FORT BRAGG, NC, UNITED STATES
FORT BRAGG, N.C. – It begins inauspiciously, with a gathering of geeks on the edge of an empty parade ground used more commonly for grand occasions such as coronations of new division commanders. Arguably, these geeks are among the coolest because they also jump out of airplanes, but they are still geeks, and soon, they are talking about joint network nodes, KU-band satellites, internal WANs and ABCS. That is, Army Battle Command Systems.
The geeks are paratroopers who belong to the “Six Shop,” or communications department, of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team, and their job is to thread the nerves and erect the ganglia of their brigade staff’s command post, a tactical operations center, for a three-week training exercise called a TOCEX.
“The TOC is really the center of mission command for the brigade or the battalion,” explains the Devil Brigade’s executive officer, Lt. Col. David Gardner, a Ranger-tabbed infantry officer and West Point graduate who began his career with the 82nd in 1995 as a second lieutenant.
“A TOC is designed to assist the commander in understanding the situation, understanding the decisions he has to make, when he has to make them, and then to be able to synchronize the execution of those decisions that he’s made.”
Prior to the TOCEX, technicians with the brigade’s communications personnel spent a week on Pike Field in an exercise dubbed a SWITCHEX, connecting network equipment to the Army’s hub at Fort Gordon, Ga., which gave them access to the Internet and the military’s secure network, according to Sgt. 1st Class Nicholas Curry, noncommissioned officer in charge of the technicians. They also established an internal wide-area network, linked to the brigade’s subordinate battalions, emplaced servers and finally, set up the various Army Battle Command Systems, computerized systems employed by various components of the staff.
Phase I of the TOCEX followed with a week of erecting the physical structure of the command post. Giant tent-like domes were erected and connected, network cables run and phones and computers installed. There to help were more than a dozen civilian contractors like Ken Stewart, a staff integrator for a command-post staff integration team.
“During Phase I, we typically assist a unit in establishing tents, environmental control units, power and power grid, section cells, and configuring information systems on network,” says the Fayetteville native and retired 31-year armor veteran. “Once the command post is established, all of the ABCS info systems, all of the power generation, and all of the other shelters that are attached to the command posts are working, we go into another event that we call Phase II, which is primarily focused on staff training and staff integration.”
Once upon a time before back-to-back deployments and the breakneck wartime pace of fielding newer and better equipment, the Army could always find among its ranks an expert for any given task.
“Whether it be knocking out a bunker or building a standard drop in the TOC so that all your maps would match each other when you put different overlays on there, there was generally always someone who knew how to do that because they had done that for years,” says Gardner. “In this kind of environment, everybody’s learning together, so you don’t have that same depth of expertise you once had.”
With subject-matter experts leaving the brigade following each deployment, it’s a constant cycle of training their replacements, says current operations sergeant major, Master Sgt. Walter Embich. That’s one of the reasons the Army relies on civilian contractors to help.
“There is no MOS for battle non-commissioned officer, there is no job for that RTO. These are infantrymen, cavalry scouts, signal specialists. All these soldiers working in the TOC fill these roles. We do send them to schools. This happens to be one of them, the Command Post of the Future training. We’re at the crawl phase right now as they learn to utilize their systems.”
CPOF is what they learned in the final phase. It is a computer system through which every staff section can send their information to current operations, which puts it together in one system.
“It’s a really good tool,” says Embich. “We can do a lot with map overlays, we can track personnel, Blue Force Tracker -type operations in the sense of who’s out there, where they’re at, what they’re doing. That’s what their training was this week. The big training, the graduate-level, will be at the Battle Command Training Center in mid-April where they’ll have a real scenario that everybody will be involved in.”
Gardner cautions the staff to maintain a sense of purpose in the face of new technology, especially when it comes to briefing the brigade commander in regularly-scheduled battle update briefs, or BUBs.
While a commander may pick up pieces of information throughout the day, the BUB is an opportunity for him to sit down and get it all at once. It gives him more of a “so what,” says Gardner.
“For the staff, it’s about getting the most out of the tools you have, but for the purpose of enhancing the awareness and understanding of the commander, and then, as a byproduct, the rest of the staff who are listening as well. A product that doesn’t serve that purpose and is just there because you can do it isn’t really worth the time of briefing or developing.”
TOC training was the overall goal; the BUB was one way to show what they learned, according to brigade current operations officer, Maj. Jason Glemser.
“This week, everyone was able to take what they learned in all the classes and bring all their analyses together to produce one product, and the product that we chose was the battle update brief to update the commander.
According to Stewart, during the TOCEX the brigade was working on real-world issues surrounding its upcoming training mission at Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La. As well, some staff sections, such as personnel, were performing all their normal day-to-day garrison operations from the TOC.
“That helps us trainers because it shows the brigade how busy it could be in a command post and how they have to manage all that information that comes in,” says Stewart. “The brigade is doing very well, by the way. The leadership and the soldiers have been nothing less than spectacular.”
With the tight training schedules imposed by two wars, brigade planners don’t have the same broad canvas before them as they once did, which, according to the brigade executive officer, may atrophy staffers’ command of the Army’s eight-step training management model.
“Right now, many of the things that we have to get done in the approximately one year that we have, must be synchronized across the installation and across the Army,” says Gardner. “That lays a lot of our training plan out for us, while in the past, we had to develop our own training based on our long-range target, whether that be a deployment, a Combat Training Center rotation, or just the annual training that we wanted to accomplish. We had to figure out our training needs and priorities.
“We simply can’t settle for just the training provided to us. We have to find ways to get the most out of this training, and when we are not on a one-year glide-path to deployment, we have to understand how to keep this brigade at a level of excellence.”
From the enlisted soldier’s perspective, operations sergeant major Embich says it is important that staffers on the TOC floor remember that their actions always affect soldiers on the ground.
“Because I came from the companies as a first sergeant up to the brigade staff, then went back down, and now I’m back up here as the ‘OPS’ sergeant major, I am very aware of this,” said Embich, an infantryman by trade who has spent 19 years in airborne, light-infantry and cavalry scout units.
Everything the brigade does comes from the TOC, says Embich. Missions filter to the battalions; the battalions make their plans and pass them down to companies, which formulate their plans and hand them to the soldiers in platoons, who move out and execute.
“It’s sometimes hard, but you shouldn’t lose focus on the fact that, for every decision you make in the TOC, someone’s going to have to go do something. Let’s put all our effort into making the right decision with the best information we have at the time, and then continue to develop it through [supplemental orders, or ‘frag-Os’].
“Let’s go get the best information out there to continue the mission, whether it is for soldiers cleaning the motor pool and how it’s supposed to be done, or soldiers in contact with the enemy. The people here in this brigade really do care about that.”
As the TOCEX winds down, Embich points to a young captain, a “subject-matter expert” only because he has had a few more days of training than some in the tent. The captain is helping fellow soldiers to understand the ABCS spread across three computer screens. It’s nice to see them interacting, helping others in different sections. They’re not just going through the motions.”
“Is this fun? No. Would I rather be at machine gun leaders’ course helping train soldiers? Yes. Would I rather be at cavalry gunnery? Yes. But we do these here so they can go do that out there.”
Gardner agrees that fun is not necessarily the same as satisfaction; it is all about leadership and about watching people grow and learn.
“Yes, there’s a satisfaction as a young lieutenant planning a live-fire range with a company and the entire company getting trained and having fun, but at the same time, it’s just as satisfying to see people relatively unskilled on Army Battle Command Systems and to see them learn to employ those tools. It’s all satisfying, just different kinds of things getting you from here to there.”
There’s a balance that needs to be achieved in a TOC, and with its first BUB in the bag, 1st Brigade is one step closer to finding the sweet spot in what they should do from what they can do, and that, as Gardner points out, only comes with practice.
First on the field, the geeks are also the last ones to leave. Weeks of 15-hour days have been like a mini-deployment, but after three weeks, they’re finally over.
“We had to conduct operations out here, while at the same time, continue on with garrison operations,” says NCOIC Curry. “It has been a lot of ripping and running. Pretty much the whole event was training for us. Very good training.”
||FORT BRAGG, NC, US
This work, The making of a battle update brief, by SGT Mike MacLeod, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.