COVID-19 has changed how the Sustainment enterprise operates both in garrison and in deployed environments. Keeping the force safe while accomplishing the mission meant that Army sustainment leadership had to exercise operational flexibility with decreased personnel. Soldiers from 2nd Brigade Combat Team (2BCT), 82nd Airborne Division, were preparing to deploy to U.S. Central Command in support of Combined Joint Task Force – Operation INHERENT RESOLVE (CJTF-OIR) in late 2019 not knowing that a global pandemic was about to surface and change the way we operate for the foreseeable future. CJTF-OIR‘s Combined Joint Operational Area (CJOA) is spread throughout the Middle East. Movement in support of CJTF-OIR was not immune to the second and third order effects of COVID-19. Without having previously deployed under these conditions, the Falcon Brigade Mobility Team learned lessons worth sharing. The situations presented, and courses of action taken, can be applied to operations in and out of the sustainment realm as these concepts center around adaptability and flexibility.
Deployment preparations began in January 2020. Tasks included Soldier Readiness Processing (SRP), issuing rapid fielding initiative (RFI) equipment, unit deployment list (UDL) completion, and movement requirements validation at the joint level. SRP and RFI took place in January. With the UDL established, leaders began coordination with the brigade mobility section, the Installation Transportation Office (ITO) and their unit movement officers to schedule inspections for the equipment load out. Unit Loading Area Control Center (ULACC) operations followed in February with battalions inspecting rolling stock and containers for transportation worthiness on each piece of equipment for every company. Once equipment passed the brigade-level ULACC, the Falcon Brigade Mobility Team organized an ITO-level Combined Load Area Control Center (CLACC). All rolling stock and sealift containers passed inspections and stayed at the Installation Transportation and Deployment Support Activities ) and Marshalling and Staging Area until the ready load date for strategic surface lift at the Arrival/Departure Airfield Control Group for Strategic Airlift.
In March 2020, 2BCT participated in ‘FALCON STORM II’, a brigade-level exercise that served as the brigade’s culminating training exercise ) that validated our readiness to assume the deployed mission set. Sustainment exercises in FALCON STORM II included low cost low altitude bundle drops, field maintenance, field feeding, and distribution operations supporting over 2,000 paratroopers. During FALCON STORM II, surface cargo equipment was going through CLACC inspections and paratroopers had to execute missions during the exercise without those items. This equipment included field feeding equipment, general mechanics tool kits, forward repair systems, standard automotive tool set, contact trucks, and palletized load system among other end items that any forward support company would require in a field exercise. The field feeding section prepared over 2,000 paratroopers two hot meals a day with three containerized kitchens. Without knowing it at the time, this exercise prepared the brigade for upcoming resource challenges.
While away from cell phones during Falcon Storm II, 2BCT returned from the field to hear about the coronavirus’ impact on the world and how serious it was becoming. In the following days, while recovery operations were executed, news was released of global movement being paused in response to this new virus. Orders for torch and advanced party flights for CJTF-OIR from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, were set for late March and early April. Two weeks out, the brigade was informed that a global stop movement for 60 days had been issued. The impact to our Force Tracking Number was waived and our Secretary of Defense Latest Arrival Date for equipment was shifted 42 days to the right. That was only the start of the COVID-19 operational impacts on the Falcon Brigade deployment in support of CJTF-OIR.
What began as a deployment order for the Falcon Brigade Mobility Team to move equipment into theater transformed into four deliberate operations: deployment, redeployment, staging, and deployment phase II. Sealift equipment had already been transported in February 2020 from Fort Bragg to the Port of Charleston, South Carolina, in preparation for its embarkation at the port. With the change in personnel movement into theater, the brigade now had to consider its more than 270 pieces of rolling stock and containers that were preparing to load onto a vessel at the Port of Charleston. The brigade’s equipment had already been staged to be loaded in anticipation for embarkation when the STO was amended. The Falcon Brigade was directed to redeploy the equipment back to Fort Bragg and completed this re-position in less than four days. Accepting this equipment, however, presented new challenges that didn’t exist when the equipment left Fort Bragg just one month prior. During this time, the division was reduced to minimum essential manning to mitigate the spread of the virus. The team of licensed drivers, multiple platform equipment handlers, and TCs that are required during mobility operations of accepting equipment had to conduct the same operations with decreased personnel.
Along with the shift in deployment came a change in deploying personnel and mission requirements that affected the UDL. This meant changes in the Joint Operations Planning and Execution System, Export Traffic Release Request, and transportation requests. Having to reduce our overall surface requirement meant that updated requirements were due to the strategic lift providers. At the same time, the Falcon Brigade Mobility Team also managed mitigations and adjustments for not only for 2BCT paratroopers, but also surface and airlift cargo. These changes also impacted the contracted truck drivers and installation personnel. New security protocols and requirements were implemented for truck drivers entering Fort Bragg to pick up the deploying equipment. COVID-19 added another layer to that process by requiring the available and capable civilian truck drivers to have their temperature taken along with a medical screening at Fort Bragg’s access control points (ACP). While this may sound like a routine procedure, this meant that 96 truck drivers had to be processed at an ACP. Truck drivers operate within confines of contracts as well as federal regulations that dictate their operational hours. The time spent waiting at the ACP for their screening took them over those hours as well as the ITO teams in place to process and assist those drivers. Falcon Brigade mobility team had to respond by generating multiple exceptions to policy memorandums describing the operational need for these drivers and civilian agents to continue working.
The Falcon Brigade adhered to the 14-day pre-deployment restriction of movement to enter theater. COVID-19 sustainment mitigations followed the Falcon Brigade into combat as over 2,200 paratroopers assumed missions across the CJOA. The brigade took a logical and a phased approach to the quarantine, placing those who needed to be in theater into quarantine first, while the remainder of the Brigade and rear detachment executed the deployment of strategic airlift cargo and personnel movements. The regulations and steps that the Brigade took to mitigate the spread of the virus was seen at the arrival/departure airfield control group and passenger terminal. In an unprecedented manner, our sister brigades (having just redeployed) and the division transportation office stepped up and helped the deploying force by assisting in personnel movement of four main body flights and cargo movement on commercial and strategic flights.
Minimal manning challenged the versatility of sustainment operations and personnel in theater. The main theater intermediate staging base was the starting point for reception and resupply activities. Being a part of CJTF-OIR meant that 2BCT would work with local partners and coordinate with Coalition Forces conducting missions throughout the CJOA. Despite the efforts of 2BCT and Coalition Partners, who put in place strict measures to prevent the virus from reaching personnel on post, individuals began to contract the virus. With the virus affecting paratroopers on various logistical support areas, teams had to go on ‘lockdown’ or enforce firewall orders. Having already adapted to sustainment coordination across different logistical nodes throughout the CJOA, this presented a more localized challenge. For example, civilian contractors were operating on minimal manning, but their workload did not decrease with their personnel. Requesting and receiving material handling equipment was backlogged. A Transportation movement request (TMR) that could be executed in less than 24 hours was changed to a 48-hour wait for submission and then an additional wait for a confirmed time that a TMR could be actioned. As all classes of supply were brought to specific logistics nodes throughout the CJOA, lacking the conventional ability to relocate them from the terminal to their respective locations created additional logistics challenges. As class IX repair parts were delivered, mechanics had to compensate for those in isolation leading to longer working days. While the operational tempo remained high, available personnel not in isolation decreased. Just as Falcon Brigade paratroopers had to conduct sustainment operations during Falcon Storm II using minimal equipment, they continued Sustainment operations throughout the CJOA on minimal manning. Overcoming this obstacle confirmed that the Army’s greatest resource truly is the individual Soldier.
The Falcon Brigade Sustainment Team turned an unpredictable situation into a series of valuable lessons learned. The entire world now functions under the restrictions of COVID-19. People call this a ‘new normal’. The way to operate in this new normal is not to push against it, but move and adapt with it. COVID-19 reminded the Falcon Brigade that missions can fluctuate. The most important concept that was exercised in every pre deployment and deployment operation was flexibility. Accepting variables and fluidity throughout the mission made finding creative solutions manageable. Not having equipment for Operation FALCON STORM II meant that maintainers and culinary specialists had to coordinate efforts across battalions to accomplish the mission. Learning to operate on minimal manning meant that paratroopers had to quickly learn to do jobs that weren’t theirs and operate with maximum efficiently. Remaining flexible with the civilian force is essential as civilians played an ever present role in the Falcon Brigade mission. The Army also has an obligation to ensure the health and safety of Soldiers who are fighting the nation’s wars. In addition to being flexible and adaptable, paratroopers had to be disciplined, as always. Leaders at all levels had to refine the manner in which they approach problem sets. When an order was disseminated to move equipment ready for load out at the Port of Charleston back to Fort Bragg, leaders at the brigade mobility level had to act quickly, think creatively, and mobilize paratroopers. Amid uncertainty, the sustainment leader gains a situational understanding of the operational environment in order to adjust to a changing environment. Accepting prudent risk is balancing the mission with the health and safety of a formation. This pandemic has been a lesson in adaptability, rapid thinking, and action.
First Lt. Lauren Toner is a transportation officer serving as the deputy S4, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division. Her previous assignments include Maintenance Control Officer and executive officer for Delta Forward Support Troop, 1st Squadron 73rd Calvary Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82d Airborne Division. Prior to commissioning, Toner served as a musician in the 82d Airborne Division Band. She holds a bachelor’s degree in music performance from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, a master’s degree in music performance from the Chicago College of Performing Arts, and is in the process of completing her second master’s degree in Political Science from the University of Illinois-Springfield. She is a graduate of Logistics Basic Officer Leader Course.
Warrant Officer 1 Erik Hodge serves as the brigade mobility warrant officer, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division. Prior to his appointment, Hodge served as a Marine Air Ground Task Force Planner (MAGTF Planner/0511) in the Marine Corps for 14 years. His previous assignments include Regional Plans Executive, Marine Forces Command, South, Plans/FOUPS Chief, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, Future Operations Officer, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, II Marine Expeditionary Force, and Future Operations Chief, Marine Special Operations Command. He is in the process of completing his bachelor’s degree, a Certified Knowledge Manager from the Knowledge Management Institute and is a graduate of Mobility Warrant Officer Basic Course.
This article was published in the January-March 2021 issue of Army Sustainment.