From Field / By LTC Kevin J. Consedine: The 3-82nd General Support Aviation Battalion (GSAB), 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade recently supported the 2-101 Brigade Combat Team (BCT) “Strike,” 159th Infantry Brigade in the first Decisive Action (DA) Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) rotation since the COVID-19 pandemic. Following a four-month moratorium on collective training, Paratroopers of 3-82 GSAB were prepared for a rotation defined by COVID-19 protocols, atrophy of skill sets, and August temperatures in Louisiana. However, after a gun raid and two battalion-sized air assaults in the opening week of force-on-force, the narrative evolved into a viability assessment of the 101st Airborne Division Gold Book given a near-peer threat and non-organic air-ground partners. Following the initial Combined Arms Rehearsal (CAR), a senior leader posed a question to ponder throughout the rotation:
HH-60Ms at Dawn in Tactical Assembly Area Arrow, Aug. 21, 2020./ U.S. ARMY PHOTO BY CPT SHAWN COOPER C CO., 3-82 GSAB
Did experience in the 101st as a Squadron Executive Officer and Brigade S3 better prepare a Multi-Functional Aviation Task Force (MFATF) Commander to support 2-101 during JRTC 20-09?
Understanding of the Gold Book, its planning timelines, and outputs certainly made it easier to anticipate the needs of the Strike Team. However, tactical experience as an aviation officer conducting air assaults in Iraq and Afghanistan contributed more to an ability to support than any alumni status with the 101st. The timelines, inputs, and outputs associated with the Gold Book are more aspirational than practical concerning a DA environment. A couple of points in support of my possible heresy:
First, the 96-hour deliberate air assault timeline is arguably not viable for anything other than an initial joint force employment. JRTC does a tremendous job of replicating a highly dynamic threat environment where units do not have 96 hours to devote to a singular event. Even “Time Constrained Planning” is often difficult given the non-habitual relationships that exist between air/ground units and the requirement for an in-person air mission brief (AMB). That leaves the final option in the Gold Book and what we leveraged most in JRTC 20-09: Hasty Air Assaults planned and executed in one duty cycle.
Second, in a dynamic environment, hasty Air Assaults become the rule versus the exception. Conventional Army Aviation executed in this fashion for years in Iraq and Afghanistan; however, most often in the Direct-Support Rotary Wing domain. In this capacity, aviators work alongside the same group of special operators and develop the habitual relationships necessary to plan and execute air assaults inside a compressed timeline. The planning and contingency development necessary to execute a large-scale air assault vastly exceeds that of small special operations teams. Planning at scale, on a condensed timeline, can be completed virtually with reliable communications media at the Secret (SIPR) level. However, these options were intermittent during JRTC 20-09 and would be in a DA environment, with non-organic air and ground units operating with different command and control (C2) capabilities. These C2 constraints ultimately result in the third Gold Book pitfall: risk acceptance with respect to planning outputs.
Air Mission Coordination Meeting (AMCM) deliverables often become the first casualties of any hasty air assault. There are six critical outputs of the AMCM that serve as the backbone of the AMB: the Air Movement Table (AMT), Communications Card, PZ diagram, LZ diagram, operations sketch capturing the ground tactical plan, and route cards. In the course of hasty planning, we tend to accept risk with half of these documents in the interest of making the mission happen. In three air assaults conducted during JRTC 20-09, AMTs were under revision up to the point of execution. Operational sketches were often unavailable given the use of a SIPR portal with reliability and access challenges from remote tactical assembly areas (TAAs). Communications improved during the final air assault but after significant early challenges: differing Julian dates for frequency hop (FH) communications, communication security (COMSEC) changes not synchronized, and SIPR tools (Wave, MIRC e.g.) not available on account of Wide Area Network (WAN) outages.
Hasty air assaults will likely be the norm against a near peer adversary. However, the Gold Book is highly predicated on organic CABs supporting organic BCTs with habitual relationships and a common C2 architecture established prior to the first AMCM. Absent these commonalities, how do disparate units execute effectively? The remedy is likely a blended solution encompassing task organization, education, and scaling.
If an organic CAB-BCT match is not feasible, having a similar task organization is a plausible mitigation factor. Heavy CABs that do not get the repetition of air assaults, arguably, will have a steeper learning curve supporting a light BCT heavily dependent on rotary-wing for combined arms maneuver. Additionally, education is a huge component of air assault preparation. A BCT or MFATF’s initial planning repetition of a battalion-sized air assault in over six months should not take place at a Decisive Action Training Event. To that end, the 82nd CAB offers an Air Assault Planner’s Course to engender a common planning lexicon between the CAB and BCTs before initial planning begins. Lastly, scaling is critical for the success of air assaults where the task organization resembles more a pick-up game than a deliberate pairing of enablers. In these instances, there is an inverse relationship between the speed of planning and the size of the assault force. For example, if a battalion or brigade level air assault is required, 72 to 96 hours of planning is likely the tactical cost. Conversely, the risk associated with hasty planning is more prudent with a company-level assault or smaller in size.
Despite Hurricanes Marco and Laura contributing to a truncated rotation, JRTC 20-09 served as a needed repetition for the aviation component of the nation’s Immediate Response Force (IRF). The Gold Book is a tremendous framework for air assault planning, significantly more robust and contextual than the Army Aviation SOP and Army Aviation Handbook. However, for purposes of hasty execution, it assumes the existence of several constants between air and ground units in a DA environment: habitual planning norms, the ability to communicate consistently, and the time necessary to generate planning outputs which, coincidentally, are the same across deliberate and hasty operations. As Army Aviation pivots to Multi-Domain Operations, these assumptions will encounter more friction as entities across divisions, as well as Compo 2 and 3 partners, establish the symbiotic relationships required for success. How we task organize, educate, and scale, absent habitual relationships, may well dictate success or failure against Geronimo in Fort Polk, Louisiana to a near-peer adversary on a future battlefield.
LTC Kevin J. Consedine is the commander of 3rd Battalion (General Support Aviation), 82nd Aviation Regiment, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade at Fort Bragg, NC.