By Capt. Ed RichardsFebruary 7, 2019
Ground maneuver in a decisive action environment requires brigade combat teams (BCTs) to establish and manage lines of communication across potentially large and contested battlespaces to support and sustain large-scale combat operations (LSCO). The likely absence of proven and tested logistics infrastructure, especially immediately after initial forced entry into a theater of operations, further compounds the inherent friction of conducting LSCO against a near-peer adversary and places an unfamiliar strain on unit operations.
The National Training Center (NTC) at Fort Irwin, California, replicates this operational complication by blending its uniquely austere and expansive desert training area with an aggressive peer-level opposition force capable of mimicking the complex hybrid threat observed in current and emerging conflict areas across the global stage.
At NTC, units regularly struggle to synchronize logistics support operations with maneuver operations. This is a consequence of units conducting the military decisionmaking process and rapid decisionmaking and synchronization process without adequate consideration for logistics and sustainment factors.
Not using well-developed systems and processes to routinely collect and analyze sustainment information often inhibits the unit's ability to efficiently resource ground logistics efforts. It also degrades the unit's ability to effectively incorporate the employment of rotary-wing assets in its concept of support. This failure to harmonize efforts across warfighting functions limits the commander's ability to achieve cross-domain synergy in Multi-Domain Operations.
Army rotary-wing assets provide the supported BCT commander with tactical options and an advantage over the enemy. Field Manual (FM) 3-90-1, Offense and Defense; FM 3-96, Brigade Combat Team; and FM 4-95, Logistics Operations, all recognize the advantages of using rotary-wing assets to afford ground commanders operational dexterity and to allow ground forces to overcome disrupted lines of communication. In fact, one of the seven core competencies of Army Aviation is to conduct air movement of personnel, equipment, and supplies. So where is the disconnection?
DOCTRINE: USER MANUALS WITHOUT INSTRUCTIONS
Although knowing doctrine is certainly not the single key to success, it is a good place to start. Understanding the systems and science of tactics, logistics, and aviation capabilities builds the foundation upon which tactical options can be developed and the art of tactics can be practiced. This simple concept can enable the commander to create a flexible array of forces, remove sustainment-related uncertainty from the decision-making cycle, and mitigate (to a degree) the stressful effects of combat on Soldiers.
The Army has published plenty of doctrine that addresses the different levels of sustainment in one fashion or another; however, these documents lack any substantial reference to the integration of rotary-wing assets into the BCT's logistics and sustainment operations. Sustainment-specific doctrine, such as Army Doctrine Reference Publication 4-0, Sustainment, and FM 4-95 place emphasis on strategic and operational functions, but these publications holistically neglect to address operations at the tactical level.
Consequently, BCT sustainment leaders and planners are left without a useful guide to integrate and use Army Aviation assets to set favorable logistics conditions for the BCT. The Army's sustainment publications provide only a sentence or two for aerial resupply operations in more than a thousand pages of doctrine.
A challenge for the BCT is simply that it does not have the doctrinal base to guide it through developing aerial lines of communication. But the inverse is often true for Army Aviation, which has the guide but often struggles with knowing its own doctrine. Establishing aerial lines of communication at NTC is frustrating for both the BCT and aviation task forces, which both struggle with investing the necessary planning energy required to synchronize efforts.
Army Techniques Publication 3-04.1, Aviation Tactical Employment, references types of air movement missions, capabilities and load limitations of mission design series (MDS) aircraft, supported and supporting unit responsibilities, and methods of aerial resupply.
OBSTACLES: GETTING IN OUR OWN WAY
Disrupting the BCT's ability to achieve cross-domain synergy with its sustainment enterprise is often a result of a lack of emphasis on analyzing the sustainability of the maneuver tempo. The BCT's unfamiliarity with or reluctance to develop a deliberate aerial resupply component to its concept of support inhibits the requisite coordination needed to successfully conduct tactical air movements of personnel and supplies.
Doctrine already recognizes that the mission variety and operational complexity inherent in LSCO require sustainment operators to establish flexible and tailorable distribution systems to support tactical commanders. The integration of rotary-wing assets into the BCT's concept of support enables the sustainment of the BCT commander's desired operating tempo when ground lines of communication are disrupted, frustrated, or impeded by austere terrain or enemy influences.
When planned for and employed properly, rotary-wing platforms aid in mitigating tactical risk to sustainment operations and the risks of overextending the brigade support battalion's or combat sustainment support battalion's organic capabilities. This concept can be scaled to the division level for use by sustainment brigades.
Although the added capabilities of aviation assets can minimize these risks, inadequate or incomplete planning and coordination can desynchronize and delay sustainment mission time lines during execution. The most significant obstacles hindering the successful execution of aerial resupply operations are the negative habits developed from nearly two decades of sustained small-intensity conflict during counterinsurgency operations (COIN).
The general support relationships employed in Afghanistan and Iraq have produced a generation of leaders accustomed to on-demand rotary-wing support, which is no longer afforded in decisive action and LSCO. Deliberate planning and synchronization, especially when the BCT is not the division's main effort, are essential to the successful integration and employment of rotary-wing assets in support of BCT sustainment operations.
When developing the BCT's concept of support, sustainment planners and operators, under the leadership of the BCT S-4, must identify critical gaps in the BCT's supply chain and determine when and how to use rotary-wing assets. This planning effort must be continual and blend with the assessment portion of the operations process.
The BCT S-4 and sustainment leaders at echelon must determine the operational energy required for each phase of the operation and calculate the necessary rotary-wing support to ensure the desired operating tempo is sustained. A way to do this is to utilize the expertise and knowledge of an aviation liaison officer positioned in the brigade support area. If there is no liaison officer present, BCT commanders should request one, and aviation task forces should provide an individual who has the right talent and expertise.
RELATIONSHIPS: COMBAT POWER CONTRACTS
Determining the type of support relationship the BCT has with its aviation counterpart will drive much of the mission analysis process and assist BCT planners in the early identification of rotary-wing requirements. With the exception of MDS-specific load capacities and aircraft ranges, the fundamental principles of sustainment planning remain the same. Considerations for intermodal operations and the need for movement control remain constant; however, the importance of terminal operations increase dramatically because of considerations for aircraft availability and station time.
A lack of pre-mission coordination, the absence of procedural airspace control measures, and a lack of shared understanding of accurate unit locations habitually plague the aerial resupply process. These friction points prevent the efficient building of combat power in the BCT's close area and result in three major impacts: delayed or aborted air mission requests (AMRs), a breakdown in the trust between the supported ground unit and supporting aviation element, and a waste of aviation combat power (fuel, maintenance, and air crews) that verges on negligence.
At the combat training centers (CTCs), combat aviation trainers closely track these trends, and the results are alarming. At NTC, where the armored BCTs and Stryker BCTs are the primary training audiences, aviation units are regularly underutilized. Capable of transporting personnel and equipment with organic rolling stock, armored and Stryker BCTs rarely successfully incorporate rotary-wing assets in their logistics lines of communication.
During a rotation at NTC, an aviation task force transported fewer than 200 personnel and only 7,600 pounds of equipment in support of the rotational BCT, despite flying 225 flight hours over the course of 40 air movement missions. This particular rotation yielded a troubling success rate of 25 percent for aerial resupply due to a lack of airspace synchronization at the brigade level and the absence of terminal operations at echelon.
Although this example is extreme, it seems obvious that the expansive size of NTC's training area would be cause in its own right for the increased use of rotary-wing platforms; however, that is not the case.
Yet, the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, with a significantly smaller training area, has experienced nearly opposite results. Rotational data yields a stark contrast of 3,460 personnel and 238,800 pounds of equipment moved in a single rotation in support of an infantry BCT at its peak for fiscal year 2018.
The BCT's organic ability, or lack thereof, to transport its own parts, people, and supplies has a direct correlation to the use of aircraft for logistics support; however, it neither negates the degree of planning and coordination necessary to successfully conduct air-ground operations, nor rationalizes the underlying issue that the Army is simply not proficient at it with respect to sustainment.
So how do we get better? The question is simple enough, but as Carl von Clausewitz stated nearly three centuries ago, "Everything in war is very simple. But the simplest thing is difficult."
Battalion and brigade staff members must refocus the lens through which they observe this problem set and adjust the way they do business. They must develop flexible and tailorable aerial lines of communication in order to rapidly aggregate disparate forces to exploit temporary dominance in select domains or decisive spaces. This starts with establishing and enforcing sustainment reports and effectively synchronizing logistics efforts at echelon to generate situational awareness so that the BCT commander can gauge the unit's tempo and trajectory.
Where and how Army Aviation fits into the BCT's concept of support is predicated on the BCT's ability to receive routine running estimates, conduct detailed analysis of forecasted sustainment requirements, and synchronize internal priorities of support with their lines of effort to include rotary-wing operations. Proper analysis of these data points will either produce the required routing and sequencing of allotted aircraft or generate the demand signal for additional assets.
To ensure the correct aviation asset is requested at the right time, BCT S-4s must work closely with the organic brigade aviation elements (BAEs) to ensure requests are requisitioned properly and in a timely manner. Additionally, when requesting rotary-wing support, BCT planners often focus on a specific MDS (such as a Chinook or a Black Hawk) instead of the desired end state.
Similar to the processing of Department of Defense Form 1972, Joint Tactical Air Strike Request, AMRs should focus on the desired effect, such as transporting palletized loads or sling loading fuel blivets. The aggregate approved AMRs should dictate the resourcing of the type aircraft since the supporting aviation element will be best able to assess how to maximize use of its aircraft based on mission requirements. Chapter 6 of Army Techniques Publication 3-04.1 addresses the AMR process; however, it is not yet standardized throughout the Army.
At NTC, BCTs are allocated a limited number of utility or heavy-lift aircraft in a direct support relationship in accordance with Forces Command training guidance. This limited support serves as a forcing function for both the BCT and the aviation task force to conduct detailed mission analysis of rotary-wing requirements. During nearly every combat training center rotation, both elements experience a significant amount of operational friction when conducting tactical air movements and aerial resupply operations.
Although BAE cells play a critical role in the requisition of aircraft, their role is not limited to this one task. Working in conjunction with the BAE cell, BCT S-4s and support operations officers can develop preplanned loads for aerial transport based on classes of supply and develop standardized terminal operations. Creating uniform pickup zone control procedures, communications plans, and helicopter landing zone site criteria and marking schemes can assist in bridging the operational culture gap between air and ground units, thus satisfying many of the prerequisite conditions and reducing the probability of mission failure.
These procedural measures should minimize the chance of frustrated cargo and incorrect supply drops. However, they do not remove the necessity for routine (battle rhythm) coordination to ensure aerial resupply operations are nested both horizontally and vertically within the BCT's concept of support.
Just as units establish field trains command posts and combat trains command posts to ensure resources are received and pushed forward to the appropriate end users at echelon, aerial resupply operations require a similar level of coordination. This command and control should be consolidated at the BCT level in the brigade support area. Consolidating rotary-wing coordination at the BCT level permits the prioritization of support for the entire brigade, not just a subordinate battalion.
Additionally, frequent updates to locations, times, and mission requirements (cargo and personnel) must be transmitted to the supporting aviation unit for pre-mission planning. This exchange of information must be a battle rhythm event for routine aerial resupply missions and a mission-essential task during immediate (emergency) aerial resupply requests.
When consolidating mission command of aerial resupply operations, a PACE [primary, alternate, contingency, and emergency] communications plan must be developed and understood by all mission elements. Often line-of-sight communications will not effectively reach mission aircraft at all points along their routes; over-the-horizon communication must be used if available.
If Blue Force Tracking or Joint Capabilities Release messages are to be used, a dedicated and identified user role name must be designated and monitored. All rotary-wing aircraft are equipped with this capability, but the communications structure must be identified early and enforced in order for it to be effective.
Whether routine or immediate, the BCT S-4, in conjunction with the BAE, must develop and conduct mission command of aerial resupply operations (or at the very least, finalize planning and pre-mission coordination for decentralized execution). Through the analysis of running estimates, the BCT S-4 and support operations officer should maintain routine contact with the supporting aviation element and provide updated mission information at the earliest opportunity.
But mission command is not synonymous with mission command information systems, and sustainment planners at echelon must understand the concept of support. In the preparation phase, movement control officers play a critical role in managing not only the flow of personnel and supplies but also terminal operations.
During decisive action rotations at NTC, BCTs often struggle to invest enough planning energy in employing attack rotary-wing platforms in support of offensive and defensive operations and utility and cargo rotary-wing platforms to facilitate their sustainment. The lack of emphasis on aviation is evident in orders production, which often omits any details of substance for rotary-wing operations.
On the flip side, aviation task forces often fail to read the BCT's orders in their entirety, and frequently disregard Annex F. This mutual lack of understanding is a root problem but can be mitigated by establishing and sharing a logistics common operational picture with the supporting aviation task force. It may seem redundant, but it is a way.
Understanding the operational requirements and available aviation assets is only part of the puzzle. Like ground sustainment operations, rotary-wing operations can use designated routes to traverse the battlespace; however, unlike ground convoys, aircraft are not restricted by terrain and existing infrastructure. This statement may be painfully obvious, but what is not obvious is the level of airspace coordination required for aircraft to negotiate a complex airspace (enabling the synchronization of joint fires and ground maneuver) and survive an enemy integrated air defense system.
Airspace coordination and synchronization is an essential component to the successful employment of both attack and lift rotary-wing assets. Although BAEs and G-3 air elements are often undermanned and under-resourced, they are critical players in ensuring aircraft can successfully negotiate a complex airspace system below the coordinating level.
Sustainment planners should not develop aerial resupply plans without consulting the BAE for both aircraft capabilities and airspace synchronization. Unlike in COIN operations, airspace in a decisive action environment is inherently congested and requires deliberate planning to ensure fires and effects are synchronized throughout the battlespace and aircraft risk is minimized. The use of appropriate airspace coordination measures (ACMs) will enable airspace synchronization and ensure rotary-wing freedom of maneuver.
Implementing standard Army aircraft flight routes and air corridors will expedite the movement of equipment and personnel to and from division logistics support areas, brigade support areas, field trains, and combat trains. Depending on the disposition of the battlespace and the designation of division and brigade consolidation and support areas, ACMs may not be needed, but the decision should be deliberate and not an arbitrary one based on planning convenience or lack of airspace understanding.
Additionally, and arguably most critical, is the frequent reassessment of airspace requirements for aerial resupply. Does the need for a dedicated route structure exist, or can the same effect be achieved using existing ACMs and fire support coordination measures?
As the battlespace evolves and units maneuver in both the offense and defense, these requirements must be continually addressed. Within the division and BCT consolidation areas, the need for route structures may not exist as artillery assets may not be positioned there. If they are, fire support coordination measures may be sufficient.
However, within the BCT and division close areas, where commanders position most or all of their maneuver forces to rapidly concentrate overwhelming combat power to exploit success, it would be prudent to implement these procedural ACMs. During rotations at NTC, units too often stovepipe their planning and fail to integrate airspace into the development of their concept of support.
A recommended procedure is to establish critical sustainment nodes in proximity to established air route structures as these supply nodes approach the close area. Such practice will minimize airspace desynchronization and add a layer of redundancy to mission command systems in the event of upper tactical internet failure.
THE SO WHAT
To achieve the desired cross-domain synergy outlined in the Army's Multi-Domain Operations concept, sustainment leaders and planners must adjust their planning paradigm to encompass a broader understanding of Army rotary-wing capabilities and limitations as they pertain to logistics operations. Army Aviation needs to help frame these requirements for the ground customer and aid them in navigating this process.
As the Army collectively makes the transition from a COIN focus to an LSCO focus, it owes its maneuver formations a better doctrinal product that bridges the information gaps between the air and ground so that end user staffs can rapidly conceptualize and employ Army Aviation. But in the interim, executers and planners must ensure logistics requirements are analyzed to the level of fidelity required to sustain the commander's desired operating tempo and ensure efforts do not prematurely culminate because of a sustainment failure.
Capt. Ed Richards is currently serving as an aviation logistics officer in the Arizona Army National Guard. At the time of this article's composition, he served as the lead air assault and aviation sustainment observer, coach, trainer at the National Training Center. He has held command and other leadership positions at the Army Aviation Center of Excellence and 25th Combat Aviation Brigade.
This article is an Army Sustainment product.