Army Training Contends With Uncertain Future

By Valerie Insinna

In some ways, the fictional town of Dara Lam looked familiar. Townspeople shuffled past a mosque at the center of the village as drones buzzed overhead. U.S. soldiers made conversation with local residents, trying to build intelligence and sniff out the enemy. But when an enemy tank rolled through the middle of town, it became clear this foe was better trained and equipped than the insurgencies of the past decade.

“I never saw a tank in Afghanistan or Iraq,” said Brent Prier, a specialist from 82nd Airborne Division’s 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment.

This scenario was part of the first Decisive Action training rotation held in October at the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, La. More than 4,800 personnel from the Army, Air Force and special operations forces participated.

Although the war in Afghanistan is scheduled to come to a close in 2014, the Army is already training its soldiers against a mix of near-peer conventional forces, insurgent elements and criminal groups.

If the last decade of war was defined by prolonged counterinsurgency operations and troop surges, new training hints that future combat operations could be shorter, with more integration across conventional and special operations forces, and force-on-force tactics.

In the past, training had been focused on a specific geographical area and enemy, said Lt. Col. Matthew M. Canfield, chief of staff of the operations group at the JRTC.

“If you’re going to Kandahar province in Afghanistan, we replicate Kandahar province in the box,” he said. “Then we moved into something maybe a little more general in its focus, without a specific geographical tie. We refer to that as full spectrum operations. And from that, now we’ve moved into the next generation of the doctrine.”

The Decisive Action training environment is designed to be fluid and complex, taking place in a nearly urban environment with a civilian population and political infrastructure, said Capt. Dennis Grinde, operational plans officer at the JRTC.

Although the scenario involved five fictional countries in the Caucasus, the training incorporated situations that were strikingly similar to the recent attacks against U.S. embassies in Arab Spring countries as well as continuing counterinsurgency operations in the Middle East.

In the scenario, enemy nation “Ariana” seeks nuclear weapons, is hostile toward the United States and Israel, and wants greater control of the region’s natural resources. After Ariana invaded “Atropia,” a U.S. ally, it planned to storm a U.S. consulate in the city of Dara Lam.

To kick off the 11 days of force-on-force training, paratroopers jumped out of C-130s onto an Atropian airfield and then raced into the mock village of Dara Lam to defend the consulate.

However, U.S. forces didn’t simply face another nation’s military. They also grappled with the South Atroprian People’s Army, a local insurgent force that received support from the Arianan Special Purpose Forces. Additionally, the Baqqani crime syndicate sought to exploit the unstable environment for its own ends.

Decisive Action training is geared toward what Grinde called an undefined threat. “What we mean by that is it is a freethinking, aggressive enemy that has realistic capabilities and realistic motives,” Grinde said.

This hybrid enemy presents more complicated rules of engagement and reflects the unknown nature of threats the Army could be facing in the future.

“We are coming down from pretty intense operations both in Iraq and now in Afghanistan,” said Undersecretary of the Army Joseph Westphal, who stopped by to watch the training. “Now, as we transition to the future, one never knows, right? So one never knows when the president will need his Army to address an issue somewhere around the world. We need to be trained and ready at all times.”

For conventional Army forces, this rotation was a return to force-on-force tactics that had not been practiced since the service began focusing on counterinsurgency operations.

“Some of the things that we did that I haven’t done in a long time was build bunkers,” and laying down concertina wire, said Prier, who had previously been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. “We were going old school for a while.”

Prier and his eight-man team were responsible for providing security for the consulate building, rotating the team day and night to guard its two gates and collecting intelligence from civilians, which was then shared with other units.

It was also a return to a more Spartan way of living, he said.

“In Afghanistan and Iraq, we built it up. We had huts and living quarters with beds and whatnot,” said Prier. “And within the training, we had guys that had never slept in the dirt for more than two days or three days actually spending two weeks in the dirt.”  

Also key to this mission was cooperation and information sharing with special operations forces.

To accomplish this, personnel from the special operations task force were integrated into conventional units and vice versa, said Army Lt. Col. Hank Henry, commander of Special Operations Forces for the exercise.

“How we really facilitate a clear interoperability and interdependence is the development and sustainment of a common operations picture and a common intelligence picture,” said Henry.  Such integration “enables us to gain and maintain that intelligence picture, which further facilitated our targeting process.”

Prier said that his team built a good rapport with special operators, sharing intelligence at least once a day.

“Every time we talked to the SOF forces we just pretty much got debriefed from the information that they had gotten from going out and interacting with the roleplayers, so they were a good source of intelligence,” he said.

SOF also conducted varied operations in support of conventional forces, including mending a hole on a flight landing strip at the beginning of the exercise and conducting infiltration operations utilizing its relationship with a local Atroprian resistance force, Henry said. “They [the resistance force] bring a very unique perspective to the fight as well, because they live here. So they understand the terrain.”

Cooperation between conventional and Special Operations Forces is common in Afghanistan, but Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno has been pushing for greater integration through joint training. Odierno traveled to Fort Polk to observe the first stage of the exercises in mid-October.

During his visit, Westphal called such integration the way of the future.

This cooperation will be more important as the Army moves to a more austere fiscal climate, with a downsizing of the force by about 80,000 in the next five years that will necessitate shorter, more targeted missions.

“We will probably deploy more than we have before,” Westphal said. “It won’t be these long-term combat deployments that we’ve seen over the last 10 years.”

Integrating special operations and conventional forces is “one of the ways we’re going to have to do our work in the future, not only to be more effective, but also to be more economically sustainable,” Westphal said. The Army also needs to keep investing in joint training bases such as Fort Polk, he added.

As the Defense Department shifts its focus to the Asia-Pacific region, the Army must strive to be more agile, flexible and rapidly deployed, officials said.

Historically, the president has relied on the Navy and the Marine Corps as a rapid response force, Canfield said, but the tactics practiced during the Decisive Action rotation give the president another option of how to put troops on the ground.

“We have now what we’re calling the global response force, which is an expeditionary force out of the 18th Airborne Corps that can execute joint forcible entry [and] go to take down an airfield,” Canfield said. “Marines are pretty good if I’ve got a shoreline and ocean or a sea, but the 18th Airborne Corps with the Air Force and their C-17s gets them farther in.”

During the final days of the rotation, Prier and his unit received intelligence that the Arianan army and associated insurgency forces would try to invade the consulate. His unit tried to fortify their defenses, putting up barbed wire and flipping over trucks to create a blockade around the embassy, but the enemy forces had one final surprise.

“We got intel a few minutes prior to the actual attack that they acquired a military Humvee, which believe it or not, actually just pulled up to our front gate where my guys were on guard,” he said.

By then, U.S. forces had increased the number of soldiers at the gate, outnumbering their enemy by 3 to 1. The Arianans were detained before they breached the consulate gate.

After the embassy was secure, Prier and his unit helped execute an airborne assault on Arianan forces — a practice of offensive tactics and the finale of the training. Troops flew in on Black Hawk helicopters and traveled on foot for six kilometers before their final attack on the Arianans.

“We’ve been trained on COIN [counter-insurgency] environments for so long it’s just second nature now,” said Prier. “So the biggest upset would be the new force-on-force [element], that’s the one that would be the most strenuous because we haven’t done it in so long.”

Photo Credit: Army

Topics: Simulation Modeling Wargaming and Training, Live Training

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