FORT POLK, La. -- Moments after landing in the blackness of a warm night and securing his parachute, Col. Joseph A. Ryan huddled on the drop zone with several of his officers. Radio messages crackled in his earpiece. Red flashlights illuminated a folded map. Above him, a thousand paratroopers were plummeting out of the sky, and the armored trucks that came down with them were already expanding their defensive lines. The sporadic thunk-thunk-thunk of .50-caliber machinegun fire and the crackle of rifle shots marked contact with the enemy.
Ryan, a boyish 45-year-old West Pointer, commands the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division. He had jumped in with this first wave of paratroopers to seize and defend an airfield deep in fictional hostile territory at the Army's Joint Readiness Training Center for 12 days of high intensity warfighting.
If the United States does end up having to put "boots on the ground" to fight Islamic State militants in Iraq or Syria, these are the troops who might go. This is how they would do it. And despite the assurances from Washington about keeping American combat troops out of the region, they are preparing aggressively.
This exercise, which concluded late last month, came just before the brigade takes its place as the main element of the U.S. Global Response Force, a combined air-ground assault force that for the next eight months will be on high alert. The Defense Department has long maintained one ground combat brigade as a national quick-reaction force; traditionally, brigades of the 82nd Airborne have taken turns on eight-month rotations as the GRF "ready" brigade.
On order, the lead airborne battalion and all its gear will be airborne within 18 hours. Its role -- in the exercise, as in the real world -- is to be a quick-reaction, kick-in-the-door force to stabilize a situation just long enough for a more permanent force to take over.
"It's a jump, fight and win tonight mentality," said Col. Brian E. Winski, deputy commanding officer of the 82nd Airborne.
The idea is to land a powerful fighting force with no warning in enemy territory, and that takes place here with astonishing speed. In the coming hours, Ryan's troops will clear the airstrip with a front-end loader that came down by chute with them. Then they'll begin waving in a stream of heavy cargo planes carrying another 4,000 paratroopers; 2,000 reinforcing troops; and armored vehicles, heavy weapons and even helicopter gunships. While Air Force fighters circle overhead, they will set up a high-tech, multi-room air-conditioned tactical operations center to manage the multiple firefights breaking out, and link up with clandestine Special Operations Forces who preceded them on the ground.
That's the easy part. With his troops probing across this training center's 200,000 acres of western Louisiana pine woods and fields, Ryan also has to figure out how to manage a series of crises that erupt in this fictional territory his brigade has been ordered to secure and stabilize. The scenario was scripted months ago, and it sounds ominously familiar.
U.S. Army paratroopers perform a night jump during Joint Operation Access Exercise at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, on Sept. 9, 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Quinton Russ)
A U.S. consulate here has been abandoned and overrun, as during the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. A U.S. diplomatic team, played by retired U.S. diplomats, is waiting impatiently to be airlifted into a fictional country. A supposedly friendly national army is breaking down and may fracture into hostile armed bands, as in Iraq. A moderate rebel force needs support, as in Syria. A ruthless extremist army, like the Islamic State militants, is on the move with tanks, long-range artillery, rockets and anti-aircraft guns. Two secret chemical weapons sites, like ones in Syria, are about to be seized by rebels. American civilians need to be located and evacuated before they're taken hostage. And a restive local population needs to be won over.
"There's always a ton on my mind," said Maj. Nate Palisca, the brigade's 37-year-old operations officer.
Palisca was taking a 30-second break in the tactical operations center, where dozens of sweating staff officers in full combat gear worked under fluorescent lights on long rows of gray folding tables where they peered at computer screens or yelled on radios over the roar of generators. An air conditioner fought a losing battle with the Louisiana heat. Under the immediate supervision of a floor manager known as "Chops," for Chief of Operations, the staff members were struggling to impose some order as they began grappling with the scenario.
Ryan and his paratroopers aren't expected to fix all these overlapping crises. Their job is to get in fast, hit the enemy hard and prevent an unraveling situation from becoming a catastrophe. In this exercise, the top priorities are securing the chemical weapons and protecting American citizens while holding off the enemy forces.
In reality, if the brigade is launched as the spearhead of the Global Response Force, the president could send larger, more heavily armed forces after them, using the airfield the paratroopers seized.
But for now, it's the paratroopers' show, and Ryan, like many corporate CEOs, seems an island of calm. That's a product, he said wryly, of "24 years of experience" as a combat leader, with multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here, he delegates. And while he has access to sophisticated digital information systems, he spends much of his time out on the battlefield getting a first-hand sense of the operations.
The pace is relentless and chaotic, intended by the exercise designers to be more difficult to master than real combat. The paratroopers are not practicing a specific war plan to be used against the Islamic State militia, or against anyone else. But the scripted events include many of the challenges the brigade might have to confront in the event it is sent to the Middle East -- with one difference: Real-world missions might take days or weeks to plan and launch. Here, they have to be done in hours.
Part of this high-pressure script is a relentless enemy, called the OpFor, or Opposing Force, a role played with gusto by 800 troops of a real airborne battalion. Although major events are planned -- Ryan's brigade knows it will have to find and secure chemical weapons and evacuate American citizens, for instance -- the 12 days are intended to be mostly "free play," with the OpFor encouraged to attack when and how it chooses.
The brigade and the OpFor fight with tanks, heavy weapons, IEDs, air and artillery strikes, rockets and small arms fire. Except for a few live-fire drills, most of the fighting involves blank rounds. Each soldier wears MILES gear, which uses lasers to register when a soldier is struck and "killed" or "wounded" by a laser from another weapon. (Each "casualty" opens a sealed envelope with a card that states if the soldier is killed or wounded, and if wounded, whether the injury is a gunshot wound, facial burns, traumatic limb amputations or another other wound.) The wounds may be simulated, but they require the attention of real medics and actual ground or air transport to a field hospital. Vehicles sport MILES gear as well and can be knocked out of action.
If things seem to be going too easily, the exercise controllers add in complications. One afternoon, in the midst of several simultaneous firefights and other missions, they arranged for a U.S. jet to be "shot down," requiring the brigade staff to scramble to find troops to locate and recover the downed pilots.
"We are working them to the point of failure," said Brig. Gen. William B. Hickman, an experienced combat officer who commands the training center here. The way Brigade Commander Ryan thought of it was, "A day here is like a week in the real world."
To his staff and seven battalion commanders, Ryan dictates his goal for each mission, describes what he wants to accomplish, and lets them figure out how to carry it out. Back in the tactical operations center, he slouches on a metal folding chair, arms crossed, his face glistening with sweat. He listens intently as they brief him on each plan. He asks some pointed "what-if" questions, and finally nods his assent.
As would happen if the scenario were real, Ryan also was fielding commands, requests and advice from exercise controllers acting as his own chain of command: the 82nd Airborne Division staff, U.S. Central Command, the Pentagon and the White House.
"Synchronizing all we're doing into a smooth operation is difficult," allowed Palisca, Ryan's operations officer. "We're not perfect. But we're getting there." He paused as word came in that a U.S. aircraft had been downed and its crew was missing. "Chops!" Palisca yelled, summoning the ops chief to gather intelligence about the crash and begin planning the recovery.
Paratroopers take part in a military exercise in Fort Polk, Louisiana. (David Wood/The Huffington Post)
This exercise is the largest and most demanding set of ground combat maneuvers held since the U.S. military went to war after Sept. 11. That's a reflection of how the environment in which the U.S. military expects to fight has grown far more complex since the insurgencies the U.S. faced in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A U.S. Army strategy document published in 2012 detailed the changing conditions and called for "a shift in strategic focus" away from the counterinsurgency tactics of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Instead, the document warned that the U.S. would face a more dangerous and sophisticated threat, probably in the Middle East.
Well before the Islamic State became a household name, the Army recognized that it had to prepare for an enemy that would blend hit-and-run insurgent tactics, seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, with big-army maneuvers enabling it to seize and hold ground. The Army also recognized the enemy might then adeptly use social media and atrocities against civilians to spread fear and confusion among civilians.
That threat has materialized in the form of the Islamic State, which wields guerrilla and conventional attacks using massed infantry, sophisticated intelligence and command systems, air defense missiles, electronic jammers and long-range artillery, all with uncompromising brutality.
The Army's 2012 forecast, and the emergence of the Islamic State as a significant threat, guided the planning for this exercise and the scenarios that confronted the paratroopers when they jumped in.
"This battlefield is incredibly complex," said Col. Christopher C. LaNeve, operations group commander for the training center and a former brigade commander. "What prepares you for a fight against the Islamic State is being incredibly violent at the moment you have to, and the next minute being able to deal with civilians."
The training is tough and realistic for a reason: Almost half of the brigade's troopers have never deployed to combat, or spent much time under such rigorous field conditions. Even those who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan often lived on established bases with air-conditioned tents and hot food.
Not here. From the brigade commander on down, soldiers live with what they jumped with. They eat packaged rations and sleep on the ground. Not that they get much sleep: For two weeks, they get no more than four hours of sleep every 24 hours, and not necessarily four at one time. It's a regimen the action here demands, and is meant to replicate actual combat conditions.
Army Spec. Megan Spivey, a 24-year-old from Virginia Beach, Virginia, shrugged off the austere conditions. She was reclining on the deck of a Stryker, an armored fighting vehicle equipped to detect chemical and biological weapons. Jumping into Fort Polk the previous night, she said, "was hectic at first, but we got it sorted out." Her friends back home think she's "crazy," she said. "But I wouldn't be satisfied working in a restaurant."
One afternoon when temperatures reached into the 90s, several other paratroopers were trying to catch an hour's nap, sprawled on their backs with nylon ponchos draped over their faces to shield them from the broiling sun.
"We try not to go below four [hours], but it happens," said Lt. Col. Brad Boyd. He commands one of the brigade's infantry battalions, which had gotten into a fierce firefight the previous night when supposedly friendly local soldiers turned and began attacking his paratroopers. At the same time, another of his patrols was counterattacking after being hit with poison gas.
"We were fighting in every direction," Boyd said, his face creased with fatigue and streaked with sweat. "It's a daily chore to keep your brain thinking clearly."
In addition to its complexity, this exercise was designed to train "conventional" troops of the 82nd Airborne to work closely with Special Operations Forces. That has not happened often, or without friction and rancor, since the beginnings of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
During those conflicts, special forces like the Green Berets were accustomed to working isolated deep in hostile territory with friendly indigenous fighters, while Army Rangers, a separate branch of SOF, specialized in rapid hunter-killer missions. Both kept their distance from conventional forces like the paratroopers. On major bases like in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and in Balad, Iraq, SOF had their own tightly guarded compounds and rarely let any else inside.
There are cultural clashes as well. Special Forces soldiers can wear their hair long. They scoff at uniform standards and call each other by their first names. Conventional troops came to view them as snobbish prima donnas; SOF soldiers acted like "they didn't want to get that conventional stink on them," said a seasoned paratrooper.
"In the past, we haven't worked well together," acknowledged Lt. Col. John R. Dyke, a former Green Beret battalion commander who heads SOF training at the training center.
But it's clear that an infantry brigade, as good as it is, cannot tackle a complex conflict of the kind sweeping Iraq and Syria without specialized help. Green Berets may be working inside a hostile country with friendly local militias for weeks or months before conventional forces arrive. Soldiers parachuting into the region need their expertise to distinguish friendly from hostile forces, to understand which local commanders and religious leaders have clout, and to know how to enlist their support.
That kind of coordination is intended to avoid what happened early in the Afghanistan War, when the good relations that Green Berets had built up with the Afghan Northern Alliance militias withered after U.S. conventional forces took over the fight in March 2002. That was a missed opportunity to heal the hostility between the northerners and the southern Pashtuns, a problem that continues to plague Kabul.
Special Operations Forces also have unique commando skills, of course. When the brigade staff here discovered that insurgents were using a local radio station to pass messages, for instance, they asked a special forces detachment to blow up the tower.
"We could have done it with a JDAM (bomb)," said Palisca, the brigade's operations officer, but that might have risked civilian casualties. "The SOF guys were much more precise."
The brigade also worked alongside 150 Rangers of Alpha Company, 3rd Ranger Battalion. As in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Rangers and Green Berets in this exercise worked under a separate command, a joint special operations task force commander. What's different now is that two Ranger liaison soldiers work inside the airborne brigade tactical operations center, where they would volunteer the Rangers for missions the brigade needed, said Capt. Paul Rothlisberger, the Ranger company commander. Under that arrangement, Rothlisberger said, his men had done eight missions for the brigade in seven locations in three days, killing 80 enemy combatants and destroying nine armored vehicles and six trucks.
All this takes an immense amount of staff coordination and mission planning. And just as in the real world, the brigade's detailed plans sometimes collapse under the weight of actual events -- or the intervention of the exercise controllers.
U.S. Army paratroopers with the 373rd Calvary jump from a C-17 aircraft during Joint Operation Access Exercise on Sept. 7, 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Tony R. Ritter)
Days before they jumped into Fort Polk, the brigade had been told one of its first actions would be to evacuate American civilians, and the staff drew up a detailed plan. But their plans soon met one snag after another.
Shortly before jumping in, they were told to hold off. Green Berets had discovered two chemical weapons sites which would have to be secured and the chemical agents taken to safety. The civilians would have to wait.
Then a Humvee fitted with Stinger antiaircraft missiles went missing, along with four soldiers who were presumed to be in the hands of insurgents. That required search parties to find the missing Americans. And the brigade couldn't use its helicopters because the enemy now had sophisticated surface-to-air missiles. This mirrored real-world Iraq, where Islamic State fighters recently shot down two Iraqi helicopters. In the exercise, Rangers recovered the missiles and the paratroopers, who had been designated as "killed."
While all this was going on, the staff began re-planning the civilian evacuation mission, which would kick off with an attack to clear a route to a helicopter landing zone where civilian evacuees would be lifted out by CH-47 helicopters. The operation would require several dozen paratroopers.
The brigade staff was receiving regular updates from battalion commanders, and knew which soldiers were already committed on missions or had been sent off to grab a few hours of sleep. Not much extra manpower was available. Soldiers were busy guarding the essential supply line from a nearby base (in a fictional neighboring country). Tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles were rumbling along the dirt road, fat targets for enemy insurgents. Other troops were securing the local town, unloading planes on the air strip and probing suspected enemy strong points.
Meanwhile, another issue materialized: Intelligence was trickling in suggesting that an unknown armed group might have broken into the chemical weapons site.
"I'm out of soldiers," fretted a tall soldier with sandy hair and a worried frown. This was Maj. Josh Brown, the brigade plans officer, puzzling out how to get the Americans out safely and swiftly. He and Palisca were bent over a table in the plans room strewn with maps and paper, torn off an easel board, with a detailed timeline for the operation.
Palisca tucked a wad of tobacco inside his left cheek. Brown tucked one behind his lower lip. They pondered in silence. The plans room was like a furnace. "I'm thinking, the number of seats on the aircraft...." said Palisca. "If the weather goes to shit, 168 is the max we can handle." He spit into a plastic bottle and voiced another uncertainty. "Once the '47s hit the ground, surprise is gone."
While Brown fiddled with the evacuation plan, Palisca held a separate meeting to review plans to attack the chemical weapons site, now in the hands of insurgents. The attack had been planned for the following night, but Ryan ordered it for that evening, and the staff was scrambling to make it happen.
"When does CAS go on station?" Palisca demanded, wanting to know when Air Force F-16 or A-10 strike fighters would show up overhead on a Close Air Support mission. The air liaison officer responded, "We have A-10s for a three-hour block." Palisca asked if this would be for 1 a.m. to 3 a.m.
"Sir, I haven't requested it yet."
"Look," Palisca said after taking a deep breath, "I'm not trying to make work for you but to show the boss, this is how we're not gonna get you killed tonight."
Later, he said, "This is an extremely critical mission, and we don't have time to flutter about or the brigade will fail, and that's not acceptable."
In the end, the brigade did not fail. Ryan's troops got the Americans safely evacuated, secured the chemical weapons, reinstalled U.S. diplomats in the consulate and pushed back the extremist militia. In the fighting, the brigade suffered about 120 (simulated) casualties, including 60 dead, of the 7,000 soldiers under brigade command.
Now back at their home base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the brigade will assume its alert status for the Global Response Force shortly, but the preparation for war continues nonstop. In the months ahead, paratroopers will continue training hard, making day and night combat jumps, conducting combat drills, and operating alongside British and Canadian paratroopers. That's a recognition that if they do deploy to the Middle East, it likely will be as part of an allied operation.
"The reality," said Col. Winski, the 82nd Airborne's deputy commander, "is we are never going to go it alone."