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Map boards to CPOF: an airborne infantry battalion at JRTC and the challenges to providing SA during an FSO rotation.

Having recently returnee from the first full spectruir operations (FSO) rotation at the Joint Readiness Training Centei (JRTC), Fort Polk. La., in almost a decade, it is critical to share the lessons learned from operations conducted by ar airborne Infantry battalion. As expected, we found that our paratroopers inherently will always complete the mission: however, the demands of the FSO rotation brought to light a few key issues, particularly in terms of command and control (C2) and associated capabilities The primary challenges revolved around how to create situational awareness (SA) using both the analog and digital systems at different echelons as well as managing these systems during key transitions. Aside from Blue Force Tracker (BFT). companies on the full spectrum battlefield fight using analog systems (maps) while brigade and above fisht Drimarilv from digital systems. Thus, battalion staffs must serve as a transition and translation point for both analog and digital systems and master both in order to facilitate situational awareness at all levels.


In this article, we will discuss our training plan prior to JRTC, the FSO rotation itself, and key lessons learned from our training. Ultimately, we discovered that the real key was understanding the nature of the problem in ensuring a common operating picture (COP) across tactical echelons and then focusing our training for the battalion staff on the high payoff analog and digital systems that facilitate situational awareness.

Before delving into observations and lessons learned, a summary of our pre-rotation training as well as the rotation itself is necessary to provide context. Our unit was roughly five months out of the "reset" phase of the Army Force Generation (ARFORGEN) cycle. Prior to the rotation, we primarily focused on basic skill level training; the paratrooper essential task list (PF.TL); offensive collective tasks at the squad, platoon, and company; and airfield seizure training exercises. We leveraged our experience in stability and support operations and conducted leader development on the deliberate defense. In terms of Staff training, the battalion executed two digital exercises with the brigade combat team (BCT) headquarters as well as established and operated our tactical operations center (TOO on airfield seizures and select company training exercises. The staff also attended the Leaders Training Program (LTP) at JRTC; however, approximately half of the staff changed out between the LTP and the actual rotation. As JRTC approached, we conducted additional TOC training and professional development, but we were not able to execute a battalion or brigade field training exercise prior to JRTC. Due to limited training time, we chose to focus on company and below training and envisioned JRTC as an excellent TOC and staff training venue. Though the learning curve was high throughout the rotation, the underlying fact is that our Soldiers are flexible and adaptive and quickly mastered tasks and operations that they had not trained on or minimally trained on prior to the rotation.

The rotation itself was built around a forcible entry operation into a failing country, which had internal strife from a rogue, host nation conventional army and a growing insurgency fueled by a neighboring slate. The conditions for U.S. forces were generally austere until the airfield was secure and the flight landing strip (FLS) was cleared and repaired. The BCT built combat power via C-130s landing on the FLS and unloading key capabilities in accordance with our priority.

Following the airfield seizure, the BCT prepared a deliberate defense to defeat an attack by the rogue forces, who were trying to secure the local seat of government and also disrupt U.S. forces' ability to build combat power. Simultaneously, the brigade combat team fought a growing insurgency and tried to defeat enemy mortar and improvised explosive device (IED) cells that harassed U.S. forces. Also, U.S. leaders conducted numerous key leader engagements (KLE) with local leaders in an effort to develop relationships, reinforce our mission, and gather intelligence on enemy activities. Additionally the BCT executed three noncombatant evacuation operations (NEO) to secure U.S. civilians spread across its operating environment. Following the defense, the BCT commenced offensive operations to include two battalion (-) attacks and a time sensitive target operation while maintaining security of the lodgment. Overall, it was a challenging mission set that fully exercised the requirement to conduct operations across the full spectrum, often simultaneously, and challenged our ability to gain and maintain SA.

At the battalion level, the greatest challenge concerned the battle staff's ability to master both analog and digital C2 systems and establish SOPs for transitioning between them. This was critical in order to facilitate planning at battalion and company levels as well as maintain a COP throughout the fight. Our challenge existed in two primary areas:

(1) Transitioning from analog to digital after conducting our forcible entry (parachute assault) operation, and

(2) Serving as a two-way transition and translation point for analog to digital, where a company is primarily operating via FM and analog mechanisms, and a brigade is almost completely using digital systems on a tactical internet. Additional issues were also identified as key leaders from the battalion displaced from the main command post found themselves in a primarily analog environment.

The first challenge in situational awareness and communications during FSO stems from the initial entry and the need to ensure that critical information that is tracked on maps and handwritten logs is captured in our digital systems as our command post matures. During an airfield seizure, our communications infrastructure is primarily FM and satellite-based with leaders using map boards and associated overlays as well as FM radios and satellite communications (SATCOM) for voice and the Global Rapid Response Information Package (GRRIP) for chat. These systems enable long-range communication with the intermediate staging base that we departed from and enable a way to gather critical information on the airborne operation, i.e. any issue, whether maintenance or other, that prevented Soldiers from jumping or the dropping of heavy equipment. In the assault command posts on the drop zone, information is primarily tracked with an alcohol pen and shared over the various traditional FM nets (command, operations and intelligence [O&I], and administration and logistics [A&L]). Once aircraft begin to arrive, our capability increases as our TOC equipment flows into the airhead and connectivity and systems are established.


The critical issue is the transition of significant events and enemy contacts from the map to a computer system, which aids in analysis and our ability to determine enemy and friendly patterns. This was not fully appreciated prior to our airborne operation and was a key take away from our rotation. Failing to plan this transition resulted in lost situational awareness and missed opportunities. Had we performed this better, we would have been able to earlier identify enemy mortar firing points as well as other enemy actions that fit a pattern of employment. This would have increased the likelihood of defeating these enemy capabilities. Thus, it is critical to plan deliberate transition and forcing mechanisms to ensure that information captured during initial entry and reflected in pen on a map is captured in the system providing the digital COP at the battalion level and above.

The second challenge revolves around the battalion's function as a transition and also a translation point for digital communications to and from brigade and analog communications with the companies in the field. The only digital system currently in use by our companies during the rotation was BFT, which is satellite-based and generally just in a rifle company's single vehicle. The brigade SA and COP, orders process, and battle tracking are centered around the digital network that is facilitated by its joint network node (JNN) and the battalion's command post node (CPN), which are the technical systems that provide secure internet. They create the ability to use a variety of tremendously useful internet-based systems, such as command post of the future (CPOF) that is generally used as the COP at brigade and above. However, these systems go no lower than the battalion level. A rifle company remains primarily an analog outfit in FSO where situational awareness is on the commander's map--and with a little luck on a BFT screen if a vehicle is available--and the primary means of communication is FM.

For both the battalion staff and company commanders, the analog-to-digital-to-analog requirement creates unique challenges since we have become accustomed to operating on forward operating bases with mature network infrastructure. Battalion staffs, company commanders, and even platoon leaders are accustomed to planning orders or concepts of operation (CONOPs) in PowerPoint and not producing overlays on acetate or view graph transparencies (VGTs). The latter is a lost art. We (the battalion command group) found ourselves clumsily explaining to the battalion staff how to make map boards and overlays for the battalion operations, fires, and intelligence cells, and the need to ensure that the maps and bolts for hanging the overlays were in the same location on each board so you could transfer overlays between map boards easily. Obviously, there is great capability in what the network and computer systems offer, but they must be weighed against ensuring that the battalion provides the right products to commanders working out of a fighting position and under a poncho with a red lens flashlight. This creates tension as higher headquarters generally prefer computer-generated products. At the bare bones, company commanders need an understanding of the enemy and likely courses of action, a task and purpose, commander's intent, and the CONOPs with associated graphic control measures--all prepared in an analog format that facilitates their military decisionmaking process (MDMP) at the company level. Providing PowerPoint or CPOF-generatcd graphic control measures fail to provide the specific detail that an overlay does on a map and causes the company to lose valuable time in their MDMP process as they try to translate the content to a map. In the end, this requires staffs to now master both analog and digital systems. Ultimately, this merely requires a training solution, SOPs, and a certification process.

As previously stated, the one system that we found most useful at all levels was BFT. Since it generally exists at every echelon, it is the one capability that can provide shared understanding from company to brigade. We evolved into using that as our primary COP and means for sending and receiving information. Our TOC sent warning and fragmentary orders over BFT and spent countless hours drawing in graphic control measures as well as providing overlays to company commanders. This proved useful and redundant to FM communications. Originally, we intended to distribute key information (enemy update/analysis, fragmentary orders, etc.) through the daily logistics package or the commander's battlefield circulation but found it easier to send over BFT and confirm understanding in daily commander's updates over FM. However, we did also use battlefield circulation to enable confirmation briefs and have myself and key staff (S2, S3, and fire support officer) meet with company commanders. Through our experience, we did again recognize the need for additional BFT training, digital SOPs, and a certification process for users.

As we grew to depend on BFT, we recognized that CPOF and BFT were not completely compatible either. Initially, CPOF was the primary COP for the BCT TOC. We received graphic control measures over CPOF yet had to input them into BFT for our companies' situational awareness because the CPOF graphic overlays do not automatically populate in BFT. So not only were we doing analog to digital translation but also digital to digital between CPOF and BFT. Our BCT TOC understood the challenge and recognized that they should initiate putting graphics into BFT to ensure the widest common understanding, and then battalions would make refinements and adjustments and send back up to the BCT TOC.

Additionally, a unique challenge worth noting occurred when the battalion's tactical command post (TAC) left the TOC and assumed control of the fight. This was not an easy decision for the commander as there is now so much capability for situational awareness in a TOC, but there is also something intangible about having eyes on the fight and seeing and understanding what key decisions must be made to ensure success. Battle command on the move for an airborne Infantry battalion remains an austere exercise, especially when the TAC is dismounted. During our deliberate attack, I chose to deploy the TAC. Upon leaving our vehicles, we forfeited BFT, power amps for radios and long distance communications, and the remote viewing terminal to observe unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) feeds. Once again, the leaders were primarily using analog systems (i.e., a map) aside from the potential to use a few satellite-based systems, such as SATCOM or GRRIPs. But, both of these systems can only be used when stationary. Quite frankly, we were even challenged with FM communications in rolling terrain, and the inability to retransmit more than two nets at the battalion level.

At the end of the day, our leaders and staff must understand how to use both analog and digital systems. The network is not 100 percent reliable, and conditions may preclude its establishment for some time as the tactical situation develops. We can solve a good portion of the challenges through a solid training program, SOPs, and a process to certify leaders. However, it clearly appears that we also need to focus increased emphasis on bringing better situational awareness through digital capability to the Infantryman who is dismounted from a vehicle. We need to leverage the capability of the network to the smallest formation possible. While we have been at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the majority of the emphasis has been on vehicles and associated digital systems, and no one is questioning that focus. However, it is time to place increased prominence on providing greater situational awareness for the tip of the spear--the dismounted Infantryman and the junior leaders--in order to support our ability to conduct operations across the full spectrum. Ideally, this should be in the form of a small, BFT-type device that would facilitate situational awareness and an ability to communicate. Providing dismounted leaders with a small, wrist-mounted device akin to a Droid or iPhone (mini-tactical computer) that was networked and equipped with a variety of applications that could provide a chat capability, access to imagery and location/disposition of friendly units, a built-in global positioning system, a camera, and ideally remote viewing capability for UAVs--all while on the move--would be enormously useful and bridge that analog-digital gap identified during our rotation.

In conclusion, full spectrum operations present a variety of unique though not necessarily original challenges in terms of the ability to gain, maintain, and share situational awareness and execute mission command. Leaders must begin with a solid understanding and training on both basic analog systems and digital systems, because both currently play an important role in our ability to gain and provide situational understanding. However, we need to bring to bear our focus on providing increased digital capability to the tip of the spear. Failing to do so is a disservice to our junior leaders and contradicts the fact that tactical success is attained at the company level and below.


LTC Curtis A. Buzzard is currently the commander of 1 st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division. He has served in a variety of command and staff assignments in the 82nd Airborne Division, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, 3rd U.S. Infantry, the Pentagon, and the White House. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and holds a master's in public administration from the Kennedy School of Government and a master's in military science from the Marine Corps University.
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Author:Buzzard, Curtis A.
Publication:Infantry Magazine
Date:Apr 1, 2011
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