The Top 10 Things I Learned as a Battalion Commander at the National Training Center

by Ethan Olberding

Editor’s Note: Over the next week, we will be running a series of articles from 4-70 AR on their lessons learned at the National Training Center (NTC). Each article is unique in that it will present a different perspective from the organization’s key leaders and staff members. Our hope is that these articles will help prepare you for success in your current or future roles in your organization. 

I recently completed a National Training Center (NTC) rotation at Fort Irwin, California as the battalion commander of 4-70 AR, 1st ABCT, 1st AD. I personally learned several lessons that I am still reviewing to inform future training plans and leader development strategies. In the interest of sharing information and creating professional dialogue, please see below for the Top 10 Things I learned through this experience. I hope these points generate conversation and useful leader discussions. 

  1.   Sustainment matters more than tactics. You cannot implement any grand tactical plan if you do not have a sustainment architecture to support it; they are interdependent. To implement this type of architecture I recommend requiring updates on LOGSTAT submissions and LRP operations every twelve hours. Wondering whether I had the right amount of combat power to accomplish my assigned mission kept me up at night. We generated and maintained combat power because of our effective sustainment system. Additionally, Commanders must understand the location and capacity of the Unit Maintenance Collection Point (UMCP) and be able to communicate with it. Assign a JBCP to that element as we often found ourselves out of FM communications range. 
  2. If you can talk, you can fight. That adage may sound simple, but it is powerful. We encountered issues with communications that made it almost impossible to coordinate units and move to an objective. However, when our communications were reliable, we became extremely flexible and able to change course based on updated intelligence reports.  Communication does not only need to be via radio, it can also be very effective over JBCP.  If your nodes and subordinates can communicate on a stable network, mission execution becomes less painful. Test your unit’s full range of communications at home station.
  3. Think outside the box. The opposing force reviews our doctrine. Therefore, challenge your units to think outside the box to catch the threat off-guard. Use air assets to insert dismounted infantry at critical points to present multiple dilemmas to your threat. Get your infantry Soldiers out of the vehicles and onto the terrain. Reinforce reconnaissance units with dismounted anti-armor capability to help develop the tactical situation to produce more reaction time and maneuver space. However, you must review point #2 if you deploy dismounted infantry. If they can’t talk…they can’t fight. 
  4. Force crosstalk between commanders. When you hear your subordinate commanders cross-talking on the radio, good things will happen. Ensure your subordinates are comfortable with coming up on the net and sharing information and details, but more importantly, assessments. You will know if you have an effective combat command climate if your subordinates cross-talk on the net. If that is not happening for your formation, recommend a rapid change to ensure your command net becomes a method for synchronization and not stagnant.
  5. Be prepared to fight.  Always be ready to fight the opposing force. Look for opportunities to advance to the next inter-visibility line or next piece of key terrain. Keep fighting as long as your sustainment will allow and keep the enemy off-base. During periods of transition and consolidation, never take your focus off other potential battlefields. Synchronize your reconnaissance asset (Scouts) with fires (BN mortars) to maintain pressure on the enemy. Never let up.
  6. Your Soldiers will become more resilient. Don’t underestimate this fact. Too often Soldiers dread the deployment to the NTC and perhaps cannot foresee the improved product at the end of the rotation. Inevitably, Soldiers and leaders will become more resilient as they face and overcome a multitude of difficulties. Nothing can replace the camaraderie forged during a deployment, but Combat Training Center rotations simulate this environment and bring units closer together. They also allow Soldiers to become more capable and confident in their assigned skill positions, better preparing them for combat.
  7. You can’t hide anything in the desert. Whatever systems you established at your home station will be on full display at Fort Irwin. Ensure you accurately assess and brief your capabilities before you arrive at the NTC. Be honest with yourself, your subordinates, and with your higher headquarters. Do you know your ESR? Have you exercised your PACE plan? Do your drivers have proper licenses for their assigned equipment? Can you maneuver your formation to attack or defend? All too often, we assume away problems, or don’t accurately check things that are uncomfortable for us. If this is you, change that mindset before your NTC rotation. Nothing hides in the desert. Nothing.
  8. Review your AARs. This sounds too simple. However, it is easy to neglect. The most powerful deliverable from the NTC is the instrumented After Action Review. These sessions prove invaluable in order to inform training plans and immediate focus areas. Typically, they occur following a battle period when leaders are lacking sleep and need food. It is commonplace to receive the AAR packet and then move on to the next fight. Don’t let that happen. Pin the proverbially rose on a staff officer for scheduling dedicated time to review the AAR products…not just once. Include AAR points from the last battle during your next planning session. Make it a habit to discuss AARs at your training readiness meetings, or leader development sessions at home station. Pull out those points discussed with your OC/Ts during your rotation and ask your leaders how your unit is doing. It will probably prove informative…and may surprise you.
  9. Deliver Simple and Specific Guidance. Direct and concise Commander’s guidance will save time and make your staff more efficient within the time-constrained environment of the NTC. Staff at the Battalion level vary in experience and tend to arrive at the NTC with minimal exposure to the planning process. Each Staff Member wants to contribute and work hard, but they need specific guidance to deliver effective fighting products for you. Commander requirements will pull you in so many different directions during the rotation, so ensure you provide specific guidance to your staff before the training starts. They will appreciate that and not spin their wheels trying to deliver something you will never use. 
  10. Conduct a Conditions Check and Pre-Battle Update Prior to LD. We received coaching to create a Conditions Check document and agenda for a Pre-Battle update. Fantastic advice. Our staff produced these documents during MDMP, and the Battle Captain, or the Chief of Operations, led the battle rhythm event. This routine helped us ensure conditions were set before we crossed LD. Most of the time, this process also allowed us to resolve any friction prior to LD as we typically completed our conditions check at LD minus eight hours and executed our pre-battle agenda at LD minus 60 to 90 minutes.

The NTC taught me numerous lessons that I will never forget. I also collected fond memories of watching Soldiers and leaders perform admirably amongst challenging conditions. I hope this simple list will help you and your formations prepare for a future rotation.

 

LTC Ethan Olberding currently commands 4-70 AR, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division.  Commissioned as an armor officer, he has served in armor and infantry brigade combat teams, with operational experience in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

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