Army exercise meshes combat with nation building

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Posted: Saturday, February 21, 2009 1:07 am

John Milburn

Associated Press Writer

FORT LEAVENWORTH (AP) — Maj. Don King and his men were stuck between advancing insurgents and an impassable river.

For two hours, they held off the enemy, waiting for engineers to arrive and rebuild bridges the insurgents had destroyed and for reinforcements with tanks and armored vehicles. Eventually, they were successful, defeating the insurgents and restoring order, one of many battles in the war for a breakaway republic in an oil-rich region.

It may sound real, but the action took place on computers, part of the training at the Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. More than 950 officers engaged in the mock war against an enemy in a fictitious Caspian See country. The simulated war mixed a major invasion, such as the World War II D-Day invasion or the 1991 U.S. invasion of Iraq, with the ugliness of fighting an insurgency while keeping stability in the region.

“It’s not realistic, exactly, but it helps me,” said King, 38, from Shreveport, La. He was an adviser in Iraq for a year, deploying from Fort Riley, and played the role of a commander of an air assault brigade ordered to cross a river and hold his position until the main body arrived.

The officers, who are training after promotions to major, will graduate from the school this summer. Most expect to be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, where they will make their decisions in real time.

As part of the exercise, which was like a giant computerized version of Risk, the officers engaged in traditional warfare while fighting insurgencies and rebuilding the invaded country. Movements took hours to execute as orders were punched into the computer. Instructors push the “send” button and the battle lurches forward.

The officers had to defeat an inferior but capable force, secure an oil-rich region and negotiate peace terms. They encountered insurgents as operations advanced, affecting a coalition of U.S., British and Turkish units, as well as the population.

“This is the pressure cooker that they use to build staff officers,” Maj. Chris Nyland, 33, of Seattle, said.

Nyland played the role of the division operations officer, coordinating movements and decisions with other members of the division staff. Once an action was decided, the operations officer sent orders to the units. Nyland had to run around the room to speak with other officers, gathering information and preparing options for the division commander.

Make the wrong assumption and subsequently the wrong decision and the outcome of the battle or entire operation can be hindered, Nyland said.

While officers are used to training for major combat, stability operations — often called nation building — is a challenge, as is learning to measure results.

“You often can’t tell what the public approval is. There’s a lot of guesswork involved. We have to measure different things,” Marine Maj. Andy Johnson said. “There are a lot of things that you and I take for granted that we are trying to superimpose.”

The backdrop of Iraq — where major combat operations were declared over by the summer of 2003, but fighting the insurgency and rebuilding the government, economy and infrastructure is ongoing — colored the officers’ decisions. They had to resist the urge to simply destroy everything in site to defeat the enemy, because they eventually would have to rebuild it.

“There are a lot of the issues we are dealing with in the exercise that are true to form that I almost have flashbacks,” Nyland said.

In the mock battle, instructors could help officers review mistakes and try again. If a unit is defeated because of tactical decisions, the game is halted. Officers identify their missteps, correct the action and resume playing.

“Some days they’re right on the mark. Others, we have to change it,” said Lt. Col. Troy Fodness, an instructor.

Johnson, who will be heading to Iraq or Afghanistan early next year, said situational awareness and information sharing were keys.

“There’s an art of communicating the options to make sure everyone knows what they need to know,” said Johnson, 36, of Summerfield, Fla.

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