As a veteran combat commander who led the counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq, General Ray Odierno is not given to excessive worry. In a war zone there’s little benefit to tossing and turning over the infinite “unknown unknowns” that accompany each sunrise. Yet this week the Army chief of staff confided that lately something is keeping him up at night.
“If I’m asked to deploy 20,000 troops somewhere, I’m not sure I can guarantee that they’ll be trained to the level that I think they should be over the next two or three years, because of the way sequestration has been enacted,” Odierno told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. The soldiers would still be sent into harm’s way, he noted, but not trained collectively to the Army’s highest standards. “Which means operations will take longer,” he said. “And most importantly, it probably means more casualties.”
The best place to understand Army leaderships’ collective unease is down a lonely road that exits Barstow, California, and bores thirty miles in nearly a straight line for the heart of the Mojave Desert. Over a rise and past a small mountain of rocks painted with the insignia of the many Army units who have passed that way, the road spills into a wide-open pan ringed by low hills that shimmer blue in the endless heat. In the middle of that desert valley sits Fort Irwin, home to the National Training Center, or NTC. There is no better spot to understand Odierno’s essential point: political paralysis in Washington, D.C. is putting the lives of U.S. troops at risk.
Brigadier General Ted Martin, the NTC commander, vividly recalls how his own rotation through the training center prepared him to lead a brigade into combat in Iraq. “As a commander you really never know if you can do that job in combat unless you lay it on the line first at the NTC,” Martin told Defense One.
Indeed, the NTC was first carved out of the Mojave Desert by a group of Army visionaries back in the 1970s as an antidote for deploying unprepared troops to war. As young officers they had taken a poorly trained draft Army into Vietnam, and they witnessed its mauling in early battles with seasoned North Vietnamese regulars. For a reminder of how such debacles cost the lives of U.S. troops, rent the movie or read the book “We Were Soldiers Once, and Young.”
The same narrative of unprepared U.S. troops being badly bloodied in early battles was evident at the “Frozen Chosin” reservoir in the Korean War and at Kasserine Pass in North Africa during World War II. In each instance commanders had to relearn the hardest lesson of them all — a U.S. soldier’s chances of survival and success grow exponentially with his combat experience. After Vietnam a group of senior officers thus decided that green and unprepared American soldiers would never again be led to slaughter. So they adopted the ethos of the Roman legions: their drills would be bloodless battles, and their battles bloody drills. And they institutionalized that ethos with the National Training Center.
At 1,200 square miles, or roughly the size of Rhode Island, the NTC is one of the few places on earth that an entire Army brigade combat team and all of its support units (or between 5,000 and 7,000 troops) can be put through their paces, matched against a crack “opposing force” of some 1,200 troops stationed at Fort Irwin that mimic enemies ranging from insurgents and terrorists to frontline armored forces. Their “bloodless battles” are conducted via a sophisticated, computerized range system that uses blanks and lasers that correspond exactly with the ranges and accuracy of the actual weapons. In a windowless building back at base camp controllers conjure up virtual armies on their computers and then send them into the Brigade Combat Team’s command-and-control monitors, giving the exercises the greater depth and feel of an actual war zone. Because NTC owns the airspace up to 29,000 feet over the training ground, real jets and helicopters fly overhead during exercises providing air support or mimicking the enemy air threat. During a full-up training rotation the sounds and feel of battle at the NTC are so real that veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have experienced flashbacks.
And yet a visitor today would find the Army’s most sophisticated training ground strangely quiet, its vast ranges inhabited mostly by wild burrows and goats. That’s because the budget cuts associated with sequestration have forced the Army to cancel six training rotations at the NTC and its sister training site the Joint Readiness Training Center , at Fort Polk, Louisiana. At roughly $25 million per rotation the NTC is expensive, and the Army continues to give top priority to units deploying to Afghanistan. That means that six other brigade combat teams will go into the Army’s pool of units “ready to deploy” to unforeseen contingencies without the unique, graduate-level training that only these premier training sites offer. Do the rough math, and you start to grasp why the thought of sending 20,000 U.S. soldiers to war with inadequate training keeps Odierno, the Army chief of staff, up at night.
“I can tell you it came as a shock to me, because this is the first time since the NTC first opened in 1981that the Army has cancelled a rotation,” said Brig. General Martin. The brigades affected will still conduct home station training, he noted, “but that’s like the difference between being home schooled and going to West Point. We want our units to get the world-class education and training experience you can only get at the NTC, or on an actual battlefield. And once those rotations are cancelled, you can never go back in time and recover them. That training experience is lost for those commanders and soldiers.”
Martin recalls how his own rotation at the NTC prepared him to lead the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division into combat in Iraq. Preparation began eight months before the training rotation as the brigade prepared for its final exam. The first surprise was the sheer complexity of deploying a brigade’s worth of equipment and people by air, rail and ground. Coordinating the movement to an isolated base in the Mojave Desert, and then getting all the equipment and personnel ready for operations, took far more time and planning than anticipated. Conducting offensive movements to contact, area defense, reconnaissance patrols, joint operations with ‘host nation’ units, all of it against a determined foe in a sleep-deprived environment, said Martin, was “a real mindbender.”
Nor is it just the commander who grows as a result of such training, he notes. Beneficiaries include the private who learns for the first time how to put a tank on a rail car; the sergeant who discovers that he didn’t bring enough food, so his soldiers go hungry; the company commander who figures out it takes a lot longer to move from Point A to Point B at night. At the NTC, no one has to pay for those mistakes with the lives of U.S. soldiers.
“Luckily, we didn’t have to learn all those things in Iraq,” said Martin. “So if I was commanding a brigade combat team whose opportunity to come to the NTC had just been taken away because of budget cuts, I would be extremely disappointed. The negative impact on leadership development throughout the ranks is undeniable, and the longer these cancellations go on, the more soldiers will be affected. The bottom line is we’re creating a ‘readiness hole’ that will have to be filled with sub-optimal home-base training. That worries all of us.”