By Command Sgt. Maj. James A. LaFrattaJuly 18, 2019
Over several years of sustained conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq, forward logistics units in the Army lost a sizeable amount of institutional knowledge regarding base defense. This became painfully obvious during a recent decisive action training exercise rotation, Saber Junction 2018, at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center.
The event highlighted how the wisdom previously held at the junior noncommissioned officer (NCO) and company-grade officer levels no longer exists. Tactical expertise and field craft, once plentiful and taken for granted, atrophied after nearly two decades of fighting the Global War on Terrorism, making base defense truly a lost art.
I will begin by stating the obvious: there is never enough time to train on everything. As logisticians, we identify the most important tasks necessary to survive and win in a multi-domain environment while providing uninterrupted support. We must therefore anticipate, determine, and prioritize where to place training focus and where to assume risk.
Unfortunately, old habits die hard, and history demonstrates that armies train to fight the last war. As the adage states, "train as you fight," we must avoid the complacency of training on the same tasks of the last conflict. Tomorrow's operational environment will likely not resemble anything previously seen. It will blend counterinsurgency with near-peer threats. Success on the battlefield demands mastery of the neglected traditional basics while leveraging the latest technology.
A glance at the average formation reveals that most Soldiers enlisted after 9/11. This means that only a few remember the post-Cold War era training rotations at the combined maneuver training centers. There, units faced a conventional threat using Soviet-style tactics and equipment. These exercises validated the readiness of an organization to deploy to combat.
For support units, the exercises provided an opportunity to train on base defense. Units such as forward support battalions, the predecessors of the brigade support battalions, traditionally established a brigade support area (BSA). This required a degree of proficiency in skills such as the construction of individual or crew-served fighting positions and maximizing cover and concealment.
The repetition generated by these routine training events created a high level of competency and confidence throughout the organization. In the 1990s, most Soldiers knew exactly how many pieces of camouflage were required to conceal their assigned vehicles and the dimensions of a .50-caliber machine gun position.
As with any conflict, the attacks of 9/11 shifted the training focus. The large logistics support areas in Iraq and Afghanistan with contractor-managed security severely degraded these perishable tactical skills. Consequently, much of the Army's field craft expertise vanished.
Experiences during Saber Junction 2018 stressed how proficiency in establishing base defense has atrophied throughout the Army. However, identifying the problem is simple. To quote the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, "Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult."
Merely discussing the issue in the abstract provides only heightened awareness to an obvious problem. This article does not offer a magic solution. Rather, it acknowledges the challenge logisticians face while providing methods to better prepare for future training events. Sustainers will need to find creative and adaptive techniques to regain such proficiency because it is difficult, but not impossible, to relearn the lost art of base defense.
Relearning the Lost Art
The Joint Multinational Readiness Center rotation served to identify several areas for improvement. The first was the need to take a holistic approach to understand base defense. Army Techniques Publication 3-37.34, Survivability Operations, says that base defense demands significant effort and resources. It also requires consideration of several external factors. For example, logisticians must contend with defending against conventional and unconventional enemies, responding to chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear attacks, and reducing their electromagnetic signature.
Using the factors of mission, enemy, terrain and weather, troops, time available, and civil considerations, it becomes readily apparent that each environment poses different challenges. For example, during the process of site selection, sustainment leaders must contend with determining how to establish perimeter security while maximizing the terrain for cover and concealment.
As most organic equipment is large and conspicuous, concealment using natural vegetation and camouflage requires skill obtained over time. Since the average BSA is extremely visible from enemy aerial observation, it is critical to master this skill.
The size of the BSA makes it a tempting target. Most sites require dedicated and specific space for the unit maintenance collection point, the role II medical facility, the supply support activity, and the fuel and ammunition transfer points. The site may also include all or parts of the brigade combat team's (BCT's) forward support companies, portions of the BCT staff, and any additional support elements, making for an even larger footprint.
This high-profit, low-threat way of interrupting logistics is often a low priority for protection assets. Consequently, it is imperative to maintain proficiency in passive defensive measures such as the emplacement of concertina wire and position of crew-served weapons.
Identifying a location for the BSA is only the beginning. After selecting a tentative site, leaders must identify the right personnel to send on the quartering party. The team should include senior representatives from each entity who understand their requirements to conduct daily operations.
They must also know the size of their organizations, precisely the types and numbers of their equipment.
Once complete, the quartering party ideally conducts rehearsals to synchronize efforts and create a shared understanding so all members comprehend their tasks. This coordination will prove invaluable to mitigating confusion and frustration when equipment serials arrive at the BSA.
Rotations at combat training centers deliberately stress unit systems to their breaking point and beyond. Fortunately, observer, controller, trainers help mentor rotational units by blending current doctrinal guidance with personal experience. They openly acknowledge that no one-size-fits-all answer exists to conducting a perfect rotation. They offer "a way" through daily feedback and a comprehensive assessment at the end of the exercise.
This information is invaluable as it forms a solid platform for improving a unit's performance. Learning organizations wisely embrace this feedback to help edit tactical standard operating procedures and identify focus areas for subsequent training.
One of the lessons learned in the recent rotation included the need to focus on the basics and create a tactical mindset embedded in every task. Senior leaders in every organization directly prompt this line of effort and inculcate its importance to subordinate leaders.
Since survivability is one of the eight principles of sustainment, unit training plans should include protecting personnel, weapons, and supplies. In this instance, the term "art" is indeed appropriate since no specific template will produce an impregnable perimeter. This means that training priorities will vary by organization. It is safe to assume that most will combine tactics, techniques, and procedures learned in the 1990s with those from Iraq and Afghanistan.
A comprehensive view of base defense includes identifying the most likely threats to the BSA. This process includes measures to safeguard against penetrating and standoff attacks, to defend against chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats, and to reduce the electromagnetic signature. For a brigade support battalion, this will include significant resources dedicated to the establishment of protection for the role II, the tactical operations center, and other critical nodes within the BSA.
Since engineer assets are frequently in high demand, a support unit cannot depend on these assets to help construct fighting positions and protective berms. Therefore, gaining proficiency in these protection tasks must also form a significant part of pre-exercise training plans.
Focusing on skill level 1 tasks helps form a solid foundation for a comprehensive training plan. However, this alone will not suffice to prepare the unit for a major exercise or combat.
Another lesson emphasized the need to make a long-term investment regarding formalized training.
Command teams must identify individuals to serve as subject matter experts through formal training. Allowing junior NCOs to attend the Heavy Weapons and Master Gunner Courses are great ways to ensure new Soldiers understand the capabilities of these systems under the mentorship of unit leaders. Empowering NCOs through education creates depth and breadth within the formation.
Finally a third, yet no less important, lesson learned was the need to safeguard training events at the company level. During Saber Junction 2018, I realized the importance of fighting to preserve time, our most finite resource. The immediate support demands of the exercise left no time for training on the basics.
Dedicating training on individual and collective tasks and drills in the weeks before a major exercise is an absolute must. It is essential in building muscle memory and routine. It demands constant diligence as competing external requirements frequently overshadow and often consume training plans.
The uncertainty of tomorrow demands that senior leaders return to the drawing board and carefully choose between which tasks to train on and where to assume risk. As logisticians, we acknowledge that the mission never stops. We understand the need to strike a balance between technical and tactical proficiency that complements rather than compromises.
Success in training events begins long before the first vehicle departs the motor pool. Commanders must ensure that the weeks leading up to a major exercise focus on sharpening the tactical skills blunted by daily operations and competing requirements.
Sustainers face the challenge of providing timely and precise service and support in a variety of environments. This challenge requires a dedicated and conscious effort involving communication and cooperation among staffs and command teams and between supporting and supported units to reduce what Clausewitz called the "friction of war." Finally, we must never forget the harsh reality that once the BSA falls, the BCT fails.
Command Sgt. Maj. James A. LaFratta is the command sergeant major of the 173rd Brigade Support Battalion (Airborne). He holds a bachelor's degree in military history from American Public University and a master's degree in military history for Norwich University. He is a graduate of the Sergeants Major Academy and is a demonstrated senior logistician.
This article was published in the July-September 2019 issue of Army Sustainment