In August 2020, the 36th Sustainment Brigade (36th SB) command and staff began searching for a realistic training event to prepare for the fiscal year 2022 mobilization. When forward deployed, the 36th SB bridges the gap between strategic and tactical sustainment. After assessing the mission requirements of a solitary sustainment brigade supporting an entire geographic combatant command, one training event met all the requirements.
The 36th SB selected Operation Northern Strike (NS) 21-2 at the National All-Domain Warfighting Center (NADWC), Camp Grayling, Michigan. With 148,000 acres of dedicated maneuver space, 337 kilometers of restricted airspace, a railhead, an Army airfield with two 5,000-foot runways, garrison facilities, and large ordnance range complexes to match the best any installation has to offer, Camp Grayling stands alone. The facilities, coupled with multifunctional, multicomponent, multiagency, and multinational annual training events requiring committed sustainers, was too hard to resist. Ultimately, NS presented the best live, virtual, and constructive training environment to facilitate a brigade headquarters external mission essential task (MET) evaluation and replicate the rigors of forward sustainment operations before mobilization.
NS also facilitated an external MET evaluation of the sustainment brigade headquarters and presented the most operational environment variables in live, virtual, and constructive formats for mobilization validation. First Army Division West provided the observer controller — trainer (O/C-T) personnel to validate Department of the Army directed METs. The 1st Theater Sustainment Command (1st TSC) and First Army Division West played critical roles by scripting training scenarios based on current U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) sustainment operations.
The exercise planning and coordination actions leading to NS 21-2 execution proved vital to ensuring necessary collaboration between supporting and supported units. All units, including 36th SB, collectively shaped the exercise scope and structure to meet all command training objectives through deliberate coordination and partnering. This was not just a happenstance. The NS operations team, a full-time contingent of the Michigan Army National Guard (MIARNG), manages the planning, initial support, and collaboration between exercise participants through a deliberate scheme of programmed pre-execution events. These collaborative planning events begin twelve months before each annual iteration of NS. The planning cycle value for the command and staff and the MIARNG support to assist units in meeting their training objectives cannot be overstated.
These events allowed collaboration with all exercise higher, adjacent, lower, supporting, and supported participants in shaping the brigade’s overall training requirements to most effectively prepare for forward deployment. Throughout the planning, the brigade included elements of the 1st TSC acting as a higher command element and First Army Division West providing O/C-T personnel and equipment support for external mobilization validation MET assessments.
After completing necessary coordination with and through the support of the MIARNG NS Operations Team, the 36th SB participated in NS 21-2 from July 27, 2021, to Aug. 14, 2021, serving as the theater opening, distribution, and sustainment element for Joint Task Force (JTF) 85. For NS 21-2, JTF-85 assembled a ground maneuver task force of more than 3,400 multiagency, multi-compo, and multinational personnel engaged in a decisive action training environment built to replicate the rigors of large-scale combat operations (LSCO). The JTF-85 capabilities included infantry, field artillery, medical, combat aviation, signal, and special forces elements assembled into brigade-level elements from the Active Army, Army Reserves, Army National Guard, United States Marine Corps (USMC) Reserves, Latvian army special forces, United Kingdom defense force, Liberian army, and Taiwanese army. The 36th SB served as the sustainment command and control (C2) element to execute expeditionary sustainment support for JTF-85, ensuring flexibility and operational reach during the LSCO scenario.
Participation in NS 21-2 required the brigade to conduct a modified table of organization and equipment deployment over 1,500 miles from the home station utilizing a combination of rail, air, and over-the-road lines of communication to forward deploy more than 250 pieces of equipment and 500 personnel to the JTF-85 division consolidation area. This capacity allowed the brigade to build theater sustainment infrastructure supporting the operation’s combat power generation and initial commodity stocking objectives. This operation emanated from Fort Hood, Texas, and Gray Army Airfield, stressing the unit’s ability to project sustainment capability forward in preparation for deployment. In just under 12 hours, 36th SB offloaded the same pieces of equipment safely with only two ramps at the Camp Grayling rail spur.
Joint Reception, Staging, Onward Movement, and Integration
Once at the NADWC, 36th SB established theater gateway operations as part of the theater opening requirements by employing the unit’s organic sustainment troops battalion and subordinate human resources, finance, cargo transfer, and medical capabilities. Higher staff coordination elements successfully executing joint reception, staging, onward movement, and integration (JRSOI) included the 36th SB S-1, S-4, and support operations (SPO) human resources operations branch (HROB). Without the synchronization and resourcing across brigade and battalion staff, critical requirements of the JRSOI could have proven immensely challenging.
Understanding the time-phased force deployment data and equipment density arrival dates to the NADWC allowed the HROB to facilitate JRSOI of forces and equipment packages that arrived on schedule and more easily adjusted to late arrivals. The 36th SB JRSOI operations supported combat power generation of 20 units, over 3,400 personnel, and more than 2,000 pieces of equipment ready to project forward into the fight.
Concurrent with JRSOI actions, the brigade established theater stocks of Class I, III, and V to ensure seamless support to JTF-85 during the operation. The 36th SB managed stockage levels and anticipated requirements by using logistic management tools to calculate burn rates collected during a series of pre-execution logistics planning meetings. Before arrival, the brigade developed and published a multi-compo, multiagency task organization, ensuring subordinate sustainment units were aligned and postured to support battlefield requirements.
After the theater sustainment task organization was established and the initial theater concept of support drafted, the 36th SB conducted a final theater sustainment rehearsal of the concept with all supporting and supported units at Camp Grayling. The event proved critical in describing and refining the optimal theater concept of support. Before execution, the 36th SB SPO staff established a logistics common operating picture to facilitate command and subordinate unit situational understanding while managing limited resources to facilitate freedom of maneuver.
During this expeditionary deployment and theater opening phase, the NADWC effectively turned over complete control of all base support nodes to the 36th SB. The brigade managed the JTF-85 support area Class I breakpoint, ammunition supply point, fuel farm, railhead, central receiving and shipping yard, motor pools, pass-back maintenance bays, supply support activity warehouse buildings, as well as garrison medical, housing, and administrative facilities. This decision enabled the SPO section to gain invaluable experience managing real property facilities and conducting physical commodity management. The NS exercise director’s decision to allow 36th SB to physically manage properties and commodities resulted in increased training and readiness as the unit postured for forward success in the USCENTCOM area of responsibility (AOR).
Theater Distribution and Sustainment
During NS, the 36th SB was tasked to run the JTF-85 division support area in a dynamic and complex operational environment with near-peer enemy opposing force enablers, including hybrid threat, cyber, electronic warfare, air defense, and intelligence-surveillance and reconnaissance elements. The SPO ensured theater commodity levels did not drop below the levels needed to sustain combat operations in this non-permissive threat environment.
Exercising boards, bureaus, centers, cells, and working groups (B2C2WG) along the SPO’s critical path during the daily logistics sync, distribution management boards, and operations sync proved critical in managing the flow of supply pipeline commodities and effectively managing theater distribution systems throughout the AOR. Unlike a warfighter exercise (WFX) or any previous training exercise in which the 36th SB participated, real situations and problems stressed the staff to conduct deliberate analysis and develop courses of action. These challenges tested the limits of the sustainment brigade SPO staff and led to internal process improvement gains and experience that cannot be understated.
One example of a complex theater commodity management and distribution challenge was the late addition of a USMC Reserve rotary wing unit two days before execution. This additional unit impacted the theater Class III bulk projections, causing distribution and bulk holding capability challenges. The USMC rotary wing unit’s platforms, four CH-53E Super Stallion heavy-lift helicopters, required 15,000 gallons of fuel every 48 hours. As the theater bulk storage capacity was only 30,000 gallons and average ground forces bulk fuel consumption was 10,000 gallons, only 5,000 gallons would be left in reserve after D-Day, and host nation bulk fuel delivery was on a 48- to 72-hour window. This situation threatened to deplete theater Class III stocks within 48 hours and immobilize the task force. To overcome this possible Class III shortfall, the SPO staff cross-leveled all 30,000 gallons of bulk fuel from the theater fuel farm to organic mobile platforms and scheduled host nation bulk deliveries every 48 hours. This reset the theater fuel capacity to 60,000 in static and mobile platforms and ensured that Class III bulk stocks remained in sufficient quantities to sustain the fight. Several similar realistic challenges occurred during the operation, testing the SPO staff’s flexibility and management acumen.
Due to the rigors of NS, definitive gains were realized in the SPO staff’s understanding of the critical path B2C2WGs, SPO SOP updates, internal section synchronization, and overall staff capability. The 36th SB ordered, managed, and distributed over one million pounds of physical bulk commodities by ground and air, including Class I, III, IV, V, VII, and IX, to support NS 21-2. No WFX, command post exercise — functional (CPX-F), or other virtual/constructive scenarios can replicate the actual physical supply management and distribution experience, the physical field service execution, or the maintenance and recovery experience that NS provides for sustainment elements at the NADWC.
Deployment of the Brigade Early Entry Command Post
When deployed, sustainment formations require agile and flexible sustainment and expeditionary command post capabilities. During the exercise, and while providing seamless sustainment support, the brigade staff forward deployed the brigade early entry command post (BDE EECP) by conducting a tactical road march using USMC mobile assault squads as convoy escort teams, leveraging multi-unit training opportunities. The BDE EECP team completed a tactical road march and established the BDE EECP to full operational capability within four hours of occupation. The training experience and capability proved critical upon deployment. While deployed, the 36th SB seamlessly established an expeditionary command post using air and ground lines of communication in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to support 1st TSC initiatives and in support of Exercise Native Fury 22.
Innovation and Emergency Resupply Training
The 36th SB also had the unique opportunity to plan and participate in two non-standard distribution missions during NS 21-2. These opportunities provided the staff experience with innovative approaches to overcome unique distribution challenges the unit may face in the USCENTCOM AOR. First, the SPO staff planned a Class V resupply mission supporting an Army Futures Command commissioned study. This mission evaluated the current Army supply system’s ability to resupply the new M1299 Extended Range Cannon Artillery (ERCA) platform, helping to find resupply solutions due to the ERCA higher rate of fire. The SPO materiel management, transportation, and distribution integration branches worked in tandem to plan, organize, and execute a 155mm resupply mission utilizing multiple transportation and material handling equipment resources. The Alion Group, contracted to complete the study by Army Futures Command, praised the effort and fidelity of data collected.
Secondly, the SPO mobility and distribution integration branches planned and resourced the first sequential heavy-drop aerial resupply executed solely by compo 2 forces (Army and Air National Guard). The aerial delivery mission required emergency resupply of two M997 high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles and two meals ready to eat pallets to maneuver forces from the intermediate staging base at Selfridge, Michigan, to the drop-zone at Grayling, 214 miles into the joint operations area. The mission proved highly successful and demonstrated the SPO staff’s ability to support emergency aerial distribution operations before mobilization.
Innovation and modernization are critical for future sustainment. Numerous advances in supply chain management are rapidly occurring with innovative distribution and autonomously driven vehicles such as leader-follower technology. The modernized sustainment force structure could employ these innovations at scale and in practical application. Operation NS should be a model for the design-to-fielding cycle within the training frameworks afforded by this exercise.
Primary Staff Training Gains
Success at NS demands the full commitment of every section of the sustainment brigade. Again, unlike average collective training field problems or virtual/constructive events like a WFX or CPX-F, NS truly tests a unit’s ability to function as a collaborative team in a wholly expeditionary environment without any sort of garrison base-stock of commodities, support directorates, or home-station facilities to run back to and save the day when something is forgotten or goes wrong. There is no room for error when executing NS, just like in the forward deployed environment. If you forgot to bring it or didn’t coordinate for it to be delivered, you aren’t going to have it during the fight when it is most needed. The staff sections continuously refine SOPs and improve efficiency through rigorous and parallel operations such as JRSOI, theater human resource operations, BDE EECP deployment, tactical operations center battle drills, mass casualty events, and continuous sustainment operations.
Brigade Commander’s Assessment
The NS 21-1 rotation presented the optimal training opportunity for 36th SB. Specifically, culminating training events or WFX rotations lack the robust, realistic demands of supporting units engaged in operations. The NS 21-2 rotation prepared a sustainment formation, specifically at the brigade level, for the demands of forward deployment with physical units requiring support due to engagement in a rigorous scenario all set in a multidomain environment. NS 21-2 provided realistic and modern operational environment variables for the training audience. NS 21-2 also provided a consistently demanding environment to build the staff and challenge leaders. NS 21-2 provided the opportunity to profoundly impact brigade staff and leader development in a rigorous, multidomain environment at the sustainment brigade. NS 21-2 included a higher command capable of stressing the sustainment brigade headquarters with the 1st TSC participation to replicate and inject the geographic combatant command requirements. The rigorous training demands of NS coupled with realistic support dilemmas are the best way to train and stress a staff before mobilization. Operation NS should be programmed as the exercise for sustainment force headquarters at the brigade and battalion echelons.
To access the full 36th SB NS 21-2 after action review and gain more insight into planning and executing a NS rotation for other units, contact the authors for the full AAR.
Col. Carrie Perez currently serves as the 36th Sustainment Brigade commander. Perez graduated from the U.S. Army War College and Joint and Combined Warfighting School.
Lt. Col. Matthew Fronek currently serves as the 36th Sustainment Brigade support operations officer. Fronek graduated from the Command and General Staff Officers’ Course and Advanced Operations Course.
Maj. Victor Lauersdorf currently serves as the 36th Sustainment Brigade S-3 officer. Lauersdorf is a graduate of the Command and General Staff Officers’ Course and Advanced Operations Course.
This article was published in the Fall 22 issue of Army Sustainment.