When the National Training Center opened here in 1981, it presented the most realistic training environment imaginable to prepare troops for a potential large-scale, tank-on-tank confrontation with the Soviet Union in Germany’s Fulda Gap.
After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, NTC transformed dramatically to train deploying warfighters for the fight against terrorists and insurgent groups in Iraq, and to a lesser degree, Afghanistan.
The Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., conducts most Afghanistan-based mission rehearsal exercises.
Today, as the military begins drawing down in Iraq, the NTC cadre is looking ahead to what they believe will be this sweeping training centre’s future role. Instead of preparing troops for either conventional or irregular warfare, they expect to train them to face “hybrid threats” that include both ends of the spectrum and everything in between.
That will require another major transformation at NTC, a post larger than Rhode Island deep within the Mojave Desert.
NTC long ago shed its Cold War focus, with a permanent opposing force that used Warsaw Pact tactics, dressed in Soviet-type uniforms and navigated the training grounds in Vietnam-era M-551 Sheridan tanks modified to look like the T-72 and BMP tanks.
The focus turned to counterinsurgency operations required in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Troops deploying to the combat theater were trained in mounted and dismounted patrols, cordon-and-search missions, searches for weapons and high-value targets, bilateral talks with Iraqi officials and infrastructure missions. They also learned how to detect the enemy’s weapon of choice: improvised explosive devices.
As Iraqi security forces increasingly took the lead in security operations, the NTC cadre began training the new “advise and assist” brigades deploying to support them.
Army Col. Ted Martin, chief of NTC’s operations group, said looking ahead to the next fight – one for which the Army’s Combined Center and Training and Doctrine Command are now developing doctrine – will require a new level of flexibility at NTC.
Martin’s team is instrumental in developing the NTC training scenarios, and its observer-controllers monitor the training and provide after-action reviews.
“No one has experienced the hybrid threat or knows exactly what it looks like, so we have to begin by training ourselves,” he said.
Martin described what he believes the hybrid threat will look like. “It is not the Russian Army coming across the East German-West German border. That is gone,” he said.
It could look more like the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War or the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict. “You are going to be confronted by an irregular force, criminals, terrorists and some conventional capability,” Martin predicted.
The 11th Armoured Cavalry Regiment, NTC’s permanent opposing force, had the conventional fight down pat back in the days when it regularly engaged in tank-on-tank conflict simulating a major Cold War confrontation.
“Back then, the scenario was a heavy armour-oriented training scenario that focused on combined-arms manoeuvre warfare against a near-peer competitor,” recalled Army Lt. Col. Scott Coulson, the “Black Horse” Regiment’s deputy commander.
Repetitive training iterations, along with a home court advantage, made the regiment a formidable opponent. “Very infrequently did they lose,” Coulson said. “There were a number of times when the rotational training unit did well enough to be told that they ‘won,’ but it could be counted on basically one hand over 15 or so years.”
The regiment has had similar successes preparing units to deploy into combat for the counterinsurgency fight. But in doing so, Coulson expressed concern that the 11th ACR – and the Army as a whole — has lost some of its conventional fighting edge.
“We recognize that our long-term focus on counterinsurgency operations has allowed our heavy combat skills to atrophy somewhat,” he said. “As an example, there aren’t out in the Army right now a lot of staff sergeants, sergeants first class and captains who understand how to conduct a mounted breach at the battalion and brigade level.”
He called restoring that capability essential to the Army’s future, particularly in light of emerging hybrid threats.
“We don’t want to allow the skills we have honed over 30 years of getting ready to fight hard to just vanish and go away,” he said. “Combined with that, there are some legitimate reasons to believe that future wars might include some of that threat.”
So the NTC leadership is looking ahead, trying to determine the best way to incorporate the full spectrum of threats — conventional as well as asymmetric — into the training.
Coulson offered one concept of what a future NTC rotation might look like, when the rotational training unit doesn’t deploy immediately afterward to the combat theater.
“On any given day, you might face an opposed-entry scenario, where some sort of conventional force will oppose you, maybe with armoured vehicles and some organised dismounted infantryman,” he said.
“It might then devolve into an irregular warfare fight, where you are up against an insurgency and trying to interact with local townspeople in an area you have seized,” he said. “You might then be faced with making an offensive move into an area that is defended by something that looks a lot like Hezbollah, that fought the Israelis in 2006 — irregular warfare, but at a higher level than the current insurgencies we are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Stability operations like those being conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan also are likely to be incorporated into the play, he said.
“So the idea would be that we develop the capability to replicate this entire spectrum, from throwing Warsaw Pact-style tanks, artillery and air attacks … at a unit, to lots of dismounted guys with anti-tank missiles and [improvised explosive devices] … to kidnapping and crime,” Coulson said.
Squeezing all that into a single rotation will take some juggling, he conceded. If rotational units conducted the situational training exercises at their home stations before arriving at NTC, it could free up more time for full-spectrum, hybrid threat operations, he said.
As the Army’s hybrid threat doctrine gets hammered out, NTC’s immediate attention remains on warfighters deploying to the combat theater. “It might seem like we’re ramping down in Iraq, but we have a lot of brigades in line to come here and do their training, and that’s not to mention Afghanistan,” Martin said.
But during each NTC rotation, about 200 11th ACR troops break away from the scenario to ensure that when they’re called on to begin hybrid threat training, they’re ready.
“We are calling it hybrid threat training, but basically it means taking our OPFOR surrogate vehicles, our fake Soviet vehicles, out into the manoeuvre training area and practicing manoeuvre warfare,” Coulson said.
As they rehearse platoon- and company-level attacks and defences in a remote corner of the centre, the regiment is starting to rebuild skills Coulson said made them “historically lethal and effective.”