U.S. aims for wider tar­get in train­ing its sol­diers

Troops now get ready for ‘full-spec­trum op­er­a­tions,’ not just coun­terin­sur­gency.

Los Angeles Times - - The Nation - David Zucchino re­port­ing from ft. bragg, n.c. david.zucchino @latimes.com

Their para­chutes were rigged. Their weapons were se­cured. Three days of food and sup­plies were strapped to their bod­ies.

In full com­bat gear, hun­dreds of para­troop­ers from the 82nd Air­borne Di­vi­sion dropped from the North Carolina sky at 23 feet per sec­ond. They hit the ground hard and scram­bled to their feet, ri­fles ready.

It was only an ex­er­cise, but for para­troop­ers just back from Afghanistan and Iraq it was a back-to-the-fu­ture moment, part of a new train­ing fo­cus that looks be­yond Amer­ica’s cur­rent coun­terin­sur­gency wars.

For the first time in years, Army troops are train­ing for “full-spec­trum op­er­a­tions” — mount­ing large strikes against all types of en­e­mies, not just in­sur­gents.

The para­troop­ers among the scrub oaks at Ft. Bragg didn’t role-play at ca­jol­ing vil­lage el­ders, help­ing with bridge or road projects, or train­ing lo­cal po­lice and sol­diers — their main du­ties in Afghanistan and Iraq be­fore re­turn­ing to the North Carolina base in re­cent weeks.

In­stead, their mis­sion was to seize a sim­u­lated over­seas airfield and kill or drive off imag­i­nary en­emy forces.

Drained by gru­el­ing hearts-and-minds ef­forts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the mil­i­tary is re­fo­cus­ing on fight­ing and killing the en­emy, not nation-build­ing.

Writ­ing re­cently in For­eign Af­fairs mag­a­zine, De­fense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates said, “The United States is un­likely to re­peat a mis­sion on the scale of those in Afghanistan or Iraq any­time soon — that is, forced regime change fol­lowed by nation build­ing un­der fire.” In­stead, U.S. forces will prob­a­bly be called on to help other coun­tries’ armies de­fend them­selves, par­tic­u­larly against ter­ror­ist attacks but also against con­ven­tional armies.

Lawrence J. Korb, a for­mer as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of De­fense who closely fol­lows mil­i­tary plan­ning, said flatly: “We aren’t go­ing to be do­ing coun­terin­sur­gency again. … We’re not that good at it.” Many units’ ma­jor com­bat skills are rusty be­cause of the coun­terin­sur­gency fo­cus, Korb said.

Many of the para­troop­ers who leaped out of C-130 cargo planes at Ft. Bragg have served a num­ber of tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, “we’re fo­cus­ing on the ba­sics again — full-spec­trum op­er­a­tions,” said Lt. Col. Christo­pher LaNeve, the di­vi­sion’s op­er­a­tions of­fi­cer, as para­troop­ers lugged their gear and para­chutes to board air­craft.

LaNeve said the “op­er­a­tional tempo” — mil­i­tary speak for the re­lent­less de­mand for coun­terin­sur­gency troops in Afghanistan and Iraq — has not al­lowed time for more tra­di­tional train­ing.

‘We’re not go­ing back­wards, but we are look­ing to the past to help us go back to what we do best — close with and de­stroy the en­emy.’ — Army Maj. Ja­son Brown, 82nd Air­borne Di­vi­sion,

3rd Bri­gade

But for the first time since 2001, the en­tire 82nd Air­borne, 22,000 sol­diers strong, is back at Ft. Bragg for an ex­tended pe­riod.

“We’re not go­ing back­wards, but we are look­ing to the past to help us go back to what we do best — close with and de­stroy the en­emy,” said Maj. Ja­son Brown of the di­vi­sion’s 3rd Bri­gade, which took part in the ex­er­cise.

The Army’s “full-spec­trum op­er­a­tions” doc­trine was pub­lished in 2008, but most troops are only now be­gin­ning to train for it as U.S. troop lev­els di­min­ish in Iraq. Even if a unit is sched­uled to de­ploy to Afghanistan or Iraq, “they will be trained to fight and win in a full-spec­trum op­er­a­tions en­vi­ron­ment,” said Col. Peter Utley, di­rec­tor of train­ing for the Army’s op­er­a­tions staff.

Coun­terin­sur­gency, which used to be the fo­cus, is now just one of many train­ing sce­nar­ios. “You have to be able to deal with any chal­lenge pre­sented to you,” Utley said.

When the bri­gade heads to the Joint Readi­ness Train­ing Cen­ter at Ft. Polk, La., next month, the make­be­lieve en­emy force will not be Afghan or Iraqi in­sur­gents but sol­diers from a fic­ti­tious coun­try called Cortina. Sce­nar­ios will in­volve large-scale com­bat.

If a world cri­sis erupts af­fect­ing na­tional se­cu­rity, the first U.S. unit or­dered into ac­tion would al­most cer­tainly be the 82nd Air­borne. The di­vi­sion is the nation’s des­ig­nated “global re­sponse force” — what para­troop­ers call “the pres­i­dent’s 911 call.” One bri­gade is des­ig­nated to be first on call — at the moment, the 3rd Bri­gade.

The para­troop­ers could be or­dered to sup­port spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces at­tempt­ing to res­cue civil­ians held by ter­ror­ists, or to as­sist an ally’s troops in a mil­i­tary cri­sis. They also could be sent to as­sist civil­ians in a nat­u­ral dis­as­ter or hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis.

They could face a show­down with a con­ven­tional army as well, Korb said. For in­stance, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has said that mil­i­tary ac­tion against Iran is an op­tion if that coun­try con­tin­ues to de­velop nu­clear weapons.

North Korea, an­other coun­try at odds with the United States over nu­clear weapons, could use its huge stand­ing army to in­vade South Korea, where about 28,000 U.S. troops would need im­me­di­ate help. And the al­ways-volatile Mid­dle East could erupt into cri­sis at any time.

If called upon, the 82nd Air­borne para­troop­ers could be re­quired to ship out within as lit­tle as 18 hours.

The nine-day ex­er­cise on Ft. Bragg’s Si­cily Drop Zone this month in­volved more than 2,000 para­troop­ers and air­men. Huge Air Force cargo planes dropped not only para­troop­ers, but also heavy ve­hi­cles and ar­tillery pieces. It was the type of large-scale mis­sion rarely at­tempted in Afghanistan or Iraq.

“This is about as hard as it gets,” LaNeve said as his para­troop­ers boarded their planes. “If you can get this right, you can do any­thing.”

LOOK­ING FOR­WARD:

David Zucchino

An airfield team mon­i­tors an Air Force cargo plane that had dropped para­troop­ers from the 82nd Air­borne at Ft. Bragg, N.C. The mil­i­tary is shift­ing its fo­cus away from nation-build­ing.

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