In October 2021, the 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (3rd IBCT) 25th Infantry Division conducted the first-ever home station Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center (JPMRC) scenario designed as an island-hopping campaign. The exercise scenario featured an invasion by a northern army on its southern neighbors, where the U.S. needed to prepare a counter-offensive on the peninsula. The 3rd IBCT was tasked with seizing an archipelago made up of five islands to protect sea lines of communication (SLOC) to the division’s western flank.
For ten days, 3rd IBCT moved from island to island first to clear opposing forces (OPFOR) and then to retain the terrain. The 325th Brigade Support Battalion (BSB) established a brigade support area (BSA) within the archipelago by the third day to sustain the fight. We found that the current doctrine and the modified table of organization do not provide the proper guidance or assets required for the BSA to be successful in large-scale combat operations (LSCO) in a non-contiguous environment.
Where To Place the BSA?
From the start, the island concept presents both the brigade and support battalion commanders with a new set of issues not adequately covered in multi-domain operations. The current doctrine states that BSAs should be established approximately 20 to 40 kilometers (km) from the forward line of troops (FLOT). This can be challenging or even impossible in a non-contiguous environment, such as an archipelago. Commanders must decide where to establish the BSA. One option is to establish the BSA on the nearest landmass to the area of operations. While providing greater security for the BSA, this can dramatically increase supply line lengths. The alternative is to place the BSA significantly closer to the FLOT. This can decrease or eliminate required SLOCs potentially exposing the BSA to more danger. While there are ways to mitigate some of the dangers of having the BSA farther away (i.e., aerial resupply, more robust forward logistics elements, etc.), we will focus here on how mitigating the risks of having the BSA located closer to the FLOT.
The BSA is, by definition, a large, cumbersome element not easily concealed or well suited for rapid movement. In the past, BSA security was often supplemented by nearby reserve elements or was established in areas with a large number of friendly forces separating it from the enemy. What the 325th BSB found during JPMRC was that as friendly forces displace from island to island, the BSA can very easily find itself isolated, quite literally alone on an island. This becomes especially dangerous when planning for a fight against the Chinese army, the most likely force the U.S. will face in an island campaign such as this. Army Techniques Publication 7-100.3, Chinese Tactics, states that in a conflict, the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) will focus on targeting networks instead of shooters, sensors instead of aircraft, and command and communication nodes instead of maneuver forces. In practice, this means the PLA will strive to achieve victory by isolating U.S. forces and placing them in a situation where defeat is inevitable rather than attempting to destroy maneuver forces in direct conflict. Therefore, being vital to continuous operations, the BSA becomes a high-value target. As a high-value target, the BSA faces three main threats: close air attack (CAA), indirect fire (IDF), and direct fire from special purpose forces.
Defending the Sky
Since the Vietnam War, the U.S. has enjoyed air supremacy in its military operations. During this time, the U.S. Army has had little need to develop assets to defend itself from CAA or prevent aerial envelopment. The 325th BSB found this to be a significant weakness when, on two separate occasions, enemy aircraft were able to disrupt operations with CAA. In the training scenario OPFOR could only use small arms fire from a UH-1 helicopter door gunner. However, in a real-world LSCO scenario, the enemy could deploy a Hind D or similar helicopter gunship, and one attack run could render the entire BSA combat ineffective. The rest of the IBCT would acutely feel the effects of such attacks within 72 hours as resupplies of food, ammo, and water ceased, and the Role II no longer functioned.
Mitigation of this threat is fairly straightforward. The FIM-92 Stinger Man-Portable Anti-Air Defense System (MANPADS) has a proven combat record against even the most heavily armored gunships. Fortunately, emplacement of the Stinger does not require a MANPADS operator. To become qualified, any military occupational specialty can attend a 3-week course at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. After that, the unit would only have to resource the weapon system itself. It is recommended that a BSB send four Soldiers. This would provide the battalion (BN) with two qualified teams, giving the base defense operation commander a key asset to incorporate into their defense plan 24 hours per day.
Defending from IDF
The second main threat a BSA faces, particularly when closer to the FLOT, is IDF. In a conventional battlespace, it is possible to place the BSA about 18 miles behind the FLOT thus allowing the logistics node to be outside of the range for most tactical level IDF assets. In an island campaign, that is not always feasible. Therefore, it is critical that several steps be taken to increase the BSA’s survivability. The first is dispersion and cover. Ensuring the spacing of vehicles and equipment helps ensure survivability by dramatically increasing the required number of rounds the enemy must expend to achieve effects.
Additionally, having protection obstacles such as berms around key assets helps them survive in the event of an IDF attack. The 325th BSB was quite successful in this realm by using engineer assets to emplace berms around the Role II and the fuelers, thereby increasing survivability. The BSB commander and staff must work with the brigade staff and engineer battalion to request priority for engineer assets while the BSA is being established.
Another way to mitigate the risk of IDF is to incorporate the use of counter-fire radars into the defense plan. Every brigade has 3 to 5 radars available, but they are generally tasked organized to help protect maneuver BN tactical operations center (TOC)s. The brigade commander must weigh the criticality of protecting the BN TOCs and the BSA and distribute the counter-fire radars accordingly. This can be accomplished by either co-locating a radar at the BSA or ensuring a nearby system is always within range to provide coverage. One of the issues the 325th BSB experienced was that without any Soldiers trained in the use of artillery, there was a knowledge gap about the capabilities and value of counter-fire radars. This can be mitigated by classes and training provided by the aligned fires BN or even a BN fire support officer. In reality, a base defense operations center commander cannot successfully employ a weapon system they do not know exists or how to use properly. As an added benefit, the enemy could potentially expose its IDF assets by firing at what it assumes is an unprotected soft target allowing friendly fires to engage and destroy enemy artillery before it can be massed against maneuver forces.
Taking the Fight to the Enemy
While counter-fire radars are excellent defensive measures, bolstering the BSA’s offensive capabilities could also prove vital. The main direct fire threat the BSA will typically face is a special purpose forces type threat: small teams of highly trained infantrymen equipped with small arms, explosives, and the ability to call for fire from mortars and artillery. While the BSA can protect itself by blocking and reinforcing obstacles and crew-served weapons, the BSA would dramatically increase its combat power with the addition of IDF capabilities. While any good base defense plan must integrate fires and have pre-planned targets, this usually requires artillery assets, given the traditional distance and placement of the BSA. While a good tactic technique and procedure (TTP), the reality is that the BSA will almost always be lower in the priority of fires resulting in delays to fire missions if they even get processed at all. To give the BSA the ability to place accurate and timely fires without disrupting the brigade information collection/fires plan or pulling too much combat power from the fight, one or two 60mm or 81mm mortars should be placed within the BSA. While these mortars are valuable weapon systems to maneuver companies, these companies possess enough other fires assets to augment the loss of 1-2 tubes. Meanwhile, this one small addition provides the BSA with the ability to conduct a more in-depth engagement area development at the BSA. The ability to bring indirect fire on a target in seconds instead of the 20 to 30 minutes an artillery mission can take fundamentally alters the dynamic of the fight around the BSA.
Where to place the BSA and when to place it is always a vitally important question for any IBCT. This becomes even more critical when operating in a non-contiguous environment. In such an environment, the brigade and the BSB commanders must determine where they are willing to assume risk to their logistics. Placing the BSA farther away increases its security but lengthens supply lines. Placing it closer to the FLOT shortens the supply lines but exposes the BSA to a greater threat of direct and indirect fire from the enemy. Therefore, the BSA must be able to protect itself. To do this, the BSA must have the ability to defend from aerial threats; poses the assets, knowledge, and ability to have an effective counter fire; and finally, to be able to coordinate its own indirect fires. These measures are not comprehensive, and each of them requires prior planning, training, and integration to be used effectively. What they do provide is the BSA the ability to be a significantly harder target than it often is. This allows the brigade to shorten its supply lines while ensuring the survivability of logistics assets, thus enabling the continuation of the fight across multiple domains regardless of the operational environment.
Capt. Jesse Nelson currently serves as a military intelligence officer assigned as the battalion S-2 for 325th Brigade Support Battalion, 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division. He has a Bachelor of Science Degree in International Relations from the United States Military Academy.
This article was published in the Spring 2022 issue of Army Sustainment.