FORT HUNTER LIGGETT, Calif. – Record-breaking heat, heavy smoke from wildfires and the COVID-19 pandemic made an already challenging Brigade Warfighter Exercise even more so for the California Army National Guard’s 79th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (IBCT).
The simulated, large-scale combat scenario tests the warfighting competencies of commanders and their staffs and the warfighting functions of the units involved.
“It’s a command post exercise that allows battalion and brigade staffs to actually perform their staff processes,” said Col. Richard Mifsud, 79th IBCT commander. “A warfighter gets us all working together and allows us to highlight our strengths and identify the gaps.”
The San Diego-based 79th IBCT, known as the Thunderbolt Brigade, began preparing and training in 2019 for a warfighter scheduled for two weeks in August 2020 at Fort Hunter Liggett.
In the spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic shifted the unit’s monthly drill schedule, complicating preparations for the exercise. In June, the brigade activated for over a week to support law enforcement in Los Angeles and Sacramento because of civil disturbances.
Despite the challenges posed by COVID-19 and the civil support activation, the brigade pushed forward with warfighter preparation and arrived as scheduled at Fort Hunter Liggett Aug. 14. Soldiers were screened for the coronavirus and briefed on safety protocols that included social distancing, regular hand sanitization, mandatory masks, and sterilization of work areas every four hours.
About 1,500 Soldiers from the 79th set up tents in the field to support the battalions’ training and replicate operating in austere conditions. The brigade headquarters and headquarters company established its tactical operations center (TOC).
Five of the brigade’s seven battalions: 1st Battalion, 184th Infantry Regiment; 1st Battalion, 160th Infantry Regiment; 1st Squadron, 18th Cavalry Regiment; 1st Battalion, 65th Infantry Regiment; and the 578th Brigade Engineer Battalion, began live-fire training events at Fort Hunter Liggett and nearby Camp Roberts. Training included sniper qualifications, mortar and Bangalore torpedo live-fire, squad live-fire and gunnery table operations. The 578th Engineers also trained on digging fighting positions with heavy machinery.
Elements from the brigade’s 1st Battalion, 143rd Field Artillery Regiment, and the 40th Brigade Support Battalion participated in the exercise.
“We held a warfighter while our battalions simultaneously conducted their annual training,” said 79th IBCT Command Sgt. Maj. Rodney Plamondon. “We wanted everyone on the ground at the same time to maximize training opportunities for the command teams and be as efficient as possible.”
In the brigade TOC, the staff planned combat operations in a simulated war in the notional country of Atropia. In the scenario, the country of Ariania invaded Atropia to try to delegitimize the Atropian government. The 79th IBCT became part of an international coalition charged with defeating the Arianian military in a near-peer fight involving all the brigade’s battalions and warfighting capabilities.
The exercise was facilitated by observer, controller, trainers (OC/Ts) from Operations Group Charlie, Mission Command Training Program, from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. OC/Ts coached and mentored brigade Soldiers during the exercise.
Lt. Col. Hew Hiraoka, chief OC/T, praised the brigade for overcoming numerous obstacles during the exercise.
“Your brigade had way more real-world missions than usual that interrupted your glide path to the exercise, as well as real-world challenges during the exercise,” Hiraoka said. “The way you guys dealt with all the real-world issues that kept popping up was impressive. They were never a show-stopper.”
The first week of training, temperatures climbed as high as 114-degrees. A rare lightning storm then set off wildfires across California. Large fires in the Salinas and Big Sur areas created a blanket of smoke that descended onto Fort Hunter Liggett. Masks used for COVID-19 now also protected Soldiers from poor air quality conditions.
“The conditions created more challenges for the staff to mitigate risk to the health and safety of our Soldiers,” Mifsud said.
“We faced heat, smoke, COVID,” Plamondon said. “It was one thing after another that could have stopped training.”
Despite the challenges, the exercise and training continued. On Aug. 23, the brigade staff and battalion commanders conducted a combined arms rehearsal (CAR) in which they walked over a terrain map while they briefed Mifsud on the plan they had developed to defeat Arianian forces. That night, notional combat operations began.
Inside a high-tech computer simulation that replicates how units actually function and fight, a tough battle against a hardened enemy played out in rugged, mountainous terrain. As the exercise entered its final phase, the skies over Fort Hunter Liggett cleared and the typically pleasant California weather returned.
After four days of simulated combat, the 79th IBCT achieved its objectives in a hard-fought operation. The warfighter exercise produced new procedures and honed skills through multiple lessons learned. The 79th’s Planning and Tactical Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) will capture the lessons learned from this event.
“It’s a testament to the professionalism and dedication of our Soldiers and our leadership that we got through it and met our training objectives,” Plamondon said. “We’re trying to foster a learning organization. Even through the tough conditions, the Soldiers trained hard and gave a great effort, both in the field and in the warfighter.”
Mifsud said this annual training period was one of the most challenging in his 29 years in the Army National Guard, but his Soldiers persevered with hard work, resiliency and professionalism.
“This is definitely one of the best brigades out there,” Mifsud said. “I couldn’t be prouder of our Soldiers and my battalion commanders.”