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After years of fighting insurgencies, the Army pivots to training for a major war

Prolific military correspondent Sean Naylor wrote a piece for Yahoo News, about how the U.S. Army is refocusing its training from low intensity conflicts (LIC) to major conflicts with near-peer adversaries (e.g. Russia and China).

This year’s National Defense Strategy charged the military with preparing for high-intensity conflict against major nation-state threats like Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.

I was on the front end of the Army's transition to LIC focused training, back in 1987. I had just missed my unit's rotation through the National Training Center (NTC) in California, which is focused primarily on fighting a heavy tank force in a desert environment, and in the five years that I was in the unit, we never went back.

Right about the time that I arrived at Fort Bragg, the unit began training for an airfield seizure mission, which was a quick parachute insertion on an airfield followed by a transition into a defensive posture to allow heavier follow-on forces to land on the runway (we would eventually perform this mission in 1989, on Panama's Tocumen International Airport).

One of the faulty assumptions that Army officers made in the years between Vietnam and Iraq was that units trained for high-intensity conflict would be able to handle anything else. “If we can face the Russians, then we can handle these guerrillas,” was how [LTG Guy] Swan described their attitude. “And that was not the case.”

There was definitely still some focus on a near-peer conflict when I was in; armor identification, Soviet tactics and large-scale defensive alignments, but by far the major focus was on LIC. The Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) had just opened at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas and we were still making regular rotations through the Jungle Operations Training Center (JOTC) at Fort Sherman, in Panama. Both of these training centers focused on small unit tactics against an irregular enemy fighting force. These training centers were in addition to the regular training - primarily airfield seizure, but also defense against armor formations - that was occurring at Fort Bragg.

As the Army’s commitment to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began to wind down, “there was almost a sense of relief that we can go back to ‘real soldiering,’” like after Vietnam, said [General David] Petraeus.

I think the sense of relief (and I agree with the General, there is a sense of relief!) is that a reduction in the operating tempo (OPTEMPO - the frequency of operations) will allow the Army to dedicate more time to training, and thus a broader range of training scenarios, than they have been able to do while constantly rotating units in and out of Afghanistan and Iraq.

If you are at all interested in the current state of the U.S. military, I recommend reading Naylor's piece in its entirety. There are quite a few conflicting opinions among the senior leaders quoted, and he dedicates a healthy portion of the article to the Army's new Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFABs) which I have serious doubts about, but that's a discussion for another day.

-- Scrib