The mighty (ahem) 37th Infantry Brigade Combat Team has completed its rotation at the National Training Center at Ft Irwin, CA. Lost in the vastness of the Mojave Desert, the NTC is iconic. This was the ground that sharpened the spear during the Cold War and prepared the most awesome land force ever fielded for the brutally swift victory of Desert Storm. The elite Krasnovian (politically incorrect to actually call them, “Russians,” even at the height of the Cold War) motorized and tank units thundered across the desert, taking on all comers and humbling most. Commanders have been broken at the NTC. Commanders have lost their commands at the NTC. The NTC was known for a level of realism that could not be matched elsewhere.
In an earlier post, I feted the NTC as one of the winners in the training that is leading up to deployment. Following the rotation, I’d have to give it a mixed grade. Of course, we threw the NTC a curve ball on short notice. Our mission has changed from that of a full Brigade Combat Team to one whose primary job is supporting Security Force Assistance, or “SFA.” This is exactly what the Afghans need, but it is not what an IBCT is configured for. Even with that curve thrown in with short notice, my earlier excitement waned quickly.
The hybrid, quickly adapted scenario fielded by the NTC demonstrated that the Center is still focused on kinetics. The first part of the rotation was comprised of Situational Training Exercises, “STX’s” or “lanes” as they were called, every one of which ended in gunfire. One attempted KLE (Key Leader Engagement) developed into a gunfight literally within seconds after the group going through the lane made contact with their “Afghan” counterparts.
To their credit, many of the “Afghans” were actual Afghans. Some had been in the US for many years, some for a few years, and some had been raised in US, the children of Afghan immigrants. Speaking Dari again with native speakers was nice, and it was good training.
The NTC built in many “inputs” into the scenarios that could have developed into more, shall we say, “well-rounded” COIN, but those inputs were largely undiscovered by the brigade and the battalions which comprise it. While a number of the OCT’s who were assigned to the Security Force Assistance Team advisors brought a lot to the table, somehow the overall feel of the rotation was still very kinetic, and even the “injects” (behavioral/informational scripted plot twists executed by the role players) were aimed at specific responses that the OCT’s wanted to see from the brigade and its elements. That is all fairly normal, but many of the injects regarded highly kinetic activities to an excessive degree.
The role players who played the Afghan staff which we worked with were capable of a great degree of realism, to the point that some of the exercises had the feel of what I did in Kapisa in 2007. This part of the training was very valuable. Overall, the realism of the local politics was absent. Of course, it’s really difficult to know, because much of the informational stimuli built into the overall scenario apparently went undiscovered.
The rotation was not a confidence-builder for the brigade. That is not the entirely the fault of the staff of the NTC, but the overall scenario was unbalanced. While some of the facilities were truly amazing, like the city in the desert with all of the facilities you would find in a city the size of perhaps Methar Lam, the actual life of that city was poorly developed. The slogging, detail-oriented work of COIN was not replicated, but the various kinetic drills were. Staff processes were stressed to the extreme, but the tedious management of politically and socioeconomically relevant information was not tested nearly to the extent that the kinetic reaction drills were. CIV/MIL (Civilian/Military) cooperation was not truly fostered, because the civilians who work for the other government agencies involved weren’t integrated into anything resembling stability working groups. Those things were available and possible, I think, but with the emphasis on kinetics built into the rotation, most any unit would find it challenging to the point of impossibility to actively pursue those functions.
Overall, it was disappointing. I must revoke the “hero” status previously conferred upon the NTC because of their part in the overall failure of the rotation to prepare this brigade for what they will… or will reasonably be expected to… perform in Afghanistan. And it didn’t put emphasis on the areas that the brigade has chosen to accept risk on. The brigade’s functions were strained to the breaking point without providing adaptions that patched the weaknesses. Those are just my observations, and it’s difficult to paint those without being too specific. This unit’s particulars aside, the NTC can do a lot better. Over ten years into the Afghan conflict, with so many brigades having done rotations to Afghanistan, one would expect it to be the paragon of counterinsurgency training instead of just coming up to speed. After all this time, one would not expect training beset with issues that do not enhance the readiness of units preparing to conduct operations in the locally-focused insurgency of Afghanistan.