(FORT BRAGG, N.C. - Nov. 15, 2006) -- 8:00 a.m.: Attention in the JOC!
"Attention in the JOC! Attention in the JOC!" Army Maj. Bill Shavce said over the announcing system.
That's how Exercise Unified Endeavor 07-1 mission rehearsal exercise (MRX) began here last night in the 82nd Airborne Division's Joint Operations Center (JOC) at Fort Bragg, N.C.
U.S. Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM) is conducting the MRX to train the 82nd, along with several subordinate units and individual augmentees, for deployment to Afghanistan as part of the Combined Joint Task Force-76 (CJTF-76) Operation Enduring Freedom early next year.
All the information coming into the division's headquarters goes through the JOC. More than a hundred operators man rows of computers dedicated to processing that information and routing it where it needs to go, up and down the chain of command. Teams work in different areas of expertise, covering every aspect of the operation.
Shavce is one of the JOC's battle majors. During his shift he's responsible for managing the flow of all that information.
"My primary function is collecting information, figuring out where it needs to go and making sure it all gets there," Shavce said. "Specific staff sections work their own pieces, and then we consolidate everything to provide one common operating picture."
When they deploy in a few months, that information will come from numerous sources, including satellites, intelligence organizations, other military units, and the task force's own troops on the ground.
For the exercise, USJFCOM is using its distributed training network to link input from units around the country to create a realistic environment. The operators in the JOC are seeing what they can expect to see when they arrive in Afghanistan.
9:30 am.: The 111th Air Support Operations Center Squadron
To one side of the JOC a small group of Air Force personnel diligently works their computers, passing information back and forth through instant messages, by telephone and over the radio.
The Washington Air National Guard's 111th Air Support Operations Center (ASOC) Squadron provides coordination of air support for the task force. Based at Camp Murray in Tacoma, Wash., and aligned with the Army, it deploys when and where the Army unit it supports does.
I spoke briefly with Senior Airman Corey Welton, a forward air controller with the unit.
"We take immediate requests from joint terminal attack controllers on the ground, and coordinate with the aircraft and the Army's battle manager to meet those requests," Welton said. "Basically, we're command and control for the close air support mission."
When an Army unit on the ground needs air support, it can come from a variety of sources, the ASOC determines which source will best meet the unit's request.
"We take those requests and pass them up to our air liaison officer (ALO), who finds out what's available to use to meet those requests. At the same time, the intelligence cell takes a look at it to validate the target.
"The ALO drafts a plan and coordinates it with the battle major. Meanwhile, a controller like me is coordinating with the Army's fires element to determine if there are any artillery assets that can handle the target. If there are, then we pass the request to them to fill. If not, then we communicate with our aircraft and send them to perform the mission."
At every step of the process, the ASOC coordinates with the aircraft, the controller on the ground and the battle major in the JOC to ensure they hit the right target at the right time. Weldon said the soldiers' needs on the ground are what drive the whole process.
12:30 p.m.: Army Aviation
After discussing how the Air Force provides ground support for the Army, I visited the soldiers in the 82nd Airborne Division's aviation cell and spoke with Army Sgt. 1st Class Scotty Brightwell.
Brightwell's cell works closely with the ASOC, but has a very different mission. While the ASOC handles controlling tactical aircraft, the Army handles the mission planning for all the Army helicopters and airplanes in the task force's area of operations (AOR).
"We really don't own the aircraft," Brightwell said. "The aviation commander owns them. We're the aviation commander's liaison to the division headquarters on how the division's air assets get allocated."
That allocation includes filing flight plans and making airspace requests, and moving personnel. The cell also oversees the personnel recovery mission. Brightwell said the division works closely with the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA).
"If we get a downed aircraft, we're the ones who coordinate for overhead support, deploy the rescue aircraft and personnel to help secure the site, and detail the med-evac unit. We have JPRA representatives in our cell whose whole mission is personnel recovery."
In short, the cell is where the commanding general goes when he needs to move people and materiel in his AOR.
3 p.m. : Future Operations
So far I've covered how the JOC handles the information coming in and going out, how the Air Force delivers ground support and how the Army manages its aircraft and the personnel recovery mission.
After grabbing a bite to eat I dropped in on the Future Operations Cell. This is where near-term operational planning for the task force in the exercise takes place. The cell takes a view four days ahead.
I spoke briefly with Army Maj. Tim Williams and Spec. Dennis Mullins about what future operations means. Both are in the 82nd Airborne Division.
"The Future Operations Cell is part of the division's battle staff," Mullins said. "This is where plans are coordinated and distributed up to the commanding general's staff. They'll either approve or disapprove of what the battle captains have come up with."
Once approved, the plans from the cell then go to the Current Operations Cell, which will pass them down to the brigade level for implement. From there, the brigades will decide what needs to happen at the task force's lower echelons.
I asked Williams about what the benefits of the exercise and the environment USJFCOM is providing are to the division and to the Future Operations Cell.
"It is definitely what we're expecting to see once we get to Afghanistan," Williams said. "The issue here is the replication of the cells and the subject matter expertise that they're working through these first couple of days.
"As a result of this exercise we'll gain a greater understanding of the capabilities and the information these different cells that we don't normally operate with on a daily basis, what they can provide for us and how to interdict and get that information that we need. We're learning that as we speak."
5:30 p.m.: The Engineers
All the networked capabilities that USJFCOM is using to drive the exercise, and CJTF-76 will use when it gets to Afghanistan, don't simply pop up overnight.
The 36th Engineer Brigade will perform that job for the task force, as well as all the other duties combat engineers perform. Those include repairing buildings, building roads, building fortifications for force protection and clearing routes so the task force can maneuver.
Known as the Rugged Sea Horses, the brigade is a new organization. It was originally the 36th Engineer Group, based at Fort Benning, Ga., before expanding and moving to Fort Hood, Texas, in this year as part of the Army's transformation plan.
Sgt. 1st Class Donald Thomas, the brigade's construction operations sergeant, said there are about a dozen soldiers in the brigade who made the move from Georgia, making the experience of working together in this exercise even more valuable, because the procedures for day-to-day operations are still being developed.
"Pretty much everybody in this brigade is new," Thomas said. "Now we're putting our standard operating procedures together and learning how to work with each other. We're starting from scratch.
"I expect that when we get to Afghanistan we'll be like a clock and we'll be ticking. This is preparing us to go, and I think once we get there we'll be prepared for any challenge."
I also spoke with Sgt. Inja Clarke, who works with the brigade's communication systems, including computers, telephones and all the networks the task force will use when it deploys.
"This unit's mission is to support the headquarters," Clarke said. "Without the communications and networking parts it would be a lot more difficult to transfer secure information from one point to another."
Clarke said another challenge is interfacing with the multinational forces when the task force assumes its role as Regional Command - East, under the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. She said the brigade has already sent personnel to Afghanistan to gather information on what they will need.
"That's what this mission is also helping with," Clarke said. "In learning how we're supposed to tie in, getting everybody familiar with the software systems that are going to be used out there with the 82nd, and also getting some feedback from units in Afghanistan, so when we come in it'll be a smooth transfer."
During the course of this day, I've covered how units are using the exercise to integrate and hone their procedures in preparation for the deployment. One thing I haven't yet mentioned the individual augmentees who are also training in the exercise. These service members come from both active duty and reserve units and fill crucial roles in the headquarters. The exercise gives them the opportunity to integrate with the headquarters staff and perform their jobs more effectively.
I'll be heading home now, knowing more about what it takes to train and prepare troops to operate together after seeing it up close and personal.