FORT IRWIN, CALIF. — It took only about 30 minutes at the Army’s massive training center in the Mojave Desert for Sgt. 1st Class Jesse Reyes to see a different threat than he’d faced in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It was just a drill, but an enemy attack helicopter had his platoon in its sights with missiles that could destroy the armored Stryker vehicles and kill everyone in them.
That’s not the kind of opponent Reyes knew in the wars, where insurgents would take shots at U.S. soldiers with low-budget ambushes and buried bombs.
His platoon’s solution: Ditch the Strykers, get out on foot and take a shot at the helicopter with a shoulder-fired missile.
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“It’s the only way we’ll live,” platoon leader Lt. Tyler Tessman said.
Suddenly slowed by an unfamiliar and deadly opponent, Reyes and Tessman’s platoon would not complete its mission on this January day.
That was the point.
The Army wanted them and 4,500 other Lewis-McChord soldiers to learn from setbacks during an exhausting three-week exercise at the National Training Center.
These were one of the first large-scale war games pitting a Stryker Brigade against another conventional military since just before the 2003 Iraq invasion.
That meant Stryker soldiers from the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division would have to find a way to overcome tanks and helicopters instead of practicing the detective work they used in Iraq and Afghanistan to bring down insurgent networks.
“What we’re doing here is kind of a lost art,” said 1st Sgt. Beau Barker, 38, of Puyallup, a cavalry troop sergeant in the brigade.
Their exercise also signaled a pivot for an Army that’s emerging from the nation’s longest war with a downsized force.
January’s exercise at the National Training Center pitting the Army’s original Stryker Brigade against a fictional armored opponent was a significant milestone as the Defense Department decides how it wants to use its fleet of roughly 2,600 Strykers in the years ahead.
“We can hold our own,” Col. Dave Bair reflected when he got home to Lewis-McChord. He led about 4,500 soldiers in the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division in the war games.
A trip to the National Training Center over the past dozen years marked the last stop for brigades before tours to the Middle East. The Army built entire mock villages for that purpose, hiring actors to pretend to be hostile villagers for the exercises.
Soldiers would work through scenarios developing ties with locals while hunting for insurgents, just as they would when they hit the ground in combat.
Those counterinsurgency missions are ending, and it’s unclear what the future holds.
“We don’t even know what’s next,” said Reyes, a 30-year-old platoon sergeant from Manteca, Calif., who earned two Purple Hearts in Afghanistan.
Because of budget cuts, only six of the 38 combat brigades that are expected to be in the Army at the end of 2014 will be considered trained and ready to deploy.
The 3rd Brigade is one of the six that are ready to go.
But for once, they’re ready with nowhere in particular to go.
“We don’t have that luxury anymore” of preparing for deployments to known wars on a regular schedule, said Command Sgt. Maj. Sean Mayo of the 3rd Brigade’s 1st Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment.
The Army’s publicly announced plan for the 3rd Brigade is to turn it into a regionally aligned force that would interact with U.S. allies on the Pacific Rim on regularly scheduled exercises. A brigade from Fort Riley in Kansas has a similar alignment with the Pentagon’s Africa Command.
The Lewis-McChord brigade also will be expected to designate some soldiers for the Army’s global response force. In an emergency, they’d deploy anywhere on Earth within 96 hours of a call.
“In these periods of global uncertainty, you want to have a force that is ready,” said Gen. Dan Allyn, the four-star chief of the Army’s Forces Command. He visited the 3rd Brigade’s exercise in late January.
To get ready for the unknown, the Army planned a sprawling scenario for the 3rd Brigade in January at the National Training Center.
It was based on the premise that soldiers had to restore the border of a fictional American ally that lost territory to a well-armed neighbor.
Trainers fleshed out the scenario by layering in other forces that would collaborate with troops from the Washington base. The Japanese Ground Self Defense Force sent a battalion to the exercise whose soldiers have a reputation for excellent marksmanship.
Teams from the Army’s Special Operations Forces also participated, as did an Army aviation battalion from Alaska and a National Guard unit from Arizona.
Along the way, the Lewis-McChord Stryker soldiers would battle tanks, encounter chemical weapons and try to keep friendly locals from changing sides.
They slept in their Stryker vehicles and ate packaged meals most days. In this scenario, they were part of a fast-moving war with none of the comforts of the military mega-bases where some of them lived in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Army last faced an armored ground force with tanks and helicopters in the 1991 Gulf War and briefly at the start of the 2003 Iraq invasion. In both conflicts, U.S. forces made quick work of their conventional opponents.
The Iraq war, however, did not end with the fall of Saddam Hussein’s military. It carried on with insurgent militias that would take shots at U.S. forces — and each other — with homemade bombs, mortars and rockets.
American forces adopted a counterinsurgency approach that emphasized protecting Iraqi civilians more than destroying an enemy.
Now the U.S. military wants to get back to its core mission of preparing to defeat another conventional force while building on its hard-won lessons from Iraq.
The National Training Center exercise kicked off with a bang when the enemy force went right for its heaviest weapons on the first day of the war games.
Using rockets, it launched a chemical weapons strike against a helicopter landing field and the brigade headquarters. Hundreds of soldiers had to reach for gas masks far earlier than they anticipated.
“We haven’t trained for that in a long time,” said Capt. Jesse Boulton, 30, a Tacoma
resident and veteran of three tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s the brigade’s headquarters company commander, an assignment that has him running command centers that normally would be out of reach of enemy fire.
The enemy’s big weapons kept the whole brigade on the move, unlike its most recent deployments during which it would set up a stable headquarters at a protected base while soldiers dispersed to far-flung outposts.
This time, the brigade repeatedly had to build up and tear down its headquarters while maintaining communications over secure networks with thousands of soldiers across a rugged desert expanse.
“Truth be told, this is the first time we’ve done a lot of this,” brigade commander Col. Dave Bair told his headquarters soldiers as they made their first move.
Out in the field, the soldiers under his command had their own share of firsts.
The brigade’s artillerymen had to practice firing their cannons and then quickly move to new positions to avoid a counterstrike. In Iraq and Afghanistan, by contrast, artillerymen would launch and stay put at a forward base.
Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 19-ton Stryker vehicles made their mark early in the Iraq war as speedy “tactical taxis” hauling soldiers to hot spots a couple of years after they started coming off the assembly line.
From the very beginning, the Stryker was billed as a troop carrier, not a heavy-armor machine like an Abrams tank or a Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
Former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki launched the Stryker program in the late 1990s when he called for the development of a medium-weight, wheeled infantry vehicle. The Stryker was intended to bring more firepower than the light infantry units first called to a conflict, but not so much firepower that it would take weeks to deploy them.
Some critics and observers questioned how it would hold up if ever placed in a conventional war.
Compared to the Abrams and Bradley, “the Stryker would, of course, look like a death trap,” said Ralph Peters, a retired Army intelligence officer and widely published military analyst, in a 2003 interview with The News Tribune.
“Of course, any soldier would rather go into all-out combat in a Bradley,” Peters said. “But Stryker is for the in-between conflicts, where we’ve been relying on Humvees and trucks.”
Every Stryker Brigade has about 4,500 soldiers and more than 300 Strykers. Some of those vehicles have weapons that can destroy tanks. None of them have air defenses.
At the National Training Center, the brigade also had three teams of Army Rangers, jet fighters, helicopters, a battalion from the Japanese Ground Self Defense Force and artillery assets.
In January, Stryker soldiers of all ranks got the sense that they were part of an experiment. Some said that they would have preferred to go up against an armored opponent with the heavier machines, such as a Bradley.
“I feel the real purpose of this rotation is to see the capabilities of the Stryker in a conventional fight,” said Staff Sgt. Travis Sisson, who’s spent most of his Army career in heavy infantry units.
Last fall, the Germany-based 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment participated in a force-on-force exercise at a European training site that’s similar to the National Training Center, but smaller.
The next Stryker Brigade heading south for the war games is expected to be Lewis-McChord’s 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
“It’s going to take a couple iterations for the Army to get where it wants to be” with its post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan plans for its Stryker brigades, Bair said.
Gen. Dan Allyn, chief of Army Forces Command, visited the 3rd Brigade during the exercises and said its soldiers did well adjusting to the armored threat.
“What you see is we adapt, and again leaders always find a way to win,” he said.