While conducting an initial commander’s assessment after assuming command of the 308th Brigade Support Battalion at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, in 2021, It was observed that Soldiers were generally proficient at their individual sustainment military occupational specialty (MOS) tasks — in garrison. However, they were far less skilled at performing these same tasks in a tactical setting, including the effective employment of our equipment. This is partially due to the brigade’s (BDE) force structure and the way it deploys at the platoon level across the Indo-Pacific Command area of responsibility. At that time, the Army was on the heels of more than a year of COVID-19 mitigation measures, which limited collective training at all echelons. To build sustainment mastery in a tactical setting, the command team had to create training opportunities.
As the assessment period ended, the command team challenged the support operations (SPO) team to create a quarterly brigade-wide sustainment competition and test a cross-section of sustainment Soldier skills and field equipment often neglected in garrison. At the time, boards determined which Soldier would be named the brigade’s Sustainer of the Quarter. However, anyone can study, don Army green service uniforms, and answer some questions. A venue was needed to test Soldiers’ mastery of their MOS skills and acumen to succeed under pressure in unfamiliar settings — in other words, to win at the point of contact. Most importantly, the command team wanted the Soldiers to know they and their teams could do it.
Part of the challenge in designing a Sustainment skills competition is the sheer breadth of skillsets within the BDE. Like most support battalions, ours has more than 40 different MOSs assigned per the modified table of organization and equipment, most of which are considered low density. Between our SPO section and select members of the BDE staff, the team possessed the requisite subject matter expertise to design and execute such a competition. By using the training and evaluation outlines (T&EOs) associated with each competition task, participants understood the standard of performance for the competition and beyond.
After a full year of planning and executing these competitions, it yielded a transformation in our sustainment Soldiers that grew confident in their skills and prowess. As a second year of competitions begin, the scope of sustainment functions will expand to include unit movement officers, air and rail load teams, chaplain assistants, and medical personnel.
Sustainment Best By
A field artillery (FA) High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) brigade support battalion (BSB) differs from a brigade combat team in capability and structure. Key differences include the force structure of the brigade and that forward support companies (FSCs) are not assigned to BSBs. Each FSC is its own unique organization, designed to provide support to its parent HIMARS battalion in its mission. The same MOSs exist within a brigade combat team, just fewer in quantity. The only way to adequately determine the best was a sheer head-to-head competition based on speed, technical prowess, and tactical soundness.
To ensure all participants received value-added training, the competition encompassed a cross-section of low-density sustainment tasks executed in a field setting. Each iteration of the competition encompassed the primary Soldier skills of shoot, move, communicate, and survive simultaneously. Assets organic to each hardware systems command and FSC were what the competition centered around. If you cannot deploy and do your job with what you have, then are we actually ready to fight? In addition to using equipment organic to each company, cohesive scenarios were created to generate the requirements of each task and were evaluated on T&EOs. All selected tasks required extensive coordination in grading, resourcing, and timing. The quarterly competition was named the Sustainment Best By, honoring competitions already ongoing with determining the best firing battery in each battalion.
Invention and Experimentation
The command climate in the brigade allowed the unit to try something new to enhance overall sustainment readiness. We experimented with incorporating numerous areas of readiness. Combining basic Soldier tasks, sustainment-specific tasks, and low-density MOS tasks is what each competition encompassed.
The First Competition
On the day of the first competition, the culmination of four months of planning and experimentation unfolded. With three competing companies, the competition spanned four training areas with a start point assigned to each company. Each company completed a specific task at each point in a round-robin fashion and returned to the start point. The task at hand was simple: plot the grid given using the analog method, travel to that grid, complete the task, and convoy to the next point, repeat. To make each convoy realistic, the scenario given to each company involved problem sets experienced in actual deployments (setting up a fuel point at a logistics release point, dedicated recovery, rocket pod distribution, etc.). Communication between teams and the start point (from where all grids were given) was over a 1523-E radio. At the command of go, each team assembled their 1523-E radio and established comms at the start point. If a team did not correctly assemble and operate their radio or failed to provide adequate batteries or hand mic, their ability to begin the competition was delayed. At the conclusion of the first iteration, valuable lessons were learned by both participants and cadre, and it was obvious a solid product was created.
The Second Competition
The focus for the second iteration involved forward repair system (FRS) operations and vehicle recoveries. To focus on maintenance readiness, teams plotted the grid for the setup of their FRS, then located an M1097 to recover using a towbar to the FRS. Upon arrival, teams utilized capabilities of the FRS to change a tire. Once completed, all vehicles and equipment convoyed back to the start point to complete the competition. During this iteration, some teams used shortcuts while operating their FRS. Shortcuts included not fully opening the FRS and utilizing the crane to maintain the recovered vehicle versus utilizing jack stands. These actions indicated this was a common occurrence when conducting tire change operations for their supported battalion. While unsafe actions were immediately halted, these shortcuts provided a training point opportunity for routine maintenance operations. Following the second iteration, breakdowns en route to or from the Yakima Training Center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) involved towbar recoveries. This marked an increase in adherence to like vehicle recovery, resulting in a dramatic decrease in dependence on dedicated recovery, thus multiplying a unit’s ability to recover organically.
The Third Competition
Within the brigade, Global Combat Support System — Army operations were rarely utilized outside of supply rooms or motor pools. Teams now had to correctly set up the very small aperture terminal (VSAT), complete and sign a vehicle dispatch, add an item onto the equipment status report, and perform a record of emergency data update. All these functions were often conducted using hard-wired Non-classified Internet Protocol Router (NIPR) lines within a brigade/battalion S-1 shop or a maintenance control office or motor pool. In addition to performing these tasks, communication requirements were expanded. Instead of receiving grid locations utilizing a common 1523-E radio, teams were required to establish their NIPR telephone that accompanies the VSAT and call back to the headquarters sixteen miles away. If a step was missed, like a cable not properly connected or a VSAT facing the wrong direction, teams were not able to get to their next location and proceed. This competition was unique in that, for instance, the NIPR VSAT telephone was just another item that was seen during cyclic or change of command inventories but seldom exercised in garrison.
The Final Competition
To close out the year, the battalion combined everything they trained on for the entire year into one massive “Super Bowl” competition. New events included the joint battle command platform (JBCP) for communication and land navigation and introduced a company-level evacuation and recovery team segment as an event. Mortuary Affairs is a key facet of sustainment that is often overlooked. While stationed or deployed abroad, there is always a possibility a Soldier may become a fatality and will need to be recovered. When adding a unique and time-consuming event, bottlenecking of the teams occurs as teams arrive to accomplish the task. Normally something like this negatively affects the competition. But it was used to emphasize the importance of attention to detail. Time penalties for missing items were assessed, and teams were not allowed to depart if any infractions occurred. For those in 17th FA BDE, a realistic problem set was solved by achieving readiness enhancement that had far-reaching capabilities for our formations. Through deliberate planning, meticulous coordination, and creative thinking, success was achieved.
While reflecting on what we created with Sustainment Best By, the SPO team conducted an after action review (AAR) immediately following each iteration. Critical data was gathered from each AAR and used to modify future iterations, strengthening the consistency of difficulty while maintaining focus on getting more proficient in sustainment tasks. The evolution of the program to explore other tasks and lessons learned through planning is worth sharing. Below are a few key takeaways:
Speed and Proficiency. At its core, Sustainment Best By is a race. The first company to complete all tasks and cross the finish line is declared the winner. In terms of readiness, sustainers in 17th FA BDE must be able to provide the needed support to their supported units quickly. A high payoff target fire mission, such as immediate survivability moves to another position area of artillery or opportune HIMARS rapid infiltration operation, requires a unique level of speed for execution to be seamless. None of these operations can be interrupted due to supporting elements not being ready.
Sustainment Best By showed the unit that winning the competition and winning the fight comes down to the balance between being technically and tactically proficient and being able to execute a mission in unfamiliar settings. Teams can never just have one or the other. They must possess both because, ultimately, success or failure hinges on it. Taking time to effectively ingrain the importance of speed and proficiency in every task aided our ability to enhance readiness of participants. This balance defines success and failure not only in competing against peers but also while supporting armed conflict.
Every failure is an opportunity to learn. Sustainment Best By, being a competition, produces winners and losers. As we iterated on developing the competition, we were able to observe marked changes in the teams. Nobody wants to come up short when performing their role, especially when it matters most. It was obvious who took their previous failures and made the necessary corrections to ensure they were not repeated. That one cable that keeps your communications from working or missing that one pin needed for towing an M1097 were regular occurrences early on. Both of which were deciding factors determining the winner. It isn’t equipment that wins or loses; it is the quality and the determination of the personnel competing. This forced all teams to become better, become more ready, and take on the challenges in each competition. Teams ran preventive maintenance checks and services of their equipment like never before. Communication equipment such as 1523-E radios and JBCPs were exercised as if the competition was a deployment. Consistently recognizing the importance of proficiency in that forum resulted in an added emphasis on readiness by the lieutenant and supported battalion commander leadership. At the end of the day, winning matters.
Trust. Trust is a critical part of relationships. Within the Army, trust is between commanders, subordinates, and units at all echelons. Commanders trust their intent is being executed, and all perform their roles at the highest standard. Often, losing or breaking that trust is irreversible. Sustainers cannot break trust with their supported unit. One bad experience, missed timeline, or readiness failure plants seeds of doubt as to whether a unit, commander, or leader can execute their role. Safeguarding that trust is paramount in everything we do as logisticians. Through Sustainment Best By, we strove to showcase skills that supported battalion and brigade commanders rarely get to see. While observing the Sustainment Best By, commanders were able to see firsthand what it takes to deliver ammunition, set up a VSAT, and perform maintenance in the field in an autonomous setting. Their observations served to build confidence and trust in their support organizations that they can achieve success in supporting their higher headquarters’ intent.
Synchronization and Coordination. Legendary football coach Lou Holtz said, “You’re either growing, or you’re dying.” If you are not seeking to learn, if you’re not challenging yourself, then you are, in fact, dying. In addition to observing the competitors grow, the SPO team grew as well. With our SPO peers on JBLM, coordinating and executing the Sustainment Best By is well outside the scope of a normal SPO section. We found coordination and synchronization are nonstop. Once a competition concluded, the coordination and synchronization for the next iteration began immediately. The SPO team became better at synchronizing efforts and coordinating resources. We became better at asking pertinent questions, thinking through problems, and mitigating risk. We grew to become a better organization to achieve results and solve complex sustainment issues for the brigade. Our planning became more stringent in our ability to backwards plan. It is easy to have synchronization and coordination degrade given operating tempo and other activities competing for your efforts. However, if you remain focused on readiness and placing the betterment of our sustainment units first, a quality competition is achieved.
Lt. Col. Joel M. Machak currently serves as the battalion commander of the 308th Brigade Support Battalion at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. He holds a master’s degree in supply chain management from the University of Kansas, a master’s degree in public administration from Troy University, Alabama, and a bachelor’s degree in criminology from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Maj. John B. Raynor currently serves as the 17th Field Artillery Brigade support operations officer. He commissioned in the Army Transportation Corps in 2009 from Sam Houston State University ROTC, Texas. He earned a Master of Arts in military history from Norwich University, Vermont.
This article was published in the Summer 2023 issue of Army Sustainment.