Looking forward, the Army sees potential conflict with near-peer adversaries with similar capabilities, known as large-scale combat operations (LSCO). As all branches of the DOD and the Army change in preparation for the future, one unit that would drastically benefit from new capabilities and equipment fielding would be the sustainment brigade (SB). As the main effort for tactical level combat support, SBs support their division and the additional units tasked to the area of operations (AO). In garrison, SBs support their assigned division, installation, and attached units, leaving little time for tactical training for the future fight. The DOD has been preparing for the next possible major conflict to consist of multi-domain operations (MDO), in which near-peer adversaries are capable of contesting the U.S. in all domains: air, land, maritime, space, and cyberspace. Fully realizing that this will shape conflicts in the lens of LSCO, the Army has the opportunity to increase the ability for SBs to defend themselves with as little dependence on other units as possible to increase survivability and responsiveness. This can be done by increasing their lethality in weapons fielding and training, and the fielding and familiarity of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) technology.
Increased Weapon Familiarity and Fielding
To prepare for a LSCO environment, SBs must do more than the required semi-annual M4 carbine qualification. While SB leadership does an excellent job keeping Soldiers qualified on weapons, integrating weapons training on a monthly or quarterly basis will drastically increase familiarity and lethality down to the individual Soldier. For comprehensive defense, SB Soldiers must be familiar and capable on all crew-served weapons: the M2 .50 Caliber Machine Gun, the M240B Machine Gun, the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon, and the MK 19 Grenade Launcher. In a worst-case scenario where enemy armored reconnaissance units engage division support areas (DSAs), SBs could defend themselves by being fielded FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missile weapon systems and mortar capabilities to engage the enemy with as much distance as possible. Currently, no sustainer in a SB can defend themselves or their unit from armored vehicles, making this requirement critical. These capabilities would increase the DSA protection but can be further improved by Soldiers practicing field artillery call for fire operations during home station field exercises. This will not only support the DSA itself but also the SB’s convoys, and its supporting units.
A Glimpse into the Future of UAS Warfare
With an opportunity to focus on readiness, SBs should fill their field operations and garrison training calendars with critical training in emerging technology and capabilities to stay ahead of the curve. U.S. adversaries have taken great steps in drone capabilities for the battlefield, with limited real-world examples of capabilities until September 2020, when Azerbaijan and Armenia went to war over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. With a majority of air support by primarily Turkish and Israeli UAS, preliminary numbers reported Azerbaijan destroyed over 40 Armenian tanks within less than two months of battle. This highlights the great steps all units in the Army must take to combat UAS lethality, especially in the DSA. While the Army uses personnel-sized UAS in some units, SBs must also have access to these capabilities, training, and maintenance so that they can properly support themselves in the future. Furthermore, SB Soldiers must be well-versed in enemy UAS spotting, evasion, and anti-UAS capabilities to keep the division’s sustainment line intact.
Responding to a New Threat with New Capabilities
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in 2020 shocked the world by showing the capabilities of advanced UAS in ground combat. Azerbaijani UAS platforms would locate Armenian T-72 battle tanks on the battlefield, destroying critical combat vehicles. When Armenian forces would use camouflage to conceal their tanks or personnel, Azerbaijani UAS would follow tank tracks or wait for unaware Armenian soldiers to briefly step out of their camouflage before destroying their target. SBs must learn from these lessons and train due to the undeniable fact these tactics will be used in the future. With the threat of UAS of all sizes currently being purchased by near-peer adversaries looking to spread across the battlefield, SBs cannot always depend upon air defense artillery units being attached to them for UAS defense. Furthermore, as the providing point for the preparation and sustainment of brigade combat teams (BCTs), DSAs are large, visible targets. This makes them open opportunities for the enemy to disrupt and destroy, compromising the support of the entire AO. DSAs will have increased defense capabilities if three to four SB Soldiers per platoon can be trained in the upcoming Fixed Site-Low, Slow, Small Unmanned Aircraft System Integrated Defeat System, a family of anti-UAS equipment currently being tested by the Army to disengage small enemy UAS. Combining these concepts with increased camouflage training, SB Soldiers will stand a better chance against the UAS threat.
SBs would greatly benefit from training on the Army’s RQ-20 Puma UAS or Air Force’s Wasp III models to conduct beyond-line-of-sight reconnaissance and patrol the area surrounding the DSA. With MDO conflicts possible in the future, SBs may have limited, if any, air support from joint or combat aviation brigade assets. Due to hybrid threats from non-uniformed personnel seeking to disrupt or destroy sustainment capabilities, SBs should have Soldiers trained in current and emerging UAS to conduct route reconnaissance and terrain analysis as an “eye in the sky.” Currently found in BCTs, the AeroVironment RQ-11 Raven, a small, hand-deployed UAS, could be used on the platoon or company level in case an alternate supply route is required due to a change of mission. If unable to properly train SB Soldiers on current UAS, the Army can look to field positions for UAS operators in the SB’s modified table of organization and equipment, making them organic to the unit. Consistent training and employment of UAS in garrison training opportunities will provide precious training opportunities required if called to action in a LSCO environment.
As the entire Army changes and trains for future combat in a LSCO environment, the SB cannot afford to be left behind in updates, specifically in its tactical capabilities. SBs are responsible for the support of an entire division, any attached units, and the AO. This makes their survivability paramount to win the fight. If MDOs are expected with near-peer adversaries matching our capabilities, sustainers must be able to defend themselves with as little dependence upon other units as possible. This can be done by the fielding of anti-armor and mortar capabilities and increased M4 carbine and crew-served weapon ranges to make the SB more lethal down to the individual Soldier. To adapt to the changing landscape of combat operations, SBs need UAS and anti-UAS capabilities to ensure the survivability of SBs. With the threat of war with near-peer adversaries only increasing every year, SBs have the opportunity to stay ahead of the curve and defend themselves to provide support and win the fight.
Capt. Christopher Campbell is assigned to the 3rd Sustainment Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, Fort Stewart, Georgia. He has served as a distribution platoon leader in Echo Company, 3-501st Assault Helicopter Battalion, 1st Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Armored Division, Fort Bliss, Texas, and has deployed to Operation Freedom Sentinel ’18. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice and a Bachelor of Art in Sociology from East Stroudsburg University.
This article was published in the April-June 2021 issue of Army Sustainment.