On August 5 and 6, a whole mess of senior Pentagon leadership and military brass will convene in California’s Mojave Desert to witness something both spectacular and confusing. In the middle of the night, under a bright desert moon, US soldiers bristling with high-tech weaponry and other assorted killamajigs will gently parachute from the sky, then capture and secure an objective. Sort of.
It will be the grand finale of Operation Dragon Spear, an exercise from which the bigwigs are supposed to draw useful conclusions about how the US military will fight in years to come. The army, like the rest of the military, is still working through the implications of President Barack Obama’s shift from the George W. Bush-era focus on fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. This involves planning for threats other than insurgents and suicide bombers, which means thinking about the kind of big, proper armies capable of fielding lots of heavy weapons like tanks, ground attack aircraft, artillery, and helicopters. That, in turn, will drive changes in US equipment and training.
One of the biggest budgetary challenges the Army faces today is that it lacks the money to fund unit training above the platoon level. It takes money to pay for the fuel and spare parts and ammunition to take a company, battalion, or BCT someplace and let them run around and do their thing. Major training rotations at NTC, Hohenfels and other training centers are still happening, but the normal round of crawl, walk, run training that takes place before these capstone exercises has been badly truncated.
And as Vice mentions, there’s a big difference between training and experience gained fighting in Afghanistan, and the combined arms skills needed to defeat a near peer power. The vast majority of people in the Army today have little or no experience in that combined arms high intensity maneuver. One suspects this exercise is going to have some serious setbacks for the good guys.
On the other hand, we do have solid doctrine and equipment tailored for this role, and if the basic small unit skills are reasonably well trained, the ability to relearn the large collective tasks will remain, and the learning curve, while steep, will not be impossible.