FORT BRAGG, N.C., July 5, 2011 -- It’s about Charlie Mike, which is radio-talk for “continue mission.” It’s about adapting to a thunderstorm dropping an inch-and-a-half of rain and blowing the drop zone with 23-knot winds in the middle of your mass-tactical airborne operation.

The first 1,200 paratroopers jump in to seize the airfield just before midnight and are immediately swallowed by nature’s own artillery of electrified cumulonimbus, and though the second wave of 500 paratroopers is scratched as are the next-day’s airlifts of troops, equipment and supplies, your lead battalion Charlie Mikes and takes the objective anyway.

A joint operational access exercise, or JOAX, like the one completed here June 28, 2011, by the Air Force, the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team and other supporting units, is by nature about communication, and as the Devil Brigade’s senior logistics officer, Maj. Michael LaBrecque, said afterward, “Nothing teaches like experience.”

THE OUTLOAD

The focal point of the two-week collaboration was a three-day mission during which the entire brigade was inserted by air and by truck into enemy territory, their goal, to open access for follow-on combat operations. It was a mini-deployment, but just as moving a household a half mile or 2,000 miles creates about the same amount of work, the logistics effort was not unlike a real deployment.

“It’s all the same,” said LaBrecque, who has served in the Army 22 years, with two deployments each to Iraq and Afghanistan. “It’s just the magnitude of the problem that changes. The requirements of the units increase as we increase the scope of the problem.”

The infantry officer now specializing in logistics said that all subordinate units must be proficient at preparing and packing themselves and their equipment as well as completing hazardous declarations and load plans, but they don’t use these skills on a regular basis. Thus, JOAX taught them to outload, a skill they will use again for their fall rotation at Fork Polk’s Joint Readiness Training Center and real-world missions they may face the following year.

“The units don’t get an understanding of the complexity until they are faced with it,” he said.
In addition to heavy-equipment parachute drops, LaBrecque and his team organized 52 vehicles to be transported via C-130 aircraft in the hours after the infantry captured the airfield, and driving in another 50 as “notional air-lands.”

When the weather turned foul, his Soldiers learned first-hand the importance of their craft to the brigade.

“The thunderstorm showed us that if it were a real-world scenario, the paratroopers on the ground would have had to survive an additional 8-12 hours without supply,” said LaBrecque.

THE THUNDERSTORM

For the infantry, the storm was an uncomfortable hassle that in a real-world situation, might surprisingly have been a boon.

“Thunderstorms rolled in twice on us while we were out there,” said Maj. Phillip Sounia, executive officer of 1BCT. “All the antennas went down, we had no comms with anybody, but because we had good unit boundaries, guys knew where they could and couldn’t be.”

The boundaries, called phase lines, became combat enablers. They restricted movement not so much as they kept the brigade’s combat power focused, which is particularly important during the initial few hours when the operation is heavily joint, he said.

For the paratrooper on the landing zone, finding and organizing one’s unit is still the task that takes the longest time, said Sounia.

“It’s still these ‘little groups of paratroopers’ or LGOPs that meet up on the drop zone, who may not know exactly where they are going to, but at least they know the big picture," he explained. "They meet up with an NCO (noncommissioned officer) and move out, and because we all have the basic skill set -- we can all operate an M249 machine gun, an M320 [grenade launcher], our personal weapons -- we can get the job done."

"That’s what I think the benefit is here in the airborne community, that guys can get it done when we hit the ground, and it doesn’t matter who you are because you are a paratrooper," Sounia said. "When you are in line at manifest, no one cares what rank you are: You are a paratrooper."

"The jumpmaster in charge might be a sergeant, a major, or a colonel. It doesn’t matter. He’s a jumpmaster and that’s who you are listening to," he said. "You look to your right and left to see who the junior guy is, and that’s who you are going to take care of. To me, that’s beautiful.”

WHAT’S NEW

It certainly helped the brigade personnel officer, Maj. Martin Stufflebeam, who on that night, made his first jump in 26 years. LGOPS folded into units, and units reported back and forth to brigade headquarters to keep track of every Soldier on the battlefield.

It’s all about communication and managing mutual expectations between brigade and subordinate units, said Stufflebeam, whose personnel specialists were divided into four widely-spaced teams.

LGOPs gather paratroopers, but nowadays, GPS tracking devices aid units in finding large, unmanned packages of supplies and equipment dropped by parachute. There are other updates, including a new ASOP, or Airborne Standing Operating Procedures, which guides jumpmasters and unit commanders into making safe and tactically-sound decisions during airborne operations.

Concerning inclement weather, the ASOP is pretty definitive in what leaders should do, said Sounia.

“The limitations are there for a reason,” he said. “When the winds approach 13 knots, you have a very high chance of getting injured, or when winds approach 17 knots, there’s a very high chance that the heavy-drop platforms will get messed up and not be combat serviceable."

"We may jump in a whole battalion, but if we are at 30 percent strength, do we really want to do that, or do we want to hold back a little bit for better conditions? So far as the ASOP is concerned, the only difference between a combat jump and this operation is that we are going to jump lower,” Sounia said.

WHAT’S REAL

While the rain, high winds and lightning create difficulties for the troops, the enemy is going to be in a massive thunderstorm too, he pointed out.

“I think I can beat anybody in a massive thunderstorm because it’s crappy out and nobody wants to be in it,” Sounia said. "It gives us an advantage. I can be louder, I can move faster, I can go after the enemy. In all reality, it’s only going to enable me. The Air Force is going to be on high alert, and they are going to be engaging like mad. Keep in mind we have the only all-weather-capable aircraft in the world.”

For the JOAX, aircraft and crews came from a slew of bases, including Dyess in Texas, McGuire in New Jersey, Little Rock in Arkansas, Altus in Oklahoma, Charleston in South Carolina, Pope Army Airfield at Fort Bragg, and others, according to Air Force Capt. Joseph Barber with the 43rd Airlift Wing, who helped coordinate the aircraft.

Crews must get air crew/air drop qualifications once per quarter, said Barber, which fits neatly in with the demands of the JOAX.

In spite of the cultural differences between the services that have developed since the U.S. Army Air Force split from the Army to become the Air Force in 1947, effective communication and mutual respect between professional Airmen and professional Soldiers allowed for a relatively smooth operation in spite of the weather challenges.

“Thanks for what you do,” said Devil Brigade commander, Col. Mark L. Stock, addressing a room of senior airmen and paratroopers prior to the big jump. A leader’s job is to lubricate points of friction, he said, and that is done through effectively communicating one’s requirements and expectations.

Leading by example, Stock asked the pilots and crews for what he needed: more important than speed, a stable platform from which his paratroopers could disembark the aircraft. In fact, Stock would be the first paratrooper out the door.

Here the Air Force and Army still see eye to eye. The senior pilot traditionally flies the first plane in a formation, leading from the front. They would begin this venture together.