US Marines may put even more combat gear into Norwegian caves they’ve used since the Cold War

A Marine takes a tactical pause during a squad patrol in Vaernes Garnison, Norway. Lance Cpl. Sarah N. Petrock/US Marines

FRIGAARD CAVE, Norway — Lit by fluorescent lights lining the ceiling, the canvas-walled corridors looked even longer and more cavernous than they did full.

For a rare few days, the caves were mostly empty, the hundreds of combat vehicles, backhoes and trucks they normally held parked in neat “sticks,” or columns, outside.

Logistics Marines flown in just for the purpose were in the middle of hustling all the gear out of the caves, performing minor upkeep, and returning it to storage, all with a stopwatch running.

Known as a Strategic Mobility Exercise, or Stratmobex, the drill gave the Marines the chance to test their reflexes in case of a major combat contingency or other crisis that might require them to man the vehicle and weapons with minimal notice.

As the world changes and more attention shifts to Europe, planners are exploring the possibility of expanding the gear cache stored in the caves — possibly even doubling or tripling its capacity.

The stockpile is stored and maintained under a bilateral agreement between the Marine Corps and Norway that dates back to the Cold War. It’s housed in a chain of six caves that winds through the Trondheim region of central Norway. In all, there are six caves and two airfields. Three of the caves hold everything from rolling stock to towed artillery, and another three are packed full of ammunition, officials said. Norwegian soldiers, US Marines, Dutch and UK Royal Commandos perform an integrated air-insert during a training event for Exercise Cold Response around the city of Namsos, Norway. Master Sgt. Chad McMeen/US Marines

Gear from Marine Corps Prepositioning Program-Norway, which the Corps calls “McPippin,” has been used to equip units for exercises in Europe and Africa over the years, but it also has been regularly sent to war.

“The caves were nearly emptied for [Operation] Iraqi Freedom,” said Maj. Tom Stona, a Marine prepositioning programs officer based at the Pentagon.

When visited Norway in May, officials had just sent ammunition from the caves to support the ground fight against the Islamic State in the Middle East, Stona said. Norway-based gear has also been used for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions around the world.

While the equipment is kept up with meticulous care by a Norwegian team — a Marine light armored vehicle crewman said he had never seen an LAV as well maintained as the one pulled out of the caves for him — the gear cache is evaluated for major changes every few years.

The last time that happened was 2012, Stona said. At that time, with the primary war effort in Afghanistan nearing its close, Marine planners refashioned the equipment stockpile from a more general purpose array to a “MCPPN MAGTF,” he said, using the acronym for Marine air-ground task force.

The caves currently hold enough to equip a fighting force of 4,600 Marines, led by a colonel, with everything but aircraft and desktop computers. […]