By Maj. Adam A. ScherOctober 31, 2017
Decisive action training rotations at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) at Fort Polk, Louisiana, allow brigade combat teams to test their combat systems, employ Army doctrine, and experiment with tactics, techniques, and procedures against a complex and talented opposing force. As the forward support company (FSC) for the 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment (1-508 PIR), 3rd Brigade Combat Team (BCT), 82nd Airborne Division, J Company deployed its 51 paratroopers and 26 vehicles from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to Intermediate Staging Base Alexandria in support of the PIR's JRTC rotation.
The 1-508 PIR's mission to conduct an airborne assault into a contested drop zone, secure the lead edge of the drop zone, occupy key terrain on and near the airfield, and clear the field landing strip (FLS) required the battalion to sustain itself and move repair assets and class I (subsistence) supplies onto the airfield as quickly as possible.
TRADITIONAL AND AIRBORNE FSCS
In an article in the September-October 2016 issue of Army Sustainment, Lt. Col. Brent Coryell and Capt. Christopher Devenport explain, "Conceptually, each maneuver battalion can carry a one-day load of basic supplies on its combat systems. The FSC is designed to carry the battalion's second day of supply, and a third day of supply is maintained by the BSB [brigade support battalion] at the BSA [brigade support area]."
For airborne operations, paratroopers are the "combat systems." The only supplies that paratroopers have when they enter the battlefield are those that they carry under their reserve parachute when jumping. FSC vehicles carrying additional logistics support are available only after a ground line of communication (GLOC) is established to the drop zone.
Coryell and Devenport state that "BCT sustainment planners are generally challenged when conducting … anticipatory logistics analysis because they are not educated on the science of maneuver warfare and armored tactics needed to estimate well."
Even before mechanized or motorized formations arrive at the battlefield, sustainment planners in airborne units face the challenge of logistics planning during airfield seizures. These airborne assaults do not permit the FSC's heavy equipment to arrive on the battlefield in a synchronized fashion.
One area that Coryell and Devenport highlight that applies to airborne FSCs is that "optimal FSC asset emplacement in decisive action requires thorough staff analysis, a complete understanding of FSC capabilities, and clearly defined personnel functions to support the tactical operation."
AN AIRBORNE FSC IN ACTION
During JRTC Rotation 16-09, the 1-508 PIR determined that FSC personnel and maintenance equipment needed to arrive on the battlefield during the first daylight airlandings because opening a GLOC was expected to be a lengthy, contested process.
Terrain analysis and intelligence preparation of the battlefield indicated that the enemy could restrict the FSC's ground movement to the drop zone. The enemy had established mission command nodes and in-depth defenses in several urban areas along the main avenue of approach from the ISB to the drop zone.
According to doctrine, just a few minutes before paratroopers exit the aircraft, the first echelon of vehicles and equipment, also known as the heavy drop, is released from the aircraft. The heavy drop provides follow-on paratroopers with vital combat power such as artillery, bulldozers, and gun trucks.
Immediate airborne objectives include clearing the FLS within one hour of landing and, if necessary, repairing the FLS within four hours. Controlling the airhead line and clearing or fixing the FLS are key to declaring the airfield operational and safe for aircraft landings.
The second echelon of vehicles and equipment arrives on the FLS by C-130 or C-17 aircraft sorties with follow-on forces and equipment to expand the lodgment. During JRTC rotation 16-09, the 1-508th PIR allotted one C-17 to move the FSC commander and two FSC vehicles into the drop zone with the second echelon.
The 1-508 PIR recognized the importance of mobility and the dangers of operating in a contested drop zone. The battalion expected some of its vehicles to be either mechanically damaged or battle damaged during the heavy drop. The battalion also expected that the August heat around Fort Polk would force paratroopers to consume large amounts of water in the first six hours after joint forcible entry.
To mitigate the risks from the climate, the simulated heavy drop, and the enemy, the battalion determined that it would need to bring repair assets, water, and meals ready-to-eat to the airfield as quickly as possible. The battalion commander decided to use airland delivery to provide an additional maintenance truck and a supply truck to enhance the immediate combat power of the airborne infantry battalion.
A supply truck filled with class I and a maintenance contact truck, which was prepared to troubleshoot weapons gun trucks, were part of the heavy drop and were responsible for clearing the FLS. The battalion also used 10 vehicles from the BCT's priority vehicle list to simulate a heavy drop of two heavy weapons platoons and the battalion's mission command vehicle.
A ground assault convoy was scheduled to depart the intermediate staging base in conjunction with the airfield seizure, but the convoy had to traverse an enemy-controlled route, which required the deliberate clearing of two enemy urban strongholds in order to secure a GLOC.
For planning purposes, the battalion assumed that the first combat ground elements would need the first period of darkness to secure the objectives. In a best-case scenario, logistics resupply vehicles and mission command of the battalion's FSC were expected to arrive 24 to 36 hours after the jump.
Deploying FSC assets early proved integral to the battalion's success. Getting class I to maneuver companies during the first daylight hours after the initial seizure allowed freedom of maneuver and a battalion-level attack on a known enemy stronghold during the second night.
Preventing heat injuries by keeping paratroopers fed and hydrated allowed maneuver elements to operate at significant distances from the central location of friendly elements on the drop zone. This sustainment enabled the battalion to push the attack at the forward edge of the battle area into known enemy areas before the GLOC was fully established.
The maintenance repair assets helped ensure the battalion maintained its mobility and lethality against armored enemy forces poised to counterattack and deny friendly forces the ability to expand the lodgment.
Current Army sustainment doctrine does not state how to employ the FSC in airfield seizure logistics but, instead, allows BCTs flexibility in arraying sustainment forces. The combat power generation and preservation that resulted from incorporating the FSC into the early airlandings cannot be understated. By moving the FSC beyond the traditional role of providing mission command of the arrival/departure airfield control group, the 1-508 PIR exercised FSC flexibility in a dramatic way.
While mission command of the arrival/departure airfield control group needed to be accomplished, the 1-508 PIR found ways, as part of a BCT and with help from the battalion staff, to free FSC assets to focus on the paramount mission of providing maneuver battalion logistics.
Instead of having the FSC wait for the ground convoy to arrive to maintain the offensive initiative and expand the lodgment, the 1-508 PIR directed its FSC to focus on getting supplies to the paratroopers engaged with the enemy. During JRTC rotation 16-09, this tactic worked.
The battalion plans to continue experimenting with this type of task organization in future airfield seizures and battalion and brigade attacks as it assumes the Global Response Force mission. It will refine its methods of getting paratroopers to the battlefield in the safest, most effective, and most lethal way that its junior logistics leaders on the front lines can sustain.
Maj. Adam A. Scher is the battalion executive officer of 1-508th PIR and previously served as an assistant professor of American politics in the Department of Social Sciences at the U.S. Military Academy. He holds a bachelor's degree in political science from the U.S. Military Academy and a master's degree in public administration from Columbia University.
This article was published in the November-December 2017 issue of Army Sustainment magazine.