Training the force: What the future holds for NTC during the COVID-19 pandemic

Gen. James McConville, Chief of Staff of the Army is briefed by the 916th on rotational risk mitigations at NTC.

FORT IRWIN, Calif. — The National Training Center has a plan to implement safeguards and protections against COVID-19, as it prepares for future large-scale training rotations this summer.

Army Brigade Combat Team rotations are expected to ramp up after a temporary pause in high-fidelity readiness training earlier this spring.

Gen. James McConville, Chief of Staff of the Army and Sergeant Major of the Army, Michael Grinston visited the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, on May 13 to see firsthand how the installation will safely receive units, and review COVID-19 risk mitigation controls that will be implemented to safeguard the force, families, DoD civilians and contractors as the Army aims to resume collective training.

“We want to make sure we have the resources and procedures in place so we can protect the force while we train the force,” McConville said. “We have to be ready to go to combat, that’s what we do.”

The leaders’ tour showed how NTC has adjusted and included the Rotational Unit Bivouac Area (RUBA), a briefing on the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System (MILES) installation process, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regimental Sustainment Squadron 3-D Printing Section to see innovative measures that are being applied, and a visit to Weed Army Community Hospital to review testing capabilities, policies and procedures being employed.

“You don’t get to choose the threat. What we want to do is to protect the force, so we can train the force, which will protect our Nation,” McConville said. “In this case, it’s a virus, we respect it and we’re taking appropriate measures to make sure we can operate in this environment.”

A home-station rotation is scheduled for June 2020. The 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, along with Operations Group will engage in high-level training exercises, rehearsing safeguards and maintaining force readiness to prepare for a large-scale BCT rotation mid-summer.

RTU COVID-19 Screening

Additional coronavirus measures are being taken with each rotation before the rotational training unit even arrives to NTC. The RTUs will conduct testing and screening of all personnel at the unit’s home station, and only confirmed negative personnel will deploy to the NTC. Additionally, the use of tactical dispersion, testing, and physical distancing of personnel will continue to be implemented to protect the force and prevent interruptions to training at the NTC.

Brigade combat teams in route to the National Training Center will use controlled touch points with rotation support personnel and NTC Observer Controller Trainers. NTC controls for pre-identified critical zones include wearing face coverings, eye pro and gloves. All persons engaging with the RTU will conduct screening at access control points. Rotational units will remain in a safety zone distancing them from the general installation population.

According to Brig. Gen. David A. Lesperance, Commander of the National Training Center and Fort Irwin, these set of restrictive controls are intended to protect the Fort Irwin Soldiers, Families and civilians, in addition to visiting rotational training units, against the COVID-19 virus.

“This is something we’re taking very seriously, our goal is to not only to protect the force, but our own community as we move forward in training our Army’s warfighters for combat,” said Lesperance.

The 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team of the 34th Infantry Division out of Minnesota is scheduled to complete an NTC rotation mid-summer.

The 1/34 ABCT consists of eight, major subordinate commands, across eight states. More than 5,200 soldiers make up the brigade’s combined arms, armor, cavalry, infantry, artillery, engineer and brigade support battalions, representing more than half of the Minnesota Army National Guard’s total force structure.

“Potentially this rotation will be the last rotation that does reception, staging and onward movement in the RUBA. In a perfect world, the unit will go straight from the aircraft into a tactical scenario and that’s what we’re moving toward ,” Lesperance said.

Training at NTC

NTC rotations are intentionally designed so that units face their hardest day in combat while in training so that they are better prepared to face any threat on future deployments. Over the course of a 28-day rotation, units face a time-compressed, realistic and relevant Decisive Action scenario, against a near-peer threat, on unforgiving terrain.

“We train to protect the force every rotation,” Lesperance said. “We have a good doctrine on how we fight in different environments that are hazardous to our formation, whether it be tactical, biological or chemical. We have always had a mission-orientated protective posture when we train, now were going to wear our face covering– it’s how we adjust to perform in this new environment.”

An NTC rotation replicates a complex, hybrid threat using a dedicated opposing force and a high-fidelity training support system. The NTC is integrating conventional, joint, special operations forces, and Unified Action Partners to maximize training and develop ready units and adaptive leaders while balancing operations and combating COVID-19 on the home front.