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THE BURDEN OUR SOLDIERS BEAR: OBSERVATIONS OF A SENIOR TRAINER (O/C)

by LTC John D. Rosenberger, United States Army War College


INTRODUCTION

In the past year, as senior brigade trainer at the National Training Center (NTC), I observed 12 combined arms brigades plan and fight about a hundred simulated battles; most were force-on-force, some were live-fire. They lost most of them. Only a handful of missions were ever accomplished, achieving the end state expected. Those that achieved a commander's intent were Pyrrhic victories. Units fought to exhaustion to achieve the aim. Casualties were enormous, both in men and material. It bothers me. We've been at this over 14 years in the Mojave desert with no substantial change in the pattern.

Despite the NTC's impressive effect on our ability to fight up to this point--it transformed our war-fighting potential--we have shown little improvement in our overall ability to fight as a combined arms team, particularly at the brigade level where we have organized our Army to do it.

Furthermore, adding digital information capabilities and technology to the brigade, as we discovered in Army Warfighting Experiment 94-07, made little immediate difference in a brigade's ability to fight. The great soldiers in that outfit fared no better against their opponents. This performance history is no revelation to anyone who has fought and trained in the NTC arena. What's going on? Why can't we break this depressing pattern of performance? It is no trivial matter. Finding the answer is the key to enhancing our combat effectiveness, getting better while we're getting smaller, and achieving the full Combat potential of Force XXI and the power of the Information Age.

THE PROBLEM

Excuses for not performing well are endless. Some will say that accomplishing our missions at our combat training centers--beating our enemy--is not really important. We came here to train. It is learning and improving that really matters. Some will say it is unrealistic to expect victory at the NTC. There is no way at home station to replicate the conditions. We are constrained by operational tempo (OPTEMPO), limited maneuvers at task force level, insufficient training ammunition, range time, Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System (MlLES), and so forth. Besides, the Opposing Forces (OPFOR) enjoys an insurmountable advantage: knowledge of terrain, continual and repetitive training, overwhelming force ratios, etc. Furthermore, we have few opportunities, if any, to scrimmage as a brigade combined arms team before we play the game. Others will say personnel turbulence--a lack of team stability--is the root of the problem. We cannot play pro-ball if we're turning the team over every three months.

Some will say we have raised the bar much higher than we placed it in 1983. We have made training conditions much tougher as we learned and improved our ability to fight at the tactical level. In other words, as units improved, we moved the baseline for measurement. We deliberately set conditions which make performance standards virtually unachievable. We want to keep the brass ring just out of reach. The litany goes on. This is disturbing commentary for a force projection Army where readiness to move on a phone call and then fight and win underpins our national security strategy. Even more troubling, given what I have seen, none of the foregoing explanations really goes to the root of the problem.

After observing, teaching, and coaching combined arms brigades in this great Army over the past year, I believe the root of our problem is obvious. We can't accomplish our missions because we, the officer corps, particularly battalion and brigade commanders and our staff officers, are incompetent. By incompetent, I mean it in the Webster's dictionary way--lacking in ability or skill; inadequate to the task. We do not have the skills and ability to synchronize and apply the capabilities of the combined arms team at the right time and place to achieve the outcomes we expect nor--and this is equally important--to protect the force. We do not know how to do it. We have not been trained to do it. We are trying to do graduate-level work with a high school education. In my view, it is the most serious deficiency in our Army today, and we will never break our pattern of performance until we acknowledge the problem and fix it. Moreover, we will never reach the full combat potential of the current force, much less Force XXI.

EVIDENCE - A TYPICAL BRIGADE ATTACK

To illustrate the point, here is an example of a typical brigade attack at the NTC. We cross the line of departure with two task forces abreast. Within minutes, enemy artillery and rocket barrages, combined with jamming, slam into our formations disrupting cohesion, command, and control. No counterfires respond. Enemy close air support strikes simultaneously at our flanks and rear. Few aircraft are effectively engaged. The brigade continues to advance, leaving a trail of casualties and combat equipment in its wake. One task force attacks into the enemy's defensive position, usually a company-size force. Few, if any, enemies direct fire systems are destroyed before we close. As we approach, the enemy emplace artillery-delivered mines, perfectly timed and ideally positioned, to reinforce existing obstacles. We plunge headlong into the enemy's obstacle system or wait paralyzed until we bring up the engineers. As we wait, compressed against the obstacle, we are pounded with artillery and nonpersistent chemicals. We fire little, if any, smoke to obscure enemy direct fire systems. We shoot no counter-battery fires to destroy or compel enemy artillery and mortar batteries to move. These vital tasks to protect the force and set conditions for rapid breach are not completed. The engineers move up and are quickly destroyed by massed direct fires. Undeterred, we send in the task force anyway. They are decimated in minutes. The enemy repositions his reserves. We do nothing to impede or preclude their movement or employment. Frustrated, we commit the next task force into the breach to suffer the same fate, or attack on another approach under similar conditions. We seldom reach our objectives.

Most senior leaders, viewing this performance from some prominent vantage point, will attribute failure to poorly trained subordinate units, who are unable to execute their tasks, maintain command and control, plan direct fire engagements, etc. No doubt these factors had some influence in the fight. But, again, if you peel the onion back all the way, none is the core of the problem. In other words, these are just symptoms, not the disease. Our young leaders and soldiers probably did everything they were told to do. Very few failed to execute their assigned tasks. Our A-10s attacked, our artillery batteries moved when they were told to move and fired when we told them to fire. We jammed enemy battle command nets continuously, our air defense STINGER teams fired at enemy aircraft, our engineers tried to breach, and so on. It made no difference. Failures during execution, as so many of us are prone to conclude, did not produce this outcome. Lack of synchronization produced this outcome. Here is what actually happened and why.

We decided to attack with two task forces abreast, but nobody considered the effects of terrain on rates of movement or ability to sustain control along each approach. Consequently, the northern task force, with broken terrain and numerous wadis to negotiate, lagged back about 6-8 kilometers. Moreover, the terrain broke up the task force formation, dissipated their mass, and disrupted their ability to control; it was easily predictable. In effect, the terrain separated the two task forces in time and space, permitting the enemy to mass his deep indirect fires against the southern task force first, then shift to the northern task force.

We killed few enemy aircraft. Air defense systems were positioned within task force formations, instead of on high ground which could dominate enemy air approaches into our flanks and rear. Nobody set conditions for effective employment of these soldiers. As enemy rocket and artillery fires slammed into our forces during our approach, most of our artillery batteries were moving. The two batteries which remained set were out of range and could not engage the enemy's regimental or division artillery groups. Moreover, nobody coordinated counterfires with our division general support artillery ensuring that conditions were set for effective counterfires to protect the force during our approach. Even if these arrangements had been made, our Q-36 artillery radar was moving at the time and out of the fight. Even if it had been set, nobody established call for fire zones (CFFZ) around known or templated enemy batteries, nor, for that matter, critical friendly zones (CFZ) around the breach area to focus radar surveillance and set conditions for immediate counterfires. We planned to mass close air support and artillery against enemy direct fire systems at the point of penetration, but our aircraft arrived late and could not engage before our lead task force closed with the enemy. Nobody had considered the flight time to the battlefield in relation to task force rate of movement. Two sorties arrived as we requested. Unfortunately, we needed six sorties to achieve the effects we wanted. To make matters worse, they were carrying 500-lb bombs and cluster bomb units (CBUs) instead of MAVERICK missiles - the weapon of choice.

As the aircraft flew into the attack, we had to shut off the artillery, preventing us from obscuring the far side of the breach. Nobody established air routes or designed an airspace coordination area to permit simultaneous attack by close air support and artillery. But that, too, did not matter. Most of our artillery was still moving as the lead task force hit the breach. Nobody considered the effects of terrain on rate of battery movement and set up times in relation to the maneuver task forces. Sufficient batteries were not set when we needed them. But even if we had this right, our combat observation lasing teams (COLTs) were unable to communicate with the fire direction center. No one had considered the effects of terrain and distance on FM communications and the need to establish a retransmission team to sustain communications with the artillery fire direction center (FDC). The list goes on.

Main Table of Contents
Section I: Table of Contents
The Burden Our Soldiers Bear, Part 2



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