With an eye on Ukraine, Army revamps training to reflect modern war

by Braxton Taylor

FORT IRWIN, California—From the air, the camouflaged headquarters of Maj. Gen. Jim Isenhower looked much like any other rocky hill in the barren desert landscape. 

The effect was almost perfect—except for the distinctive white square of a Starlink satellite antenna that would be all too visible to the commercially available drones used by Blackhorse, the Army unit playing Isenhower’s adversary. 

“Throw a blanket on that,” Maj. Gen. Curt Taylor, commander of Fort Irwin’s National Training Center, instructed one soldier. 

As the Army absorbs the lessons of Ukraine, the service’s top training centers are pushing more and more realistic scenarios on soldiers, while also giving them opportunities to try new ideas, often based on commercial tech such as Starlink. 

The changes reflect the priorities of the new Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Randy George, who is pressing units to adapt to the increasingly surveilled battlefield and to embrace cheap, commercially available tech over multi-billion dollar weapons. 

The Army has “a real sense of urgency,” about operating under constant observation, George said in a January interview. 

Part of the solution is technology that can reduce the threat “in a lot of cases out there,” he said at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) in Louisiana. 

Many of these lessons are based on observations of Ukraine, commanders said. 

“We have been really studying,” said NTC’s Taylor, who cited Ukraine’s New Year’s Eve strike on a Russian base located by tracking soldiers’ cellphones. 

Both Taylor and Col. Matt Hardman, who leads JRTC’s operations group, said they were in regular contact with Security Assistance Group-Ukraine, the U.S.-led organization that coordinates international-led training and equipping of Ukrainian forces.

In recent exercises at NTC and JRTC, soldiers effectively entered the exercise from the  moment they woke up in their home bases, much as they would in an actual war. For one January exercise at JRTC, soldiers flew some 400 miles by helicopter from their base, said Hardman.

For a February training exercise at NTC, soldiers assembled at a railhead some 40 miles away and then drove their military vehicles for the last leg of their journey, said Taylor. The old method would have seen soldiers bus into NTC, allowing them plenty of time to get their bearings. 

“They get off the bus, they think they’re going to bed down and go into admin,” said Taylor.   

The logistic portion also increasingly strives for realism. Before, units receiving artillery shells would receive virtual shells — now they must transport mock rounds weighing the same as the real thing, said JRTC commander Brig. Gen. David Gardner. 

Constant surveillance 

As soon as they enter the training site, soldiers find themselves under constant observation, by drone, satellite, and electronic surveillance. The cellphones they carry become potential homing beacons for enemy forces.

Standing in a command center in the middle of the NTC desert, Maj. John Mahood said that Blackhorse drones had tracked his convoy from the moment they entered the training site all the way to the command center. 

“Almost the entire time that we were driving, there were small UAS systems hovering over our convoy,” Mahood said. “They know we’re here.” 

In the past, opposing forces might not strike a unit’s command post. To replicate the dangers seen in Ukraine and elsewhere, though, those same command posts may now find themselves at the receiving end of a simulated missile or artillery strike. 

“We have no problem doing” mass casualties events at command posts now, said Gardner. Strikes can come as little as three days into the exercise, said 1st Lt. Seth M. Deltenre, Gardner’s aide-de-camp.  

Still, the centers try to strike a balance so that units get in some training before they’re targeted, said JRTC’s Hardwood. 

“We don’t want to give the Kobayashi Maru” scenario, he said, referring to a fictional training exercise in Star Trek meant to be unwinnable. 

In a shift, units hit by simulated enemy fire can no longer call in an easily targeted helicopter to evacuate soldiers from the exact spot where they were injured, said Gardner. Instead, “wounded” soldiers are dragged back to casualty stations farther from the front line. 

Jamming is ever-present, with units’ communications and GPS signals attacked by the soldiers playing their enemies. Besides cutting units’ ties with their command posts, the attacks also increase the potential for (simulated) friendly-fire, said Taylor. 

“We have to be more deliberate with procedural control,” said Taylor, referring to controlling units by designating certain areas as free-fire zones, and certain areas as off limits. “We can’t have positive control, which means ‘I know where you are at all times’.” 

Technical experimentation 

NTC and JRTC have become hotbeds of technical experimentation with better ways to hide, evade, or strike back.  

At the most basic level, at least some command posts now come equipped with camouflage nets that also serve to dampen the electronic magnetic signature of the equipment inside. 

Some units, like Isenhower’s command post, are also making use of high-powered communications tech borrowed from the commercial world. Starlink devices, as used, can provide high-bandwidth communications in small, easy-to-use packages. Other units use Kymeta, a Starlink competitor. 

At one command post at JRTC, the older alternative to these next-gen satellite services was clear to see: a large dish at least five times the size of the Starlink. 

Other communications tools include equipment that lets soldiers access cell networks, allowing them to both hide in the mass of civilian signals and gain fast internet access. 

Units are also leaning on TAK, commercially available tracking software, to improve coordination. Deployed units, vehicles, and command posts are  all using some version of the tool. At JRTC, the TAK gear had allowed two command posts to shed most of their bulky monitors and cables. Instead, they used just a projector and a sheet to display the locations of their forces. 

Re-learning old skills

Yet some units are relearning lessons hardly changed since WWI, such as: low-ranking commanders must make decisions on their own; U.S. forces will be under threat from the air; soldiers must learn to dig foxholes.  

For one, the risk of communications being jammed or tracked means that commanders must now become skilled at issuing clear yet simple instructions, said Gardner. 

That’s no easy task, said Mahood, noting that officers must now write clear, succinct orders even as they battle stressful situations. It’s also a “mental shift” for senior officers, he said, who are used to their staff producing more detailed plans. Officers must adjust to seeing that orders are “good enough,” he said. 

Soldiers also have to learn to hide. At NTC, they moved their vehicles under warehouses to keep them away from prying drones and satellites, just as in Ukraine soldiers often make use of bridges and other buildings to conceal themselves. 

Individual soldiers, meanwhile, are learning to take cover from drones by using the woods of JRTC, according to Hardwood. 

“Rotational training units are getting better and better at camouflage cover concealment and dispersion, most importantly, in terms of the small UAS threat,” said chief warrant officer Christian Lehr, a member of Geronimo, the unit that plays the Army adversary at JRTC.

Units are also doing their best to reduce the amount of equipment needed to set up command posts, and to practice taking them down quickly to prevent being easily targeted. 

Capt. Charles O’Hagan of the 101st Airborne’s second brigade, said that his unit had done an audit of the headquarters and stripped away every possible unnecessary cable. 

After running multiple drills, the unit shrank the time needed to break down the camp to 35 minutes — down from the hour and a half that it took the first time. The unit eventually hopes to get down to twenty minutes, he said. 

And even as drones take over the sky, the infantry will still have to learn a basic skill since the time of the Romans: how to dig, fast. 

Such skills are necessary to cope with artillery and other long-range fires. 

“We’ve got to get serious about dig-or-die,” said Taylor. When simulated artillery lands, “We’re gonna we’re going to be very unkind to you as to how we assess casualties.”

George’s last stop at JRTC took him to the newly dug position of the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment company. Its soldiers had spent 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. the previous night digging foxholes in cold, wet weather in the Louisiana forest. Their camouflaged-smeared faces looked out over machine guns and anti-tank weapons. As much as drones and satellites may have changed war, they were no less tired for sleeping the night in a muddy hole. 

“I hope they come,” one soldier said as George departed. “I didn’t dig this for no reason.” 

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