U.S. soldiers form a secure perimeter during a personnel recovery training mission in the deserts of Djibouti. (Spc. Michelle C. Lawrence / Army)
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The first Army unit to be regionally aligned with a combatant command is expected to begin deploying in April.
Soldiers from 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division will participate in as many as 140 activities in 34 African countries as the Army seeks lessons learned to align the rest of the force with combatant commands around the world.
As the Army transitions from more than a decade of war, it plans to regionally align its forces with each geographic combatant command. This will give troops the chance to focus and train on a specific region and participate in theater security cooperation and exercises with partner militaries.
It also will give combatant commanders access to trained and ready troops for their missions and exercises after playing second fiddle for more than 10 years to the demand for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Regionally aligned forces answers the ‘now what?' question as we look down the road with the majority of our forces back in the U.S. in a very dangerous world," said a senior Army planner with Forces Command who spoke on background. "Regionally aligned forces will provide a training focus and assist us in aligning resources and help us ensure we stay ready as we transition from over a decade of war."
In addition to 2nd BCT, 1st Infantry, so far the Army has aligned three of its corps: I Corps with Pacific Command, III Corps with Central Command, and XVIII Airborne Corps has been designated as the global response force, available to respond to the other combatant commands as needed.
The "major muscle movements" of aligning more units, including BCTs and divisions, should take place in fiscal 2014, said British Army Col. James Learmont, who works in the Army G-35, or international affairs.
One challenge facing the regional alignment effort is the budget crisis looming over the Army.
"We're trying to achieve this within the budget we've got set, and we're cognizant of the issue of sequester and the continuing resolution," Learmont said. "We know that's going to make life potentially difficult in fiscal year '13 and '14, but this is not a concept that we're going to be able to achieve overnight. We're looking at a longer-term solution."
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno believes regionally aligned forces are the right thing for the Army as it moves forward, Learmont said.
"The bottom line is he thinks this is the right thing. We know it is the right thing," he said. "It just may take a little longer."
The senior Army planner from FORSCOM agreed.
"As we transition back to peace, we can't afford to misstep," he said. "The world is still a dangerous place. But any of these plans we develop have to be produced in plenty of time to reduce stress on our soldiers and families. We have to give predictability in our planning."
FORSCOM continues to plan even though the budget and the pace of the drawdown in Afghanistan remain uncertain, the senior planner said.
"The current reality is the plans are taking place, we're working, but we have no budget. And it's based on an estimate. It's based on when folks come back, potentially, from a combat zone," he said.
Soldiers from 2nd BCT, 1st ID began their rotation at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., in mid-February, and they're expected to be ready to start missions in Africa in April, Learmont said. "We will continue to learn lessons throughout the rest of this fiscal year as we watch and assess the activities they're doing," he said.
Soldiers from the brigade will operate in elements as small as two or three soldiers to groups as large as a battalion.
Soldiers in the unit will have learned, to varying degrees, four primary languages: Portuguese, French, Swahili and modern Arabic, Learmont said.
They also will receive cultural training on such topics as religious groupings and the dynamics of the countries in which they'll be operating, he said.
The rotation at NTC will ensure the brigade is prepared for any contingency in addition to supporting AFRICOM, said Col. Jeff Broadwater, commander of 2nd BCT. He added that the brigade is committed to supporting AFRICOM at least until summer 2014.
"While we are regionally aligned with AFRICOM, we still have the mission to be globally available for any contingencies based on national security commitments," he said.
After returning from NTC in early March, the brigade, also known as the Dagger Brigade, will launch Dagger University, a monthly training program to give soldiers region-specific and language training, Broadwater said.
"The whole brigade is not going to Africa at one time," he said. "We'll do [Dagger University] every month based on what mission we have coming up."
The monthly training sessions will allow deploying soldiers to hone in on their specific mission and the country they'll be in, he said.
Each activity or military-to-military engagement involving 2nd BCT soldiers will be conducted at the request of the host nation, Broadwater said. These can range from marksmanship training to first aid training. His soldiers also will participate in exercises, including one in South Africa this summer that will involve almost a battalion's worth of soldiers. Each mission could last from a week to a month.
Engagements "can range from a small group of soldiers to teach a specific mission for a short duration, all the way up to a larger-type exercise where you have a brigade headquarters going for a command-and-control exercise," he said.
Committing a BCT to a combatant command gives commanders a wealth of resources, Broadwater said.
"We have chaplains, we have logistics personnel skills in how we conduct logistics operations, medics capable of conducting some type of casualty evaluation, [military police]. We have all those different low-density [specialties] capable of providing some of this instruction that the host nation is requiring," he said.
Overall, it's unlikely that every soldier in the brigade will get an opportunity to deploy to Africa, while others may go multiple times, Broadwater said.
"That will be based on the requirements we have for the regional alignment, but we also have to maintain our globally available status," he said.
So far, the most in-demand skills or training the African host nations are requesting include first aid, military police and basic soldier skills such as marksmanship.
Lessons learned from 2nd BCT's commitment to Africa likely will lead the Army to continue adjusting the way it approaches regional alignment, Learmont said.
One key area is training, he said.
"How much regional training do you need to give? Should you specialize?" he said. "We're going to have to look very carefully at training, what readiness we need to maintain."
The goal is to have each aligned unit trained and certified in decisive action, a comprehensive training set to meet a hybrid threat that could span guerrilla, insurgent, criminal and conventional forces in one environment.
They also will have specialized regional training on top of that, Learmont said.
Another issue is whether to habitually align the same units with the same combatant commands or regions, he said.
"The benefits are fairly self-evident," Learmont said. "You get the ability to develop a relationship, and it's not just a relationship with a formation and [the combatant command], but also a relationship with a partner nation."