FORT POLK, La. — Joint Readiness Training Center Rotation 20-09 got off to a flying start as CH-47 Chinook and UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters inserted elements and equipment of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) into the JRTC box in the early morning hours of Aug. 17.
Thirty-eight Soldiers with the 1st Battalion, 320th Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd BCT, 101st Abn Div, established a gun emplacement with M119 howitzers to provide cover fire for an air assault operation.
That operation took place between 11:30 p.m. Aug. 18 and about 6:30 a.m. Aug. 19, and consisted of 372 Soldiers with equipment from 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, 2nd BCT, 101st Abn Div doing battle with JRTC’s world-famous Opposing Forces — 1st Battalion, 509th Infantry Regiment Geronimos.
Lt. Col. John Britton, an Observer, Controller/Trainer with JRTC Operations Group Task Force Aviation, said the first night’s plan called for 1/320 FA to get its batteries in place to provide support for the next night’s air assault, which Britton said was a complex operation.
“It gave the unit an opportunity to come down and train at a level they can’t do at home station, which is integrating a true, dedicated ground force with a complementing aviation task force,” Britton said. “Because of COVID restrictions back home, they haven’t been able to do this type of training for the past four or five months, so coming down to JRTC has provided them a medium to do that.”
Britton said the air assault operation on the second night consisted of UH-60 Blackhawks, CH-47 Chinooks, attack helicopters, unmanned aerial systems and CAS (close air support).
“There was every (aviation) facet you can imagine that you can’t get back at home station,” he said. “Having to coordinate those is something units aren’t able to do, like having heavy PZ (pickup zone) operations, where they’re having to move vehicles, equipment and water buffaloes — all the things needed to ensure sustainment for ground forces. It’s an amazing opportunity to be able to come down here and do it self-contained.”
To complicate matters even more, Britton said the operations were conducted using night vision goggles.
“That is probably the hardest medium you can choose for aviation operations, and to top it off, it was 0% illumination,” he said. “It was impressive. Their ability to fight through multiple challenges, delays and air space coordination was good.”
The environmental conditions and the complexity of the plan are what make a unit’s rotation to JRTC so important, Britton said.
“I think JRTC provides the medium to do that, and allows leaders to make mistakes,” he said. “It’s in a controlled environment that you can learn from. That, in turn, makes them better when they leave the box. It provides them an amazing training opportunity they get in feedback and on-the-spot coaching with observer, coach/trainers.”
The air assault was fully contested by OPFOR Geronimos.
“The brigade combat team did some bold planning and tried to get the air assault force behind the OPFOR, maximizing their ability to mass upon the objective and try and surprise the OPFOR,” Britton said. “It was a bold and audacious plan throughout.”
Capt. Ryan Hunt, an OC/T with Task Force 3, was on the ground with the 1st Bn, 26th Inf Reg during the air assault.
He said the unit’s primary mission was to disrupt enemy (OPFOR) movement from east to west, to keep them out of the area where the brigade combat team fight was centered. He said that even though Geronimo was disruptive, it was not enough to cause the mission to fail.
“It was a brief skirmish that only lasted about 15 minutes,” Hunt said. “Geronimo destroyed a couple of vehicles and inflicted 14 (notional) casualties, but it was not enough to cause the mission to fail.”
Hunt added no Soldiers were injured during the operation.
As of the evening of Aug. 19, Hunt said the majority of the 2nd BCT, 101st Abn Div was now in the disruption zone, with 1st/26th protecting the northern flank in preparation for an attack on the southern flank.
“This was a complex operation,” said Hunt, echoing Britton.
“Once the Soldiers were on the ground, they achieved their purpose and mission relatively well with minimal casualties and loss of equipment.”
Britton, who flew during both operations, said Task Force Aviation OC/Ts were pleased with how things unfolded.
“It provided an opportunity to get young aviators out into a contested air assault environment, and allowed them to train doing things they are not able to do back home,” he said. “Having the multiple levels of complexity, not only with ground forces, aviation task force, air space coordination and OPFOR, it gave them a basis to learn from.”
While the operation wasn’t “perfect,” Britton said the unit conducted extensive after action reviews where they identified issues and how to capitalize on gains as they go forward.
“The beauty of being at JRTC is they will have the opportunity two or three more times to go through and apply what they learned,” he said. “It might not be to the same scale, but it’s the same planning process with the same ground forces and contested environment.”
As a member of the Aviation Task Force, Britton said the training received at JRTC by helicopter pilots in the 82nd Airborne Division — who are providing the air support for the 101st — is invaluable.
“The difference we’re seeing now with aviation task forces coming to JRTC is their experience level,” he said. “You don’t have your 2,000-hour pilots that you once had. You’re getting guys fresh out of flight school, who only have a little bit of time in the unit, that get to come down to places like JRTC to exercise the most complex and dynamic mission sets they’ve ever seen.”
Britton gave as an example the sling load operations.
“You’ve got young Soldiers sitting on top of those vehicles having to hook those loads up,” he said. “The complexity of identifying which hook they have to put that on, configuring them properly, it’s huge.
“Brig. Gen. (Patrick D.) Frank (commander, JRTC and Fort Polk) highlighted it when we went into this: It’s all about risk. How you mitigate that risk is the environment; having OC/Ts in the right places at the right time; following COVID-19 protocols and mitigations, which they did; and truly giving that unit the opportunity to train, identify mistakes or strengths and capitalize on them.”
Maj. Josh Lazzarini and Maj. Josh Naillon, Task Force Aviation OC/Ts, were at the PZ on Fort Polk’s Self Army Airfield during the operations. Lazzarini said among the equipment and personnel moved Aug. 17-18 were 410 Soldiers, 16 vehicles and three trailers.
Four Chinooks and 11 Blackhawks were used as transports with a total of 80.1 flight hours during the two missions.
Naillon said the operation at Self went well.