WASHINGTON — Division staff and the units that support brigade operations will be getting dirty.

Exercises where a commander can simply simulate a water resupply or fueling station for long-range helicopter assaults are great for planning but miss the realities of actual fighting — weather, downed vehicles and the hands-on skills of individual soldiers.

Simulations help but can hardly predict or provide the “friction” of actual combat, or even some aspects of training, Gen. Andrew Poppas, head of Army Forces Command told Army Times.

“That’s a dynamic you have to refine only in the dirt,” Poppas said.

The potential threat of fights with advanced militaries, like those of Russia and China, whose battlefield capabilities far exceed the terrorist organizations that dominated the past two decades, has shifted the principal tactical focus from the brigade to the division.

“We didn’t fight that fight for the last 20 years,” Poppas said. “We trained it. I was a division commander, and we did division Warfighters. Now it’s going to be a divisional fight, so we have to build that level of competence.”

And the combat training centers, such as the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, or the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Johnson, Louisiana, have been long-standing stress tests for brigades. They’ll be undergoing modernization during the next decade in ways that will revamp realistic peer adversary training, giving commanders threats they’ve never faced.

But those centers are built for brigades, not divisions. For comparison, a single brigade holds between 3,000 to 5,000 soldiers depending on its configuration. A division carries three times that number, with 10,000 to 15,000 soldiers in its ranks.

But beyond size and numbers, the division holds assets, such as electronic warfare gear, cyber experts, and satellite-driven reconnaissance and communication, that brigades need to access.

“Part of that is they’re fighting in domains they didn’t previously fight — space, cyber, [special operations forces] integration,” he said. “The Warfighter is great for the divisions to refine their staff competencies.”

The 101st Airborne Division has twice put the entire division into the field, with their logistical support units for nearly a month, Poppas said. Though they couldn’t run cyber or electronic warfare systems because those would disrupt civilian networks, they could practice moving gear, supplies and troops around.

On the first go, not everything went smoothly.

One of the units ran out of water and they needed an emergency resupply. In a simulation, a commander would simply hit a button and problem solved. But in the real world, commanders found out that not all the trucks were ready to roll, and they had to go find water to get it to actual thirsty soldiers, Poppas said.

The same is true for combat roles. With a division fighting the battle, the ranges are father and the responsibilities broader than they’ve been in recent years.

An example Poppas shared involved a division planning air attacks at distances greater than 75 miles. That will require refueling, which requires a forward arming and refueling point.

Again, in a simulation, that means checking a box on a computer screen and, voila, a FARP is in place and operating smoothly. But in reality, the commander must decide whether to put that unit into position before or after the helicopters reach their objective.

Put it in early, and it could be spotted and struck. Put it in too late, and helicopters are hovering while low on fuel and ammunition.

And does your FARP unit have enough soldiers to run it? Do they know how to conduct the FARP? Are the actual pilots getting shot at?

It makes a difference. While that part is simulated, it is done so while in flight, not on paper or a screen.

“Setting up the flight profile for the pilots today [is] very different than Afghanistan,” Poppas said.

Those kinds of considerations make the planning part of the division Warfighter exercises, which are largely simulated, more concrete for the division staff that manages all these assets. They’ve got to respond to the demands flowing up from the battalions and brigades while also coordinating everything on a tight time schedule.

“That’s what allows you to build tempo, is the speed in which you can execute multiple battles, and multiple battles turn into a campaign,” Poppas said.

The next steps will involve overlaying an Army corps staff atop the division so that the corps and division staff will also coordinate on a much larger battlefield.

And that’s happening at a warfighter scheduled for January, Poppas said.

Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.

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