Boots shuffle and markers fly as a small group of officers and NCOs work quickly to gain a better understanding of the month they have ahead. This scene could describe any number of groups anticipating an exercise as ambitious in scope as DEFENDER20+ (DEF20), but this particular group has a name: Task Force (TF) LOG Fusion Cell.
In the Army’s ongoing struggle to adapt to the presence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the initial DEF20 exercise had been reshuffled into a follow-on exercise, broken into multiple phases, the second of which was handled logistically by a variety of units from the surrounding area of operation (AO). TF LOG was assembled with active duty Army and National Guard logistics units from within the European theater to track movements, conduct COVID-19 testing, provide resupply, and handle mayoral duties for the 2-12 Combat Aviation Battalion for the entirety of their multinational exercise within the Drawsko Pomorskie Training Area in Poland.
Units represented included the 484th Movement Control Battalion, 30th Medical Brigade, 757th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 405th Army Field Support Battalion, and 297th Regional Support Group; all of which provided a key piece of the logistics puzzle that was to make up the backbone of DEF20 Phase II. Such a disparate mix of units and capabilities called for a heightened level of integration, which was ultimately provided through the creation of a fusion cell. Fusion cells function similar to coordination centers, and often work in tandem with them on exercises, but they differ in a few key ways. Coordination centers work to combine the efforts of U.S. and host nation forces on issues like range control and emergency management, while fusion cells function as a way to connect logistics units with each other and the units they collectively support during the duration of an exercise or operation.
The typical layout of a fusion cell consists of an officer in charge to run the cell and serve as a point of contact (POC) to higher units, an operations section to develop and manage the products used to present updates, and a unit liaison officer (LNO) from each of the logistics units present for the exercise or operation. According to the Commander and Staff Guide to Liaison Functions, distributed by the Center for Army Lessons Learned, a liaison officer is primarily tasked with the following: monitoring operations within the task force and their sending unit, coordinating current and future plans, advising the supported unit and task force on capabilities, and assisting with communication between units and utilization by the task force. This layout describes the makeup of the room as the TF LOG Fusion Cell began to assess the requirements and points of friction for the upcoming exercise. Each LNO served as the main POC for their unit, advised on their unit’s capabilities, and coordinated with the other liaisons to provide multi-faceted logistics for the exercise.
The fast-paced tempo of the exercise ensured that new issues arose by the hour for the fusion cell to collectively address, which in turn led to an abundance of lessons learned. Any fusion cell can perform well while working reactively if they maintain communication and stay adaptive, but future success can be achieved more fluidly through the deliberate application of the lessons learned from TF LOG Fusion Cell’s experiences during DEF20. These lessons include, but are not limited to the following: Proactivity mitigates a lack of resources or knowledge, units must not solely rely on centralized paths of communication, assumptions can lead to critical failures, realistic advice trumps jargon and sycophancy every time, and the chaos of the exercise ends in the fusion cell.
Within days of the creation of the new phase of the exercise, logistics units from across Europe had been tasked with providing assets and personnel, and some of the key players in what would soon be the fusion cell made their way to a central location. The first lesson appeared instantly as the few early arrivals worked to develop a battle rhythm and establish the products necessary to convey updates on the operation. In the absence of a functioning operations section, the present members made due by sharing products from their previous and current units, and mapping out what they anticipated would be needed for future reports. This ability to forecast and provide what will be needed before the team has settled into their roles showed that proactive members can more than compensate for the confusion and lack of personnel when a fusion cell is initially stood up.
Once the core members had all arrived and settled into the developed battle rhythm, the temptation to become complacent within prescribed roles and to centralize communication became evident. With time, each LNO began to better understand their unit’s role in the operation and the cell began to streamline its reporting and communication processes. While these events appear positive at face value, they can have negative consequences if members of the cell become too comfortable and cease efforts to improve on their success. Surely it is important for a unit representative to grasp their piece of the larger puzzle and streamlining communication can cut down on wasted time, but efforts should not stop there.
Ultimately the goal of an LNO should be to understand the role of the adjacent units almost as well as they understand their own, and an effective fusion cell should seek to facilitate communication amongst unit representatives to solve complex problems. This quickly became evident with TF LOG, where the medical unit performing COVID-19 tests needed head counts from mayor cell representatives who, in turn, needed to know the number of personnel flying in from the movement unit; Most problems that appeared within the fusion cell were interconnected, and waiting for the next morning’s internal sync to discuss joint efforts quickly became unfeasible with the fast-paced tempo of the exercise. In a situation like this, all pertinent information still should be reported and recorded officially, but anything that can be discussed openly should be, and the advantage of time should not be sacrificed for the sake of formality.
As TF LOG began to complete the majority of COVID-19 tests and troop movements required before the U.S. and Polish forces could take to the ranges, the third lesson became evident; Assumptions can be deadly when coordinating critical mission details. With the movement unit focused on landing the remaining troops at the testing area, and the medical unit trying to test them as soon as possible, accurate headcounts were not initially going to the mayor cell and field feeding was not being properly conducted at both sites. With each unit assuming the others would handle their piece of the puzzle independently, the way to mitigate the problem became obvious. The LNOs quickly adjusted course and started asking themselves how their solution to a given problem might affect the other units present. With this simple fix, the cell was able to begin problem solving proactively, adjusting field feeding while completing all COVID-19 tests and issuing all Army prepositioned stock (APS).
The next phase of the exercise entailed conducting daily resupplies and tracking all movements external to the training area, both of which were tasks that highlighted the next major lesson for the cell; The use of mitigated speech and sycophancy may make for content higher units, but respectful yet realistic advice is what will ultimately lead to mission success. Maneuver units may make requests of supporting units that exceed their capabilities or that cause second and third order effects, but it is up to the LNOs to serve as subject matter experts for their units and ensure that problems are solved in the most effective manner. TF LOG members sometimes found themselves in uncomfortable positions when raising concerns about requests being made or the proposed manner of solving specific problems, but the end result was always a less problematic solution and a better shared understanding of the function of each unit. Just as the vertical hierarchy of the military can sometimes hinder open communication between units, it can also limit the effectiveness of communication across ranks and positions. Tasking authority will inevitably lie in the hands of a few key leaders and this must be respected for the operation to succeed, but equally integral to overall success of the fusion cell is the willingness of each member to offer and accept outside criticism and advice.
Over the course of the exercise, the TF LOG fusion cell weathered personnel changes, shifts in movement schedules, updates to civilian and host nation contracts, and a battery of other logistics issues. While each issue was unique in its own right and often required novel solutions, there arose a common theme amongst the way they were handled; the chaos of the exercise stopped at the doors of the fusion cell. Redeployment of APS and last minute movement requests can certainly cause an initial amount of confusion, but the fusion cell functioned at its best when each representative was able to present their unit’s comments and concerns in a productive way and the team was able to create a unified solution to send back to those in the field. Refusing to allow the disorder and discontent that naturally develop in such a dynamic environment to proliferate in the fusion cell allowed for collaborative thinking, and ensured that all units maintained the shared goal of mission success.
While the outbreak of COVID-19 caused a major shift in the initial plans for the Defender 2020 exercise, the development of DEF20 allowed for a more realistic training environment for the rapid mobilization of forces. The team created to handle the logistics of this training, TF LOG, not only provided the support necessary to reaffirm the Army’s ability to respond rapidly to a peer-to-peer threat in the European theater, but also gained valuable insight into the role and functionality of a fusion cell in support of a major exercise. Members of this cell learned the importance of proactivity in the face of uncertainty, the integral role of lateral communication, the detrimental effect of assumptions in a dynamic battlespace, the need for candid speech amongst units and ranks, and above all, the role that the fusion cell plays in mitigating disorder and bringing clarity and efficiency to the exercise. These lessons and more will be carried on and implemented during the planning and execution of the upcoming DEF21 Exercise, and will hopefully be applied wherever fusion cells are established.
First Lt. Dylan W. Nigh is a transportation officer from the 542nd Support Maintenance Company based out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, currently working under the 757th Combat Support Sustainment Battalion as battalion liaison officer in support of the DEFENDER20+ Exercise. He graduated with a bachelor's in biology from Grand Canyon University and is currently pursuing a master's in international relations from Troy University.
This article was published in the January-March 2021 issue of Army Sustainment.