Into the Box

So, friend of the Blog Esli is headed to the National Training Center today.  Rotations to NTC were a fixture of life in stateside heavy brigades during the 80s and 90s. The missions might vary a bit from rotation to rotation, but the basic template was the same. Show up, draw equipment and prep for about half a week, spend a week and a half “in the box” fighting against the resident OpFor (Opposing Force), then spend another week and a half doing live fire maneuver on NTC’s massive range complex, then finally spend a few hectic days struggling to turn in equipment before returning to the home station.  The original paradigm for NTC was very much a reflection of the times. The mission sets very closely matched the mission of stateside heavy units to deploy to Germany, draw pre-positioned sets of equipment, and roll into battle with the Warsaw Pact.

NTC has long been the capstone maneuver exercise for brigade sized elements. To be honest, at the combat arms squad sized level, troops didn’t really get much out of it. But for battalion and brigade staffs, it was an all to rare opportunity to actually put into play the techniques of planning and executing combined arms operations. For the logistical and supporting elements of the parent division, it was often the only chance in a training cycle they had to actually conduct their missions under actual field conditions. 

The cost of moving 5000 or so soldiers, and putting them in the field for almost a month is quite high. So the Army, from Day One, strove to get as much value from the training opportunity as possible. Stealing ideas from TOPGUN and RED FLAG, they fielded a dedicated aggressor force (the aforementioned OpFor).

Further, most home station training is evaluated by that units own chain of command, with umpires and evaluators coming from sister units, but ultimately graded by that brigade’s parent division. Yes, a commander has a responsibility to evaluate the training of his subordinate units. But an outside “reality check” is also a good idea. So the NTC has a cadre know as the O/C’s, or Observer/Controllers. Every element of the brigade down to the platoon has an O/C assigned. Each O/C has successfully performed the role which he is evaluation. *

Another aspect of NTC is that the whole thing is wired for sound. And video! Long before the Army even thought of networking vehicles into an internet environment with tools like Blue Force Tracker and FB2C2, every combat vehicle “in the box” at NTC was tracked, most of the movement was videotaped, and key radio networks were recorded.

After every mission, came the AAR or After Action Review. Going out and doing a mission has training value. But the AAR was where the real lessons learned came from.  Each unit would gather with their O/C, and review what it was that was supposed to happen, and then what really happened. And because the whole mission had been recorded, trying to BS your way past your shortcomings and failures was virtually impossible.

You:“I never got the order to move to the flank!”

O/C: “Let’s roll tape!”

Tape: “Move to the flank, roger!”

You: **facepalm**

The goal isn’t to make you look stupid (though it often does) but rather to show weak spots and trends that need improvement. Occasionally, you’ll even see what you do well.

NTC also strives to sow stress and confusion. Combat is stressful and confusing, and NTC has long tried to emulate that as much as possible. The deck is almost always stacked against the visiting team. If you do well on your first missions, they’ll just make later ones harder. The yardstick isn’t so much how many times you defeat the OpFor, but how well you demonstrate the ability to plan and conduct operations under the stress of battle.

NTC isn’t static. The demise of the Warsaw pact saw changes in the way NTC structured rotations (eventually, anyway) making the threat scenario better reflect the geopolitical reality. And during the war in Iraq, as Heavy Brigade Combat Teams rotated into an insurgency torn country, the traditional model was set aside and the BCTs were faced with missions that reflected as closely as possible the operations and threats they would actually face on the ground. Iraqi villages and roadside bombs, meetings with local nationals and supporting host-nation security forces were the order of the day.

But heavy BCTs aren’t being used in Afghanistan, and the Army needs the capability to face any threat, be it an insurgency or a near-peer mechanized maneuver force. Accordingly, recent rotations, including Esli’s current one, will return to a more force-on-force paradigm, while still including the lessons learned from a decade of war.


*At the platoon level, the O/C is usually a Sergeant First Class with successful experience as a platoon sergeant, rather than an officer. After all, an SFC with 15-20 years in the Army is likely to be a better judge of tactical competence than a Lieutenant with 18-20 months of experience as  a platoon leader.

8 thoughts on “Into the Box”

  1. IIRC, Harold Coyle paints a very good picture of the good work done at the NTC. Not to mention that his books are always a good read.

  2. xbradtc:

    This is a fine article which I very much enjoyed reading. As a CALARNG red leg, I never got to go to the NTC. We did have one play date (summer camp) at Fort Irwin before it became the NTC, however.

    I have one small issue to bring up, to wit: a few times I have noticed that when you mean to write “known”, you write “know”. For example in this post:
    “So the NTC has a cadre know as the O/C’s, or…”. This is rather a small thing, but to those of us with a publishing background, it jumps out.

    As I said, a small thing, which does not diminish my enjoyment of this site and its posts. I offer my services in proofreading, for what they may be worth, if that might be at all useful to you.

    Thank you, Paul

    1. Sorry. The keyboard on this computer is dying. I catch most spelling errors, but some sneak through. A new laptop is on the way, so that may help.

  3. So that’s what i am doing here??? Actually i am at Marine logistics Base Yermo, downloading a Brigade’s worth of tracks and rolling stock and pushing it on to Irwin. Man is it cold here or what? Good read on the aircraft carriers in the great lakes but too intensive an effort to go coment on.

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