Soldiers board a C-130 during an exercise at Fort Bragg, N.C., in February. The combined joint training exercise was to prepare elements of the 82nd Airborne Division and its partners to act as part of the Global Response Force. (Staff Sgt Vernon Young Jr. / Air Force)
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After standing empty for seven years, the 82nd Airborne Division’s “ready cage” is filled with 22 fully loaded and inspected vehicles that can be airlifted and dropped anywhere around the world.
Now that combat operations in Iraq have ended and the military draws down from Afghanistan, the storied division at Fort Bragg, N.C., can focus on its mission as the Army’s global response force, set to respond to contingencies around the world with little to no notice.
It’s a mission the 82nd Airborne has shouldered for decades, but “being on the conveyer belt, if you will, for Iraq and Afghanistan ... we were unable to have predictable depth here at Fort Bragg to build a force that was able to deploy on little to no notice,” said Brig. Gen. Charlie Flynn, deputy commanding general for operations at the 82nd Airborne.
The mission never went away during the war, but was largely shortchanged because of the division’s constant deployments. The division did, however, dispatch its 2nd Brigade Combat Team to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.
But as the operational tempo slows, the division has had a chance to rebuild readiness and relearn skills that have atrophied because of the wars, Flynn said.
“We’ve been able to increase our readiness for the unknown,” he said.
This includes being able to deploy a battalion-plus task force within 18 hours and an entire brigade within 96 hours, he said.
The global response force mission becomes more critical as the Army transitions from Iraq and Afghanistan and most of the force returns to the U.S., said Col. Pat Hynes, commander of 2nd BCT, which has the GRF mission.
“Our ability to project combat power from [the continental U.S.], and our ability to do so quickly, given the instability of the world and the unpredictability, makes the role of the GRF extremely important to the country,” he said.
Reclaiming the GRF mission hasn’t been easy, said Col. Robert Morschauser, commander of the 18th Fires Brigade, which provides support elements to the GRF unit.
“We had to rebuild systems that, 15 years ago, were part of muscle memory, that were part of our rapid deployment culture,” he said.
His soldiers spent the last 12 years focusing on counterinsurgency operations, and their missions included infantry-type operations and convoy security, Morschauser said. And if they were conducting artillery fire support, the soldiers were typically forward-operating-base-centric, he said.
“Our guys would work from the [combat outpost], very stationary, very lock-step, and we’ve had to relearn how to deploy and how to fight outside the wire,” he said. “Getting artillerymen out there again to truly shoot, move and communicate, relearning how to do that, there are a lot of perishable skills there.”
The division is preparing for a different type of fight, Flynn said.
Deploying to Iraq or Afghanistan provided soldiers and units with relatively secure airfields, standing infrastructure and equipment they could fall into, he said.
“We’re readying ourselves to literally fight off the ramp, and that requires a different degree of preparation at home station to do that,” Flynn said.
This includes regular exercises that enable the paratroopers to practice deploying within 18 hours. The training varies from humanitarian assistance to full-scale forcible-entry operations.
Some exercises take place at the small-unit level, while others include large contingents from the Air Force, special operations and international soldiers.
Morschauser described his brigade’s training over the past 20 months as “crawl, walk, run.”
“We had to start with the very basic soldier skills,” he said. “ ‘This is how you emplace a howitzer,’ step by step. ‘This is how we construct a database in our computer.’ ”
But the unit worked its way up, from squad-level training to battalion- and brigade-level training.
“Now we’re starting to run,” Morschauser said. “We are focusing on the mission command to move, maneuver and then place fires at the time and place of our choosing very accurately. We’re concentrating on the graduate-level tasks, focusing on fires at the battalion and brigade level that are necessary in support of the GRF.”
In October, when 2nd BCT was preparing to assume the GRF mission, the paratroopers flew from Fort Bragg and jumped directly into the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., Flynn said.
“It really gave us a good start point. … That’s been helpful as a road map for us to get to where we are right now,” he said. We’re in much, much better shape in terms of readiness and being trained.”
Part of the effort to rebuild readiness was filling up the “ready cage” again, Flynn said.
“We used to keep 22 to 25 vehicles in there, fully uploaded with ammo, radios, thermal and night devices, and they were ready to fly and be dropped,” he said. “We haven’t had that cage filled in seven or eight years. We just recently filled that cage back up about six months ago.”
The 82nd also is working to load another 58 vehicles into a logistics support area — this will be another rapidly deployable set of trucks.
“To the novice reader, they may say, ‘22 vehicles in a cage, what’s the big deal?’ ” Flynn said. “It’s a big deal. If the national command authority called tonight, we could load them up and go. And I look at the paratroopers’ ability to be recalled in two hours, get all their bags and equipment, and get down to Green Ramp at Pope Army Airfield in less than six hours and be ready to fly away in 18 hours. That is not insignificant, rebuilding that capability.”
Soldiers from 3rd BCT will assume the GRF mission Oct. 1, after completing a rotation at JRTC, Flynn said.
The BCTs will operate on a rotating cycle of training, mission and support, which lines up with the Army Force Generation Model. Each portion of the cycle lasts eight months.
The GRF mission envelops not only the unit on deck for contingencies. The unit in the support cycle, now the 4th BCT, is tasked with helping the GRF deploy if it’s called, Flynn said.
The 1st BCT, which recently completed its reset after a deployment to Afghanistan, is conducting joint exercises and preparing to take on the GRF mission in the future, Flynn said. The division’s combat aviation brigade and the 18th Fires Brigade also are involved.
“They have elements deployed to Afghanistan, but they also have a requirement to keep certain components of their formations on a short string ... because the GRF requires enablers,” Flynn said.
The CAB has a task force of attack, lift and heavy lift helicopters that can deploy with the GRF. The Fires Brigade has a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System platoon and a headquarters cell that is ready to deploy, as well.
Leaders are finding a mix of soldiers who remember the division’s pre-9/11 GRF mission and those who only know the operational tempo of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Flynn described it as “one culture built through training and the other culture built through war,” complementing one another.
The wars gave the soldiers hard-earned lessons learned and advances in technology that will help with the GRF mission, Flynn said.
The division finished testing the airdrop of an up-armored Humvee.
Soldiers applied the lessons they learned conducting convoy operations in Iraq and Afghanistan to how they’re training to fight and move now, Morschauser said.
They’re also applying their recently honed targeting skills, downloading and accessing data, and operating unmanned aerial platforms.
“The leaders in our formations, their agility and their intellectual sharpness on adapting to the environments they’re operating in is so far enhanced from their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Flynn said. “They can adjust to the situations and conditions we put them in far, far better than they ever could in years past.”■