First Team staff prepares for deployment with command post exercise
March 16, 2014
FORT HOOD, Texas - The 1st Cavalry Division staff took over a wing of the Fort Hood Soldier Development Center this week for an elaborate command post exercise as they continue to train for their upcoming deployment to southern Afghanistan. The 10-day exercise was designed to put every element of the 1st Cav. Div. staff through the rigors of running a joint operations center in a highly complex area of operation like the one they're heading to later this year.
"These exercises have tremendous value in terms of bringing the staff together," said Brig. Gen. Michael Bills, 1st Cavalry Division commanding general. "It's really a team-building exercise. For one, they get to know me as a commander, and the command sergeant major as well, when it comes to guidance and intent. More importantly, it brings this team together to work toward one specific objective as we prep for Afghanistan."
In a war zone, command staffs work out of joint operation centers, or "JOC's", which are high-security hubs of data gathering and monitoring activity designed to plan, monitor, and guide the execution of the commander's decisions.
Inside the JOC, row after row of Soldiers concentrated on computer screens and walls full of monitors, maps and charts; tracking things like weather patterns, unit movements in the field, signs of civil unrest, all forms of enemy contact, and relevant trends in the media. The situations were notional, but the collective hustling and bustling filled the JOC with the steady sounds of very serious business from morning to night as the 1st Cav. staff finely tuned their operations.
The sea of familiar grey and green U.S. Army combat uniforms was broken up by the darker greens, blues and browns worn by service members from partner countries including Australia, France, Estonia and Poland who came to train alongside their coalition partners.
First Cav. Div. Command Sgt. Maj. Andrew Barteky echoed Bills' statement that the most important take-away from these kinds of exercises is a more cohesive team.
"We're trying to replicate the way we're actually going to conduct business as closely as possible," he said. "These exercises are invaluable in terms of establishing [tactics, techniques and procedures] within the staff for how they process information, coordinate amongst the various staff elements, and package information so that it's of use to the command so they can effectively make decisions."
Civilian observer-trainers mixed with the uniformed command staff, hovering over every section to correct problems and point out ways to make the JOC run more efficiently.
"The observers here come with a wealth of experience," said Bills. "They are mentors that help us see ourselves and improve our processes, internally as well as with multinational partners."
Learning to work with a coalition of partners is the key to success down range, said Pedro Albano, a Civilian Operations Instructor.
"This headquarters is in the unenviable position of being sandwiched between task forces, which are nationally run, and [International Security Assistance Force Joint Command], which is pure NATO. Most CPX's are based on U.S. systems, but the environment in which they are going is not just purely U.S., so they have to broaden their horizons of what's available to them. Their neighbors to the left or right might have different systems, so there's a huge level of potential miscommunication."
Albano explained that it's essential for the 1st Cav. Div. staff to adjust their expectations to the broad spectrum of systems and units they will be working with under NATO in Afghanistan.
"It comes down to data," he said. "Data is the key to the success of this mission. These guys aren't going out on patrol - the window to their world is the computer screen in front of them and the data it presents. The luxury that NATO systems try to provide is assessment time. NATO systems are very good at collating. Time is precious, particularly if you're talking about nine liners, or re-routing aircraft for a show of support. You must be able to assimilate that data and have the maximum time for assessment in order for [the commander] to produce the right decision."
Albano noted that mitigating potential miscommunications is the reason NATO goes to such lengths to conduct these kinds of exercises.
"Until a unit actually experiences the complexities of what they're going to face down range, it's very difficult to impart with just a few slides and presentations. That doesn't work. They need to experience it."
When asked if these exercises are realistic, Bills didn't hesitate to answer.
"Very, very much so. We're using what we've got from the units currently in theater as real world scenarios. It really helps us understand the environment we're about to go into."
U.S. Army Spc. Devon McCLish, an all-source intelligence analyst from St. Petersburg, Fla., said that he's been through six command post exercises in the last two years.
"We stay pretty busy in the [headquarters and headquarters battalion]," he laughed, adding that he's thankful for all the experience as he readies himself for his first deployment. "These exercises help us know which channels to go through, and exactly what to do on a mission. This kind of training helps us be fully prepared for the mission ahead, so it's essential to do things like this before we head out."
McClish's sentiments were matched by his commanding officer.
"We're learning a lot every day from this exercise, and we'll be better equipped for what's ahead when we wrap up in about a week," said Bills.
Albano said the most important lesson to be learned in a CPX is pretty simple: "That the coalition works."