The Army’s plan for the next big war

The Army’s plan for the next big war

Thousands of enemy troops pour across the border, invading the sovereign nation of Pirtuni — a staunch U.S. ally.

The “Donovians” rush infantry, armor and anti-aircraft systems across their border — which looks much like Russia — into Pirtuni, which resembles Poland on a map. In response, the “Pirtunians” rapidly assemble their own division to counter the attack, but they need support.

The Army’s 3rd Battalion, 4th Security Force Assistance Brigade, already in the region working with local forces, lends its aid, and more troops are coming. Thousands of soldiers from the 1st Armored Division quickly arrive, followed by a battalion of Marines and Air Force assets of all stripes are on stand-by.

Pouring over maps stretched out across folding tables inside an abandoned building at Fort Irwin’s National Training Center in California, 1st Armored Division commanders, mission planners, operations and intel officers, and a host of other soldiers try to decide how best to respond to the combined live and simulated campaign — a wargame designed to get them ready for a conventional fight.

They’d spent months preparing, rehearsing how to maintain control when on the move, or under fire. They practiced hiding in buildings instead of relying on custom-built tent cities — a far cry from the sprawling bases of the so-called Forever War era. They limited their communications to reduce their electromagnetic and visual footprint, dumping big satellite dishes, computer server stacks and fields of antennas in favor of commercial equipment and low-profile radios.

For roughly two weeks, the 1st Armored Division moved nonstop, finding the enemy and striking from hidden locations all while marching through their battle plan to push back the invaders. Sleepless nights and long, cold, windy days piled on units who’d never done this kind of work en masse.

Many of those at the training exercise, which took place in January, spent their careers fighting insurgencies and terrorist groups in brigades of perhaps 4,000 soldiers or even smaller units. That was by design. The Army converted to a modular brigade combat team formation in the early 2000s for a more nimble global force.

But, as the U.S. shifted its focus toward adversaries such as China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, the Army had to examine its role, and how it would fit into the new strategy. The Army sees its role as providing major ground combat power for large-scale combat operations. To do that, they’ll have to fight with divisions and corps — which range from 12,000 to 45,000 soldiers, respectively. Those formations’ headquarters units will orchestrate the battle, striking deep with long-range fires, attack aircraft and hooking into joint capabilities from the Air Force, Navy and Marines.

The last time the service fought with a division was in the 2003 Iraq invasion. Before that, the last major combat operation of that scale was in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War.

The service regularly conducts simulated training events designed to stress-test division headquarters staff on their duties and combat functions. But experts say keystroke-type exercises can’t expose weaknesses in fieldcraft — or the realities of combat.

This is why the Army began sending these headquarters units to the field in 2020, where they took part in combined exercises, such as the recent fictional invasion of the equally fictitious Pirtuni — actual soldiers in the field doing live fire training, working against an opposition force both in real life and also in simulated computer-driven scenarios.

Leaders dubbed the effort “divisions in the dirt.”

A division cavalry squadron conducted a limited rotation at Fort Irwin in 2020. In 2023, the 3rd Infantry Division’s headquarters did a similar rotation.

“You have real soldiers driving real equipment, flying real helicopters, traveling hundreds of kilometers a day and dealing with fatigue and dealing with rain and cold and equipment maintenance,” said 1st Armored Division Command Sgt. Maj. James Light.

The 1st Armored Division’s rotation in January was the first large-scale rotation with the subordinate units that they’d direct in an actual conflict — division artillery, a combat aviation brigade, air defense and a sustainment brigade.

Plans call for a division headquarters rotation at least once a year, with 1st Infantry Division scheduled for January 2025. The remaining rotations will continue to be focused on brigades.

“As a rotation, they’re completely different,” said Col. Ted Stokes, III Corps operations officer. “Really, a brigade is looking at mastering the close fight, tank on tank, Bradley on infantry fighting vehicle. A division approaches the fight much differently. They’ve got a lot of sensors collection, a lot of fires capability to shape the enemy force before they get into the close fight.”

When a brigade goes to war it moves its smaller units, such as battalions, companies and platoons around the map. Those units have primarily ground combat vehicles, infantry and limited fire support capability. The brigade must call on outside units or its command for extra tools such as air support, long-range fires or electromagnetic attacks.

But when a division hits the battlefield, it’s moving entire brigades or their capabilities into the fight. So, it has those extra tools at its fingertips. And the division command uses those assets to destroy anything threatening their lower brigades. Pulling that off takes countless rehearsals, ensuring all of the moving parts are in sync. Building that kind of muscle memory can take years.

“In 10 years, they’ll be doing a division rotation,” Lt. Col. Tim Boswell, division chief of plans. “They will be me, if it’s that young company commander, in 10 years they’re going to be the chief of plans. It’s more the future for them and what it’s going to look like.”

Testing an Army division

The National Training Center has been the testing ground for Army units for decades. During the Global War on Terror tens of thousands of soldiers sweated out their time “in the box” as they practiced their trade. It often served as the final measure of their readiness before heading to actual combat.

The 1,200-square-mile training area is well-suited for brigade-centric training. Trainers can replicate the distances a brigade would encounter, forcing commanders to operate as they would in theater. The training staff are experts at stressing the units. The cadre serve multi-year tours and conduct dozens of virtual battles annually using tactics pulled from the latest combat reports.

But a division fight is larger, ranges farther and adds more complicated scenarios requiring timing, communication and coordination between more and distinct types of units.

Depending on the makeup, an armored brigade combat team holds about 4,000 soldiers, 400 tracked vehicles and 800 wheeled vehicles. The opposition force is typically another brigade-sized element.

In the 1st Armored Division rotation, which only included its headquarters and enabling brigades, the division brought more than 3,000 soldiers, and 400 vehicles — the unit drew another 500 vehicles from the training center. The combination of real-life and simulated soldiers, support staff and Pirtuni fighters totaled 70,000, said Maj. Gen. Kurt Taylor, NTC commander.

Maj. Gen. James Isenhower, 1st Armored Division commander, began planning the rotation with the training center more than a year ago. He knew he needed realistic field conditions to stress his unit.

To conduct a division-level operation with a partner force defending its territory, Isenhower had to stretch distances, which meant his units might be 60 miles apart or more. Fighting an enemy division meant his soldiers would see constant targeting, strikes and attacks.

In a typical brigade rotation, the unit might run one or two deep attacks of more than 100 miles with aircraft. He needed at least one deep attack each day.

Units needed to communicate by a variety of methods over long distances. That meant leaving some portions of the command back at Fort Bliss, Texas, more than 800 miles away.

Another aspect of communication needed testing: working through an intermediary and loosening control. The “Pirtunians” were the lead in this fight. The armored division’s headquarters, enabling brigades and a simulated division were supporting their offensive and defensive moves.

The Americans were there to help, but they were not in charge.

That meant working through the Security Forces Assistance Brigade team embedded with the Pirtunians and providing their allies with options as they moved through the battlespace, rather than simply telling them what to do and where to go, as they would with their own units.

This scenario echoes what’s happening now in Ukraine — a larger force invading an ally that has U.S. equipment and training. Should the Army enter such a fight for real, a nearby division would race to the nation’s aid, as the 1st Armored Division did during training, and roll out its toolkit of weapons and forces wherever they were needed most.

Retired Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Army Times the shift to divisions makes sense given the need for large-scale combat coordination.

“It takes the (command and control) of a division with its increased signal capacity to best employ an allied unit,” Spoehr said. “Those kinds of capabilities don’t exist at the brigade.”

But even that command and control footprint must be more efficient on the modern battlefield where adversaries can detect, and strike, in minutes.

Even the smaller tactical command post for a corps is large, including as many as 20 tents, three large satellite terminals and 40 vehicles or more, Stokes said.

“That’s going to be seen on a battlefield and that’s going to be destroyed,” he said.

Isenhower’s soldiers practiced setting up in buildings. In the months leading up to the rotation, they used an airfield hangar and an abandoned warehouse at Fort Bliss. They constructed an ad hoc command post in the downtown El Paso County Coliseum.

Soldiers had to learn to set up antenna arrays in shadows and hide equipment so that the building looked the same as it did before becoming their hidden headquarters.

The unit ditched their bulky stacks of servers, traveling light and lowering their electronic footprint; they used commercial tools for internet access, hiding their presence in plain view online; and minimized or altogether cut other forms of communication, like smartphones.

The division remained split into its standard forms — main, rear, tactical, early entry command posts and a mobile command group.

The setup created more friction than other exercises, which was the point.

The various command posts would hand off control of the simulated fight when one needed to move or “jump” to avoid detection.

During one jump, about 10 minutes into the movement the main command post was hit with simulated artillery, so they went down while the tactical post was still moving, said Maj. Nicholas Drake, a III Corps planner. The commanding general moved from the main to his mobile command group, a couple of vehicles and skeleton staff to run the operation until the tactical post could re-establish communications.

“It’s easy to synchronize a staff when you’re all sitting in the same room,” said Lt. Col. Nate Garner, division operations officer. “You definitely had to trust in the plan and the planning because you can’t have the control that you would if you’re all sitting in the same room.”

Soldiers under surveillance

From the moment these soldiers left their home stations at Fort Bliss and Fort Cavazos, Texas someone was watching. Opposition forces, in the form of 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment at the training center, had been searching for online information, mobile phone data, and using other tracking means.

Civilian role players at the training center snapped selfies and photos of the soldiers’ locations, passing on information much as an adversarial population might in a real warzone.

Lt. Col. Brian Burbank, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment information operations officer, said his team used social media, low earth orbit commercial satellite imagery, and electromagnetic spectrum assets along with fake information.

Taylor, the NTC commander, likened mobile phone use to a previously deadly combat practice. Soldiers learned a hard lesson in World War II foxholes that lighting a cigarette at night would give away their position, often drawing a sniper’s bullet.

“I’m convinced the cell phone is the new cigarette in the foxhole,” Taylor said.

For instance, there have been numerous accounts on both sides in the Russia-Ukraine war that have shown how mobile devices gave away troops’ positions, getting them killed.

The opposition force uses online information and commercial equipment to track units’ aircraft back to their home station and even trace individual mobile phones to see where troops live, eat and sleep.

But the staff has shared these vulnerabilities with the wider Army.

“Since we published that article we have not successfully been able to track the deployment and employment of (tactical) aviation,” said Lt. Col. Eric Megerdoomian, the opposition force aviation operations officer.

Units face constant attack

Division soldiers during that January training exercise did not sit back, far from danger, and pick their targets. Training center opposition forces simulated 100 artillery strikes daily, forcing them to move often.

In recent years, the training staff added more than 100 drones to their arsenal and sent swarms of 20, as many as six times a day, to harass the division’s defenses, Taylor said.

The center also used integrated air and missile defense systems equipped with laser targeting for simulated strikes on division aircraft.

To stretch the division’s aviation reach, 1st Armored Division flew a 300-mile round trip deep strike on two targets using two dozen Apache helicopters at night masking the movement by flying close to the ground.

Support aircraft ran electromagnetic detection and interference on the enemy’s sensors and simulated defenses. Fixed-wing Air Force aircraft provided extra protection from anything targeting the division’s helicopter fleet.

The long flight stressed distances that attack helicopter pilots don’t routinely fly in training, Megerdoomian, the opposition aviation officer, said. The experienced pilot, with more than 3,500 hours of flight time, said he was exhausted after 12 hours in the aircraft, half of that in flight.

On the offensive side, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Calvin Cameron, the division’s senior targeting officer, said firing live rounds during the training meant synchronizing many moving parts.

Much of that is done at the moment, ensuring that friendly Apache helicopters aren’t flying in the path of an artillery round or rocket. Part of targeting is also seeing where the fight is headed. At the same time, the unit is planning targets three days out, anticipating where the battle will go, Cameron said.

On the second to last day of the two-week exercise, the division’s main command post was concealed in buildings at a forward operating base running their mission. But other units coming to join them in the area gave away their position.

The Donovians were able to find them by tracking their reinforcements and strike with a simulated theater ballistic missile, much like what actually hit U.S. troops on Al Asad Air Base, Iraq in January 2020.

The simulated missile strike at the training center caused nearly 60 casualties ranging from sprained ankles to KIA.

Field time for everyone

Across the ranks of the division and corps, one thing was clear: Whether it’s logisticians delivering supplies on long nighttime drives, pilots flying extended missions, or moving command posts and rotating sleep schedules — a division fight can’t be simulated fully from behind a desk. It must be trained in the field.

If the division’s rotation is any indicator, support units such as combat aviation brigades, artillery, sustainment and air defense will see a lot more field training soon. And soldiers won’t have to wait for a combat training center rotation to practice.

Division Command Sgt. Maj. James Light said that even in future simulated exercises at home station, soldiers will be going into the field to practice their tasks.

The Army spent a generation fighting one kind of war against terrorists and insurgents. To do that, it shelved its skills on moving big units across big battlefields fighting a big enemy.

The 1st Armored Division’s rotation is the service’s first tangible step toward relearning how to fight big wars.

Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.

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