Last August, five thousand service members from twenty-one nations converged on hilly Bavarian terrain of southeastern Germany. The Joint Multinational Readiness Center (JMRC) was the host, and the allies gathered to take part in Combined Resolve XII. I was there with 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, which formed the bulk of the US contingent participating in the exercise. For us, the exercise consisted of seven days of live-fire training at the Grafenwoehr Training Area followed by a ninety-kilometer tactical road march to the Hohenfels Training Area for the nine-day force-on-force portion of the exercise. The Polish 11th Armored Cavalry Division served as my brigade’s higher command and ten other countries’ forces fought within our formation.
Our battalion learned many lessons preparing for and during the exercise that, I believe, are useful to anyone serving on a battalion staff. To be sure, some of the lessons are influenced by my perspective—I served as the executive officer of the brigade’s engineer battalion—and are especially applicable to those in a similar role. Some are also perhaps more relevant to a JMRC exercise than a rotation at a different combat training center. However, in the aggregate, I believe that all of these lessons are useful for staff officers and noncommissioned officers as they head into “the box” to prepare for large-scale combat operations.
The command post fight is a fight for information.
Communication is the hardest thing we do. Field-grade officers and organizations build systems to drive compliance within the organization. However, the fight brings friction into the systems and, no matter how well designed or how many contingency plans are put in place, friction stresses the systems and can cause failure. Consequently, the main command post must always fight for information at echelon to maintain the common operating picture (COP) and allow the commander to make decisions. The COP needs to focus on more than just operations. The COP is incomplete without incorporating the logistics COP—logistic release points, ambulance exchange points, Role 1 medical facilities, maintenance collection points, etc.—and the location of critical friendly assets for breaching, obstacle emplacement, communications, and intelligence. Staff members need to be given specific guidance on how often the COP needs to be updated and what needs to be tracked. Without specific guidance and a COP that incorporates all warfighting functions, your main command post will not have the required information when it is needed most.
The common operating picture—digital and analog—makes or breaks the command post.
When our digital mission command systems are jammed—or fail—command posts must have a backup. Furthermore, the battalion level is where the transition happens between the digital and the analog COP—companies don’t have the ability to easily maintain and distribute a digital COP (doing this via JBCP and JCR briefs well but, in reality, doesn’t work as expected). Consequently, maintaining an updated analog COP is essential for maintaining situational awareness and passing information to the companies. To do this, leaders need to have a defined plan to share the analog COP. One way is to have a commander’s driver trace the analog COP on acetate while the commander sits in the commander’s update assessment. That way the commander can take it back to the command post each night. The COP must also be complete and include the logistics COP (command posts, logistic release points, Role 1 medical facilities, ambulance exchange points, etc.) as well as the location of all enabling assets (assault breacher vehicles, armored vehicle-launched bridges, Volcano mine systems, bulldozers, low-level voice intercept teams, retransmission teams, etc). Additionally, someone in the command post must be tasked with maintaining the logistics COP—the S4 section is a good choice. This section needs to have a vested interest in the logistics COP and ensure it is always up to date. You never know when you will have a mass-casualty event, your satellite transportable terminal is destroyed, and you have to push casualties to neighboring Role 1 medical facilities via FM radio.
The XO’s job is to build combat power.
If you cannot build combat power, you cannot fight. Executive officers do this by driving compliance with priorities and synchronizing the staff to solve problems. There are few places in an armored BCT where this role is more important than in the maintenance fight. The XO’s job is to drive the maintenance program to build combat power for the commander. While at JMRC, the commander of the 7th Army Training Command, Brig. Gen. Christopher Norrie, outlined seven components of a good maintenance program, and we learned important lessons surrounding each:
5988E flow – This is hard—especially in a unit like a brigade engineer battalion with forces spread across the battlefield in multiple tactical assembly areas and command posts. However, without a good 5988E (equipment maintenance and inspection worksheet) flow, maintenance doesn’t happen. Company XOs must be coached to get this information back to the maintenance team by any means necessary—digital systems, FM communications, VOIP phone, or runner. Without accurate reporting of maintenance faults, the battalion can’t order parts, and, thus, can’t fix equipment and build combat power.
LOGSTAT reporting – This is self-explanatory. Accurate reporting of logistics status is essential in helping the commander understand available combat power. Additionally, inaccurate LOGSTATs lead to critical sustainment assets being put at risk without valid reason and wasted space on logistics convoys—space that could be used for needed supply.
Maintenance meeting to standard – Make an effort to conduct these face to face or, at a minimum, over a phone bridge. There is a noticeable difference in the combat power of units that make the effort to be at the face-to-face meeting instead of sending an update via radio or digital system like JCR. An effective technique for linking the unit maintenance collection point (UMCP), with its VSAT phone, to the maintenance meeting using a VOIP phone is to use a phone bridge established by the S6.
VSAT connectivity – The goal is to have the VSAT—a mobile satellite dish that enables real-time logistics status updates—fully operational within one hour of arriving at a new UMCP. Without VSAT connectivity, you cannot order parts, which means you cannot generate combat power. You cannot afford to waste time with the VSAT down.
Class IX distribution – The brigade engineer battalion is unique as its companies are distributed throughout the area of operations. During a regular deployment, you can change the work center of a company’s equipment in GCCS-Army to match the task force with which it has an appropriate command support relationship. However, for short-duration operations such as combat training center rotations or when units are operating in a direct support or general support role, this is infeasible. In these instances, it is essential to have your forward support company commander at the brigade support area to have a seat at the table for all logistics synchronization meetings and sustainment decisions. This has the additional benefit of having a senior leader in the BSA to ensure that all of your Class IX supply—repair parts—are properly labeled and get on the correct supply convoy—either to the brigade engineer battalion’s combat trains command post or the supported unit’s. This ensures that the Class IX gets where it needs to go to allow the battalion to build combat power.
Stability of the UMCP – If the unit maintenance collection point is always changing location (jumping), there is no time to do maintenance. Take the time to find a good location, develop and implement a solid security plan, and assume risk by remaining stationary in order to build combat power.
Maintenance management in the UMCP – Crews should not view the UMCP as a place they go to get some rest away from the fight. Put the crews to work pulling security and helping the mechanics get their vehicles into operation. Additionally, the maintenance team needs to manage maintenance assets the same way you would manage blade time. The XO sets priorities and makes resourcing decisions while the battalion maintenance officer and maintenance tech drive compliance and dedicate the resources to fixing critical assets and those with parts on hand.
Command and support relationships matter.
In the engineer realm, there is some debate over the appropriate command and support relationship for engineer companies supporting maneuver task forces. Regardless of the chosen form, good units with habitual relationships will make it work. However, formally designated relationships take on a whole new level of importance when units do not have a habitual working relationship or key leaders are new to the relationship and don’t fully understand the terms and conditions of the different command and support relationships. This can have significant impacts on the leader’s conceptualization of the relationship and dedication to dual reporting. This is important for engineer battalions, for instance, who must try to manage their companies’ maintenance programs and maintain the engineer common operating picture. In an operational control (OPCON) relationship, it is easy for young company commanders to lose track of their responsibility to keep their parent unit informed as they often view themselves as “attached.” This leads to a degradation of the engineer common operating picture and the company’s maintenance program. In a direct support (DS) relationship, the responsibility to tie in with the parent unit is more apparent as young commanders see themselves as supporting the gaining unit as opposed to attached. Additionally, the ability to dynamically re-task units is limited with an OPCON relationship and much easier with a DS relationship. While understanding these nuances can be addressed with professional development sessions and commanders’ dialogue ahead of a rotation, commanders and staffs must understand the experience level of their subordinate leaders and factor that into the plan when deciding on appropriate command and support relationships. Furthermore, it is vitally important to ensure that attachments who lack habitual supporting relationships or come from outside of the BCT understand what their particular command and support relationship means and where they can go to receive sustainment and support to accomplish their mission and enable the BCT.
Tomorrow’s fight starts today and the sustainer’s fight started yesterday.
Staffs must plan for transitions and be able to anticipate what their higher headquarters need for the next operation. This is best achieved through integrating planners and liaison officers with the brigade staff and conducting parallel planning. This is especially important for the sustainment community. They must be able to forecast what the brigade is going to need and then build that into the sustainment plan moving forward. This means that Class IV (construction materials) and defensive Class V (ammunition and explosive materials) must move forward prior to the culmination of the offense while Class IIIB (bulk fuel), other Class V, and breaching assets must move forward before the brigade transitions to the attack. Failure to anticipate and have the right equipment and supplies at the right location at the right time will cause the brigade to fail. While these supplies move forward, they are at risk—the enemy knows they can significantly affect our operations by interdicting supply lines. One of the most vulnerable points for these supplies, especially Class IV, is the logistics release point. At this location, supplies sit to await movement forward to front-line elements. It is essential to the defense to allocate assets to protect these logistics release points and prevent the enemy from destroying the Class IV and breaching our obstacles before we have a chance to emplace them. Finally, all vehicles need to have ring mounts. Dedicated gun trucks in a logistics convoy decreases the amount of supplies that you can move—if you have a sustainer driving a gun truck, they are not pulling supplies. Consequently, if you can mount turrets on sustainment trucks, you can achieve the best balance between security and the amount of supplies moving to the front.
Tech-savvy as our junior leaders are, they lack experience with and often don’t fully understand the communications suite present in battalion and higher headquarters.
Below the brigade level, staff turnover is usually high as lieutenants move down to take platoons, captains take command, and noncommissioned officers move back and forth from the line. Consequently, leaders who play key roles in the command post may not be present for the entire train-up for a combat training center rotation, and the rotation might be their first experience with stimulation at echelon. As these junior leaders are used to serving in a company command post—if they’ve ever been in a command post—they often rely solely on FM or JCR to communicate and don’t leverage the capabilities provided by VoIP/SVoIP, Ventrilo, or Transverse. Senior leaders in the command post must teach junior leaders about the communication systems available to them and force them to take the blinders off and leverage the upper TI (tactical internet) systems available to them. Additionally, leaders must ensure the S6 has an accurate phone roster for all staff sections at echelon and the other headquarters across the BCT. If fighting distributed, like a brigade engineer battalion, leaders need to encourage commanders and company XOs to use the upper TI in the command post of their supported task force to call back to the battalion. Finally, upper TI, in particular VoIP/SVoIP, is more secure and reliable than systems like JBC-P or JCR and FM communications as those systems are often compromised by the opposing force.
Nonlethal effects transcend boundaries: tactical actions in the rear influence both the deep and close fights, and vice versa.
Human terrain is key terrain that effects the entire area of operations—and the area of interest. Population centers are connected through both the physical movement of civilians and the movement of ideas and information over cell phone networks and the internet, especially social media platforms. This movement of people and ideas is the bridge between tactical action and strategic effects. Social media and other nonlethal engagements should be leveraged to set conditions for tactical action—this could be anything from distributing messages for civilians to shelter in place to contacting different civilian stakeholders across the battlefield to acquire information on enemy composition, disposition, and strength. Units should identify and exploit linkages between nonlethal actors across the battlefield. Use civilians as sensors. They know the area of operations better than you and can traverse it freely without interdiction. Leverage this asset and glean intelligence from them. To this end, bring human intelligence collectors to all of your nonlethal engagements and use their capabilities to gain the most out of your civilian “sensors.”
Enablers can only enable maneuver forces if everyone understands their capabilities and they are fully integrated into the supported element’s maneuver plan.
Units need to link in early and often with enablers assigned to their formation. If possible, link in well before your rotation to receive capabilities briefs, build relationships, set up a schedule to conduct digital mission command system checks during maintenance at home station, and have them attend the leaders training program. This can be accomplished in person or via video teleconference. Integration is essential and it is also essential for planners at echelon to understand that haphazard, dynamic re-tasking only works in simulations. In the real world, re-tasking needs to be done deliberately and all units need to understand their responsibilities and the approved command and support relationship. Sometimes, it’s best to fight with the task organization you have and not the task organization you want—by dynamically re-tasking you may actually lose an asset for multiple days while it is integrated into the maneuver plan for the newly supported unit.
Reverse breach planning—use your engineers.
The brigade engineer battalion staff is the subject matter expert at reverse breach planning and needs to be integrated with the brigade staff. The brigade engineer battalion staff should send liaison officers, specifically from the S2, S3, and S4 shops, to parallel plan with the BCT headquarters. They can help identify potential locations of enemy obstacles and the best locations for establishing friendly obstacles in the defense. During planning, the staff needs to “draw red and then plan blue.” This ensures that the plan is built on the most likely enemy engineer course of action and helps to ensure that the right engineer assets (e.g., MICLIC reloads, Class IV and Class V supply for the defense, etc.) can be in the right place at the right time.
Combined Resolve XII was the culminating exercise for the Devil Brigade’s nine-month rotation to the European theater of operations. Throughout the rotation, and the exercise, we learned many lessons that many of our predecessors had likely also learned. My hope is that the lessons discussed above can help future participants in combat training center rotations and truly be lessons learned as opposed to lessons identified.
Maj. John Chambers is the Executive Officer of the 1st Brigade Engineer Battalion, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division. He has served in the 82nd Airborne Division, 1st Engineer Brigade, 4th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, and taught in the Social Sciences Department at West Point. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the United States Military Academy and master’s degrees from the Missouri University of Science and Technology and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is a former resident military fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point.
Image credit: Sgt. Jeremiah Woods, US Army