The first 50 soldiers in June will leave home base for the desert, where they will learn to survive, thrive and kill the enemy.
These soldiers will be the first class in the new Desert Warrior Course, where soldiers will hone combat tracking, night land navigation, live-fire drills and myriad other tasks. Similar to jungle school, soldiers will be put through 20 days of grueling missions to prepare them for combat.
Born out of the 1st Armored Division at Fort Bliss, the course will fill a gap in small-unit tactics after more than a decade of counterinsurgency-focused operations.
The sandy, rocky, mountainous terrain outside Fort Bliss should provide a challenging environment for students.
Photo Credit: Army
Many lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, such as countering IEDs, will be incorporated. But course designers also went to their history books for ideas.
"We also looked as far as what desert training was taught in the Army prior to this, like the desert training center in 1942 and the desert phase in Ranger School that was discontinued back in 1993," Chavez said. "We took that and melded it together."
The course will feature basic patrolling and medical skills with an emphasis on issues that arise in the desert, said Capt. Mark Walden, leader of the detachment tasked with training the students.
There are many unique issues when fighting in the desert, Walden said.
"There's reduced vegetation, you have to deal with finding the enemy and the enemy being able to see you as well," he said. "You deal with what the desert environment does to your equipment with the sand and heat, as well as the individual strain on the body from the heat, sun, high winds and dryness."
There are also numerous critters out there.
Soldiers deployed to desert environs could stumble upon rattlesnakes, cobras,vipers, scorpions, tarantulas, camel spiders, coyotes, camels, big cats and antelope. All are covered in the course, though not all are native to Fort Bliss.
Building stronger squads
The inaugural Desert Warrior Course is scheduled to kick off June 1 at Fort Bliss, which has almost 1 million acres of training space, from flat, open, sandy desert to rocky, mountainous terrain spanning the deserts in Texas and New Mexico.
The first class will have about 50 team and squad leaders from across the installation, but the long-term goal is to open up the 20-day course to NCOs from across the Army, Chavez said.
"As the Army's premier training installation and one of the few posts located in a desert environment, it is only fitting that the 1st Armored Division and Fort Bliss host the Desert Warrior Course," said Maj. Gen. Stephen Twitty, commanding general of the 1st Armored Division. "This course will focus on small-unit tactics and leadership at the squad level and will enable team and squad leaders to execute tough and realistic training in an environment and conditions similar to what our Army has experienced for the last 14 years fighting in the Middle East."
It will be critical for the students of the course — sergeants and staff sergeants — to go back to their units to build "strong, cohesive and effective teams and squads," Twitty said.
"I firmly believe that strong squads are the initial domino and building block for creating strong platoons, companies, battalions and, ultimately, brigades," he said. "At the end of the Desert Warrior Course, I expect our graduates to have gained a proficiency in small-unit tactics, and that Fort Bliss is seen as the knowledge repository for desert training and warfare."
Inspiration from the jungle
The 1st Armored Division studied curriculum of the 25th Infantry's jungle school and U.S. Army Alaska's Northern Warfare Training Center, Chavez said.
The 25th Infantry Division in 2014 launched its Jungle Operations Training Course to better prepare for its regional alignment with Pacific Command and the Defense Department's rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region.
The Army had lost much of its ability and knowledge base for operating in the jungle, and the 25th Infantry Division's school marked the first time the Army had its own jungle school since Fort Sherman was turned over to the Panamanians in 1999.
Graduates of the JOTC who are assigned to the 25th Infantry Division earn and are allowed to wear the coveted Jungle Expert tab.
There are no plans to award a tab or badge for completing the Desert Warrior Course.
The idea to stand up the Desert Warrior Course originated with Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, who commanded the 1st Armored Division until last summer before moving on to lead III Corps at Fort Hood, Texas.
When Twitty took command in August, he decided to stand up a cadre and bring additional training opportunities to Fort Bliss, Chavez said.
The Iron Training Detachment, led by Walden, was born, and the soldiers assigned there run an Air Assault course, which was validated by the Army in February, and a pre-Ranger course, which launched in mid-March.
In June, the detachment, which is authorized 48 cadre, will add the Desert Warrior Course to its list of offerings.
"As our cadre come into the training detachment, there'll be a variety of schools we'll be sending them off to," Walden said.
This includes the Army's basic instructor course and the service's combat tracker course, he said. Some of the instructors also may be able to attend a desert survival combat course run by the French military in Djibouti, Walden said.
Of the 48 soldiers authorized for the detachment, 12 will be dedicated to teaching the Desert Warrior Course, he said.
To start, the division plans to run one iteration of the 20-day course every quarter. The intent is for each class to then go back to their units and train their soldiers, Chavez said.
"If we brought in a platoon at a time, we could have brought in two platoons at a time, but we'd be looking at just eight platoons a year," he said. "I don't think we can really impact the division by running just eight platoons a year. But if we pull team leaders and squad leaders from across the brigades, we can better impact the division."
20 days in the desert
The Desert Warrior Course will have two phases, Chavez said.
The first phase will feature individual skills training and academics for seven days and an introduction to small-unit patrolling at the squad level for three days, he said.
"We will be evaluating troop leading procedures, planning, executing reconnaissance and combat patrols, and patrol base activities," Chavez said. "We'll be using the same criteria they use at Ranger School at the small unit level."
The students will then have a two-day prep period before going into phase two, which will have four days of field training exercises that will culminate in day and night live fire events where students will be required to knock out bunkers and enter and clear trenches.
"There are a lot of critical tasks involved to be able to execute those drills," Chavez said. "[Twitty] felt those were the best tasks and live fires to execute to reinforce habits of thought and habits of action."
The division is still refining its program of instruction for the Desert Warrior Course, but plans call for the curriculum to incorporate Bradley Fighting Vehicles, Abrams tanks and Strykers into the training as well, Chavez said.
"We'd like to implement a little bit of mounted training as well, especially for orienteering and how to integrate the various vehicles and platforms we have and how they can be utilized in desert environments," he said.
Students also will learn about the history of desert warfare, the characteristics of deserts around the world and how the terrain influences how soldiers operate, Walden said.
"We'll be pulling from the [Center for Army Lessons Learned], personal experiences to draw the most current information from the most current conflicts, as well as looking to the past," he said.
As the Desert Warrior Course gets underway in June, the plan is for representatives from the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Georgia, to visit the course and eventually validate it, Chavez said.
"We're working to bring them down here in June to look at our program of instruction and cadre, get their feedback, and to validate," he said.
Eventually, the division wants to make Fort Bliss and the 1st Armored Division the go-to resource for desert operations across the service, Walden said.
"So that all these lessons learned don't go to waste, and there'll always be a center that has the expertise to teach it," he said.
The ultimate goal is to conduct tough, realistic training and give soldiers an expeditionary mindset, said Lt. Col. Lee Peters, a spokesman for the division.
"Most commanders would say because of the 14 years we've been in conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our focus on [urban operations] and COIN, we've lost some of those basic skills," he said. "Our soldiers right now are probably not very proficient at expeditionary operations. Maj. Gen. Twitty's mentality is to train like we'll fight, be ready, because you never know when you might get that call to deploy."
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.