BOISE, Idaho – Thunderous booms echo across the high desert plains as Oregon Army National Guard Soldiers unleash rounds on their targets from M1A2 SEP v2 Abrams tanks and M2A3 Bradley Fighting Vehicles. Their goal is to accurately project fire on steel and master the art of mechanized battle against heavy metal threats.
The 3rd Battalion, 116th Cavalry Regiment (Combined Arms Battalion), headquartered in La Grande, Oregon, had extra time to hone its gunnery and maneuver skills this year with an increased training tempo due to an initiative known as Army National Guard 4.0.
"Selected units get additional training days to meet national security goals," said Lt. Col. Joseph W. Lundell, commander of 3-116th Battalion. "This is no longer a traditional one-weekend-a-month and two-weeks in the summer type of unit."
The Army National Guard (ARNG) of today is a fully operational combat force, spanning nearly two decades of deployments and integration with active-duty counterparts. The ARNG 4.0 initiative is designed to provide a more rapid response to meet the Army’s changing needs in the increasingly complex global future of the 21st century.
"We are implementing this transformation because our country needs us to do so. This is due to the current size of the total Army and the multiple threats that our country faces from potential adversaries," said Lt. Gen. Timothy Kadavy, director of the Army National Guard, in a National Guard Bureau news release.
That means an increase in the number of training days leading up to a potential deployment, which translates to better readiness and reduced training times when a unit is mobilized. The Sustainable Readiness Model (SRM), a process for generating trained forces for deployment, lays out a four-year cycle for focused readiness units. The number of increased training days varies depending on the unit and the year of its SRM cycle.
The 3-116th Battalion has been affected by these changes as an armor unit in the 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team (CBCT), a heavy brigade headquartered in Boise, Idaho. Instead of the traditional 39 days, the battalion completed 54 training days this year. Next year, the battalion will train for 60 days in the third year of its SRM cycle. It will train for approximately 50 days in the fourth year, and be ready to potentially mobilize in the fifth year.
"Soldiers want to deploy, they all want to go do something that makes a difference," said Lundell. "In order to do that we have to maintain a high level of readiness."
The extra training time can be difficult to balance with civilian careers, but Lundell said communication is the key factor. The battalion hosted town hall events and worked with Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR) to get the word out to employers.
"We want to be up front with employers regarding the training dates and let them know the timeframes as soon possible," he said. "The town halls helped open up lines of communication and we asked for their feedback. Rescheduling and having to hire backfill personnel for long periods of time is costly for them. They all agreed they would rather see two-week annual training periods, spaced out, and know when the Soldiers will be gone well in advance."
Throughout the month of April 2018, the battalion rotated its companies through gunnery qualifications at the Orchard Combat Training Center (OCTC), near Boise, Idaho. Each company spent 14 days conducting gunnery.
"We spaced the companies out to keep the two-week training aspect for our civilian employers," said Lundell. "The Soldiers are having fun; they are happy doing the training they joined to do."
Soldiers qualified on their weapon systems in phases known as ‘tables’ for crew, squad and platoon level gunnery. The battalion fired everything from sniper rifles and mortars to Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Abrams tanks.
"Soldiers get to spend more time in their [Military Occupational Specialty], that’s the biggest benefit of the extra training time," said Command Sgt. Maj. Ambrosio R. Siller, the battalion command sergeant major. "The other benefit is spending more time building cohesive teams and bonds to make the unit strong."
Gunnery was preparation for the larger training objective this year. In June, the battalion headed back to Idaho for another annual training stint at OCTC, where the 116th CBCT conducted eXportable Combat Training Capability (xCTC). The xCTC exercise is a collective field-training requirement designed to certify platoon proficiency across the brigade in coordination with First Army.
"During xCTC we work on platoon and company level tasks; move-to-contact, attack and defend, properly build battle position," said Lundell. "We practice working with enabler units; engineers and [Unmanned Aircraft Systems]. How effectively do we integrate our mortars and scouts? It’s definitely a chance to get the kinks out and refine our [Standard Operating Procedures]."
The 116th CBCT maneuver units conducted force-on-force simulated battle scenarios against opposing forces (OPFOR) from the Ohio Army National Guard’s 145th Armored Regiment. The units were equipped with a laser tag system, known as Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System (MILES), which recorded ‘hits’ appropriate for each weapon’s capability during simulated attacks. Observer Coach Trainers (OCTs) from the 189th Combined Arms Training Brigade, First Army Division West, assessed the brigade’s performance during the exercise.
"The exercise was an overwhelming success due to everyone’s efforts," said Col. Scott Sheridan, brigade commander of the 116th CBCT, in an Idaho National Guard news release. "During the high optempo, sprits remained high, motivation excelled and the professionalism that was on display was top notch."
In August, members of the battalion also participated in the Brigade Warfighter exercise, a collective training event for commanders and their staffs. The computer-simulated war game tested command and control processes during complex combat scenarios as First Army OCTs mentored the staff using Army doctrine.
It seemed the training year was finally coming to a close, but preparing to fight the nation’s battles doesn’t mean foregoing the homeland mission. Nearly 200 Soldiers of the 3-116th Battalion were activated in late July/early August for State Active Duty to support wildfire suppression efforts in Southern Oregon. The Soldiers said the last-minute call-up was the most challenging part of their busy summer.
"It’s been difficult for everybody because they have families, they have normal civilian jobs, they’re single parents, business owners and farmers, and they had very short notice," said 1st Lt. Calvin Halladay, with Detachment 1 (Scouts), Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 3-116th Battalion, who led one of the firefighting crews. "As difficult as it may be for everybody to rearrange their schedules and coordinate with employers, the opportunity to help our fellow Oregonians on the home front is a pretty big deal."
The time spent away from home is also difficult for families to balance. The battalion has been working with their Family Readiness Groups to invite families into the armories during drill.
"Whether it’s for a self-defense class or discussions about financial planning and military benefits, the goal is to put faces to names and make the families a welcome part of the battalion," Lundell said.
Next year, the 3-116th Battalion will turn around and do it all over again as the 116th CBCT ramps up for a trip to the Mojave Desert in June 2019 to face off in a heavyweight match against U.S. Army OPFOR at the National Training Center (NTC) in Fort Irwin, California. It's all part of the plan to prepare for real-world missions.