FORT HUNTER LIGGETT, Calif. – A record-breaking heat wave, heavy smoke from nearby wildfires and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic made an already challenging Brigade Warfighter Exercise even more so for the California Army National Guard’s 79th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (IBCT).A Warfighter is a simulated, large-scale combat scenario that tests the warfighting competencies of commanders and their staffs and the warfighting functions of the units involved.“It’s a command post exercise that allows battalion and brigade staffs to actually perform their staff processes,” 79th IBCT Commander Col. Richard Mifsud said. “A Warfighter gets us all working together and allows us to highlight our strengths and identify the gaps.”The San Diego-based 79th IBCT, known as the Thunderbolt Brigade, began preparing and training in 2019 for a Warfighter scheduled for two weeks in August 2020 at Fort Hunter Liggett.In the spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic shifted the unit’s monthly drill schedule, complicating preparations for the exercise. Then in June, the brigade activated for over a week to support law enforcement in Los Angeles and Sacramento because of widespread civil unrest.Despite the challenges posed by COVID-19 and the civil support activation, the brigade pushed forward with Warfighter preparation and arrived as scheduled at Fort Hunter Liggett on Aug. 14. Upon arrival, Soldiers participated in the COVID-19 screening process and were briefed on the established safety protocols that included social distancing, hand sanitization regularly, mandatory facemasks, and sterilization of work areas every four hours.About 1,500 Soldiers from the 79th set up tents in the field to support the battalions’ training and replicate operating in austere conditions. The brigade headquarters and headquarters company established its tactical operations center (TOC)—a complex of tents filled with communications equipment to command the operation, and protection measures that included an entry control point and concertina wire around the TOC.Five of the brigade’s seven battalions: 1st Battalion, 184th Infantry Regiment; 1st Battalion, 160th Infantry Regiment; 1st Squadron, 18th Cavalry Regiment; 1st Battalion, 65th Infantry Regiment; and the 578th Brigade Engineer Battalion began several real-world, live-fire training events both at Fort Hunter Liggett and nearby Camp Roberts. Training events included sniper qualifications, mortar and Bangalore torpedo live-fire, squad live-fire and gunnery table operations. The 578th Engineers also trained on digging fighting positions with their heavy machinery.Elements from the brigade’s 1st Battalion, 143rd Field Artillery Regiment and the 40th Brigade Support Battalion participated in the exercise.“We held a Warfighter while our battalions simultaneously conducted their annual training,” 79th IBCT Command Sgt. Maj. Rodney Plamondon said. “We wanted everyone on the ground at the same time to maximize training opportunities for the command teams and be as efficient as possible.”In the brigade TOC, the staff began the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP) in which staff members planned combat operations in a simulated war in the notional country of Atropia. In the scenario, the country of Ariania invaded Atropia in an attempt to delegitimize the Atropian government. The 79th IBCT became part of an international coalition tasked with defeating the Arianian military in a near peer fight involving all the brigade’s battalions and warfighting capabilities.The exercise was facilitated by observer, controller, trainers (OC/Ts) from Operations Group Charlie, Mission Command Training Program, from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. OC/Ts coached and mentored brigade Soldiers over the course of the Warfighter.Chief OC/T Lt. Col. Hew Hiraoka said Operations Group Charlie provides a portable Combat Training Center-type training event that gives commanders a chance to conduct collective training. He said the goal of this Warfighter was to support Mifsud’s training objectives, which were warfighting function integration and synchronization of operations, and allow the staff to get in a few good reps in the operations process.“Your brigade had way more real-world missions than usual that interrupted your glide path to the exercise, as well as real-world challenges during the exercise,” Hiraoka said. “The way you guys dealt with all the real-world issues that kept popping up was impressive. They were never a show stopper.”Over the first week of training, temperatures climbed as high as 114-degrees Fahrenheit as a record-breaking heat wave hit the area. A rare lightning storm then set off wildfires across California. Large fires in the Salinas and Big Sur areas created a blanket of smoke that descended onto Fort Hunter Liggett. Masks used for COVID-19 now also protected Soldiers from poor air quality conditions.“The conditions created more challenges for the staff to mitigate risk to the health and safety of our Soldiers,” Mifsud said.“We faced heat, smoke, COVID,” Plamondon said. “It was one thing after another that could have stopped training.”The smoke from wildfires became so thick that Soldiers moved to the barracks and other buildings to mitigate continuous exposure to smoke inhalation while sleeping. Training schedules also shifted to the early morning and night hours to limit the effects of heat and smoke.Despite the challenges, the exercise and training continued. On Aug. 23, the brigade staff and battalion commanders conducted a combined arms-rehearsal (CAR) in which they walked over a terrain map while they briefed Mifsud on the plan they had developed to defeat Arianian forces. That night, notional combat operations began.Inside a high-tech computer simulation that replicates how units actually function and fight, a tough battle against a hardened enemy played out in rugged, mountainous terrain. As the exercise entered its final phase, the skies over Fort Hunter Liggett cleared and the typically pleasant California weather returned. After four days of simulated combat, the 79th IBCT achieved its objectives in a hard-fought operation. The Warfighter Exercise produced new procedures and honed skills through multiple lessons learned. The 79th’s Planning and Tactical Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) will capture the lessons learned from this event.“It’s a testament to the professionalism and dedication of our Soldiers and our leadership that we got through it and met our training objectives,” Plamondon said. “We’re trying to foster a learning organization. Even through the tough conditions, the Soldiers trained hard and gave a great effort, both in the field and in the Warfighter.”Mifsud said this annual training period was one of the most challenging in his 29 years in the Army National Guard, but his Soldiers persevered because of their hard work, resiliency, and professionalism.“This is definitely one of the best brigades out there,” Mifsud said. “I couldn’t be prouder of our Soldiers and my battalion commanders.”For more National Guard newsNational Guard FacebookNational Guard Twitter