Brigade combat teams headed to the National Training Center and Joint Readiness Training Center next year will spend more time "in the box" as the Army rolls out longer, 18-day rotations.
The Army is adding four days to its combat training center rotations so it can better train its primary fighting formations, said David Chace, a spokesman for Forces Command.
"This is an opportunity to continue to focus on allowing the BCTs to really stretch their systems over an extended period of time," said Col. Jeff Broadwater, commander of the operations group at NTC. "Instead of 14 days, we've got 18 days to do that now, so we can really sharpen some of those collective tasks at the brigade, battalion and company and platoon levels."
The National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, and the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, each will run one 18-day rotation this year, Chace said. Beginning in fiscal 2016, which starts Oct. 1, all active-duty BCTs at both NTC and JRTC will run the 18-day rotations, he said.
Units typically spend up to a month at the combat training centers; they spend about a week preparing to go into the box and about that same amount of time afterward to pack up and prepare to return to home-station.
"We're constantly analyzing what we're doing," said Maj. Gen. Ted Martin, commanding general of the National Training Center.
The idea for the extended rotation stems from "a confluence of events," Martin said, and it gives units "an additional 96 hours of fighting time."
The Army's ongoing reorganization of its BCTs was a key factor, he said. Under the plan, each BCT is receiving a third maneuver battalion and increased engineer and fires capability, resulting in "a larger, more complex, more lethal BCT," he said.
Soldiers from 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, provide security for an air assault mission at the National Training Center on June 14.
Photo Credit: Spc. Charles Probst/Army
The longer rotation also will maximize on a unit's time at the combat training center, as the bulk of the cost of a rotation is spent on transportation, he said. It costs $21 million to $30 million to send a BCT to a combat training center, Chace said. Those figures do not include food or ammo.
"It's very expensive, and once we get them on the ground, because we've already invested that money to transport them here, it would be beneficial to get them to an even higher level of combat readiness," Martin said.
The Army also is cutting the number of BCTs in its inventory, he said.
"Those three things combined made us look at maybe we're going to drop from a capacity of 10, 14-day rotations in a year to eight 18-day rotations," he said. "Between us and JRTC, we would generate about 16 BCTs a year."
The Army still plans to run 18 rotations at the NTC and the JRTC in 2016, Chace said. Of those, the rotations with active-duty BCTs will be the longer, 18-day training, Chace said. The others, featuring National Guard BCTs or enablers, will stay on the 14-day model, he said.
To test the concept, soldiers from 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, conducted the 18-day rotation at NTC. The soldiers came out of the box Feb. 5.
This fall, 4th BCT, 10th Mountain Division will test the 18-day model at the JRTC, Chace said.
'More time to refine'
The longer rotation, which has five battle periods instead of the typical three, is receiving early praise at NTC.
"The experience has been awesome," said Lt. Col. Mick Braun, deputy commanding officer for the brigade. "It gives us more time to refine our practices and procedures."
Coming from Alaska, 1st SBCT began preparing for this rotation last summer, and it began shipping its equipment — including about 330 Strykers — in mid-November, Braun said.
The soldiers began arriving at NTC in early January, he said.
Once they got in the box, the brigade and soldiers from several other supporting units were tasked with supporting and defending the fictional country of Atropia from its fictional neighbor Donovia.
"You have the threat of an armed invasion from across the border, but you also have an insurgency occurring within the border," Braun said. "What kicks off the scenario is when the Donovians cross the border."
This rotation was Braun's second at NTC, he said. The first was for a mission readiness exercise to prepare for a deployment to Afghanistan, so it was very narrowly focused on that theater, he said.
"This one goes back to when I was a lieutenant at Hohenfels, with a lot of force-on-force, but they also kept a lot of the working with NGOs, working with the State Department, working with local authorities. It hits the whole spectrum of what you may see in today's world."
His soldiers were faced with a complex and challenging mission, Braun said.
"It's not as easy as going out there and defending against tanks," he said. "Now you have to do that while making good relationships with the village near you and working with local authorities. It provides a pretty complex problem set and keeps everyone pretty motivated because we don't know what's coming next."
On 1st SBCT's second-to-last day, the soldiers were swarmed by almost 200 role-playing Donovian enemy fighters trying to surrender. The soldiers were forced to scramble to search and safeguard those prisoners, and, in some cases, give them food and water.
On its last day, the brigade was hit with a cyber attack, Martin said.
"When I was growing up, the thought that the enemy would try to penetrate the Army's mission command systems with a cyber attack, I wouldn't even know what you were talking about," he said.
Braun said he likes the longer rotation.
"With 14 days in the box, there are a lot of things happening, and it kind of felt like once you hit your stride, if I had one more battle period, we'd see it all come together," he said.
More prep time
In addition to the 18-day rotation, the Army also is increasing the time a unit spends preparing, during what it calls reception, staging, onward movement and integration, or RSOI.
Typically, soldiers get five days to prepare, set up and test their equipment before going into the box, Broadwater said. That period is now seven days, and some of the tasks during that time is now competitive, he said.
"They're having to deal with a threat that is kind of designed to disrupt their momentum and tempo," Broadwater said.
This could include disruptions via social media or cyber attacks on the unit's networks. They also could be tested on their ability to share intelligence with special operations forces or coordinate with non-government agencies.
"Besides getting ready their equipment and soldiers, we've introduced that friction and opportunities to solve problems," Broadwater said. "I think it gives the opportunity for everybody to really focus and stretch their systems over an extended period and allow specific training objectives to be met for this last part of the rotation."
As units cycle through the combat training centers, Martin said he hopes soldiers are able to hone their leadership skills.
"All the way from a fire team leader up to the brigade commander and brigade sergeant major, it's a leadership development crucible," Martin said. "We take them already to a very high level, and I think we have the ability, with the additional 96 hours, to really just sharpen that knife to that laser-etched sharpness."
The combat training centers remain focused on building combat readiness, Martin said.
"The soldiers that train at NTC are currently all over the world," he said. "When you saw the tanks in Europe, they trained here. When you saw the units that are standing as theater reserve in Kuwait, they trained here. The soldiers that are in Jordan and even up in Iraq right now, they all trained here."
Michelle Tan is the editor of Army Times and Air Force Times. She has covered the military for Military Times since 2005, and has embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Haiti, Gabon and the Horn of Africa.