A physically fit airman: an essential element for Agile Combat Support in the AEF. (Views on Logistics).
The author's personal experience with physical fitness requirements and needs in an expeditionary environment is based on experiences when the 2d Battalion, 37th Armor (2-37 AR) received a short-notice deployment order to execute a peacekeeping mission in the Federal Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). The program discussed in this article proved to be effective in preparing the soldiers for a very demanding and physically taxing mission.
Task Force Able Sentry
In December 1996, 2-37 AR from Friedberg, Germany, was selected to conduct a United Nations (UN) peacekeeping mission in FYROM. The operational name for the mission was Task Force Able Sentry. The mission was to provide a presence along the Albanian, Serbian, and Bulgarian borders. The unit provided this presence by patrolling (walking) along the mountainous borders of these countries, holding the UN flag high. What made this mission particularly unusual for the soldiers was that infantry soldiers usually performed this mission, not tankers. Grunts (infantry) usually do all the walking; tread heads (tankers) drive. But the tables had turned, and the armor unit was given a foot-patrol mission. To succeed, it had to prepare to execute the mission, which would be physically demanding. A 6-week physical training program had to be designed to prepare the unit for the rigors of patrolling the FYROM border.
Basically, the mission called for a squad of 12 soldiers to patrol 10-15 miles a day across extremely mountainous terrain, with a 60-pound rucksack and a rifle. An additional benefit (if you wanted to call it that) was the soldiers had to walk along the mountain ridgeline as high as possible to be seen by the Albanians, Serbians, and Bulgarians. This ensured these countries of UN presence. These mountain ridges were about 3,000 feet above sea level, so the training had to be tough. The commander was very aware that the tankers were in good physical condition for fighting with MIAI tanks, but they were not prepared for the kind of mission assigned. The bottom line was the unit had about 6 weeks to prepare for the mission. So we had to come up with a training plan to get the soldiers physically ready to patrol.
The physical training had to be focused on cardiorespiratory and muscular endurance. Each of the four company commanders was given a 6-week physical training program that consisted of road marches with fully packed rucksacks. The patrolling sessions were conducted at least 4 days a week. The company commander could pick training days based on a training schedule. Each company commander was also responsible for tracking the progress of each soldier to ensure progress was being made in reaching the fitness goal.
Each soldier carried a rifle, along with a ruck, during the training, so the training basically replicated the mission the soldiers would be conducting. Each week, the company commander was required to increase the mileage by 2 miles. This incremental progress helped build the soldiers' cardiorespiratory fitness and muscular endurance so, by the time of deployment, the companies were completing up to 12 miles a session across some hilly terrain in the local area. When the commander provided the mission brief to the brigade commander prior to deployment, he felt confident the soldiers were physically and mentally ready to execute Able Sentry.
The Advantages of Good Physical Fitness
Since 1991, I have been deployed to three operational sites: Desert Storm, Bosnia, and FYROM. In each mission, I was a part of the advanced element that deployed into the theater to establish the logistical and operational footprint. It has been my experience that one of the key prerequisites for any service member is to be in good physical condition. Why? Because upon arrival, most of our work was moving equipment, setting up base camps, and clearing space so we could operate the equipment essential to the mission. As a member of an advanced party in an uncertain environment, you are required to do a lot of physical work, and you do not need people getting sick or fatigued. Individual fitness is an essential element for deploying units.
Both the Army and Air Force are embracing doctrines that call for units to be prepared to deploy anywhere in the world within a very short time. To be successful prior to and during deployments, these units need to be mission focused, have their deployable equipment combat ready, and have sound logistical systems, and the service members need to be physically fit. The Army experiences discussed in this article are very similar to the challenges faced by Air Force units that deploy to remote areas. One could also argue that physical fitness is a foundational element for Agile Combat Support.
Experience in Enduring Freedom showed Air Force members had the enormous task of carving out a workable airfield and base camp in undeveloped areas in and around Afghanistan. Lieutenant Colonel Phillip Bossert--an Air Force logistics officer, who was a tanker airlift control element commander in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom--said his airmen conducted physical training at least two times a week to prepare themselves for the rigors of the deployment. They had to be in good physical condition to be able not only to conduct strenuous tasks for long hours but also deal with the stress of being in Afghanistan during a combat operation.(1)
Deployments often produce stress and anxiety because of the many unknowns--destination, departure date, and length of the deployment. It has been my experience that units whose members are in good physical condition are more productive and perform their missions with less stress. Physical fitness is an important element for readiness for any deployable unit. So what does it mean to be physically fit?
Physical Fitness Defined
Simply put, physical fitness includes four components--cardiorespiratory fitness, flexibility, muscular strength, and muscular endurance. Each of these is important for total fitness, and a good fitness program for a deployable unit should include them as a base. (2)
Components of Physical Fitness
Cardiorespiatory fitness involves the heart and lungs: the lungs put oxygen in the blood, and the heart pumps the blood throughout the body. When the cardiorespiratory system is fit, people can be active without experiencing shortness of breath or becoming fatigued easily. Exercises that can improve cardiorespirarory fitness include running, swimming, walking, road-marching, and biking. (3) Cardiorespiratory fitness is the one most often included in military training. Although cardiorespiratory fitness is very important, all four components must be included in a fitness program to attain good overall fitness.
Most experts stress the importance of developing and maintaining good flexibility. Flexibility is attained when muscles and joints are loose and can move through a full or near-full range of motion without feeling tight or stiff. Flexibility is important because it can help prevent injuries when engaged in physical activities.(4) Activities that will improve flexibility include stretching, tumbling, and yoga.
Muscular strength is the ability to exert a force against some form of resistance. Lifting weights, picking up books from a desk, and standing up from a chair are examples of muscular strength. Strengthening muscles allows people to lift a heavier weight, pick up more books, or stand up from a chair with greater ease. Experts agree that the best way to improve muscular strength is by conducting weight-training exercises. But a deployed unit needs people with strong and toned muscles who can operate over time--muscular endurance. (5)
Muscular endurance refers to the ability to repeat muscle exertions. Situps, pushups, moving many boxes of books, and squatting repeatedly are examples of muscular endurance activities. As muscular endurance increases, the ability to repeat muscle exertions also increases. (6) In general, deployed service members use this component of physical fitness most often when moving equipment and supplies.
Recommended Fitness Program
The ideal fitness program for a deploying unit is one that includes activities involving all four components of fitness, done three times a week for at least 1 hour, with all the unit's members participating, especially the leadership. The program should be simple enough so when the unit deploys it can continue. Additionally, if the unit's mission calls for physical labor, an effective physical training session should replicate some of the movements involved. For example, 2-37AR training sessions included walking patrols just as they would be done during the mission. Further, the commander should look at changing the type of exercise programs periodically. This will keep the training fresh and help continue the troops' progress. (7)
Most units need good fitness training, perhaps not as aggressive as the 2-37AR physical training model when preparing for the FYROM mission, but one that is challenging. The Army fitness manual, Field Manual 21-20, recommends that a unit conduct physical training for at least 1 hour three times a week. During this period, a well-planned program could incorporate each component of physical fitness with the eventual benefit of a physically fit service member prepared for in-garrison requirements or deployment. (8)
My experience with deployable units has shown that this 1-hour session, at least three times a week, focusing on all components of fitness, will prepare a unit physically for the rigors of deployment. A typical hour-long program could be as follows:
0630 Form up
0630-0640 Stretching head to foot
0640-0700 Muscular endurance training, timed pushups, pull-ups, and sit ups.
0700-0725 Two-mile run or walks
0725-0730 Cool-down stretch (9)
As simple as this program is, it can be very effective if executed properly. However, two major keys to success are unit leaders' understanding that each person will progress differently and leadership participation in the program.
In the 2-37AR, the battalion commander required the company commanders, first sergeants, platoon leaders, platoon sergeants, and all other leaders in the company chain of command to participate in physical training along with the soldiers. Additionally, all the staff guys (including me) had to find time to get out there and sweat and grunt with the soldiers. Initially, there was some resistance, but the commander was firm. This training was difficult initially for some of the older leaders, but as all advanced to get in patrol condition, the training became much more enjoyable.
One of the added benefits to a good unit physical training program is esprit de corps. This is of great benefit especially before a deployment. Soldiers really get motivated when they see their leadership working alongside them preparing for the mission. Many of the soldiers enjoyed the training because it was tough; leaders were involved; and most of all, it was different from regular physical training.
As mentioned earlier, some variety is good in exercise programs. While a good physical training program should exercise the four components of fitness, it does not always have to be just running, pushups, or situps. Another program that works well for units is hand-to-hand combat training, which I instituted in the cavalry squadron I commanded. We found qualified martial arts instructors and had them set up a program based on the Army combative program. (10) The soldiers learned some hand-to-hand and disarming techniques and worked with pugil sticks. This program was leadership-intensive to ensure it did not get out of hand, but the soldiers really liked it. If we had deployed, the leadership felt the program could be continued because it would give the soldiers the confidence needed to protect them in a close combat encounter and keep them in fighting shape. This program worked remarkably well getting soldiers in shape and building esprit de corps and was fun.
Other fitness programs include competitions between units such as fun runs, speed marches, and boxing smokers. The list is limitless, but the key element is the level of fitness that leaders want their troops at prior to deployment and the level they want them to maintain while deployed. Once this goal is established, incorporating the four components of fitness into a simple but effective training plan that is executed at least three times a week for at least an hour will physically prepare a unit for deployment. (11)
When 2-37 AR arrived in FYROM and each company moved to its respective base camp along the border in March 1997, we started our mission. When the soldiers faced heavy snow in the mountains, they put on their snow equipment and walked patrols. In June, when the thaw came, the soldiers faced unseasonable heat through August. The leadership modified the uniforms for the weather, and away marched the soldiers, executing their mission with vigor. During the 6 months of patrolling, our soldiers were very successful. This success can be measured by the fact there were no incidents on the border because of our constant presence.
The UN commander commented that he was very surprised that a US Army armor unit could perform so well. There were many reasons for the unit's success, but key to the success was the soldiers' physical fitness. We could not have achieved success without good physical fitness training that included the four components of fitness.
The Air Force should incorporate mandatory physical fitness programs into its unit training to ensure members are prepared for the rigors of deployment. This training should focus on the four components of physical fitness: cardiorespiratory, flexibility, muscular strength, and muscular endurance. It should be simple but focused on the particular fitness goals outlined by the unit leadership, based on mission requirements. Additionally, the program should be designed to continue to maintain the fitness level in the deployed area of operations. As with in-garrison training, the frequency should be three times a week for a least 1 hour. Finally, unit leadership should be visible during all unit fitness training; this reinforces the importance of training and helps build esprit de corps. Good fitness training is an essential element of Agile Combat Support and will help AEF units to be successful in any environment.
(1.) Author's interview with Lt Col Phillip Bossert, USAF, Air War College student, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, 12 Sep 02.
(2.) "Flexibility and Cardiorespiratory Fitness," Health Teacher, 1999 [Online] Available: 9/13/2002,www.healthteacher.com/lessonguides/physical/4-5/pa2el45/tea ching.asp.
(7.) Army Field Manual 21-20, Physical Fitness, Jun 99, 1-5.
Lieutenant Colonel Alexander is a student at the Air War College, Maxwell AFB, Alabama.
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|Author:||Alexander, Michael W.|
|Publication:||Air Force Journal of Logistics|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2002|
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