YAKIMA – Capt. Dan Ferriter is used to facing elusive insurgents on his combat tours of in Iraq and Afghanistan. They’ve been the Army’s main enemy during his six-year career, planting roadside bombs and taking shots at American soldiers from hidden places.
Now the former Ranger is training to fight a different foe, but one just as lethal for American forces who have been emphasizing counterinsurgency warfare for nearly a decade.
Ferriter, a Stryker brigade officer from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, is getting back to basics and preparing to go to war against another military rather than a shadowy network of terrorists.
“This is pre-9/11,” the dirt-covered captain said last week during his company’s drills at the Yakima Training Center. “The guys that were in the Army pre-9/11 are starting to get few and far between.”
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Ferriter is in the desert of central Washington this month with the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. The 4,000-soldier brigade has deployed to Iraq three times since 2003 – it was the first of the Army’s eight Stryker brigades – but it doesn’t have another mission to Iraq or Afghanistan on the horizon.
It’s using this opportunity to build skills for what the Army calls “full-spectrum operations.”
“The hard part is not losing how good we’ve become at (counterinsurgency) and making the right balance,” said Ferriter, 28, of DuPont.
Come August, the 3rd Brigade will be tested on those tactics in a different desert, at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif.
It will be the first Stryker brigade to move away from lessons learned fighting al-Qaida and its affiliates and instead face broader challenges at the California testing grounds.
Presumably, the brigade then would be asked by the Pentagon to stand ready to go anywhere in the world for any kind of mission. Commanders have said the unit will likely remain stateside through the fall of 2012, but it’s technically available late this summer.
“We’re preparing to deploy in any capacity, in any environment, that they ask us to do,” said the brigade’s commander, Col. Charles Webster.
Counterinsurgency warfare stresses protecting civilians to gain their trust because gathering solid intelligence is essential to tracking down an enemy that blends into the population. By contrast, Webster’s brigade is getting ready to fight a well-trained military with similar assets to American forces. “When we talk about a ‘near peer’” – another advanced military – “we’re very good, but everybody else is getting better every day,” Webster said.
His troops are preparing for the kind of war the U.S. military launched in March 2003 against Iraq, before that conflict shifted to one targeted at insurgent networks.
Webster said a similar pattern could unfold again, with the U.S. taking out an established military and then managing a conflict picked up by nongovernment fighters who fill the void.
In Yakima, the new objectives made for some surprising outcomes for veteran soldiers and airmen accustomed to fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Pilots wanted to shoot too quickly. Artillerymen freshened up on jobs they seldom got to perform overseas. Company commanders stretched the limits of their communication networks.
They did their work while sleeping in holes they dug and living off packaged Meals, Ready to Eat. Webster said part of the training was meant to show that the soldiers shouldn’t expect to spend another overseas tour living at a forward operating base with air conditioning and fresh food – comforts they sometimes enjoy in Iraq or Afghanistan.
“Soldiers are learning that it’s hard today; it’s going to be hard tomorrow. But it’s OK, I can still do my mission,” he said.
Over four days last week, Webster had a dozen infantry company commanders practice a complicated defensive artillery drill. They had to block an invasion of enemy forces by using a combination of mortars loaded on Stryker vehicles, heavier weapons from the artillery battalion, rockets from attack helicopters and ordnance from two Air Force A-10 Warthogs.
Ferriter and other soldiers who did the drill said they would typically have only one of those weapons at their disposal when fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Air Force Capt. Matthew Chapman’s job was to relay the ground commander’s orders to two pilots flying over the battlefield. He works in similar situations when he deploys to Afghanistan with Lewis-McChord’s 5th Air Support Operations Squadron.
In Afghanistan, Chapman said pilots shoot immediately when they see a target. They know they have only moments before insurgents on foot or in vehicles disappear.
Last week, those pilots chafed when Army commanders told them to hold their fire to collaborate with ground artillery. Didn’t the Army understand that the Air Force pilots could take out the targets with one pass? they asked Chapman.
It’s true, they could’ve; but they would’ve risked losing a battle if they dropped their bombs too early and enemy reinforcements arrived, Chapman said.
Typically, that scenario unfolded last week with enemy soldiers on foot following infantry carriers and tanks. Shooting too early would let the enemy infantry run over the Stryker positions.
“This reminds us that we’re part of that bigger fight,” said Chapman, 31, a Tacoma resident.
The drills also gave the 3rd Brigade’s trained artillerymen an opportunity to practice skills they rarely use in counterinsurgency warfare. They had to work through some kinks last week using communications equipment and gathering data to plot moving targets. Those skills can atrophy quickly, said the brigade’s top artillery officer, Lt. Col. J.P. Moore.
Typically, his artillerymen replace units in Iraq or Afghanistan that already have stationary guns in place and use established communications networks. This time, they had to build up those systems in the field.
Ferriter looked ready and confident before the exercise as he presented his defensive plan in a mock-up for his soldiers. He described which weapons he wanted to fire on which positions. He took advice from his Army aviation and Air Force colleagues.
That careful planning quickly came undone when problems struck his mobile networks. The systems in two Stryker vehicles went down. So did the one belonging to the brigade’s command.
Ferriter improvised and operated out of Webster’s command vehicle, perching himself at the back of Stryker and working over three networks to call in the bombs and rockets. Mounds of dust kicked up throughout the mock battlefield – an open expanse of desert sage – as the rounds landed.
Ferriter looked forward to more drills he had planned for his company. One would look a little more like the house raids on a counterinsurgency mission in the Afghanistan or Iraq. His soldiers would attack a building and find unexpected opposition inside.
“We are training like it’s going out of style,” he told Webster. “We are having way too much fun out here.”