bellows provide one of the premier training environments available to the Joint Force in Hawaii, " said Lt. Col. Rollin Steele, director of operations at Marine Corps Base Hawaii. "The fact that units travel from the mainland to utilize this training resource is a testament to the training area's dynamic nature and to the level of readiness a unit can obtain through training at ( Marine Corps Training Area Bellows)."
The Ranger Regiment outfits its soldiers with the Army's most advanced equipment to carry out their missions. But in the jungle they can't necessarily rely on gadgets that once gave them an advantage. For instance, the Ranger officer said that "the regiment has gotten quite used to operating at night and using night vision optics and devices, " but under the thick jungle canopy, "that's just not really gonna be something you can leverage."
The Lightning Academy is run by the Schofield Barracks-based 25th Infantry Division. Its commander, Maj. Gen. Joseph Ryan, who was himself a member of the regiment and once led Rangers in Afghanistan, said the facility is becoming an increasingly in-demand training ground. Recently, a battalion of paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division out of Fort Bragg, N.C., trained on Oahu.
" The 25th Infantry Division is the U.S. Army's Pacific division, " said Ryan. "For decades we've developed a unique set of jungle skills and capabilities that we believe are critical to operate in this region and to share with our allies and partners. ... We are seeing an increased demand from the Army and (Special Operations Forces ) for training in a multi-island environment and in tropical and jungle conditions. There is no better place to conduct tough, realistic training than at Lightning Academy."
Operating in the jungle can be dangerous. On Tuesday one Bravo Company Ranger was injured while training deep in the jungle, suffering a laceration to his leg. According to Army officials, the soldier was treated on-site by his platoon medic and was extracted from the field by Lightning Academy jungle instructors for more treatment.
"When a service member sustains an injury in the jungle, the skills and techniques taught at Lightning Academy are invaluable to ensuring that they receive expedient care, " said Brig. Gen. Jeffrey VanAntwerp, the 25th's deputy commanding general for ope rations. "In this case the injured Ranger was treated and fully returned to duty."
In Iraq and Afghanistan, special operations forces such as the Rangers often pursued their own missions largely separately from conventional forces. But the operations that the military is preparing for now are a far cry from the counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations where U.S. forces took for granted that they controlled the skies and had a firepower advantage.
Fighting a large, heavily armed force could require elite special troops to work more closely with larger conventional units to get the job done. The Bravo Company officer told the Star-Advertiser said that this exercise has given his Rangers an opportunity to practice that as they came to depend on the 25th Infantry throughout.
"That's been an unforeseen but great thing about this trip, " said the Ranger. "The exposure that our Rangers got for the advanced mobility course in Lightning Academy was eye-opening and humbling. ... We don't have that institutional knowledge, and it's a fresh reminder that there are a lot of elements in the Army doing very different things, and there's a lot to learn from other organizations across the Army as a whole."
In the Pacific, tensions have mounted in the South China Sea, particularly between China and Taiwan. Beijing considers self-ruled Taiwan a rogue province, and Chinese leader Xi Jinping has vowed to take control of Taiwan through military force if necessary.
Ryan said that "the more we can expose the Army and the Joint Force to the Indo-Pacific region, the better because the training we do out here highlights the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific."
The buildup of military forces in the region has fueled fears of a major Pacific conflict. U.S. military leaders say the Chinese military is no longer talking to them even as regional leaders call for diplomacy to cool tensions.
The bloody fighting in Ukraine that kicked off in 2022 when Russian forces tried unsuccessfully to seize Kyiv has offered a harrowing glimpse into what such a conflict could look like as both Russian and Ukrainian forces slug it out with tanks, artillery and aircraft. The war has unleashed destruction on Ukrainian towns and cities and killed thousands of people.
U.S. military commanders are considering the gravity of a scenario where casualties are much higher than they've ever seen and the ability to evacuate them from the battlefield could be heavily restricted. In 2022 during an exercise at the Pohakuloa Training Area, Ryan told the Star-Advertiser, "We talked about the golden hour in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, getting casualties back to a higher level of care, within an hour of point of injury. It's just not going to be realistic on a battlefield like this."
But although tensions are high in the Pacific, Gen. Charles Flynn, Oahu-based commander of U.S. Army Pacific, expressed cautious optimism in February that a war isn't imminent and could be avoided, saying at an event in Washington, D.C., that the Chinese military itself might not feel it's prepared to take Taiwan.
"The complexity of a joint island landing campaign is not a small matter, and you have to be an incredibly professional, well-trained, well-led force—and they're working on it—but I will tell you that from my perspective they're not 10 feet tall ; they have work to do, " Flynn said. "I think that now is the time for us to get into position, to be able to deter that event from happening."
The Bravo Company officer said he expects that the Rangers will likely be back in Hawaii as the Pentagon's focus on the Pacific grows.
"I think the relationship out here is gonna grow immensely, " he said. "I think people are gonna continue to try to come out here and train in this environment, probably on a yearly basis."
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