Know Your Role | Insights on Readiness at Echelon from Sustainment Brigade Commanders Across the Total Army

By Mike CrozierMay 2, 2023

(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

While executing transformational change in preparation for future operational challenges is not a foreign process to the Army, the Service finds itself at a critical inflection point in the face of near-peer adversary capabilities beyond those encountered during counterinsurgency (COIN) operations throughout the last two decades. From the development of Air Land Battle in the 1980s to counter Europe’s Warsaw Pact forces to the recent doctrinal codification of multidomain operations for large-scale combat readiness, the transformation process is, paradoxically, both revolutionary and evolutionary in nature for the Army’s sustainers. While warfighters’ operational conditions are in constant and revolutionary flux, the logistics and sustainment tasks imperative to mission success remain predominantly similar, even if they may be marked by evolutionary change over time.

To explore the future of logistical readiness in that operational space, Army Sustainment sat down with five brigade commanders from various geographies across the Total Army to discuss how they are adroitly preparing their formations for both immediate and future sustainment success:

  • Col. Angel Estrada commands the 16th Sustainment Brigade (SB) in Baumholder, Germany, as part of the 21st Theater Sustainment Command (TSC).
  • Col. Christopher Jones commands the 1st Cavalry Division Sustainment Brigade (DSB) at Fort Cavazos, Texas.
  • Col. Carrie Perez commands the 36th SB as part of the Texas Army National Guard.
  • Col. Gina SanNicolas commands the 25th Infantry DSB at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.
  • Col. John Stanley commands the Army Reserve’s 55th SB at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

How is the sustainment brigade you’re charged with leading operationalized within your area of operations?

Estrada: Unlike a DSB, the 16th SB is aligned to a TSC, the 21st TSC in our case. We’re primarily responsible for theater opening — all aspects of reception, staging, onward movement, and integration (RSOI), and deployment to home station — and subsequent distribution — including all classes of supply — for all forces entering and exiting Europe and Africa. We comprise one, but soon to be two, combat sustainment support battalions, one special troops battalion, one finance battalion, and one transportation battalion. Until recently, the 16th was the only SB in Europe or Africa, but with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine came the positioning of a rotational DSB to support V Corps. The nature of our work necessitates constant synchronization with the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), the greater joint logistics enterprise, and our allies and partners.

Jones: The 1st Cavalry DSB is fortunate to be co-located at Fort Cavazos, Texas, with the III Armored Corps and the 13th Expeditionary Sustainment Command (ESC), so staying synchronized as we reorient ourselves around the division as the primary unit of action has been rather seamless. In our day to day, we place a large emphasis on synchronization through realistic training and warfighter exercises to bolster that operational readiness. Our close relationships with the 13th ESC, corps enablers, and the III Armored Corps DSBs in the 1st Armored Division, 1st Infantry Division (ID), and 4ID (with the 4DSB forward in European Command) have been critical in ensuring we share the same operating picture as we sustain within the corps battle space.

Perez: The 36th SB is a proud part of the Texas Army National Guard’s 36th ID, a division that traces its combat roots back to World War I. In the fall of 2022, we completed our most recent deployment to Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, in support of Operations Spartan Shield, Inherent Resolve, and Freedom’s Sentinel throughout Central Command. For that deployment, we maintained our collective readiness through deliberate training alongside our strategic partners in the 135th ESC, 1st TSC, and our allies in Kuwait.

SanNicolas: Anyone assigned to the 25th ID or the 25th DSB will assert that we live in the tyranny of distance, and the Indo-Pacific area of operations simply demands that recognition. With that comes a slew of highly complex problem sets when considering the sustainment needs of such a geographically dispersed region. For the 25th DSB, we emphasize regional exercises, such as Pacific Pathways, which are iterative in nature and ensure we’re exercising those critical operational and tactical sustainment frameworks.

Stanley: Since 2006, the 55th SB has been headquartered at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, assigned to the 310th ESC in Indianapolis, Indiana, under the 377th TSC within the Army Reserve. We provide command and control (C2) of 17 units comprising three battalions across four states. In contrast to a DSB in components 1 or 2, the 55th isn’t aligned to a specific area of operations. Rather, we’re designed to provide sustainment in an area of operations defined by an ESC or a TSC. To operationalize our unit, we focus on our readiness to mobilize, deploy, and conduct our wartime mission. Starting with the end state in mind, we focus on our pacing threats in near-peer competition. If our supported forces are ready to throw the first punch and maintain a positional advantage, then we’ve done our jobs. As Reservists, we’re highly intentional with how we train to mobilize, deploy, and conduct our wartime mission. We convene monthly from far and wide to converge on our equipment and train. Good units do this routinely, but great units master the basics of how it’s done.

Today’s sustainers and sustainment leaders are called to look beyond just the solid and dashed lines in task organizational charts and identify those relationships critical to mission readiness. How do you foster those relationships within and beyond the sustainment community?

Estrada: I mentioned earlier that our work is enabled by close, consistent collaboration with a wide range of fellow stakeholders. From the DLA to host nations, we must develop and maintain relationships within and beyond the sustainment community. We actively engage with our maneuver formations and higher headquarters to ensure the non-sustainment community sees us wherever they are and are aware of our contributions to the entire operations process. This helps us anticipate our requirements to deliver our sustainment support prior to need. Doing this can build inherent trust in our capability and capacity.

Jones: I believe many nuances exist in how a DSB commander develops and builds their most critical relationships. Each may spend a varying percentage of time on the up and out versus the down and in. My team and I spend much of our time on the down and in to ensure we plan and execute our work from a solid doctrinal foundation. Some of the best commanders I’ve served placed an outsized emphasis on clearly defining their unit’s role in each context that’s rooted in doctrine. With that as a guiding principle, you can effectively manage expectations for what your unit can and should be doing to enable an exercise or mission. You can’t decide, act, and assess your actions if you don’t have that spelled out upfront. Further, without that definition, you’ll find it tough to work alongside other key stakeholders, both within and beyond the sustainment community.

Perez: The Army’s move from modularity to the division as the primary unit of action ensures our DSBs are aligned where they can best function. We rely on deliberate staff training to help us identify our key stakeholder base and enhance relationships we know are imperative to mission readiness. Whether we’re interfacing with the 1st TSC or one of our brigade combat teams, the bottom line is that we emphasize understanding our doctrinal role within that broader ecosystem to ensure we’re meeting operational needs. This understanding is important at all levels of leadership within a brigade, from its commander down to its most junior Soldiers and officers.

SanNicolas: Something that’s become increasingly clear to us in the 25th DSB due to our Pacific Pathways exercise series is that logistics challenges in a theater like the Pacific can only be solved if the entire sustainment team is synchronized. There’s no room for error. To counter that, our goal is to empower formations and their junior leaders to innovate and tackle those wicked problems head-on through integration and synchronization. You need to be ready to work with the broader sustainment community to solve operational problems. Every person in our ranks plays a key role and should have a firm grasp of our most critical stakeholder and partner base. I ask our team to clearly understand who the key organizations are in our purview. Who are we nesting with and supporting? Who’s looking to us for guidance and execution? If you have that visibility, getting everyone around the table to set the flow of sustainment capabilities across the theater is a bit easier.

Stanley: In the 55th, we emphasize that sustainment is more journey than destination. As you look at that sustainment journey in delivering readiness and lethality to our joint force in any area of operation, there is a wide range of situational awareness and relationship-building that must be managed for mission success. To do that effectively, we must see ourselves at each node and juncture, from the fort to the objective and everything in between. As a Reserve command, our partner network is critical and is one we must prime every month through collaborative training with our mission partners across components and services. The reserve centers where we aggregate our disaggregated forces serve as the Army’s connective tissue to the American public. We operationalize our ability to mobilize when we pull our Citizen Soldiers out of their jobs for weekend volunteer positions each month. When you mobilize an Army Reservist, you also mobilize the community where they reside. We leverage nongovernmental organizations and civilian aides to the Secretary of the Army to help us nurture those relationships to ensure our sustainability to continue delivering for our armed forces.

The Army updated Field Manual (FM) 3-0, Operations, just last fall. From your foxhole, how will that edition impact your brigade’s ability to sustain the Army of 2030?

Estrada: These updates challenge leaders to understand concepts once common to our fighting force while incorporating ideas and terms many have never had to employ. The major bottom line for sustainers is that we, as a community, must look beyond our own warfighting function. Sustainment’s interaction with the broader multidomain environment will surely be more complex as we prepare for a near-peer adversary. Every leader at echelon should be having conversations with their junior officers and Soldiers so everyone is familiar with these current changes outlining our future operational environment.

Jones: Three words come first to mind when considering the new FM 3-0 and its sustainment impact at all echelons: integration, observation, and dispersion. It is clear in FM 3-0 that you must always operate as if you’re being observed, marking a distinction between past adversaries and the near-peer ones we are preparing for now and in the future. Army senior leaders repeatedly message this with our industry and academic partners. Still, we’ll have to be more agile, resilient, and synchronized with our maneuver teammates to aggregate and disaggregate with the greatest impact.

Perez: Codifying multidomain operations into doctrine outlines the criticality of sustainment to mission success while emphasizing the importance of integration across warfighting functions. I don’t necessarily think the foundations of sustainment at the tactical level have shifted drastically, but I do believe the most impactful sustainers will need to operate with an even clearer understanding of the art and science of logistics. This way, they can adeptly apply that working knowledge within the world of maneuver to the greatest effect, ensuring decision space for commanders in the field. Sustainment dominance of a multidomain environment will require an intricate balance between our grasp of doctrine across echelons and new capabilities that enable those requirements as we modernize for 2030 and, down the road, 2040.

SanNicolas: These updates emphasize our ability to conduct large-scale combat operations (LSCO), even though much of the preparation for that has been part of our day to day for some time. In the Pacific theater, we have to frame our approach to LSCO more holistically than just seeing that as a massive swath of land separated by water. The complex geography makes our partnership with the greater joint force much more critical as we now set conditions to synchronize planning and ensure sustainment is delivered at the right time and place. FM 3-0 makes it clear we must be ready to aggregate and disaggregate faster than before to best enable maneuver commanders, who may need access to reliable communications to instantiate tactical resupply, which is an inherent challenge to sustainment operations in the Pacific. The conditions are evolving, but our purpose remains the same. We’re now working on training to be more agile and versatile in providing sustainment.

Stanley: We must prepare, and actively are preparing, our force to sustain the joint force in distributed and disconnected operational environments, but we can no longer expect to do this from fixed sites as we were accustomed to in the past. Our speed to set and reset the theater, mobility to deliver resources from positional advantage, and redundancy in lines of communication will be critical. To truly operationalize the sustainment needs of FM 3-0, we must have better visibility into our sustainment picture to reduce dependencies on vulnerable, centralized, in-theater sustainment nodes. To accomplish this, we must secure our logistics systems and increase our workforce’s digital literacy to take advantage of the progress made in the artificial intelligence and machine learning spaces to support autonomous and multi-capable distribution platforms.

Future warfare against a near-peer adversary in varying contested environments presents itself as a massive departure from COIN operations. How are you working alongside your company and battalion commanders to prepare for that shift? What have been some of the most and least surprising challenges in this preparation?

Estrada: One of the most interesting challenges is maintaining the functionality of our various sustainment and C2 nodes while remaining small, agile, and flexible. The days of massing sustainment capabilities in one location alongside C2 elements are probably over. We can’t assume units, dispersed over vast spaces, will be able to communicate needs or concealment, so that’s a novel problem set when you couple those environmental dynamics with a near-peer adversary. In the 16th SB, we’re preparing by adding similar stressors into our operations and exercises, so we train on how to communicate, move, and sustain in that type of environment.

Jones: From my foxhole, breaking that mold from COIN does not need to be an arduous, mind-shifting process. The plurality, if not the majority, of our junior officers and commanders have been tracking this shift. Much of this stems from rather exhaustive top-down communication about our priorities and where we are headed as an enterprise. Put succinctly, I do not believe anyone felt surprised when we began posturing for this shift in both the environmental and adversarial context.

Perez: When the 36th SB is forward deployed, we bridge the critical gap between strategic and tactical sustainment, and the critical tasks surrounding that role have stayed the same over time. However, our operational conditions will surely evolve within more complex constraints. From our purview, we can best prepare for that shift through precise and targeted training that ensures we’re flexing all the right logistics muscles in preparation for those deployments. Back in 2021, we participated in Operation Northern Strike, where we were tasked with running a division support area in a highly dynamic and complex environment. We were to assume the presence of a near-peer opposing force with lethal threats across all domains. Training precisely for the conditions we expect to face has eased that shift across our ranks.

SanNicolas: I mentioned this earlier, but so much of this preparation comes from empowering our junior leaders to wrestle with those complex problem sets throughout exercises alongside our joint and international partners. Unsurprisingly, they’re rising to the task, but that’s not because it’s easy. There’s a common understanding that what worked in the past may not lead to success in the future. However, sustainment leaders must leverage the problem-solving framework to ensure our agility and resiliency is still relevant.

Stanley: Given our limited training timelines, we must focus on speed, mobility, and redundancy. Years and years of COIN have partially atrophied unit muscle memory on how to fight their way out of the motor pool. The surprising part of this is the emphasis on small unit leadership, as you must know your people and equipment while merging the two to deliver the necessary capabilities to the point of need. Tough, realistic deployment readiness exercises are great measuring sticks to help companies see themselves through each node they touch in the sustainment process. Returning to the doctrinal basics in developing those plans and assessments is key to their ability to deliver readiness and lethality quickly.

How do you successfully integrate each aspect of sustainment, such as human resources and financial support, across the entire brigade?

Estrada: Our human resources processes are somewhat unique. Most theaters conduct RSOI operations at a singular intermediate staging base where personnel are in-processed and sent forward a few days after receiving them. However, our personnel accountability teams deploy to more than 20 approved aerial ports of debarkation within just 12 hours of notification to process waves of flights into the theater. As you can see, human resource functions are integral to sustainment. Additionally, our finance battalion contracts millions of dollars each quarter to enable RSOI operations and exercise support. This means we can weaponize those resources. Our ability to rapidly generate purchasing power in remote locations sends a clear message about our capabilities.

Jones: I think the best approach to this integration is simple: each aspect of sustainment is a critical cog in the broader warfighting function, so it’s imperative they’re weighted as part of the main effort appropriately. In the 1st Cavalry DSB, we’re thinking critically about health service support and personnel movement for casualties based on estimates derived from what we believe successful sustainment operations in LSCO will demand. We train and operate with each aspect of sustainment front of mind so we’re ready in the holistic, fully integrated sense.

Perez: Our human resources and finance capabilities resident in our special troops battalion is essential to our holistic sustainment structure. I think a great example of successful integration is a well-executed RSOI process. Higher staff coordination elements, such as the 36th SB’s S-1, S-4, and human resources operations branch, absolutely must work in tandem to enable that end-to-end process, as implementing force flow into a theater or area of operations is an effort that is best resourced across the entire brigade without question.

SanNicolas: I talked earlier about being highly intentional and adding the right amounts of stress to how we train, and that extends to the entirety of the sustainment warfighting function. Sustainment’s complete involvement in our training exercises naturally inculcates an integrative approach to how we provide that across a theater, from maintenance to finance.

Stanley: This can vary greatly across components, but for us in the 55th, human resources and finance are managed just like any other commodity on the battlefield by commodity managers in the support operations section. Within the special troops battalion, the financial management support company comprises six platoons distributed throughout our area of operations to support pay actions, so they’re executed the same as at home station.

Knowing what you do now as a brigade commander, what advice would you offer yourself during your days as a second lieutenant or even company commander?

Estrada: Spend your time learning Army doctrine and broadening your understanding of the larger context of the profession. Open your aperture to learn more about what lies outside of your immediate area of expertise. Doctrine is important, but so, too, is being well-rounded. I’d also offer that relationships are everything, so you should foster them with every person you meet. In the end, people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Spend time to understand the people you serve alongside by being an active listener and building those key relationships from a healthy, strong foundation.

Jones: Something I’ve held onto throughout my career — sometimes to my advantage, sometimes to my detriment — is that you always need to think critically and scrutinize decisions before they’re acted upon. Conditions change and they change rapidly, so being complacent in how you think, decide, and act will only hold you back. I’ll also offer that our sustainment noncommissioned officers are truly the backbone of the Army Sustainment Enterprise. Employ them effectively and trust their operational expertise.

Perez: Seek out challenging training opportunities when they arise and advocate for their continued execution regularly. This will ensure you and your sustainment formation face realistic, challenging conditions so you’re exhaustively prepared when called upon.

SanNicolas: Be intentional in everything you do and get to know as much as you can about the people you will synchronize with to do your job well. Learn to think outside the box within your current environmental constraints, so you can contribute to solving the Army’s most complex sustainment challenges, and then have confidence in your knowledge and ability to execute. Learning doctrine is important, as it serves as your foundational framework, but you shouldn’t let it box in your thought processes as you train and prepare for growth throughout your career.

Stanley: Don’t hide in the easy jobs. Go volunteer for challenging positions that may stretch you beyond your military occupational specialty. This seems simple, but you should show that you care about what you do and how you do it because doing so tends to be contagious.


Mike Crozier is a strategic analyst in the Army G-4’s Logistics Initiatives Group. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Georgetown University.


This article was published in the Summer 2023 issue of Army Sustainment.


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