Graduate students from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs visited the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) at Fort Polk, La. to gain a broader understanding of how the U.S. military trains for war against a near peer competitive threat. The experience introduced them to the organization of the Joint Force, Brigade Combat Team (BCT) structure and capabilities; the sustainable readiness model and unit training methodology and development. The students also had the opportunity to dialogue with Brigade, Battalion and Company level leaders as they observed tactical combined arms maneuver operations on a simulated decisive action battlefield.
The visit was led by Lieutenant Colonel Peter L. Gilbert, the inaugural U.S. Army War College Fellow at Princeton University. He recognized the mutually beneficial opportunity to bring security studies students to one of the Army's three combat training centers to observe first-hand how military organizations prepare for ground combat. Gilbert said, "I recently participated in a graduate level seminar on American Foreign Policy and the return of Great Power Competition. I was able to offer military context to the discussion, however, I quickly realized that many of my colleagues were interested in learning more about unit training methodologies, sustaining combat readiness, and Army modernization initiatives. This led me to draft a proposal as part of the Center for International Security Studies (CISS) Strategic Education Initiative (SEI) to bring future diplomats and policymakers 'out of the classroom and into the box' to our premier combat training center at Fort Polk, LA."
The visit began with an operations overview of the training center and an aerial tour of the nearly 90,000 acres of training area knows as, "the box." The tour highlighted the diversity of terrain, training facilities and mock urban areas where brigades train for the wide range of contingencies in a decisive action training environment.
The students visited the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division's Tactical Operations Center (TOC) where the BCT's leadership had gathered for a Combined Arms Rehearsal (CAR) around a large terrain model to prepare for upcoming operations. After the CAR, the students spoke with the Commanding General of JRTC and Fort Polk, Brigadier General Patrick Frank about how the training aligns with a shift in U.S. military strategy away from counter insurgency operations and toward great power competition with adversaries such as Russia and China.
Katherine Elgin, Ph.D. candidate in security studies stated, "this training is a deterrent for threat actors, and it signals our level of U.S. combat readiness and capability to potential adversaries." Brig. Gen. Frank agreed and added that the training conducted at JRTC has proven relevant enough that China recently built a combat training center where their opposing force is modelled after a U.S. Army BCT.
Students also met with Soldiers from the JRTC opposing force, 1st Battalion 509th Infantry Regiment (Geronimo). They replicated a highly trained, free thinking near peer adversary. Toshiro Baum, a Master's in Public Affairs candidate who previously served at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Libya and Lebanon, found the most interesting part of the visit to be "how realistic and challenging Geronimo made the training and how the red team made rotational unit leadership think outside the box and push their limits."
As part of unit diplomatic training objectives, students visited the replicated U.S. Consulate in the mock village of Dara Lam. There, they met with Ambassador Kenneth Gross and his team of role players that replicated Department of State (DoS) officials, local politicians, and non-governmental organizations. All of the interagency role players had extensive experience working for DoS or non-governmental organizations. They emphasized three themes for units to be successful: inter-organizational cooperation, country and bad actor frameworks, and the importance of the DoS and DoD to be seen and heard as one voice. Baum continued that, "it was great to see the interagency cooperation included in the scenario. Everyone must learn to work with the DoD to achieve national security goals."
The students walked the live fire lane on the third and last day of their visit. They moved with elements of the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment as they assaulted enemy positions in a mock village. The Soldiers simultaneously laid down support by fire machine gun positions, sniper positions, mortar firing points, and employed AH-64 attack helicopters to suppress enemy positions. The students followed the Soldiers through the breach lane and into the village. Manna Selassie, a masters candidate who was selected to join the Foreign Service next year said, "the training model, from constructed to live-fire, the rigor and hardships of the training, and building the toughness in the Soldiers" was the most interesting part of the experience.
After the visit, Lt. Col. Gilbert said, "Brig. Gen. Frank and his operations group not only supported the initiative but permitted access to every aspect of the training area to the students." Gilbert continued, "The 36-hours we spent on the ground with 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division enabled students to grasp the realities of training for ground combat in a decisive action environment against a near peer competitive threat. Everything from observing leader actions at the CAR to walking the live fire exercise with Soldiers from 2-2 Infantry provided context for the students that they would simply not receive in a classroom back on campus."