An exercise about 18 months in the making is taking place at North Fort Hood, as the 166th Aviation Brigade trains and evaluates 1,453 Soldiers in preparation for deployment.
The Archangel Brigade is working closely with National Guard troops from 10 different states, figuring out their strengths and weaknesses, then training them to improve in all the mission essential tasks. Col. Ronald Ells, commander of the 166th Aviation Bde., said preparing for the cumulative training exercise is a lengthy process. Once he found out from U.S. Army Forces Command what the mission will be for the National Guardsmen, he met with Col. Greg Fix, commander of the 34th Avn. Bde., to start the ball rolling.
“That’s really where we figure out, from his stance, ‘Hey, my team really needs to work on X, Y and Z,’” Ells explained. “His commander’s training objectives, getting at those mission essential tasks, help build what we call a single integrated training plan. It’s just a horse blanket (deatiled plan) of individual and collective stuff that we’re gonna do with the 34th while they’re here on the ground.”
Fix serves as the brigade commander of the National Guard Soldiers, bringing together three battalions worth of troops to train together as a brigade and be evaluated by First Army.
“The Army has a system of evaluation,” Fix said. “There’s a list of collective tasks I’ve chosen to be evaluated on and so I agreed to that with the 166th Avn. Bde. Col. Ells takes that (task list) and he sets up a scenario that injects operational events and forces me to perform our tasks to complete those.”
Ells and Fix explained that downrange, the mission often requires two simultaneous missions, with command posts 600 or more miles away from one another. To simulate those missions, Fort Hood is working with Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for combined training. Around 600 troops are training at Fort Sill, while the others train at North Fort Hood. Ells said they have also received assistance from the Hood Mobilization Bde. to facilitate the annual weapons qualification, Army Regulation 350-1 training, medical validations and received their rapid fielding initiative combat gear.
Some of the tasks the aviators need to complete include medical evacuation, air assault, air movement and hoist training, among others.
On the ground, troops are being trained on air traffic control operations, aircraft mechanics and other essential duties that help an aviation brigade operate smoothly.
Sgt. 1st Class Dean Wandersee, an air traffic controller from Company F, 1st Battalion, 189th Avn. Regt., said they have been running upwards of 200-300 aircraft movements per day.
Wandersee works as the shift supervisor of the control tower and the radar facility, which runs precision approaches.
“We have a lot of new Soldiers who have never talked to aircraft before, so they’re all getting the experience necessary to accomplish our mission overseas,” Wandersee said.
As mission essential tasks are completed, Ells and Fix meet to discuss what changes will be made going forward. They also adjust training plans based on how the mission changes downrange.
“That’s the fine balance that we have to dance,” Ells said. “Every night, we’re talking to each other and tweaking things as we go, based on meeting training objectives and focusing on other objectives.”
Fix explained that it used to take around six months to collectively train the National Guard for deployment. The length of time for training has steadily decreased and is currently down to roughly 60 days, give or take any weather delays.
After the training is complete, Ells will send his recommendation to Maj. Gen. Frank Tate, commander of First Army – Division West, who serves as the validation authority for training conducted within his brigade.
Ells said the entire cycle is pretty complex, but is built on a good working relationship and never forgetting that they are all in the U.S. Army, no matter what component. He said many people do not realize about 50% of the Army’s combat aviation power comes from the National Guard and Reserve components.
“Once you’re deployed, we’re aviators – we’re all doing the same thing,” Ells said. “I think what makes this model so effective is the early engagement and the constant commander-to-commander dialogue.”