Subject: Report on Staff Trip to Army Training Facilities

From November 30 to December 5, 1997, I traveled with the Committee's Minority Staff Defense Analyst and an Army escort officer to Fort Irwin, CA and Fort Polk, LA. These facilities contain the Army's National Training Center (NTC) and the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC), respectively. The NTC and JRTC are field exercise training centers for Army combat units; at both places brigade sized active duty and reserve component units “rotate” in for up to 30 days of field exercises against a permanently based opposition force (OPFOR) trained in variations of former Soviet doctrine.

The OPFOR is intended to replicate the types of forces and tactics that the US Army might meet in the post-Cold War world. Forts Irwin and Polk are not redundant: Irwin specializes in armored (“heavy”) warfare (e.g. Desert Storm/Iraq); Polk trains “lighter” infantry units (e.g.. Bosnia). The purpose of this trip by Budget Committee staff was to assess the extent to which budget resolutions have adequately supported the readiness of Army combat units and whether Senate Budget Committee assumptions, expressed in budget resolution materials, regarding readiness and the adequate allocation of resources to readiness, have been translated into action by the Department of Defense and the Department of the Army.

As you will note below, I came away generally favorably impressed with what the NTC and the JRTC are attempting to do to improve the combat skills of Army units; however, as also noted below, despite the high volume of rhetoric in Washington, D.C. about readiness and assurances from the Department of Defense that any problems that might exist are minor and isolated, I found evidence of extremely serious Army-wide personnel and training (i.e. readiness) problems. The nature of these problems indicate that readiness resources, at least for the Army, are inadequate. Given the stated intention of the Department of Defense's Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and the subsequent Defense Reform Initiative (DRI) and, to a lesser extent, the National Defense Panel (NDP) to extract savings from the Operations and Maintenance budget to fund growth in the procurement budget, these problems may worsen.

Improving Combat Skills

Each year, the NTC and JRTC each conduct 10 “rotations” of brigade-sized units (3-5,000 personnel) for armored and light infantry combat exercises. These exercises typically involve not just the specific Army brigade being trained but also can involve Air Force ground attack and transport aircraft, Marine naval gunfire support teams and other units to make the exercises “joint” and more representative of combat. Most, but not all, weapons are equipped with “MILES”<1> laser training systems to record weapon “kills.” Most, but not all, units in the exercises are instrumented to record movements. The entire battle is recorded electronically for after-action learning, and NTC/JRTC “observer/controllers” accompany virtually all command and maneuver units of the brigade being trained for the purpose of observing the unit closely and, most importantly, conducting after action reviews to teach the various lessons to the units being trained. It is these after action reviews, and the “take home” packages these observer/controllers prepare, that form the heart of the training. To the extent I was able to observe and judge, this part of the training is conducted to high professional standards, expertly administered, and constructively received by the units being trained (which are typically pretty thoroughly whipped by the very highly skilled—virtually elite, but low-tech equipped—opposition forces [OPFORs]).

There are, however, some very disturbing “buts.” These “buts” pertain mostly, but not entirely, to current DoD or Army programs and policies that result in inadequate resources and training for the units being trained and for the training centers themselves. The problems I observed are the following.

Decrease in Units Being Trained

Prior to 1990, 14 brigade-sized units were typically trained each year. That is now down to 10 “rotations” per year at both centers. This should permit each active Army brigade in the US to conduct one rotation every 18 to 24 months; however, reserve and National Guard units, which typically—but not always—perform at significantly lower standards and which need the training all the more, are rotated only about every five years. Furthermore, at the JRTC for each rotation, only two of each brigade's three battalions are permitted to come to Ft. Polk for the field exercises. Only the commanders of the left-at-home third battalion are brought in for simulated command post drills. The soldiers of these units are deprived of the unique training available, and their commanders are deprived of the far more realistic field command of live units under stressful conditions. (No one I spoke with believed these simulated command post exercises came close to the value of the live exercises in the field with troops.)

In short, the operating tempo of both the NTC and JRTC have been reduced to the point where it is barely adequate for active Army units and is inadequate for reserve component forces. At the JRTC, only two-thirds of the active units being rotated receive adequate training, which should be judged inadequate.

Army-wide Shortages in Key Personnel

Despite high operating tempos and work loads, both OPFORs at the NTC and JRTC were described as fully manned, enjoying high esprit de corps, and having retention rates at least as good as the rest of the Army, if not better. For the units rotating into the NTC and JRTC—i.e. the Army's combat units; that is to say, the heart and sole of the Army—there is a very different story. I was told the following:

  • Units coming to both training centers frequently do not come with many of their sub-unit commanders; these have frequently been assigned to peacekeeping missions or other deployments that separate them from their units. As a result, sub-units—from basic squads on up—do not train with the commanders that they would go to war with. When this happens, it violates a key dictum of readiness and one of the basic points of having the NTC and the JRTC: the Army should “train just as you go to war.”

  • At the NTC, units rotating in typically come with a 60% shortage in mechanics and a 50% shortage in “mounted” mechanized infantry (in their Bradley APCs). These were described as “Army-wide” shortages: they were demonstrated by virtually all the units coming to the NTC. These shortages were described as due to these personnel, especially the mechanics, being deployed abroad for missions such as Bosnia. On average, all Army personnel now spend from 180 to 220 days of each year away from their home base, and families, on deployments. This average used to be about 165 days per year. According to Army testimony to Congress, the increase in these deployments is for peacekeeping missions.

At the JRTC, units were described as typically missing 25% of their basic infantry: mostly junior enlisted personnel with combat military specialties and mid grade non-commissioned officer (NCO) personnel. This was described as a recruiting problem and specifically not because of deployments such as Bosnia.

In actuality, these problems may be worse than indicated here. I was told at the NTC that the NCO shortages are often temporarily addressed by pulling junior NCOs into the unfilled senior and mid level slots to make more complete units for training purposes. At the JRTC, because one third of each brigade's junior enlisted and NCO personnel do not deploy for a rotation, it is possible that gaps in the units that do deploy are filled with those that would otherwise stay home. I was told this is not occurring; however, I am skeptical that it never happens.

Doctrine and Quality of Training Issues

In the past, before coming to the NTC, units would typically engage in intensive pre-training, especially at the full brigade level, to enable them to make the most of the learning opportunity at the NTC. This was described as no longer the case. Units rotating in now typically have not had the funds needed to perform this pre-training, and, as a result, may be performing more basic mistakes during their NTC rotations, thereby missing an opportunity to come in to the center at a higher proficiency level and, as a result, to leave with an even higher proficiency level. It is possible, therefore, that units leave the training centers at a lower level of proficiency than was the case, for example, before Desert Storm. It may be that a second rotation would be needed to bring units up to that level, but with the reduced numbers of rotations per year that is not currently possible.

While this was my first visit to the NTC, and I cannot assert that I have the prior experience with earlier higher coming-in proficiency levels, I may have observed this kind of problem during my visit. On the second day of the visit we were briefed on the plan and tactics of a “hasty” brigade attack exercise on the NTC OPFOR. Also in the audience were an Israeli colonel and general. The Israeli officers, the NTC officer presenting the briefing, and myself made the following observations about the brigade commander's attack plan:

  • no reserve to respond to unplanned events or exploit an unforeseen opportunity;

  • the attacking force was evenly divided between both flanks and the center, thereby depriving the attack of a main focus of effort;

  • the terrain made it impossible for any one of the three separate attacks to support any of the others in the event of need or an opportunity;

  • the commander mostly kept himself and his command post 20 kilometers in the rear, where he could develop no feel for how his attack evolved and what responses to unforeseen events might be appropriate;

  • there was little reconnaissance out before the attack;

  • the exercise permitted 36-48 hours to prepare the attack; this was hardly a “hasty” attack; the Israeli commander thought 2-4 hours to plan would have been a more appropriate exercise;

  • the mission was to occupy land, not destroy the enemy force; if the OPFOR had been destroyed but the geographic objective not occupied (with minimal casualties to the attacker) , the exercise would have been judged a “failure;” if the attacking brigade had had one surviving troop taking the objective—with everyone else dead—the exercise would have been judged a “success.”

Predictably, the attack failed. The NTC decided to re-run the exercise in a few days to permit the brigade commander to learn from his mistakes. The Israelis argued that the plan was so deficient that the brigade commander should not have been permitted to waste money and execute it; the NTC argued that the purpose of the training is not to “win” but is to learn. I found this NTC argument compelling, but it was also unfortunate that the brigade commander in question did not have the opportunity to learn before he came to the NTC that a more workable attack plan could result from better observing certain concepts.

We spent some time talking to the OPFORs at both centers about US warfighting doctrine. They made the following points:

  • Units that observe US doctrine usually do better than units that do not;

  • When observing US doctrine, US units are nonetheless predictable;

  • US doctrine is not a matter of being innovative or even of controlling the course of events; instead it is a matter of coordinating forces and firepower (“synchronization”) against the enemy; the “guts” of training is to learn how “to keep synchronized over time as the enemy changes the situation;”

  • The JRTC OPFOR has devised ways to exploit US doctrine; for example by embracing certain “tenets” (marksmanship, decentralized operations, battle drill, and field craft); it will fight very “close” to US units to help negate their firepower advantage, and will exploit weaknesses and inflict as many casualties as possible in order to emphasize the learning needed from training center exercises. Despite the OPFOR's operating at a substantial numerical and technological disadvantage, they are rather good at what they do; they rarely lose at either the NTC or the JRTC.

Perhaps, the biggest disappointment to me during this trip was that at both the NTC and the JRTC, no one was aware that the Army's Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) had visited to observe and learn from the potential lessons to be learned about US doctrine from the OPFORs and exercises at the training centers. This is despite the fact that the Army field manual FM-100-5 has just been rewritten.

Obviously, US doctrine has weaknesses that are being successfully exploited by the highly skilled OPFORs. I believe that TRADOC's failure to learn lessons from the Training Centers and the OPFORs evidences a possible obliviousness to the potential lessons to be learned from external sources. I fear this results from an arrogance born of the apparent US success in Desert Storm: why fix it if you think it's not broken. It may be that the TRADOC has put itself into a mental isolation chamber. If I am right, I hope our future real enemies have an equally thorough disregard for adjusting to new circumstances and improving their own performance. Wishful thinking, however, has not been a particularly successful approach in the past to saving soldiers lives and guaranteeing success.


The budget indicators from this trip are that the resources devoted to combat training (readiness) in the Army are barely adequate, at best, for the active forces and inadequate for the reserves. Based on what appear to be future trends in the QDR, DRI, and NDP, this situation is not likely to improve and is likely to get worse.

The NTC and JRTC provide the US Army with important and needed field training that improves combat skills and most probably will save US lives in future conflict; however, the Army does not appear to be making as full and complete use as it should of these unique facilities for the purpose of improving combat skills and doctrine. The Army needs more training at these centers—not what I fear will turn out to be less—after existing readiness budget tensions are allowed to persist and even worsen.