Despite COVID-19, combat training centers keep Soldiers in the fight

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Soldiers with the Minnesota National Guard’s 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division depart their staging area and enter the field, known as "The Box," during a rotation at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., July 15, 2020. (Army photograph by Sgt. 1st Class Ben Houtkooper)
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As COVID-19 cases started surging in the spring, Army leaders grappled with how to train large formations while mitigating the airborne virus, leading to increased safety measures meant to keep Soldiers ready to deploy.

“The COVID-19 protocols and all the systems and processes we’ve put in place have enabled us to protect the force while we continue to train our Army,” said Brig. Gen. David Lesperance, commander of the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif.

Lockdowns during the first wave of the coronavirus led to an operational pause for much of the Army in March.

At that time, Soldiers training at NTC were already isolated in the blistering Mojave Desert, he said, so they continued to train without incident. However, future rotations would become impacted.

NTC’s sister location, the Joint Readiness Training Center, or JRTC, at Fort Polk, La., was presented with the same challenge. Army leaders had to find a way to safely move thousands of troops, vehicles, and supplies to remote locations in the midst of a global pandemic.

Soldiers with the Minnesota National Guardís 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division depart their staging area and enter the field, known as “The Box,” during a rotation at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., July 15, 2020. (Army photograph by Sgt. 1st Class Ben Houtkooper)

“We were worried about protection, conserving the force, [and] making sure we didn’t contribute to the spread of the disease — either within our own people or within the community,” said Brig. Gen. David S. Doyle, JRTC commander.

Although there was a pause in training, “the Army doesn’t stop,” he added.

To move forward, NTC, JRTC, and the Joint Multinational Readiness Center, or JMRC, at Hohenfels, Germany, searched for strategies to safely restart their missions.

“We were very deliberate in reestablishing training after the pandemic started to take [a] significant toll,” Doyle said. “So there were deliberative sessions where both [NTC] and the [JRTC] had discussions about methods, resources required.”

The general said he worked with other combat training center leaders, like Lesperance, as well as leadership at U.S. Army Forces Command to come up with safety measures that “ensured participating units were also compliant.”

For NTC, the solution was to make policy changes that restricted access to training areas, and closely monitor how Soldiers filed in and out of the training environment. This was similar to safeguard measures implemented at the other two CTCs, Lesperance said.

Fortunately for the centers, they have “the infrastructure and expertise to be able to adapt to support safety during a pandemic, while continuing to deliver the highest training value possible to the Army and its Soldiers,” JRTC officials said.

Soldiers with the Minnesota National Guard’s 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division depart their staging area and enter the field, known as “The Box,” during a rotation at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., July 18, 2020. (Army photograph by Sgt. 1st Class Ben Houtkooper)

Delayed rotations

During the brief pause, three different unit rotations were delayed at JRTC, with one National Guard unit forced to pause after being reactivated to fight COVID-19.

At NTC, three rotations were also impacted by the virus, including the 81st Stryker Brigade Combat Team from the Washington National Guard. Instead of field training, the brigade was also reactivated for the coronavirus response in the Seattle region, and then helped local authorities during the civil unrest throughout the summer.

Since then, individual battalions from the 81st Stryker BCT have been dropped into various rotations slated for 2021, ensuring all its Soldiers receive the immersive combat training.

Another impacted rotation at NTC was an armored brigade inbound to Europe. Upon arrival to Europe, the Soldiers instead conducted field training at JMRC, Lesperance said. Finally, a third rotation originally set for June was rescheduled for later in the summer.

After developing and implementing safety measures, NTC was back in business by July. The first rotation there belonged to the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division.

The Minnesota Guard unit “became the Army’s standard” for how to safely deploy to training centers, Lesperance said.

JRTC has also been busy maintaining operational readiness. “We’ve had two rotations from the 101st [Airborne Division] and the 25th Infantry Division all the way from Hawaii,” Doyle said.

The 4th Security Force Assistance Brigade, or SFAB, also kicked off training at JRTC under the new safety guidelines in June. Although a much smaller footprint, with roughly 1,200 Soldiers versus the typical 4,500-sized rotation, the SFAB helped JRTC leaders roll out the safety standards.

Nearly 20 brigade-level rotations are scheduled to head to both stateside CTCs for training in 2021. Since July, those CTCs had each been able to train three rotations using COVID-19 protocols. NTC will welcome its fourth rotation next week, and JRTC will do the same next month with another SFAB.

As part of their joint mission, the Louisiana training center also works hand-in-hand with other government agencies, military branches, and international partners like Thailand, Indonesia, Brazil, and Canada to name a few, Doyle said.

At every CTC, Soldiers now have their temperatures taken daily, practice social distancing, and tested as needed. If someone tests positive, they are isolated from other troops, Lesperance said. Medical professionals are able to get a test result back within an hour.

Doyle expressed gratitude for the medical staff at Fort Polk who “made a difference in how we perceive things, educated the force, and helped take appropriate measures [like surveillance, testing, and screening for COVID-19] to keep the train running,” he said.

With the help of medical professionals, troops are tested before entering an initial “safety bubble,” Lesperance said. Once troops get a clean bill of health, they gear up and head to a second “safety bubble” area where simulated battles occur, known as “The Box,” at Fort Irwin.

In line with other CTCs, these safety bubbles, he said, ensure Soldiers get the essential training they need to remain ready to fight, while also mitigating the virus. If any Soldier becomes symptomatic during the training, they get tested again. Based on that result they either return to their unit, isolate or quarantine, he said.

Spec. Saul Enriquez, a CH-47 Chinook crew chief with 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, 25th Infantry Division awaits the execution of a night air assault as part of a joint forced entry exercise at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., Oct. 14, 2020. (Army photograph by Sgt. Sarah D. Sangster)

Silver lining

According to Lesperance, a silver lining from COVID-19 has been the increased emphasis it puts on training in a contaminated environment, he said, similar to the Army’s chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear doctrine.

This is a much more expeditionary style of training, Lesperance said, and is a strategy closely aligned with how troops could deploy during a large-scale war against near-peer adversaries.

Integrating Army modernization is nothing new for the training centers. As with all of the CTCs, training has shifted from counterinsurgency, designed for tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, to a modernized way to fight in multi-domain battlefields.

To do this, CTCs incorporate many parts of multi-domain operations including land, air, space, and cyberspace assets. During their training, Soldiers employ technology and methods comparable to current approaches used by near-peer competitors.

Combat training is nothing new. At Fort Irwin, for instance, rotating troops have undergone simulated ground attacks, artillery, and helicopter strikes for decades, all overseen by on-site observers who teach, mentor, and critique their every action.

UH-60 Black Hawks from the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, 25th Infantry Division land at an establishment area during an exercise at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., Oct. 17, 2020. (Army photograph by Sgt. Ezra Camarena)

‘People first’

Moving forward, FORSCOM, which manages all stateside training, has the option to deploy only parts of a brigade, according to a new service action plan that aims to reduce potential stress on overtasked troops.

The action plan reads “units scheduled for non-combat rotational deployments may not require a CTC rotation, especially those units deploying to theaters where they can conduct similar collective training,” according to the plan, signed by senior leaders.

This change is tied to the Army’s new No. 1 priority of placing people first.

“We’re going to ensure that our human capital — our Soldiers — are part of our Army team, and are at the top of our priority list,” Doyle said. “That means we’ve got to keep them healthy.”

“It goes without saying,” Lesperance said, but “COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the way we do business. However, we’re still about generating readiness” and this has reinforced the “true austere expeditionary mindset that we always strive to replicate in reception, staging, onward movement and integration activities.”

COVID-19 will not prevent the Army from being prepared to fight, Doyle said. “It’s not going to stop us from training. We are capable of finding solutions and still getting the job done.”

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