Best Defense
Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Remembering how we won the last war and why it is a good thing to do so

The U.S. military has been fighting in Afghanistan since 2001.

Cincu 2[2] copy
Cincu 2[2] copy

By Adrian Bonenberger
Best Defense roving correspondent

By Adrian Bonenberger
Best Defense roving correspondent

The U.S. military has been fighting in Afghanistan since 2001. That fact, our 16 year trial, is not what this piece is about, really — about how we struggled, earnestly, to keep villages and towns and neighborhoods free from violent religious extremists. The thugs and crooks with whom we allied ourselves in order to clean the Taliban out, the cynical politicians and the mystified U.S. public back home, nobody really believing any of it might make some kind of difference. The black nights and hot days spent huddled in a concrete water main or the Tactical Operations Center, sweating through salt stained helmet and body armor covers in case this rocket attack was part of something bigger. It’s not about what it felt like to watch an AC-130 pound some insurgent compound, or how our bodies adapted to the knock-knocking of nearby 155s, and learned to roll over at night if the booms weren’t “incoming.” The piece is not about America’s fight in Afghanistan, because although that fight still ticks on every day, relatively unchanged, the U.S. military’s mission has changed.

The new military — which looks a lot like what I was told was the old military when I was doing counter-insurgency in Afghanistan — includes Armored Brigade Combat Teams that are capable of wiping out an enemy mechanized division on the attack. A serious amount of training goes into this task, on the soldier, platoon, company, battalion and brigade levels. On the divisional level.

The training is necessary because, unlike taking cover or the “react to contact” infantry battle drill, combined arms happens at the Brigade and Divisional level, and is nearly impossible to practice effectively in isolation. Echeloning fires and bringing multiple machines and people to desire and achieve the same end requires practice. Each unit must exhibit patience while the artillery finishes their mission. Each unit — platoon, company, battalion, brigade — has its specific trigger, which, when accomplished, is always followed by the roar of engines, a mad dash for the point of attack, and a swarm of soldiers hustling by and around the great gunned steel beasts that are shouting 30mm, 120mm, 20mm, and 12.7mm rounds downrange from every direction while artillery and rocket artillery trade air space with jets and helicopters.

Combined arms doctrine is what the German Wehrmacht used to beat the Polish and French and send the British Expeditionary Corps fleeing across the English channel. It’s what hurt the Russians so bad they still talk about it like it happened yesterday. Combined arms doctrine is what the Russians used to beat the Germans, eventually, with a lot of U.S. and British assistance. Combined arms is how the U.S. defended South Korea, and South Vietnam (for a while), and how Generals Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf ran game on the 4th largest military in the world — Iraq’s military — in 1991. That was the last time we won a war. America used to do combined arms better than anyone.

The only tactical requirement of counterinsurgency was that infantry squads and platoons be sufficiently durable on the defense to endure until jets and helicopters showed up. Infantry plus armor or wheeled vehicles plus aircraft and artillery does not make “combined arms.” Or, in other words, combined arms is not a platoon or company level fight, as counter-insurgency most definitely was.

A Combined Arms Fight

Flies are buzzing in the heat. Outside, you can smell the grass growing. It’s mid-July 2017, and Captain Curtis Ballard is acting S3 of 1st Battalion, 66th Armor Regiment (3rd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division). His battalion is in the middle of the Romanian component of “Getica Saber,” a U.S.-led exercise spanning Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary. He’s in the TC seat of a command HMMWV driven by Staff Sergeant Tyler Mines. The HHC company commander, Captain Ryan Van Wie, sits in the back across from me. Between us, an empty space where I’m used to seeing ACU-clad legs of one turret gunner or another. A company of Ukrainian paratroopers is parked in the woodline where they watch quietly for their signal to advance. The jets — Romanian MiGs — have finished a CAS mission, and now we’re waiting for some trigger.

It’s very unusual to find a senior captain acting as S3 of a combat battalion. S3 is in charge of plans and operations, and that’s a big job — a Major’s job. It says a lot about someone to get picked for such a position. Ballard doesn’t show it, but he’s under pressure.

A senior Captain acting as S3 also says a lot about where the military finds itself today: with years worth of counter-insurgency experience at every leadership level, and almost no experience training combined arms to fight near-peer enemies. Motivated and capable leaders like Captain Ballard have as much experience with combined arms as the next major or lieutenant colonel (maybe not colonel). But it’s a lot of responsibility. And sitting in the HMMWV, he’s hoping that the artillery is going to be on time. The past couple days, it’s been late.

Having tanks and planes and artillery doesn’t mean a military is good at combined arms (just ask the French in 1940, or the Russians in 1941). Combined arms consists of soldiers, tank crews, artillerymen, pilots, staff and combat leaders working in harmony and communicating to accurately coordinate as much destruction as possible at some key moment on the battlefield. In a fight, if the artillery is late by 30 seconds, it could hit the tanks, or fail to suppress or knock out enemy assets capable of wrecking 1-66’s armor (“Ares Company). If it’s early by 30 seconds, it could hit helicopters, or give the enemy time to recover before the next level or echelon of fire arrives.

Of course, this is a live fire exercise, so the chance of an accident has been reduced to almost zero. But training occurs like a fight — it must, or its value is greatly diminished. Late artillery would almost certainly have catastrophic real-world consequences. So Ballard worries. He doesn’t want this to go well — he needs the operation to proceed according to plan.

Ares Company’s armor, and Chosen Company’s Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFVs), have performed well so far, as have the Ukrainian paratroopers and the Romanians. The aviation has been flawless, with the Apache gunships demonstrating their impressive capabilities. The Croatians and Montenegrins have been competent as well, firing and maneuvering together without incident. Elements from 4th of the 319th, the 173rd Airborne’s artillery battalion, is firing well. But the regimental artillery has had issues.


Captain Ballard isn’t worried about Ares or Chosen Companies, and he’s not worried about the Ukrainian paratroopers, either. The Ukrainians have been a source of interest for 1-66 officers — engaged in a fight against (to the Ukrainians) a superior foe that also happens to be the “near peer” enemy explicitly referenced in Atlantic Resolve — Russia — they’re seen as a source of information about Russian capabilities. The Ukrainian paratroopers come from Zhytomyr region, and fall under Ukraine’s 95th Airmobile Brigade, one of the best units in their military. They are professional and competent, and senior leaders who have been to Ukraine’s Anti-Terror Operation (ATO) zone describe the importance of tactical dispersion, violence of movement, and counter-sniper operations. They take camouflage very seriously, and are constantly cutting new foliage for their vehicles and personnel, in order to best blend in with their environment. One has the impression that they would not behave much differently if this were combat — for most of them, it has been, and will be again soon.

But Getica Saber isn’t about the Ukrainians — it’s about how they interact with the U.S. and Romanian units around them. “I don’t think Europe has seen a near-peer deterrence exercise like this in about twenty years,” says Brigadier General Christopher Donahue. The Deputy Commanding General for 4th Infantry Division when we speak on July 13th (he moves out of the position soon after), Donahue is a dominating, intense man clearly comfortable with the rigors of combat leadership. He speaks at length about the importance of training for war as it exists today, but also allowing the soldiers and officers that are part of the Getica Saber to experiment and innovate.

“This is more than a readiness exercise,” said Donahue. “Getica Saber is a laboratory for warfare as it is today—  what we can do with the assets we have, what our allies and partners can do with theirs. And how we can take both of those assets and make more together than what we have separately. In many ways, it’s the culmination of the past three years, when we first initiated Atlantic Resolve.”

Along with refining U.S. combined arms, Getica Saber is all about interoperability. NATO members (and non-members like Ukraine) need to be able to work together in order to maintain a credible deterrent threat to any potential hostile enemy. Without interoperability, NATO would be over 20 different militaries fighting toward cross-purposes, with different agendas, doing worse collectively than they would as individual entities.

Led by the U.S. — and Getica Saber is a U.S. led operation — European countries become greater than the sum of all parts. Even Eastern and Central European countries that were formerly Warsaw Pact or Soviet Bloc, many of which are coming from different doctrinal backgrounds, and use very different equipment, are capable of adding significant value to NATO. This is mostly because all of NATO’s major training exercises are defensive maneuvers — they assume an enemy that can mass at least three times as much combat power (and possibly even more). Defending is what NATO does, and it’s always easier to train defense than offence.

In practical terms, interoperability is a U.S. Army Captain waiting to see Romanian air defense artillery, U.S. armor, and Ukrainian paratroopers advance toward prepared defensive positions. Conversely, one could say it’s a Ukrainian or Romanian Captain waiting for U.S. artillery to hit its targets.

Where We Came From

During my last deployment to Afghanistan, from 2010-2011, 1st Brigade 10th Mountain Division was tasked with assisting the Germans in RC-North. RC-North is a large battle space, and a light infantry brigade has two battalions of light infantry and a scout squadron. One battalion of U.S. infantry was sent to Bagram to train Afghan National Army soldiers, the scout squadron went to Kandahar with the Canadians, and that left one infantry battalion (of which I was a part) and an artillery battalion to cover down.

The artillerymen left their howitzers behind, and became battle-space owners (partners or advisors in the parlance of the day, but for the purposes of this piece, let’s just agree to call it what it was rather than indulge in political hyperbole). This was not always the case in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it was not uncommon either. A friend of mine, James Danly, was an officer with a field artillery unit deployed to Iraq in 2006, and his experience was similar: artillery were treated as dismounted infantry, and expected to patrol and fight like infantrymen.

Modern field artillery is not as mathematically challenging as it was when my great-grandfather, Carl Sorling, was a field artilleryman during WWI. Many technical and mathematical functions can now be swiftly accomplished with the help of computers. Nevertheless, effective field artillery units still require a degree of familiarity with systems and equipment — the type that only training and experience can deliver. During my first deployment, I saw two field artillery units fire missions in support of our operations. One unit trained counterbattery constantly, between 4 and 6 times per day. They were able to put rounds on target very quickly — I want to say in under 2 minutes, though that sounds ridiculous, now. The other unit we witnessed practiced less, and had difficulty firing counterbattery within 5 minutes.

So having agreed that artillery is important to combined arms, let’s also agree as a hypothesis that the leadership and human capital of a field artillery section or battery is important, and tied to repetitive and focused training on field artillery tasks. Remembering, then, that many field artillery leaders spent significant portions of the last 15 years not doing artillery, but counterinsurgency, instead (a fact about a great many of them complained at the time—in retrospect, wisely), and one develops a pretty good picture of why field artillery units make likely fail points in combined arms.

Logistics: The U.S. Army’s Bread and Butter

Another ongoing source of anxiety for 1-66 was the possibility that some logistical snarl could meaningfully impact the vehicles in Getica Saber. Many of the logistical relationships the U.S. had built in order to move vehicles around Europe by rail and truck had atrophied after the final armor units were withdrawn from Germany. Turning those contracts back on had not been easy. Like combined arms, logistics is more than the trucks or trains that move equipment from point A to point B: it’s networks of civilians from all countries, military officers, sergeants and warrant officers who understand who to talk with to get something done correctly.

Battalion and Company executive officers both described what these challenges looked like at their level: train cars that weren’t suitable for carrying tanks, limitations on the number of trucks or vehicles that could safely move at one time from the railhead to the base, a lack of understanding about the resources needed by U.S. soldiers (as well as equipment).

Beyond “interoperability,” then, on a national level Atlantic Resolve is about Divisions carrying out all aspects an of operation. Ensuring that logistics is capable of flowing from power bases like Germany—or further, from the U.S. The capability to do this means that the U.S. can field combat power capable of responding to the type of threats posed by a near-peer adversary. This is as important in its own way to the combined arms fight. An armored brigade requires enormous expenditures of ammunition, fuel, and spare parts for when engines go offline, for when tracks break. An intimate knowledge of these constraints used to be common across the military, and in Europe, when the U.S. was positioned there. Now, they aren’t. And relying on partner nations that use their own tanks (Germany’s Leopard II, or the British Crusader) isn’t feasible. Without standardization at a level not currently experienced between European countries and the U.S., logistics is always going to be the single greatest constraint for U.S. units.

A Basis For Combined Arms

Captain Van Wie, the Headquarters and Headquarters Company commander, is on his second command. He wears his kit correctly, and maintains his camouflage, and always ground guides his vehicle. Van Wie also has a positive relationship with his current and former soldiers — familiar without being overly intimate. He’s soft spoken, well-read and articulate, and everyone seems to get along with him — he is, in short, the type of commander every soldier and junior leader hopes will lead their company.

When I ask what it’s been like, training with the Europeans, Van Wie answers enthusiastically. “It’s been really valuable. Especially seeing how the Romanians and Ukrainians fight. They’re evolving armies that are learning from their history and from their experiences with combat, and adeptly changing how they fight. In general, watching how different militaries operate, it gives you a much better understanding of why the U.S. does things the way we do.”

“It’s been a two-way street,” adds Van Wie. “Just as they’ve been learning by taking part in our exercise, we’ve been learning from them.”

Van Wie has seen combat. This was totally normal for lieutenants and captains (junior officers) between 2003 and 2012, when the U.S. had finished drawing down in Iraq and began pulling forces back from Afghanistan. Now, however, having combat experience is increasingly a luxury for soldiers and officers. Coordinating mechanized infantry from different countries as well as armor, artillery, and aircraft is its own type of expertise. If few officers have practice with combined arms, even fewer have combat experience and combined arms experience. Van Wie is among them.

Ballard is too — “combined arms moves a lot faster than a pure dismount fight,” explains Ballard, who has maneuvered light infantry platoons in combat. “The consequences of a given decision play out slower, give you more time to adjust and improvise. Here, you blink and your armor is already at the next terrain feature.”

Captain Van Wie and Captain Ballard are friends. Earlier in the day, when the Sergeant Major of the Battalion dropped by the Ukrainian position in his HMMWV, Van Wie and the Sergeant Major reminisced about how the unit has evolved training this particular fight. Van Wie observed that Ballard’s departure from S3 after the CALFX (he’s at 63 days in the position, 27 shy of the number needed to generate a procedural evaluation that will give him “KD” status before hitting Major—an administrative no-no) will leave Van Wie and the Sergeant Major as the only senior leaders who have trained together with the unit since March of 2016.

The way the U.S. military is organized, there are always people cycling out of positions, and new people coming in. A unit’s total understanding of the battlefield is the sum of every officer, sergeant, and soldier’s knowledge and experience. 1-66 has just gained a great deal of crucial experience with combined arms — and it’s about to lose some, too.


Presidents and generals have arrived to observe Getica Saber. It’s a large exercise with strategic significance, and everybody’s out to watch the show. For a number of reasons, I’ve requested that the HMMWV observe from an observation point (OP) near Ares Company, the Romanian ADA unit, and the Ukrainians. OP 2 is far from the hoopla surrounding the distinguished visitors. The piece I’m writing has nothing to do with getting some killer quote from a politician or general. I’m out there to see what the new Army is doing, figure out what NATO deterrence looks like.

The call comes over the net for artillery to fire, and it begins: deep rattling bangs off to the north, and explosions snake across the ridgeline. The targets have been suppressed.

“Yes,” says Ballard, “America.” The artillery units have harmonized in this, the final live fire exercise, and soon it’s time for the Ukrainians to move. We follow their vehicles along a dusty road until the infantry and then the mortars pull off into the field and begin their assault. Driving through the clouds of dust kicked up by so many vehicles advancing at once, visibility is reduced to almost zero. SSG Mines pulls the HMMWV up to the empty platform, overlooking this side of the battle — no VIPs or DVs to disturb our assessment of the eastmost flank of the operation — and we watch as the rest of the fight unfolds, piece by immaculate piece, a ballet of violence. Even though a true battlefield is never what one would like — hills or plains in the wrong place, trees obscuring crucial sectors of fire—this approximation is not bad as approximations go. The units communicate between each other by radio, signal, and weapon system, all working to the same purpose. So long as Europe, NATO and the U.S. continue training together to this standard, an enemy would have to be foolish or mad to risk the destruction of their military on the offense.

Adrian Bonenberger is an author, poet, and former infantry officer living in Ukraine. He writes about Eastern European security issues. 

Photo credit: Adrian Bonenberger

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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