JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. - There are few training opportunities in the military that prepare a unit like the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif.
Between the difficult terrain, the extremely competent enemy force, and the sheer magnitude of the battlefield, it is a behemoth of a task for any team to undertake.
Soldiers from 3-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 7th Infantry Division, recently tested their skills during an NTC rotation in the month of July where they faced off against an enemy with all the equipment and training necessary to put up a tough fight.
"We faced a number of formidable adversaries," said Maj. Timothy Palmer, the brigade operations officer.
From insurgents who blended in with the population to tank battalions rolling across the battlefield, the enemy was a force to be reckoned with.
This rotation took place in what is known as a Decisive Action Training Environment (DATE). This hybrid training was designed to mimic realistic combat where units could fight both conventional and unconventional forces and has become the new norm for combined training center rotations such as NTC and the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La.
Most Soldiers, especially those who joined in the last 14 or so years, are used to a counterinsurgency (COIN) fights where the enemy force uses unconventional tactics such as improvised explosive devices and suicide bombings to inflict casualties on U.S. forces.
In DATE training, not only must U.S. forces be prepared to defeat an insurgency, but they must also be ready to face a near-peer force with similar capabilities. In the case 3-2 SBCT's rotation, this meant facing an enemy with tanks, artillery and helicopters along with a host of other high-grade military equipment.
"This is something that many in this brigade-I would say most in this brigade-have not seen or done before," Palmer said. "I came in the Army in 1995 as a 17-year-old private and this was still the way for CTC rotations.
Palmer said this is a huge change for many within the brigade. During the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Soldiers were used to having vast resources at their disposal at a moment's notice, something that's not always the case in DATE training.
"We're used to having everything at our fingertips, so when you have a troops-in-contact situation in the COIN environment, like we did many times in Afghanistan or Iraq, or you took a casualty, everything stopped to focus on that troops in contact or that casualty," Palmer said. "The more difficult thing for people to adapt to who are used to that...and have operated in those types of environments is that in some cases, you have to make tough decisions as a leader. When you take a casualty, you have to continue the fight because if you don't you might not win and you might take a lot more casualties."
Throughout the weeks of training, the brigade had to be prepared to face enemies on multiple flanks at any given moment, making planning and the strategic use of available assets absolutely critical pieces of the overall puzzle.
"You might have to withhold a resource from someone who could use it for a situation that's occurring because of the planned time to use that resource down the road where you could mass effects on your enemy at a decisive point," Palmer said.
Palmer gave an example.
"We have the cavalry squadron going forward and they take contact, but I want to launch the air weapons team immediately to help them quell that threat," Palmer said. "If I launch that air weapons team at that point, because of the cycle that they're on-the crew rest-we would lose them for when we had template them to have a decisive operations fight with our enemy at the right time and the right place to be able to mass effects of the weapons system that are carried on the air weapons team."
With Strykers, infantry dismounts, helicopters, tanks and a host of other assets at their disposal, keeping track and planning for the proper use of the equipment and personnel was a mission unto itself.
"Maneuvering a brigade through the high terrain desert of the National Training Center with a civilian populace still located in towns and understanding the capabilities that the brigade has at their fingertips to employ against the enemies of our country in the field of battle; understanding that is something you don't truly gain an appreciation for until you have gone through training like that provided by NTC," Palmer said.
Leading up to this training, unit leadership took part in exhaustive planning efforts that explored numerous courses of action for the enemy force.
"That shift and that transition are something I think that we all realize now and maybe realized in preparation before this because we had talked about so much, but you don't gain a full appreciation until you actually do it," Palmer said.
For Palmer, the training was eye opening.
"About midway through I remember being in a battle and thinking 'OK, I get it,'" said Palmer. "It took me going through it to get there. Conceptually, I had an appreciation for it prior. I've read a lot of doctrine, I've spent a lot of time in history books, I've seen a lot of documentaries, I have a few deployments, but none of them were like this. With all the contextual understanding going in to this I had a good concept, but you don't have a full understanding until you go through it."
By the nature of his position, Palmer saw the brigade from a macro level, but for younger Soldiers who witnessed it on the ground, it was a chance to put their skills to the test and to how well their brigade faired against a determined enemy force.
"I believe the brigade is better now because [we] got to see how [our] plans actually do on the battlefield," said Spc. Louis Tomimbang, a Monterey, Calif., medic who worked with the brigade headquarters element during the rotation. "[We] were able to test all their systems and see where [our] faults were and improve them. I could see it improving as the rotation went on."
"Overall, I would see when the planners would get together, I would see them really hash out...they would stumble over a few of the plans in the beginning, but as the rotation went a long they were able to do it more smoothly and more efficiently," he continued. "They were able to predicate what would actually work as the mission changed."
For Palmer, this rotation has proven the readiness of the brigade overall to face whatever mission they are called to take part in.
"It was an absolutely excellent rotation all the way around," Palmer said. "Our died of wounds rate was much less, our safety incidents were much less, our success against the enemy who arguably had to use every trick that they had just to keep us at bay was much greater than what we have heard other units have said."
With this NTC rotation firmly under its belt, the brigade has proven both its adaptability and survivability in a realistic environment and is ready to face whatever mission comes next.