FORT POLK, Louisiana. – Task Force Warrior deployed and executed a large-scale, decisive action exercise at Fort Polk’s Joint Readiness Training Center during the month of October 2020.
The bulk of Task Force Warrior belonged to U.S. Army Soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division’s 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, though teammates from the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, Sustainment Brigade and the Division Artillery (DIVARTY) provided forces boosting combat power. 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team participated as well, providing an opposing force and observer/coach/trainer augmentation.
In addition to the Tropic Lightning Division, the task force included elements from the Indonesian Armed Forces, the Royal Thai Army, the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Army Reserve, 1st Special Forces Group, and enablers from across the U.S. military.
“The ‘decisive action training environment’ prepares our Soldiers for peer-to-peer combat,” said Col. Jason Curl, commander of JRTC’s operations group, addressing leadership before the rotation. “Many of you are accustomed to counterinsurgency operations; this is different. Decisive action is about facing your adversary head-on without the forward operating bases and infrastructure we’ve seen during our conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The U.S. Army defines decisive action as the continuous, simultaneous combinations of offensive, defensive, and stability or defense support of civil authorities.
In other words, decisive action means units must be ready to deploy into an unstable environment to fight a powerful adversary using only on-hand equipment and combat power, said Curl.
Task Force Warrior’s decisive action JRTC rotation consisted of six phases: deployment (Emergency Deployment Readiness Exercise), RSOI, force-on-force, combined arms live fire, Reverse-RSOI and redeployment.
-- Reception, Staging, Onward Movement and Integration --
Task Force Warrior replicated a decisive action operation by deploying personnel and organic equipment from home station in Hawaii to Fort Polk via air, sea, and land in an Emergency Deployment Readiness Exercise framework.
“We deployed 37 helicopters, 346 containers, 1,671 vehicles, and over 4,330 people in less than 30 days,” said Maj. Thelma McQuarley, Task Force Warrior’s logistics officer. “It’s teamwork that makes it possible. I’m confident that if called upon, we could do it again. Send us anywhere.”
The task force implemented a comprehensive COVID-19 mitigation plan long before their deployment to JRTC. The task force conducted a restriction of movement several weeks prior to deployment, wore protective masks, socially distanced whenever possible, and monitored each other for symptoms.
“Every task force member had to have a negative COVID-19 test in order to participate in the exercise,” said Maj. Panfilo Delacruz, Task Force Warrior Surgeon. “Medical staff conducted multiple health screenings for symptoms and temperature checks before boarding the aircraft and once after landing.”
Ultimately, the task force successfully trained and returned to their home station with zero positive COVID-19 cases, Delacruz said.
Once arriving to Fort Polk, the task force met with their assigned observers, coaches and trainers, better known as OC/Ts. The OC/Ts closely monitored the task force’s leadership at all echelons to provide on-the-spot feedback and recommendations based on U.S. Army doctrine.
The arriving Soldiers also tested communications systems, unpacked containers, serviced vehicles, and drew JRTC’s Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System, better known as MILES gear.
The task force attached MILES gear to every vehicle, helicopter, weapon, and Soldier. Soldiers used their assigned weapon to fire blank rounds during the exercise. But, when something or someone is accurately hit, the MILES gear captured the hit by flashing a bright yellow light and an alarming sound. Then, the vehicle or Soldier is pulled off the battlefield as a loss.
While Soldiers were zeroing in their weapon’s laser systems and conducting tactical rehearsals, the task force’s staff executed the ‘military decision making process’ to produce an operations order for the upcoming ‘joint forcible entry’ operation.
“Planning a complex joint forcible entry in a four-day truncated timeline isn’t easy,” said Task Force Warrior’s operations officer, Maj. Ben Hartig. “But, our team used lessons learned from previous repetitions to quickly publish an order down to battalions as fast as possible.”
The task force staff rapidly initiated 24-hour planning to meet the infamous ‘one-third/two-thirds rule.’ The rule requires higher commands to publish orders quickly, giving subordinates at least two-thirds of the planning time allotted between the order’s publication and the start of mission, said Hartig.
The plan was set, and Task Force Warrior was ready to take on JRTC’s opposition force played by a U.S. Army battalion nicknamed ‘Geronimo.’ However, 48 hours prior to stepping off, the task force was met with a category three hurricane.
-- Into the ‘Box:’ Joint Forcible Entry --
Hurricane Delta quickly forced the task force to adjust their plan to attack. The original plan was to clear and destroy Geronimo strongholds by entering the box from multiple avenues. Flash floods in the south limited the task force’s options to one point of entry in the north.
“The enemy possesses a significant advantage when we can only attack along one route,” Hartig said. “We call it a fatal funnel. We mitigate this by introducing troops along multiple air avenues of approach, to prevent Geronimo from stopping us at the gates. Additionally, whereas Geronimo typically enjoys "home field" advantage, with a greater understanding of the terrain, the hurricane leveled the playing field when it changed ground conditions for both of us."
With limited intelligence on the terrain’s altered conditions, the task force continued with the central element of their original plan. They deployed 2-14 Cavalry Squadron’s “Rattlesnakes” scouts deep into the battlefield, simultaneously using helicopters for an ‘air assault’ and tactical ground transportation.
In concert with Special Forces operating out of an advanced operating base, the scouts conducted reconnaissance to provide a clearer picture for Task Force Warrior’s commander, Col. Neal Mayo.
“No matter the mission, scouts are always the first ones on ground,” said Lt. Col. Matthew Leclair, commander of the 2-14 Cavalry Squadron. “We donned on face paint, boarded aircraft, and quickly got eyes on the task force’s reconnaissance objectives and enemy disposition.”
Unexpectedly, the single avenue of approach did not present complications for the Rattlesnakes. Instead, Geronimo recon forces blended in with the population and waited for friendly forces to make their move. Eventually, Geronimo began conducting isolated attacks across Task Force Warrior’s footprint.
“The enemy missed an opportunity by not attacking us at our singular entry point. But, that’s exactly why they send us. We stayed discipline, kept our operations covert, and passed on critical intelligence needed for the task force’s larger fight,” Leclair said.
A few hours after the scouts hit ground, the infantry battalions conducted an air infiltration to secure key terrain and protect vital infrastructure. Immediately following, the task force’s remaining maneuver and artillery battalions deployed forward to a secure a perimeter for the task force’s command node, logistics trains, and engineer battalion.
The single point of entry also presented complications for the task force’s command node, particularly for its design and placement. In a calculated decision to maintain a smaller footprint, the task force deployed a smaller, more tactical command node.
The smaller node minimized the footprint, but it wasn’t designed to sustain operations for the 96-hour JFE fight. Later in review, the staff discussed why the smaller node contributed less to shared understanding of the battlefield and came up with solutions for follow on missions.
“In the end, our JFE mission command node wasn’t what we needed,” said Task Force Warrior commander, Col. Neal Mayo. “But, it helped us understand ourselves better which led to alternative solutions later in the rotation.”
-- Transitioning to the Defense --
After securing a foothold in the Box, the task force’s higher headquarters issued a second order tasking the force to defend key infrastructure, routes, and towns.
“If you defend everything, you defend nothing,” said Mayo during the operations brief. “Our defense will maintain an active posture focused on the enemy. We go where they go. We will take advantage of every opportunity to exploit and defeat the enemy.”
The task force transitioned to the defense. They created obstacles by emplacing concertina wire, driving in pickets, barricading roads, and using tractors to dig foxholes.
Task Force Warrior engaged Geronimo under a blanket of darkness with a new moon offering limited visibility. They held off adversaries until just before sunrise. Eventually, the exercise’s design takes over and inevitably overwhelms the friendly force. But, Task Force Warrior held their ground, preserved combat power, and prepared for oncoming missions.
“Our ‘enemy-focused’ strategy never wavered. Our Soldiers sought to destroy the enemy wherever found. Any success the task force generated could be linked to a junior leader. Team leaders, squad leaders, platoon sergeants, and platoon leaders kept their soldiers motivated and lethal throughout the night,” Mayo said.
In addition to defending against enemy attacks, Task Force Warrior engaged in non-lethal strategies and tactics. Media engagements, cyber warfare, interagency coordination, psychological operations and civil affairs are just a few examples.
In addition, Task Force Warrior secured the exercise’s host nation capital city.
“Geronimo’s special purpose forces attacked the capital almost every single night,” said Capt. Crites, a company commander in 1-21 Infantry Battalion. “But, my team worked with the exercise’s police force and was able to fend off every attack and protect the city.”
Close coordination with the exercise’s country team and the safety of the city allowed the task force to transport the host nation’s U.S. consulate general role-player back to the previously evacuated consulate. The role-playing diplomats raised the U.S. flag in the capital and began assisting with local governance and stability operations.
-- No time to rest, time to attack --
Immediately following the defense, the task force received a new mission order to attack.
Just like the JFE, the task force deployed scouts forward to recon objectives and gather intelligence. Immediately following, the task force’s artillery battalion, 2-11 Field Artillery, launched rounds across the battlefield to degrade the enemy and provide the infantry an avenue of approach.
Unlike the joint forcible entry, the task force immediately engaged the enemy and began sustaining casualties. The casualty rate was synonymous with that of historic decisive action battles, which is significantly higher than counterinsurgency operations.
The goal was to attack, clear, and destroy the enemy occupying a town about 20 kilometers west of the task force’s position. The terrain allowed for two main axes of advance, one in the north and in the south.
The task force sent one battalion down each corridor. The ‘Gimlets’ of 1-21 Infantry Battalion traveled north and the ‘Wolfhounds’ from 1-27 Infantry Battalion went south.
1-21 IN immediately met resistance in two different towns while moving from their location to their objective. Although they suffered setbacks, the troops pushed through the night and well into the morning. After a tough fight through the night, the Gimlets leaned on remaining stamina for the enduring mission ahead.
“The boys are walkin!” shouted Capt. Michael Kim, battle captain for Task Force Warrior. He was heard in the task force’s main operations center just before the Gimlets embarked on a grueling 15 kilometer ruck march in the dark, with heavy weapons, and under constant enemy contact, Kim said.
Together, Royal Thai Forces marched all 15 kilometers alongside the U.S. Soldiers, as one unified Gimlet task force. Led by their commander, Capt. Phadungdet “O” Porkachang, the RTA forces helped pave an avenue of approach by destroying enemy vehicles with AT-4 and Carl Gustaf weapons systems.
“Gimlet Soldiers are tenacious warriors who are always on the attack,” said Lt. Col. Rick Turner, commander of 1-21 IN. “For us, this has two components. First, everybody fights! It does not matter their occupational specialty, everyone is a Soldier first – our most critical weapon system. It means each of us is a lethal member of a trusted team dominating an adversary with destructive force. We are, therefore, all called to master our weapons systems and hit what we shoot at, every time.”
“Second, Gimlet Soldiers never quit,” Turner continued. “We are completely committed to winning. When lesser men or women would stop, Gimlets are dogged, resolute, rugged, persistent, determined, unshakable, and unyielding. The enemy can find no respite because the pursuit by a Gimlet Soldier is relentless. We love a fight; this perseverance stems from a mental and physical toughness, hardened by tactical training, designed to ensure we thrive in and conquer the rigor and chaos of combat.”
In the south, the Wolfhounds traveled along their assigned corridor. Like the Gimlets, they were met with resistance, but in different terrain. After a tough fight through one of the low water crossings in the south, they continued their attack towards the objective.
The Wolfhounds maintained their strike-hard, strike-fast strategy and reached the final objective a few hours before daylight. Although they suffered significant losses, the remaining elements postured for a final attack.
The Indonesian Armed Forces embedded in the Wolfhound task force were among the remaining forces postured to attack. The company commander for the Indonesian Armed Forces, Capt. “Rad” Raditya, led the Indonesian platoon through a ten kilometer march and seized the Wolfhound’s final objective.
“When anyone calls for the Wolfhounds, they get a ferocious team ready and able to win the right way.” said Lt. Col. Eric Alexander, battalion commander for 1-27 IN. “They took the fight to the enemy, inserting by air and ground, attacking for almost 20 straight hours.”
-- Switch Your Weapons from Safe to Semi: Combined Arms Live Fire --
Task Force Warrior completed the attack and moved on to JRTC’s final phase, the combined arms live fire exercise. JRTC’s live fire exercise provided Soldiers an opportunity to conduct battle drills and mission essential tasks using live ammunition and ordnance.
2-11 Field Artillery or “On-Time,” fixed positions throughout the battlespace by launching rounds from M777 and M119 howitzers. Troops on the range could hear ‘On Time’s’ friendly firepower exploding across their area of operations.
Simultaneously, engineers breached obstacles by detonating Anti-personnel Obstacle Breaching Systems (A-POBS), Bangalores and brazier charges. Engineers were responsible for the loudest ‘boom’ of the day detonating a mine clearing line charge, a rocket-projected explosion as big as a football field.
In the end, the task force’s maneuver battalions bounded to their objectives using small arms fire, mortars, javelins and carl-gustavs. Light infantry tackled the last 100 yards of the objective and cleared buildings under the cover of smoke grenades.
“The idea of the ‘last one hundred yards’ is significant in infantry culture,” said Sgt. Gabriel Lester, squad leader in 1-27 IN. “The idea is that artillery, helicopters and other assets on the battlefield help secure large spaces. But, only squads like mine can clear tiny spaces, or the last one hundred yards.”
-- Mission Complete: Recovery and Redeployment --
Task Force Warrior fired the last round on October 27. Subsequently, they collected expended ammunition, packed up equipment, and convoyed back to Fort Polk. They inventoried containers, cleaned vehicles and returned MILES gear.
Leaders at all echelons participated in after action reviews, a common army practice seeking to discuss what went right, what went wrong, and how the unit can do better in the future.
“This is an opportunity to see ourselves better and learn,” Mayo said, giving guidance for the AAR. “I’m mildly interested in what we did well; instead, I wanna hear what we didn’t do well and then talk about how we’re gonna get better. Let’s demonstrate the attributes of a learning organization, building on success and treating failure as an opportunity for growth.”
Lessons learned were exchanged, troops packed green duffel bags and flight manifests were posted. Excitement filled the northern part of Fort Polk as Soldiers celebrated a well-deserved trip back home.