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The occasion to learn a lesson comes in no truer form than when a complex or chaotic problem creates an opportunity for your team. That is what problems are, after all, opportunities. The opportunity-based lesson, in the example that follows, is that COVID-19 is preparing our force to sustain and win in large-scale combat operations (LSCO). The 16th Sustainment Brigade (16SB) deployed to Amberg Training Area (ATA), Germany, to exercise expeditionary sustainment operations, focusing on our mission essential task list (METL) requirements in preparation for Defender 21, when that problem-opportunity hit. LSCO provides many opportunities through an interconnected and complex, multi-domain battle-space environment.

Army doctrine defines LSCO as an “intense, lethal” operational-level battlefield environment littered with “complexity, chaos, and the unknown.” The series of events highlighted herein detail how the 16SB faced the ever-growing threat of an infectious disease (the spread of it occurring during our field training exercise) while capturing opportunities to maintain the momentum and accomplish mission execution. Our COVID-19 opportunity allowed us to observe, reorient, decide, and act to retain control and cohesion to prevent COVID-19 from defeating us in the field. The 16SB relied on distributed command, shared understanding of an expanded purpose, and conducted the rapid decision-making synchronization process (RDSP) in order to drive decisions, accomplish our mission, and safeguard our team.

Practicing mission command in the sustainment warfighting function (WfF) means embracing distributed command and control. Knowing your higher headquarters mission and being poised to lead its execution is a necessity in overcoming a complex or chaotic problem. Doctrinal insights into LSCO imply this and, in terms of the sustainment WfF, being able to calculate personnel loss and all classes of supply shortfall (especially in terms of a mass casualty or loss event) is a winner’s tenet when faced with the certainty of culminating and desire to prolong operational reach.

COVID-19 provided 16SB with that problem-opportunity. The 16SB COVID-19 tested 100% of its expeditionary footprint in the days prior to departure for ATA. However, testing comes with its own set of shortfalls. Within the first 48 hours of our field problem, our team discovered we had three COVID-19 positive Soldiers and thirty-seven close contacts in our deployed force. We immediately separated those identified and enforced the restriction of movement protocol. We redeployed those who were positive or close contacts of the positives, just as if we had a mass casualty event take place in our base cluster. This had the dual benefit of attacking the spread and placing both our infected and close contacts near our medical role 2 and higher-level care facilities. Our team then went through its METL battle drills and requested replacements, albeit notionally in terms of an exercise. This allowed us to replicate what it would be like to conduct multiple repetitions of reception, staging, and onward movement. Additionally, it forced us to enact our second iteration of COVID-19 testing, prior to redeployment, to get the baseline infection numbers for all remaining forward-deployed 16SB Soldiers.

This second screening provided an accurate assessment of the infection rate we were dealing with and assisted with trace team operations. It allowed our team to gauge our on-hand combat power, to separate additional infected or close contacts, and ultimately preserve our readiness. However, the fallout from additional infections, and the loss of staff capacity, required changes in command and control. The additional COVID-19 positives and close contacts decimated the 16th Special Troops’ Battalion’s (16STB) base defense operation’s cell (BDOC), rendering them mission incapable. This required a transition of mission command for BDOC activities from 16STB to the adjacently located organic battalion, the 18th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion (18CSSB). It was not enough, though, to switch BDOC responsibility between the 16STB and the 18CSSB, we needed to ensure there was a shared understanding of our current and potential change in mission and reaffirm our expanded purpose for the field problem.

The 16SB staff helped communicate a clear and concise vision to our subordinate commanders, enabling 18CSSB to prepare itself to assume the mission if 16SB leadership was incapacitated. The 18CSSB did the same down to the company level. This redundancy created a mission command ‘PACE’ plan in the event that the 18CSSB took over or became casualties themselves. In the immediate term, we also needed to shore up our defensive perimeter, collapse part of our base cluster, move defensive battle positions, and remain mindful of both the scenario and epidemiological enemy forces in our base cluster.

Doctrine tells the practitioner here that deception is always included in planning, for purposes such as survivability and protecting the force. For 16SB, it was vital to METL certification that we maintain a normal battle-rhythm and disguise our operational impacts. We accomplished this by simulating communications and power blackout events, denying exercise-templated enemy forces the unhindered ability to observe and report on our base cluster. In terms of disease-threat, 16SB needed a faster methodology to drive decision-making, as the COVID-19 spread became a more complex problem inside our base cluster. In simultaneity to these terms, the remaining 16SB staff began contingency planning. The 18CSSB began parallel planning for 16SB operational tasks, namely for relocating operations from the field for brigade-main equipment and personnel. The 18CSSB’s 240th Composite Supply Company began the same parallel planning effort to assume their battalion headquarters’ mission to exercise sustainment operations, base defense support, and command and control missions.

Seventy-two hours after the 100% in-field COVID-19 test, we received notification that there was a minimum of three and a maximum of 21 more COVID-19 positive Soldiers, based on batch testing. This did not include close contacts to those infected, a rate with a potential to be exponentially higher than our pre-deployment test’s result. There was also the potential that the brigade leadership was included in those positive cases, multiplying the complex-unknown variables we would soon face. Using this as an opportunity, we treated this as a mass casualty event incapacitating the brigade-main in its current forward-based array. This is where brigade, battalion, and company parallel contingency planning paid off. The herculean energies to synchronize preparation efforts by our brigade, battalion, and company command and staff elements provided the flexibility to power decision-making authority downward, if needed. Further, it allowed us to arrange operations in order to maximize our operational reach to current mission prioritization efforts with the ongoing 3rd Brigade Combat Team (BCT), 2nd Infantry Division (ID) and 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team (ABCT), 1st Cavalry Division relief in place (RIP) while retaining control of decision-making and tempo in our field exercise.

Concurrent, flawless execution of the personnel and equipment arrivals and departures for the 3rd BCT, 2nd ID and 1st ABCT 1st Cavalry Division RIP was another layer of added complexity to our field-training scenario. This real-world mission could not fail; the continuance of Operation Atlantic Resolve depended on it. It was even more important, in the conduct of this RIP operation, that the 16SB not sacrifice our unit readiness for repetition at an exercise in a response tied to a COVID-19 reaction. In true fashion to mission command, the 16SB fusion cell was already established and running as a concurrent mission command element set up to mission command the ABCT RIP in Camp Aachen, Grafenwöehr. This inherently provided the 16SB commander with another command and control node and additional mission command versatility. It allowed for parsing of critical operational and training tasks, by balancing the ABCT RIP mission requirements with exercise execution and steady-state battle rhythm events. This divvy of responsibility provided the 16SB staff another opportunity to synchronize efforts, happening in simultaneity but in a decentralized execution forum, from multiple operations centers under one central node. More simply put, it flattened our communications and synchronized planning efforts. This proved crucial in developing choices along with a set of complex lines of operations while remaining mindful of the overall risk to mission from a health and safety-associated concern. In the end, the goal was achieved, a decentralized execution of a centralized plan.

However, what must a staff do with the information and data gained? How does a brigade staff translate this into a product or visualization that drives a commander’s decision cycle when time is of the essence? The 16SB still required a way to facilitate a shared understanding of the current problem-opportunity and convey the commander’s vision to execute a transition from the training area back to garrison. From this vantage, 16SB conducted RDSP to assess our operational risk given the current rate of spread against the completion of our METL certification, training objectives, the current ABCT RIP assigned mission tasks, along with upcoming assigned brigade operations. RDSP allowed the 16SB staff to group the current situations and decisions, using them to backward plan from a set of options by shifting from a known point. This situation and decision grouping included capturing opportunities in order to maintain the momentum and accomplish our field exercise while providing the commander with space to make informed decisions on other related events. Further, the decision space allowed the commander to envision the risk to future operations past the end of the exercise, that when coupled with a set of weighted and unweighted criteria, allowed for an unbiased and fair evaluation of which immediate course of action to select. This decision space enabled a continuance of COVID-19 life-support operations in a field scenario while supporting the current ABCT RIP and simultaneously redeploying the brigade’s footprint back from the forward operating environment. This hybrid course of action provided the 16SB an opportunity to consolidate its gains and ensure the accomplishment of our training objectives.

Transition in LSCO is inevitable; every offensive must end. Doctrine tells us that great commanders and staff work together to control the timing and tempo of the transition. The byproduct of the commander’s intent with a staff focused on providing options for the commander creates a mutual, shared understanding of the current operational environment. Framing and reframing the operational environment, in terms of gains and losses, and consolidating those gains when your element is surpassing peak operational capacity is how you achieve mission balance while offsetting risk to force. Heaping a complex or chaotic problem set on top of a constructed, full scenario added extra layers of complexity that those in our profession must expect in a multi-domain LSCO. The types of problems we are sure to face in future LSCO events are going to be complex, bordering on chaos. Clear commander’s intent, followed by good staff battle drills with sets and repetitions during expeditionary operations and exercises provide invaluable insights on how to take advantage of a problem-opportunity and solve it in your team’s favor.

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Col. Scott Kindberg is the commander of the 16th Sustainment Brigade. Kindberg is an ROTC Distinguished Military Graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and holds a Master of Strategic Studies from the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, a MA in National Security and Strategic Studies from the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and a MA in Transportation and Logistics Management from American Public University in West Virginia. His professional military education includes the Transportation Officer's Basic and Combined Logistics Officers Advanced Courses, the Naval War College, the Joint and Combined Warfighting School at the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia, and the Army War College.

Maj. Peter Cleek currently serves as the Brigade Judge Advocate for the 16th Sustainment Brigade in Baumholder, Germany. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration from Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee; a master’s degree in Business Administration CalPoly State University in San Luis Obispo, California; a Juris Doctorate from Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia; and an LLM from The Judge Advocate General's Legal Center and School in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Maj. Michael McCrory is the Brigade S3 for 16th Sustainment Brigade, in Baumholder, Germany. He holds a master's degree from the Naval Postgraduate School in Supply Chain Management and a bachelor's degree in Finance from Valdosta State University.

Maj. Kyle McElveen currently serves as the Brigade S2 for 16th Sustainment Brigade, in Baumholder, Germany. He is an ROTC Distinguished Military Graduate and holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Social Sciences with a concentration in History from Campbell University in Buies Creek, NC. McElveen also holds a Masters of Arts degree in Military Operations from the US Army's School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

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This content is published online in conjunction with the April-June 2021 issue of Army Sustainment.

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