April 30, 2004

Fort Pickett hosts Joint Forces training exercise

By Gary Watts
Fort Pickett UPAR

A United States Navy MH-53 supporting Southbound Trooper IV with humanitarian relief items. (Photo by LT Mike Drindak, HM-14, U.S. Navy) Click HERE to see more photos.

The sun had set hours before; the temperature was plummeting in the darkness of the February night. It would not be long now, for the moonrisA e was near and the mission was almost complete. In the distance, the snaps and pops of rotor blades beating the chilly night air were growing more strident by the moment and echoing across the barren landscape.

Conscious of the cold but acutely aware of the record setting weather back home in Canada, the company commander checked with his radioman for any revisions to the plan that had been worked and reworked for months. In a matter of minutes, the helicopters, the venerable CH-46 and the more modern UH-60, would have completed the infantry company extraction from the dusty pickup zone. A successful extraction aided by night vision goggles would signal the end of the fourth deployment to the United States by the Princess Louise Fusiliers. Exercise Southbound Trooper IV was drawing to a close.

Why would the Canadians travel over 1200 miles, spending thousands of dollars for transporting personnel, equipment and ammunition? Why would a light infantry battalion from Nova Scotia make this effort? After all Canadian Forces Base Gagetown is about 200 miles away from Halifax and is six times larger than Fort Pickett.
The answer is as simple as it is complex. Facilities unique to Fort Pickett, such as the MOUT site at the National Guard Maneuver Training Center are not available at CFB Gagetown. As land forces of most western nations prepare for future armed conflict or peacekeeping missions, it is critical that the modern military adequately train in urban settings.

Keeping the Soldier well trained, interested and challenged leads directly to individual motivation, thereby contributing immeasurably to esprit de corps. Pride in the unit forges a direct path to retention while retention assures mission accomplishment and the effective use of national defense resources. Keeping the Soldier motivated is not particularly difficult but challenging in that it requires innovative thought, extensive prior planning, long-range goals and careful execution. A Soldier that has been removed from his own country, transported across an international border and afforded the opportunity to practice his skills in new environment with Soldiers, sailors, Airmen and Marines from the host country cannot help from being positively influenced. For these reasons and the unique opportunities available to them at Fort Pickett, the Canadian Forces have elected to train in the United States.

The Fusiliers have crossed the border before to train on National Guard facilities. In doing so, they have incorporated training activities with aviation, infantry and transportation units from the New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania Army or Air National Guard. Unit deployments prevented some units from participating in Southbound Trooper IV. The Fort Pickett staff coordinated with units from the United States Marine Corps Reserve, as well as active duty units from the United States Navy and the United States Army.

A direct outcome of the Southbound Trooper exercise is a National Guard Bureau concept known as United States – Canada Twinning. Conceptually the Twinning idea will provide the opportunity to prepare for wartime tasks on new terrain, present the possibility for new training partners and expedite cross border movements for units on both sides of the longest unguarded border in the world.

The weeklong exercise, the most aggressive and complex attempt at integrated, joint, and combined training by the Fusiliers, was so dynamic that the Commander had to enforce mandatory sleep periods on his Soldiers. The operations plan was filled with helicopter internal and external sling load missions, insertions or extractions using dissimilar aircraft, patrolling, platoon and company assaults, defensive operations, range and field artillery firing combined with close air support missions. The individual numbers of military personnel in the exercise may have been relatively low; however the training was conducted at a much higher and more intense level than normally associated with a single battalion.

The exercise taxed the battalion staff and the staffs’ of the supporting units, with a myriad of details that required resolution, ranging from equipment (kit, in Canadian parlance) transport over 1,200 miles to the intricacies of airmobile operations and field artillery safety. Even the vagaries of a common language had to be overcome by the Canadian Forces, Army, Marine and Naval aviation, field artillery and Air Force close air support elements as they discussed operational issues.

Even the Training Center staff, as the host facility, was actively involved in the exercise, having assisted the participating units for nearly a year as the operation was planned. The operations tempo was sufficiently high to cause some concern that non-participating training or mobilizing units would miss some of their scheduled training events. There was not a single organization that scheduled training at Fort Pickett in February, 2004 that failed to reach their objectives. The local community of Blackstone was also involved in helping the Canadians reach their training goals by participating as role players and assisting with transportation and refueling issues.

All members of the combat, combat support and combat service support elements involved in Southbound Trooper learned a great deal; some of it was new and in some cases, it was a matter of honing skills already acquired. The United States forces refined their procedures, identified questions to be answered in another forum attained a higher level of confidence and precision while enjoying the good-natured inter-service and international rivalries.

The Canadian units gained a new perspective on installation support, maintained a retention rate of nearly 100% and left Fort Pickett motivated, better trained and having experiences that few others, if any, in the Canadian force structure have experienced.

The planning, the revisions to the plan and finally the execution of the plan was not perfect on either side of the border, nevertheless those involved unquestionably obtained a better understanding of planning and execution imperatives. Each Soldier, whether a line infantryman, naval aviator or staff officer departed the Maneuver Training Center with a new enthusiasm and the determination to make Southbound Trooper V even better than the previous training evolutions.

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