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Decisive Action: How to fight and sustain in the Army’s future battles

David Crozier
NCO Journal

May 28, 2013

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What will be next for the Army after 2014, when it pulls out of Afghanistan, where it has conducted counterinsurgency, or COIN, operations for more than a decade? Where will the next fight be and how will the Army fight it?

According to The U.S. Army Capstone Concept, TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-0, which describes Training and Doctrine Command’s vision of the Army’s future operational environment, the greatest potential threats to U.S. national security interests lie in the Asia-Pacific and Middle East regions, and the Army’s role extends to both. The document also states that instead of being an Army “focused on winning two wars,” the future Army needs to be “an expeditionary Army that does many things well. … Ensuring combat effectiveness against the full spectrum of threats the nation is likely to confront in the future.”

However, having done COIN for so long and working out of forward operating bases, or FOBs, with sustainment and logistical support already in place, many of the Army’s senior leaders have observed that Soldiers’ expeditionary skills have atrophied. To remedy that, the Army has developed a training strategy called decisive action and is relying on its training centers to do the heavy work of reminding the force on what being an expeditionary Army entails.

“Put Soldiers into a particular situation for 10 or 12 years, and [they] become very good at that,” said Command Sgt. Major Lance P. Lehr, command sergeant major of the National Training Center and Fort Irwin, Calif. “We are very good at COIN operations, and we are also used to going into a mature theater where we have all of our enablers and all of our sustainment [in place]. Doctrine says that we will now conduct unified land operations, and under that there is decisive action. The DA rotation [at NTC] focuses on combined-arms maneuver — the ability to strike, seize, hold and end conflict quickly — and wide-area security, which is the culmination of all of our doctrine. So we have taken both and said we have got to put this together and operate in a single comprehensive manner. Frankly, we got a little rusty on the combined-arms maneuver — going out and fighting the near-peer competitor with tanks and Bradleys and artillery.”

Already renowned for getting units ready for missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the cadre at NTC created a decisive action training experience based on the expeditionary Army of old, but with the technology and lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan. The result is a free-flowing 14-day training rotation where units come in and set up operations in an immature environment and learn how to match skills against a near-peer adversary while conducting the full range of military operations. The training includes situational training exercises, a live-fire event and force-on-force exercises.

The learning curve for units going through training is immense, Lehr said.

“One of the things about decisive action combined-arms maneuver is that you go into an immature theater and execute in a very austere situation,” he said. “The hard part for NCOs is they come in and think they are going to have things that are just not available. They’re not going to be in a FOB; they’re going to move out very much like it would be if they were going into a new theater of operations. There [are] no built-in logistics capabilities or security capabilities; they have to provide that for themselves. So the learning curve has been steep in regards to wide-area security and how do you rearm, refuel and fix in a situation where you don’t have facilities and all that kind of stuff. That’s the biggest hurdle — getting the mindset to change from mature theater back to immature theater.”

To help change that mindset for units rotating through NTC, Lehr has a host of resources he uses to create scenarios based on what the senior trainer — the division or brigade commander of the unit training at NTC — wants to accomplish based on the mission, where they are aligned and what they are going to do.

“Our operations group is incredibly important to this. They are the observer-coach- trainers,” he said. “Each team covers down on a battalion from the commander down to the platoon level, and each one of our teams is manned with 97 percent combat veterans who have done the job in combat. So they have a context of, ‘I have been there and done that, and now I am going to help you get through this training.’ So they have [credibility], street cred.”

When units going through an exercise stray from the desired training outcome, Lehr said the OCTs can stop the exercise in its tracks and go directly into a training mode to help the unit see a different course of action or observe something they may not be seeing. The scenario can then be restarted, and the unit moves on.

“It is not the old days where you used to come here and you would have a bunch of guys standing over your shoulder writing in a book. Then you would do an after-action review, and it would be an hour or two of ‘Hey, this is what you did wrong,’” Lehr said. “Now we have added the ‘T’ to ‘observer-coach,’ so they are trainers as well. We can stop an exercise, train, re-cock and re-execute so a unit knows absolutely what right looks like and nobody leaves here not having done it right.”

Along with the OCTs, NTC is the home to the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, which serves as the contemporary operating force, or COFOR, for all rotations. They are the “bad guys, the good guys and any combination thereof,” Lehr said. “They act as the host-nation force, the opposing force, the insurgent force, the criminal element and the civilian population in the 11 active towns and cities scattered throughout NTC’s vast training area.

“On top of all of that, we have contract foreign language speakers, role-players, so that we are able to give the battlefield a holistic and realistic look,” Lehr said. “Depending on the scenario, we can pack a lot of people in there or make it just a few. We can turn the rheostat up and down based on what the activity is.”

Back To ‘Beans And Bullets’

Understanding all of the aspects of decisive action and unified land operations requires units to have a working knowledge of what it takes to sustain the fight on the go, something that has not been a priority for many during more than 11 years of COIN operations.

“I grew up in the 80s and 90s operations in other-than-war, high-intensity conflict and low-intensity conflict,” said Command Sgt. Maj. John Renteria, a reconnaissance squadron trainer in NTC’s Operations Group ‘Cobra Team.’ “The Soldiers of today have not experienced that, and a lot of those old skills [that we learned] have been lost because we have not been doing it over and over again. We talk about [sustainment] all the time with the sergeants major during planning discussions — if you can’t sustain, how are you going to manage your fight? There are guys that don’t know how to do that because their [idea of] sustainment is ‘I go back to the FOB and I have everything.’”

To help units look at the bigger picture, Renteria has made a list of more than 100 items to consider, such as backwards planning, battle rhythm events, established timelines, map reconnaissance, choke points, enablers, likely enemies, improvised explosive devices, food and supplies, casualty evacuation, mortuary affairs, vehicle decontamination, resupply, and emergency supply.

“These are some of the considerations that I tell the first sergeants and sergeants major,” Renteria said. “How do we get back to taking time considerations? How do we consider our terrain and how it affects us? Along with the environment, we have the COFOR out here; we have a self-thinking opposing force that can do whatever they want. So now we have to start thinking about all of those threats that we never did before. It’s easy to always focus on the trigger-puller. We know we can go out on a patrol and our patrol life cycle said that, if we come back at this time, we have enough fuel to go out, maybe have enough time if something happens and still have enough fuel to come back. But you can’t do that in decisive action.”

Because decisive action takes units out of the FOB mentality and into an expeditionary mode that fights and lives off of the platforms it uses, units must take particular note on how to sustain the missions in the face of uncertainty, said Command Sgt. Maj. Jason Runnels, a senior enlisted logistical trainer on NTCs Operations Group ‘Goldminer Team.’

“Our first sergeants used to know beans and bullets – Class I (subsistence), Class III (fuel), Class V (ammunition), maintenance and medical,” he said. “Today, they don’t know it is necessarily their responsibility. When they find out it is, they are not adequately prepared to manage and understand what it all entails — redistribution, consumption reporting, what classifies someone being ‘red’ on a particular commodity, what makes them ‘green,’ or how many hours of fuel you have left in that tank.”

In addition to refocusing on beans and bullets, both Runnels and Renteria said that leaders would do well to center training on things like maintenance; basic field craft; chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and high-yield explosives topics; and rehearsals.

“Combined-arms maneuver is difficult as it is, and the logistics to support that is just as difficult,” Runnels said. “If you don’t have a good training plan to come to NTC, you are already behind the 8-ball. You will improve, and you will be a better unit for it. But you will not maximize the opportunities you have to go even further while you are out here.”

Lehr agreed and emphasized that it is the senior NCOs who have the knowledge and expertise to train the force on what it means to be an expeditionary Army.

“Most every senior NCO has done this stuff,” he said. “But most of the Soldiers who came in since 2001 haven’t seen this. Basically for the last eight to 10 years, nobody has had to do this on a regular basis. So it is very common out here that we only have senior NCOs and officers who have experience doing this, and they try to push down that knowledge to the younger guys.”

The Learning Curve

While NTC is leaning forward in training units for the Army’s future fights, the units themselves are experiencing an awakening of sorts with the renewed emphasis on getting back to an expeditionary force.

“We are really returning to our roots as an Army — getting back to a linear fight as opposed to a COIN fight and somewhere in between a high-intensity conflict and a low-intensity conflict; meeting in the middle — with decisive action,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Timothy Metheny, the command sergeant major of 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, at Fort Hood, Texas, whose unit conducted a decisive action rotation at NTC in late January. “[We have been] working on skills that we worked on in the early ‘90s that we were very proficient at and are getting back out of a FOB mentality and into living on the platforms that you are fighting off of.”

Metheny said the key is to identify early on your primary trainers who have experienced the expeditionary Army, “who right now are your first sergeants and command sergeants major, because they were the people who were actually in the Army back then.”

“The platoon sergeants we currently have were maybe gunners or loaders on tanks and Bradleys back when the war started,” he said. “So we are spending a lot more time with team leaders and squad leaders helping them to identify what their role is. The combat maneuver part comes pretty easy; the combat sustainment is the part that has to be worked on. Instead of going back to the FOB every night to top off, it’s the sustainment piece of keeping fuel, ammo and chow moving — your Class I, III and V assets — to sustain those [who] are conducting offensive operations. [Units have to] be able to do unified land operations and rapidly transition from an offense to a defense while still conducting wide-area security missions and stabilizing a COIN environment inside of towns. That is an ever-changing challenge.”

Command Sgt. Maj. James Hamm, whose unit, the 1st Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, provided aviation task force support for the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team’s rotation at NTC, said his unit experienced a large learning curve during decisive action training.

“This unit has deployed four times, and every one of them has been into the COIN fight since [Operation Iraqi Freedom] started,” he said. “So there is very little experience as far as decisive action is concerned or contingency operations/forced entry operations.

“The field craft is probably the biggest issue,” Hamm said. “Soldiers know how to perform their individual tasks when they go into the COIN fight or back to the FOB. Their job is extremely specific. However, in forced entry or decisive action, their requirements are very broad — almost generic — in that they have to perform other field tasks. They have to go back to doing chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high-yield explosive defense. They have to go into field sanitation requirements, food sustainment and logistics packages. All the things that have been done either by contractors or by sustainment units provided to you on the FOB, are all being done at the unit level now.”

Hamm said his Soldiers struggled adjusting to everybody having multiple roles instead of just their primary military occupational specialty.

“They are so habitually ingrained into performing the [relief-in-place, transfer-of-authority] process — flying in and doing a RIP/TOA and then taking over the mission doing their specific role — that now doing all of these other extraneous requirements, they are struggling to understand and adapt to what their role is,” he said. “They don’t get to do just their functional duties anymore; so much more is required of them. The days are longer; the expectations are higher; they have to know and do more than they have had to do for a very long time. The learning curve has been about as steep as Tiefort Mountain [on NTC].”

For many NCOs, it is about relearning the basics of soldiering.

“It’s simple things like digging foxholes, hasty positions, [filling out] range cards, [creating] sector sketches, getting the Soldiers to realize that some of the tactics that we have, like stand-up and stand-down,” said Staff Sgt. Luis Lopez, assistant operations NCO with the 215th Brigade Support Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division. “It’s getting them to realize that we are not in a secure environment, and we don’t do things like we did when we were in Iraq or Afghanistan. Here, we have to go out and stand on the wire, and we have to show them this is the reason why and when and where it is most likely for the enemy to attack.”

While working to get younger Soldiers to understand how the Army is moving to an expeditionary mindset, Lopez said that older NCOs have had to do some retraining themselves and lean on each other to make it happen.

“For some of them, it is a little difficult. They have to knock some of the cobwebs off,” he said. “When we are all sitting around, we remind each other, ‘Remember how we used to do this? How we used to do that?’ That starts triggering the muscle memory, and then it is like, ‘Let me show you how to dig that hasty [fighting position],” or you pull out an old field manual or regulation and retrain yourself, and then go out and train the guys.”

First Sgt. Alfonzo L. Branch of 1st Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division said, taking the time to help his Soldiers understand the whys and hows of an expeditionary Army makes them able to adapt to decisive action training more rapidly.

“The challenge has been pretty much the Soldiers’ ability and to get them all aligned into accepting this training, basically because they are not used to this type of training or this type of environment,” he said. “That was one of the struggles when we first got [to NTC]. Then as we went on and started explaining why we are doing things and giving them the relevance of why we are doing things, it became a lot easier for them to adapt.”

And making the training environment more challenging than what Soldiers are likely to experience downrange is exactly what Lehr said his NTC team strives to accomplish.

“We want your hardest day in combat to be here at NTC,” he said.


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