FORT MCCOY, Wis. — In the days before they learned they could be activated to assist the state of Texas in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in their role as first military responder, the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team took part in an exacting exercise to prepare them for their federal mission as America’s primary combat reserve.
Known as “Warfighter,” this strategic-level Army exercise puts units ranging from brigades through corps through the wringer as commanders and their staffs learn how to manage offensive and defensive operations to ensure they are ready to fulfill their wartime mission.
The Mission Command Training Program, based at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, has administered this exercise since the 1980s.
In the exercise scenario, the 32nd Brigade faced an enemy of comparable size and capabilities —often referred to as a “near-peer” adversary. The early stages of the exercise had the Red Arrow leaders and staff analyze the enemy’s capabilities and location, and then determine how best to confront the enemy. Before engaging in a virtual battle, however, the brigade conducted a walk-through of the battle, called a combined-arms rehearsal.
According to Lt. Col. David Sands, the 32nd Brigade’s executive officer, the combined-arms rehearsal allows the brigade to synchronize all of the moving parts and pieces in space and time.
“We get out on a map and we walk through each piece of the operation just to ensure that we’ve got everything covered,” Sands said.
Sands was not just speaking figuratively. Inside a maintenance bay at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, PVC piping framed large grids made of interlaced cord, with each grid square representing a two-square-kilometer section of the battlefield. Chalk markings indicated waterways, gravel represented impassable areas, white cards indicated military objectives named after automobiles and generals, and colored paper cards represented battalion assets in various stages of the campaign.
Brigade staff officers and battalion commanders were poised along the borders of the largest “map,” waiting to explain what their section or unit was expected to do at various phases of the campaign. Meanwhile, brigade commander Col. John Oakley received each report with a stern visage as he studied the map before him. At times he would challenge the information presented during the rehearsal.
“Didn’t we agree that each company would have a Stryker?” he asked an officer representing the 1st Squadron, 105th Cavalry Regiment. “Why does this company have two?”
The pending virtual combat scenario promised to challenge battalion commanders as a resourceful and relentless enemy defied rehearsed battle tactics. The din of the virtual battle would also challenge effective communications from battalions to brigade headquarters. Rather than examples of inadequate preparation, these aspects of the exercise are among the most valuable learning opportunities as they directly impact decision making and adaptability at the command level.
“The Warfighter is hugely important because it gives us a lot of resources that we wouldn’t normally have,” Sands explained. “It’s not very often that we get to train the brigade staff on maneuvering battalions and below — this is the one chance that we do.”
More than 100 years ago, the Wisconsin National Guard practiced troop movement and engaged in mock battles while performing border security in Texas during the Mexican Border Crisis of 1916. Then in 1917, the entire Wisconsin National Guard and Soldiers from the Michigan National Guard formed the 32nd Division, and began training for trench warfare in Europe for World War I. Virtual exercises such as Warfighter provide similar training benefits without the expense of feeding, housing and staging thousands of Soldiers with vehicles and equipment.
“Truthfully,” Sands continued, “it’s the amount of resources and the quality of the resource that they apply that give us a great training opportunity.”