FORT POLK, La. — The soldiers sat up throughout the previous night, waiting for an all-out insurgent attack that didn’t come. Now, they were mostly sprawled out across a rooftop overlooking the U.S. consulate in a small Middle Eastern country.
Machine gunners on each side of the roof squinted out over the city and the airfield that the 82nd Airborne’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team had parachuted into a few nights earlier and taken without a shot fired. But the fight was out there somewhere, and drawing closer.
“Wake up,” Sgt. 1st Class Stephen Daggett growled at his troops, who rose to their feet and hoisted rifles and Javelin anti-tank missiles. “There’s intel two Americans were taken, and Arianian forces disguised in their uniforms are looking to attack the embassy.”
Armed forces of that nation, a made-up place with a decidedly familiar ring, are the main villains in an elaborate exercise playing out at Fort Polk, La. According to the training scenario, which concludes next week, the friendly government of “Atropia” has asked for U.S. help to stabilize an area wracked by insurgents and threatened by attack from nearby “Ariana.”
The capabilities of the mock opposing force are significantly greater than the real-world insurgents that the U.S. Army has spent the last decade fighting.
“Outside of the first few months in Iraq, you’ve been fighting an invisible enemy,” said Daggett, a veteran of several Iraq deployments. But with Arianian tanks rolling toward the city guarded by American armor and artillery, he said, “the enemy in this isn’t just a guy sneaking out to bury an IED.”
The exercise is an early signal of the Army’s attempt — with Iraq in the rear-view mirror and troop numbers in Afghanistan dropping — to turn the page on recent wars and position itself for a near-term future defined by deficit-driven budget cuts, shrinking end strength and continuing global turmoil.
While the Army drops from a recent high of 570,000 troops to a planned end strength of 490,000 in the next five years, the Defense Department says it regards the vast Asia-Pacific region as the area most critical to U.S. strategic interests in coming decades. That means increased operations there by the Navy, which was spared the major budget cuts that the Army stands to endure.
The brand-name concept for fighting in the Pacific, AirSea Battle, was jointly developed by the Navy, Air Force and Marines. It focuses on those services’ global capabilities at a time when the Army is returning to bases in the United States.
The Washington budget bickering and new strategic emphasis are a combination that Army Undersecretary Joseph Westphal, speaking last month to veterans, called a “perfect storm.”
“In the movie, the fishermen were hit by three different weather systems,” said Westphal. “We are facing our own perfect storm with changes coming after the elections, budget cuts across the board, and the third storm is that we will have to focus more on Asia.”
Recent buzzwords for the future Army have been “flexibility” and “agility,” and those attributes are exactly what will be needed by an Army that could need to rush to the Pacific, the Middle East or some unforeseen destination, said retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, a former U.S. commanding general in Afghanistan.
“We’re entering the first time period since perhaps the early 1940s when over 90 percent of the Army will based in the 50 United States,” Barno said. “The Army’s going to have a challenge in that it’s going to have to commute to the fight.”
Before the counterinsurgency wars of the post-9/11 era, rapid global deployability was a core Army aim, Barno said. As it returns to those roots, it will have to do so without the massive worldwide Army presence of prior decades, meaning that new logistical and troop-basing concepts will have to be put in play, he said.
If the living conditions of the troops taking part in the current training rotation at Fort Polk’s Joint Readiness Training Center are any indication, the Army is pondering the supply issue.
Unlike recent, counterinsurgency-focused exercises, the 2nd BCT lacks the amenities available when operating out of mock forward operating bases. They’re not sleeping in bunks, taking showers or eating in chow halls. Instead, they’re living much as paratroopers might early in a real war.
About five days after the initial jump from Air Force C-130s, soldiers huddled under ponchos on the ground as they tried to sleep during a driving rainstorm. When they awoke, they sliced open MRE bags rather than lining up to eat eggs cooked by local contractors. And they sipped from canteens carried on their hips rather than from bottles of spring water that are found stacked throughout FOBs in Afghanistan.
“You can tell there are a lot of people assessing the feasibility of sustaining a brigade of paratroopers without established supply lines already built up,” said 1st Lt. Nathaniel Drake, executive officer of a company charged with guarding the mock consulate and evacuating civilians. “When you look at the sheer level of assets given to this exercise, it means this is what the Army expects to be doing and wants to get right”
So, exactly what is the Army trying to get right? Is Ariana simply a thinly disguised Iran?
The 2nd BCT’s commander, Col. Patrick J. Hynes, grins at the suggestion, but says that the exercise was designed to cover a wide spectrum of potential operations the Army could face in the near future. It’s not training to fight any specific country.
Chief among those operations is the quick-reaction airborne “forcible entry” that secured the airfield and consulate, an exercise “unlike anything that’s been done in fully 10 years,” Hynes said.
The exercise also focuses on greater integration of conventional and special operations forces.
A counterinsurgency element of the exercise — working closely with a local population and officials, played by civilian role-players from the communities around Fort Polk — is based on lessons the Army learned in Afghanistan and Iraq, he said.
Although Hynes didn’t know the specifics of what the opposing force — composed of role-playing U.S. soldiers — was planning, he said it was likely to end in a big conventional ground battle of a sort the U.S. military hasn’t fought in years.
At twilight two or three days before the expected Arianan assault, infantry battalion commander Lt. Col. Brandon Tegtmeier stalked through the pine woods southwest of the airfield, checking his soldiers’ progress on a defensive line featuring Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles.
Elsewhere along the line, soldiers dug covered fighting positions, blasted craters and built mined barricades to funnel enemy vehicles into the range of heavy weapons.
It’s been awhile, Tegtmeier said, since an Army exercise put this much emphasis on training for tank battles and artillery barrages. But as nasty as war against insurgents can get, Tegtmeier said, there far more dangerous opponents.
In the next few days, Ariana would be throwing not just tanks, but helicopters, jets and even aerial drones at the 2nd BCT.
“Typically, we don’t get to train against this kind of threat,” he said.
But Tegtmeier warned against drawing too great a contrast between where the Army wants to go and where it has recently been. Refocusing on some older fundamentals doesn’t mean ditching valuable capabilities honed in Iraq and Afghanistan — hence the counterinsurgency aspect the Army has put into the exercise.
“There are a lot of moving pieces in play here,” he said. “We need to be on top of all of them.”