by David R. Mau
Editor’s Note: Throughout this week, we have been 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 presents a different perspective from the organization’s key staff members. Our hope is that these articles will help prepare you for success in your current or future roles in your organization.
The National Training Center (NTC) at Fort Irwin presents a myriad of challenges for the battalion S6; vast stretches of desert and rolling terrain massively degrade line of sight communications, while the merciless heat and flowing sand affect the quality of critical hardware. The opposing force presents constant threats to communications; unsecured command and control (C2) nodes will be captured, artillery will always be targeted at useful Main Command Post locations, and communications jamming will strike during the worst possible moments. Rotational training units facing the desert challenge of the NTC must be proficient in the Command and Control Warfighting Function prior to arrival. This article will touch on methods for training up to and conducting NTC from the perspective of a battalion S6.
- Units need to validate C2 node personnel, equipment, and layout by conducting a full rehearsal through a robust, realistic pre-NTC validation exercise. As Armored Brigade Combat Teams action training cycles to prepare for deployment, they must face the immovable mountain that is NTC. NTC stress tests equipment, processes, and people with an intensity that is challenging to replicate during home station training. An untrained PACE, a plan consisting of four possible methods of communication, is a false positive; communications checks within the motor pool do not provide the same confidence in systems that conducting checks at ten kilometers will. The S6 must ensure that when a radio is reported as fully mission capable, it can be trusted at maximum range. To ensure this, be present and vocal during the training planning phase; recommend stretching your battalion to the winds, restricting phone access, and truly testing how your communications architecture succeeds when pressure is applied.
- Your brigade, and battalion, must train pre-NTC as they will be forced to fight at NTC; a distributed, robust PACE must be realistically tested. When conducting any signal training, including basic checks within weekly maintenance, communications must be conducted as it will be required at NTC. Deploying a mission command node or retransmission (retrans) team several kilometers away and utilizing them as the recorders for comms checks ensures a standard is being achieved. Confirming FM radios, HF radios, and JBC-Ps every week ensures the most accurate possible picture of these systems, while familiarizing Soldiers with the function of their core communications systems. Once the basics have been trained and company Soldiers understand the basics, integrate the lessons learned into force on force and live fire exercises to ensure Soldiers are comfortable with communicating in dynamic environments.
- SKL training, maintenance, and dissemination to the platoon or section level must be trained to proficiency prior to reaching the box. One of the greatest challenges 1 ABCT faced during NTC 21-10 was the first time implementation of Communications Security (COMSEC) sub-hand receipt holders down to the company level. During training, 1 ABCT would sub-hand receipt COMSEC to the battalion level; this meant that the battalion S6 COMSEC teams were the sole method to receive the security keys needed to talk securely on radios, secret computer systems, and other critical communications systems. While this situation placed a significant chokepoint on a critical function within the battalions, it also prevented a critical training opportunity for the companies. When the Ready First Brigade reached Fort Irwin, pushing COMSEC to the company level became a clear priority. Since this requirement is so critical to operations, COMSEC holders must be proficient with their loading equipment prior to arriving at NTC; SKL and COMSEC training for the companies should be incorporated in weekly “white space” training and exercised during pre-NTC training to ensure proficiency and comfort.
- Maneuver battalions should consider a red MCP, a minimalist command post setup, as the default configuration; bringing all C2 systems online should be a conscious decision when expediency can be traded for depth of communications. The Main Command Post (MCP) is the central command and control node for a maneuver unit. The MCP leadership must consider two main factors during movement and location selection; the MCP must be safe and able to communicate to both higher and lower elements. These considerations are often at odds with each other; FM Radio, the primary communication system of most battalions, as well as many Upper Tactical Internet (UTI) transport systems require line of sight to be effective. Your MCP will be composed of vehicles unable to traverse incredibly hazardous terrain, and the time requirement to maneuver to a perfect location for Signal is taxing. Additionally, the opposing force at NTC targets MCPs aggressively; any visible antennas, a telltale sign of a command node, are a trigger for indirect fires, often chemically enhanced. To address these challenges, the MCP must remain expedient, reducing unnecessary functions to ensure minimal teardown times. One technique, often employed by cavalry scouts, is to keep the smallest possible posture, foregoing tentage, UTI systems, and sleeping areas to strike a balance between security and capability.
- Plan aggressive C2 movements; the battalion should coil in the defense and aggressively push C2 reach forward during the offense. One of the benefits of keeping an expedient MCP is the ability to rapidly “jump” forward towards the battle. While there may be kilometers of sand within the battalion area of operations, the number of viable MCP locations, which require concealment, clear lines of sight, and stable ground, will be minimal. A method to ensure communications in points of greatest friction is to maneuver or “jump” the MCP close to the forward line of troops. While the MCP should rarely be forward of combat units, it should follow closely behind; maintaining an expedient MCP and keeping it close to the frontline ensures quality communications with the units which depend upon it for support.
- Retrans teams should serve as a redundant FM link to improve an already operational communications architecture. The retrans team serves to extend FM radio communications by receiving radio waves through a dedicated radio antenna, transferring that message into a second radio, and pushing back out through a second transmission antenna. This team is an incredibly valuable asset to any maneuver unit, but reliance upon it builds dependency on a single, vulnerable vehicle. A proficient retrans team will tuck itself away in terrain on a piece of high ground, but the adversaries at NTC will constantly search for these vehicles, calling for indirect fire whenever possible. If a MCP is eight kilometers behind the frontline and is reliant upon a Retrans team to communicate forward, a fire mission upon a single vehicle would cripple the most important battalion node. To remediate this, the battalion should employ Retrans in support of an already robust communications architecture; the battalion should utilize the MCP, the Tactical Command Post, and the Combat Trains Command Post to provide redundant C2 independent of the retrans team.
- Build a C2 default configuration and then FRAGO off of it as the mission dictates; plan the ranges based on real world success during training instead of perfect conditions. The culmination of deliberately training C2 are airtight, rehearsed Standard Operations Procedures (SOP); the SOP records all of the typical methods by which the battalion operates. Building the C2 SOP will be a fluid process; every new leader that arrives will bring methodologies and techniques which worked for them at a previous unit, each with benefits and downsides. The staff must balance these techniques and learn what works best for their unique command and control node. However, if the battalion continues to refine and change the node layout, crew roster, or any other operations method well into NTC, confusion and uncertainty will plague the unit. The final exercise prior to NTC validates the C2 nodes as well as the maneuver units; any changes after the pre-NTC exercise must be implemented carefully.
- Identify subordinate units requiring unique communications considerations early and integrate them deliberately. Battalions at NTC will receive a myriad of attachments, units not organic to the battalion but employed for a specific time and purpose. While ideally, these units would conduct the training cycle with their supported unit, this luxury is not guaranteed. Battalions must be prepared to rapidly receive, assess, and integrate non-organic units into their formations. The S6 must identify unique communications requirements and integrate these units into the fold as rapidly as possible. Daily syncs utilizing the battalion’s communications plan, or PACE, will validate these systems initially, but communications checks at range and technical rehearsals will solidify the C2 relationships before the bullets start flying.
- Treat your fires element as the primary customer; losing communications for maneuver can be mitigated, but losing communications for fires is catastrophic for a maneuver unit. One of the foundational principles of maneuver units is synchronization of fires and maneuver. Indirect fires and aviation support are critical for a unit’s maneuver within the offense to shore up the inherent vulnerabilities of conducting an attack, and fires without a maneuver force to follow up the effects is typically a waste of resources. When a fire mission cannot be processed, maneuver forces suffer the dangers of the offense, unmitigated. When leaders consider the decision to reduce capability at or “jump” the MCP, they must heavily consider the effects upon the fires architecture; develop stationary and mobile PACE plans for your Fires Warfighting Function and ensure the risks and benefits of each are understood by the MCP leadership.
- The opposing force of NTC combined with austere conditions presents seemingly impossible challenges, but embracing the challenge enables training units to become comfortable with the day to day battle and to innovate. Testing multitudes of antennas when developing the MCP SOP will ensure maximum signal output for lower tactical internet systems. Providing dismounted teams with excess radios and retrans cables will provide a highly mobile but short range retrans team, capable of extending communications over terrain only accessible to dismounts. The aspiring S6 will apply the general concepts they have learned throughout their careers and shore up the gaps with new, unique techniques; while ideally a unit would employ no untrained methods throughout their NTC rotation, the constant, simultaneous presentation of challenges mandates a level of flexibility and creativity that only the greatest of Signal Soldiers will be able to reach.
In conclusion, no unit “wins” NTC exclusively through their actions while deployed to Fort Irwin. Success at NTC depends on building a solid foundation prior to deployment. Signal leaders must use every week and every training exercise to train, maintain, and innovate on the C2 fundamentals. Units must be able to communicate reliably to conduct synchronized, safe operations at the National Training Center. Building these Signal proficient teams, both at company and battalion levels, ensures a baseline of communications assurance that will pay incredible dividends in the desert. S6 teams must build an unshakeable foundation during home station training to reduce confusion when the enemy exercises their ability to disrupt the best laid of plans.
CPT David Mau is a twenty-eight year old Signal officer, with six years active service, currently serving as the Battalion S6 for 4th Battalion, 70th Armored Regiment, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division. He commissioned from Furman ROTC with a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics from North Greenville University and is working towards a Masters in Cybersecurity from Webster University. He served as an Infantry officer within the 4th Infantry Division before transitioning to the Signal Corps. He has conducted two NTC rotations and one Joint Multinational Readiness Center rotation.