FORT IRWIN, CALIF. — It took only about 30 minutes at the Army’s massive training center in the Mojave Desert for Sgt. 1st Class Jesse Reyes to see a different threat than he’d faced in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It was just a drill, but an enemy attack helicopter had his platoon in its sights with missiles that could destroy the armored Stryker vehicles and kill everyone in them.
That’s not the kind of opponent Reyes knew in the wars, where insurgents would take shots at American soldiers with low-budget ambushes and buried bombs.
His platoon’s solution: Ditch the Strykers, get out on foot and take a shot at the helicopter with a shoulder-fired missile.
“It’s the only way we’ll live,” said platoon leader Lt. Tyler Tessman.
Suddenly slowed by an unfamiliar and deadly opponent, Reyes and Tessman’s platoon would not complete its mission on this January day.
That was the point.
The Army wanted them and 4,500 other Lewis-McChord soldiers to learn from setbacks during an exhausting three-week exercise at the National Training Center.
These were one of the first large-scale war games pitting a Stryker brigade against another conventional military since just before the 2003 Iraq invasion.
That meant Stryker soldiers from the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division would have to find a way to overcome tanks and helicopters instead of practicing the detective work they used in Iraq and Afghanistan to bring down insurgent networks.
“What we’re doing here is kind of a lost art,” said 1st Sgt. Beau Barker, 38, of Puyallup, a cavalry troop sergeant in the brigade.
Their exercise also signaled a pivot for an Army that’s emerging from the nation’s longest war with a downsized force.
A trip to the National Training Center over the past dozen years marked the last stop for brigades before combat tours to the Middle East. The Army built entire mock villages for that purpose, hiring actors to pretend to be hostile villagers for the exercises.
Soldiers would work their way through scenarios developing ties with locals while hunting for insurgents, just as they would when they hit the ground in combat.
Those counterinsurgency missions are ending, and it’s unclear what the future holds.
“We don’t even know what’s next,” said Reyes, a 30-year-old platoon sergeant from Manteca, Calif., who earned two Purple Hearts on one of his Afghanistan deployments.
Because of budget cuts, only six of the 38 combat brigades that are expected to be in the Army at the end of 2014 will be considered trained and ready to deploy.
The 3rd Brigade is one of the six that are ready to go.
But for once, they’re ready with nowhere in particular to go.
“We don’t have that luxury anymore” of preparing for deployments to known wars on a regular schedule, said Command Sgt. Maj. Sean Mayo of the 3rd Brigade’s 1st Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment.
The Army’s publicly announced plan for the 3rd Brigade is to turn it into a regionally aligned force that would interact with American allies on the Pacific Rim on regularly scheduled exercises. A brigade from Fort Riley in Kansas has a similar alignment with the Pentagon’s Africa Command.
The Lewis-McChord brigade also will be expected to designate some soldiers for the Army’s global response force. In an emergency, they’d deploy anywhere on Earth within 96 hours of a call.
“In these periods of global uncertainty, you want to have a force that is ready,” said Gen. Dan Allyn, the four-star chief of the Army’s Forces Command. He visited the 3rd Brigade’s exercise in late January.
To get ready for the unknown, the Army planned a sprawling scenario for the 3rd Brigade last month at the National Training Center. It was based on the premise that soldiers had to restore the border of a fictional American ally that lost territory to a well-armed neighbor.
Trainers fleshed out the scenario by layering in other forces that would collaborate with troops from the South Sound base. The Japanese Ground Self Defense Force sent a battalion to the exercise whose soldiers have a reputation for excellent marksmanship.
Teams from the Army’s Special Operations Forces also participated, as did an Army aviation battalion from Alaska and a National Guard unit from Arizona.
Along the way, the Lewis-McChord Stryker soldiers would battle tanks, encounter chemical weapons and try to keep friendly locals from changing sides.
They slept in their Stryker vehicles and ate packaged meals most days. In this scenario, they were part of a fast-moving war with none of the comforts of the military mega-bases where some of them lived in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Soldiers from a Joint Base Lewis-McChord cavalry platoon guide a Stryker vehicle to pick up fictional casualties in a training scenario in the Mojave Desert. The maneuver failed when the “enemy” fired artillery rounds at the Stryker.
Back to core mission
The Army last faced an armored ground force with tanks and helicopters in the 1991 Gulf War and briefly at the start of the 2003 Iraq invasion. In both conflicts, U.S. forces made quick work of their conventional opponents.
The Iraq War, however, did not end with the fall of Saddam Hussein’s military. It carried on with insurgent militias that would take shots at U.S. forces — and each other — with homemade bombs, mortars and rockets.
American forces adopted a counterinsurgency approach that emphasized protecting Iraqi civilians more than destroying an enemy.
Now the U.S. military wants to get back to its core mission of preparing to defeat another conventional force while building on its hard-won lessons from Iraq.
The National Training Center exercise kicked off with a bang when the enemy force went right for its heaviest weapons on the first day of the war games.
Using rockets, it launched a chemical weapons strike against a helicopter landing field and the brigade headquarters. Hundreds of soldiers had to reach for gas masks far earlier than they anticipated.
“We haven’t trained for that in a long time,” said Capt. Jesse Boulton, 30, a Tacoma resident and veteran of three tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s the brigade’s headquarters company commander, an assignment that has him running command centers that normally would be out of reach of enemy fire.
The enemy’s big weapons kept the whole brigade on the move, unlike its most recent deployments during which it would set up a stable headquarters at a protected base while soldiers dispersed to far-flung outposts.
This time, the brigade repeatedly had to build up and tear down its headquarters while maintaining communications over secure networks with thousands of soldiers across a rugged desert expanse.
“Truth be told, this is the first time we’ve done a lot of this,” brigade commander Col. Dave Bair told his headquarters soldiers as they made their first move.
Out in the field, the soldiers under his command had their own share of firsts.
The brigade’s artillerymen had to practice firing their cannons and then quickly move to new positions to avoid a counterstrike. In Iraq and Afghanistan, by contrast, artillerymen would launch and stay put at a forward base.
“This kind of fight requires them to shoot, move, shoot, move, and the problems are much more difficult,” said Lt. Col. Norberto Menendez, commander of the brigade’s artillery battalion and its chief fires officer.
In one test for the cavalry squadron, the scouts of Crazyhorse Troop were told to get on top of a mountain and report on enemy positions. Troop commander Capt. Chris Reese made a plan to have his three platoons approach the mountain from different angles.
It quickly changed when the opposition force launched a helicopter attack on one of the platoons, wiping out the unit.
Tessman and Reyes were part of the reconnaissance mission. An enemy helicopter spotted their platoon and drove them into a hiding place, delaying their rendezvous on the mountain.
They pressed on in their Strykers when the helicopter left but stalled again near a hilltop. A team of soldiers hiked up near a summit with a device that could pick up radio signals from the opposing force.
The team on foot called in coordinates for an enemy tank just on the other side of the hill, and the soldiers heard chatter suggesting the opposition had troops on foot spotting Tessman’s position, too.
Tessman and Reese called for an artillery strike on the tank. It didn’t come.
Reese grew frustrated. He knew he had to get soldiers up the mountain. He told Tessman and Reyes to proceed without the artillery strike.
Tessman objected over the radio. “We’ve got to do something. Break. And it’s probably not going to go well. Break.”
Reese told the platoon to move.
It did, and the tank got the best of them as soon as they pushed up the hill.
War games at National Training center are played somewhat like laser tag. Soldiers know they’re hit when a device worn around their necks begins to rattle. Strykers have lights that flash when they’ve been hit.
Afterward, a trainer walks up to the platoon leader and explains the severity of an attack. Then soldiers have to practice the medical care they would give based on a victim’s reported wounds.
The tank “disabled” two of Tessman’s three Stryker vehicles, while “wounding” two of his soldiers.
Their situation worsened as they tried to care for the casualties by getting them into the remaining Stryker. Their opposition hit that vehicle, too, once they moved it from its hiding place.
Soon after, one of the two “wounded” soldiers “died” in the scenario because the troops could not get him to better medical care.
The next morning, Reyes and Tessman suggested to Reese that they should have waited for the artillery fire. In actual combat, they would not have driven up the hill knowing a tank was there. It was too obvious a risk.
Reese, 28, wasn’t having it. It was early in the exercise, before casualties mattered in the overall brigade assignment. At that point, they could afford to fail just to learn about their enemy’s tactics and then try again the next day.
That first helicopter attack unacceptably bogged down his plans for hours. “We have timelines to meet,” Reese told them.
Next time, if it happened again, they’d have to make better use of the shoulder-fired missiles in their Strykers, their main weapon against helicopters and tanks.
That air attack “definitely threw us off,” Reese said. “That’s the first helicopter they’ve seen.”