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Protection, Sustainment, and the Corps Support Area: Challenges and Lessons Learned in the Decisive-Action Environment.

The 13th Expeditionary Sustainment Command (ESC) took part in Warfighter Exercise (WFX) 17-3 at Fort Hood, Texas, in February 2017. In conjunction with III Corps, the 1st Armored Division, the 35th Infantry Division, the 177th Military Police Brigade, the 35th Engineer Brigade, and other units from across the United States, the 13th ESC fully exercised and stressed its staff in a decisive-action fight. In preparation for WFX 17-3, the 13th ESC conducted a command post exercise--functional (CPX-F) to identify strengths and weaknesses. Events were designed to exercise all phases of a deployment for a decisive-action environment. During these exercises, two key force protection challenges related to the sustainment fight of tomorrow were identified: the flexibility to transition from forward operating bases (FOBs) to the decisive-action fight and the sustainer's reliance on external units for force protection. The ESC identified challenges related to the corps support area (CSA) and potential solutions the Army may consider moving forward.


First, sustainment planning and execution must be refocused away from the familiar FOB concept toward a more flexible approach. Anticipation and responsiveness are two principles of sustainment. Per Army Doctrine Publication 4-0, Sustainment, anticipation and responsiveness include the ability to foresee operational requirements and to react and respond to changing requirements, respectively. (1) In other words, these two tenets translate to flexibility. The past 15 years have proven that leaders and planners are resourceful and creative thinkers. Yet, the consistent state of asymmetric warfare has also allowed the formation of habits that may inhibit an adative mindset.

The FOB concept demonstrates this inflexibility. Understanding the transition from the FOB battlefield toward the decisive-action environment is a fundamental challenge facing the Army today. As the military shifts focus back to the decisive-action environment, it can no longer strictly rely on past experiences gleaned from the counterinsurgency fight at company grade levels. The decisive-action environment of the 1990s is also vastly different than that of today.

Technological changes within the past decade have shaped the battlefield of 2020 into something completely unknown. The technology industry has seen unprecedented capability growth in many areas (drones, Web-based communications, anonymous Web access, hacking). This new technology explosion offers the enemy a multitude of new, readily available intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms. As an example, America is slowly losing its monopoly on unmanned aerial vehicle technology. State actors are rapidly advancing this technology, and the advent of online commercial retail sales has made it incredibly simple for any nonstate actor to rapidly acquire cheap drone technology. Rigid planning and a reliance on static locations will exponentially increase vulnerabilities to an extremely adaptive enemy.

Tomorrow's battlefield is unfamiliar to today's leaders and planners. However, thoughtful planning will improve protection efforts in the sustainment fight. The 13th ESC learned that mobility equals survivability. In the battlefield of 2020 and beyond, sustainers will no longer be able to rely on FOBs and massive supply support activities. Our rapid maneuver force rate of march requires flexible and mobile support operations. Preplanned locations for a future logistics support area, coupled with forward logistics elements, result in flexible logistics support for the maneuver unit.

Flexibility on our part can lead to unpredictability for the enemy. Logistics support area locations may operate and close within 48 hours. Supply commodities may be multimodal and multinodal. By using air, ground, and rail, coupled with the logistics civil augmentation program concept, redundancy is injected into supply operations. This makes the enemy job harder and passively protects sustainment on the battlefield. Minimizing static locations also positively impacts cyber protection. The familiar methods of long-term, static FOBs; supply support activities; and supply stockpiles translate to high concentrations of electronic emitters (such as cellular telephones) located throughout the CSA. As the enemy acquires more sophisticated detection methods, it becomes easier to pinpoint critical node locations. Unpredictability and flexibility remain some of the most effective mitigations against this threat to our sustainment forces.

The sustainer's reliance on outside units for major force protection measures was the next challenge identified during the 13th ESC CPX-F and WFX 17-3. ESCs, sustainment brigades, and other sustainment units do not have major internal protection; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets; or the ability to deploy a tactical combat force. In order to best effect force protection, the sustainer must continue to rely on maneuver and maneuver support units. The challenge, however, is different because of the unique dynamics of a decisive-action battlefield. During WFX 17-3, multiple sustainment brigades were task-organized in direct support to the divisions.

The maneuver enhancement brigade (MEB), military police brigade, engineer brigade, chemical brigade, marine expeditionary unit, and air defense artillery brigade are examples of protection enablers in which close coordination is required. Much like a tenant unit on a garrison installation, the ESC relies on the AO owner for base; area and route security; chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive response; and explosive ordnance disposal support. Through proper preplanning and coordination with higher and adjacent units, the ESC is able to prioritize protection requirements and make key recommendations to the enabler on the ground for best effect.

Lessons Learned

Through the CPX-F and WFX, we learned that deliberate cooperation and coordination with adjacent units and area of operations (AO) owners are critical to force protection. Official and commercial chat systems were used to communicate with higher, adjacent, and subordinate units. The unit Command Post of the Future System was the system of record throughout the exercise. All units experienced growing pains in synchronizing these systems. Without this coordination, the 13th ESC could not have effectively enabled decisive or shaping operations.

A key lesson learned from this exercise is the importance of integrating the Support Operations Mobility Section, our transportation battalion (movement control), and sustainment brigades into the protection cell. This integration synchronizes force protection into the movement allocation board. This made the unit better able to recommend the appropriate protection assets to specific convoys and logistical elements. The working group developed an effective critical asset list by merging capabilities and requirements with the Support Operations Mobility Branch, the Protection Cell, and subordinate brigades. This critical asset list remained extremely flexible to the mission-critical logistics movements throughout the joint operations area. In addition, the movement control battalion proved to be instrumental in providing constant and accurate route status information to units throughout the joint operations area. This resulted in mission-critical commodities receiving the proper levels of protection in support of the decisive operation.

Finally, in conjunction with our adjacent partners in the CSA, the 13th ESC learned that the CSA is an AO with unique and specific challenges. It is no less important or mission-critical than a divisional AO, and in many ways, the CSA is more challenging and complex. Unconventional warfare, insurgencies, indirect fires, nongovernmental organizations, international borders, internally displaced persons, and enemy prisoners of war are just a few of the considerations that must be accounted for in the CSA. Add in the corps sustainment distribution mission, and the CSA quickly becomes an unfamiliar and fluid AO. The CSA is its own AO that must be treated in a manner similar to the divisional AOs.

A Way Forward

There must be effective and defined mission command for the CSA as an AO. Field Manual (FM) 3-81, Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, states: "The MEB... is normally assigned an AO and controls terrain. This capability makes the MEB the best organization in the Army to perform support area operations for the division and corps." (2) This was the general concept applied during WFX 17-3. A response cell was tasked to perform the MEB mission in the CSA. However, the 13th ESC, the 177th Military Police Brigade, the 35th Engineer Brigade, and the 196th MEB quickly realized that no true mission command existed in the CSA. Despite being the AO owner, the primary mission of the MEB, in effect, was to facilitate the 13th ESC sustainment distribution for maneuver divisions. The rear area was left with a coordinating headquarters instead of a controlling headquarters.

This exercise clearly identified a mission command gap regarding the CSA. FM 3-81 describes the MEB as tailorable. (3) The size and scope of the rear area in WFX 17-3 (more than 200 square miles) was beyond the effective mission command capability of one brigade. One potential solution is to give operational control of the MEB to the ESC. This would force the ESC to mission command the rear area AO and the entire joint security area. Joint sustainment distribution requires the same dedicated focus as rear area command. Placing both missions within one headquarters would likely render each ineffective. A more effective solution may be to scale the MEB upward in size, proportionate to the size of the expected rear area. It is critical to anticipate how the rear area will shift and grow as divisions move forward and collapse their AOs. A tailored MEB must be able to anticipate and effectively absorb a much larger rear area than that with which it starts.

A properly scaled MEB, with doctrinally codified authority supported by the corps commander, will best mitigate some of the challenges faced during WFX 17-3. A central decision platform that simultaneously tracks patrols, route clearances, logistical movements, air movements, fires, nongovernmental organizations, and civilians is required to efficiently fight the rear area battle. Without a single command node, multiple brigades are left to operate on top of one another, attempting to accomplish a single task.

No Easy Task

In conclusion, the protection warfighting function and the CSA have unique and challenging requirements that have often been overlooked and underestimated. The 13th ESC emphasizes sustainment training for tomorrow's battlefield, not yesterday's. A renewed focus on the sustainment principles and survivability will enable ESCs and sustainers to accomplish the principles of anticipation and responsiveness. The sustainer's reliance on other units for major protection assets will remain, but deliberate coordination and collaboration will best enable supporting operations to the maneuver commander. Without a properly secured and highly operational CSA, maneuver units lose operational reach and freedom of action. The training audiences in WFX 17-3 had the unique opportunity to specifically train and practice this type of fight. All too often the CSA is overlooked during training exercises, often to disastrous results on the battlefield.


(1) Army Doctrine Publication 4-0, Sustainment, 31 July 2012.

(2) FM 3-81, Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, 21 April 2014.

(3) Ibid.

By Captain Karl D. Rauch

Captain Rauch is an operations officer with the 720th Military Police Battalion, Fort Hood, Texas. At the time this article was written, he was the protection operations officer for the 13th ESC. He holds a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Vermont, Burlington, and a master's degree in business and organizational security management from Webster University.
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Author:Rauch, Karl D.
Publication:Military Police
Date:Sep 22, 2017
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