The 159th Combat Aviation Brigade (CAB) conducted an off-post training exercise (OPT) near Fort Bliss, Texas, from 29 September through 18 November 2010. The primary focus of the exercise was to ensure that the brigade was ready for its deployment to Afghanistan in 2011. Over 1,300 Soldiers from the "Thunder Brigade" participated in this exercise.
The battalions' training rotations lasted approx-imately 20 days each, with a relief in place/transfer of authority (RIP/TOA) conducted at the end of each rotation. In addition to 2,600 Soldiers deploying from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, 53 of the brigade's aircraft self-deployed to Fort Bliss, 230 pieces of rolling equipment were line-hauled there, and 159 vehicles were drawn from the Fort Bliss left-behind equipment and prepare-to-deploy equipment yards. At the end of the exercise, the brigade was ready to conduct combat operations in Afghanistan.
The support battalion for this exercise was the 563d Aviation Support Battalion (ASB), the 159th CAB's support battalion.
|A CH–47 Chinook helicopter approaches an AH–1 Cobra
helicopter that will be sling-loaded out of the Fort Bliss, Texas,
training area by 563d Aviation Support Battalion Soldiers.
Establishing the Exercise
Elements from the 563d ASB and the brigade torch party were the first Soldiers on the ground at Fort Bliss to begin the exercise on 29 September.
The torch party's focus was to coordinate with the Fort Bliss contracting office, establish the initial life-support locations, and build the brigade's footprint. The 563d ASB's missions were to establish operations for all classes of supply and ensure that Fort Bliss had the appropriate Department of the Army Form 1687, Notice of Delegation of Authority–Receipt for Supplies, and funds centers for the General Fund Enterprise Business System.
Within 3 days, all of the accounts were established and support agreements were in place to welcome the brigade's advance party (ADVON). The 563d ADVON was tasked with establishing a forward arming and refueling point (FARP), an ammunition transfer and holding point (ATHP), a brigade retransmission site, and a class I (subsistence) site for the containerized kitchen.
The ADVON worked feverishly for 2 days to establish all of the support areas and ensure that they were ready for the main body to arrive on 6 October. When the main body arrived, it went through the reception, staging, onward movement, and integration process and quickly went into the fight.
Task Force Fighting
Key to sustaining the fight and momentum of the operation were the FARP and ATHP operated by the Soldiers of the 563d ASB, also called "Task Force Fighting." In addition to manning the FARP and ATHP, Task Force Fighting conducted daily runs to the Fort Bliss installation supply support activity (SSA) to pick up both air and ground class IX (repair parts). The Soldiers also performed numerous ground recovery operations of the brigade's equipment, supervised the brigade aid station, and ran fuel samples to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.
Task Force Fighting provided communication support through the Joint Network Node (JNN) and battalion Command Post Nodes (CPNs), provided both aviation unit-level maintenance (AVUM) and aviation intermediate-level maintenance (AVIM), conducted tactical logistics convoys in support of the FARP and ATHP, and delivered ammunition to the individual ranges. The 563d ASB ensured that no mission was dropped and that the brigade was fully supported in all training events.
The 563d ASB's Headquarters Support Company (HSC) "Renegades" provided the mission command for the battalion and were responsible for the maintenance and recovery of the brigade's ground fleet. Twelve ground recovery operations had to be performed during the OPT. Other maintenance tasks performed included replacing a transfer case on an M978 heavy expanded-mobility tactical truck (HEMTT) and numerous brake repairs on M969 5,000-gallon semitrailers and M149 water trailers.
The battalion support operations (SPO) section was instrumental in the brigade-wide tracking of all classes of supply. In coordination with the brigade S–4 section, the SPO section conducted nightly logistics synchronization meetings to ensure that the required support was always provided. Through these missions, the Soldiers of the 563d ASB adhered to their unit motto, "Keep Them Fighting."
The 563d ASB's A Company "Devils" were responsible for the operations at Devil FARP, which was located on Wiley Benton Airstrip. Devil FARP's primary mission was to refuel the aircraft that were being used for high-altitude mountain environmental training strategy training in New Mexico.
Fourteen Soldiers operated Devil FARP, which was a self-sustaining location. Devil FARP Soldiers lived, ate, and conducted their daily operations at the FARP, which was 45 minutes from McGregor Range Base Camp, the location of the battalion and brigade tactical operations centers (TOCs) and the main cantonment area for the exercise.
The Devil Soldiers faced harsh desert terrain, winds, and wildlife while executing their daily duties at the FARP. Devil FARP issued a total of 9,786 gallons of JP8 throughout the exercise and fed over 50 flight crews as they conducted their crew change-over briefs at the FARP.
Devil FARP was a four-point FARP that could refuel four CH–47 Chinook helicopters simultaneously. The refueling points were 200 feet apart and received fuel from four HEMTT tankers. The company's transportation platoon conducted daily fuel pushes from Biggs Army Airfield using M969 5,000-gallon semitrailers.
Because of operational requirements and the distance from the aerial gunnery ranges, ammunition was not stored at Devil FARP. The ammunition for the aerial gunnery ranges was stored at "Shell FARP," operated by E Troop, 7th Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment. Shell FARP's primary mission was to support the aerial gunnery ranges.
The FARP included a 30-foot by 50-foot festival tent that served as sleeping quarters and living space. The FARP had its own power generation provided by civilian contractors, a 40-foot reefer van that kept perishables and water cold, and an M149 water trailer for bulk water. Latrines and a dumpster were provided and maintained through civilian contracts.
|Above, Soldiers from A Company, 563d Aviation Support Battalion, receive a convoy commander's briefing before departing on a mission. Below, 563d Aviation Support Battalion Soldiers use the crane on a heavy expanded-mobility tactical truck wrecker during a downed aircraft recovery team exercise.
Task Force Ammo
The brigade ATHP was operated by Soldiers of the 563d ASB's A Company and HSC and E Company, 3d Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment. The group was termed "Task Force Ammo."
Task Force Ammo conducted 24-hour class V (ammunition) support, with two shifts that did not live or sleep at the ATHP. Seven Soldiers worked 12-hour shifts, which included breaking the class V down by unit and range requirements and loading it on load-handling system (LHS) flatracks or HEMTTs with heavy expanded-mobility ammunition trailers.
All class V movements were conducted through tactical logistics convoys that were initiated by submitting a transportation movement release through the battalion TOC. The convoys were escorted by mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs) and tracked by Blue Force Tracker. The battalion TOC monitored all class V movements through Blue Force Tracker and Command Post of the Future (CPOF). The ATHP received 670,633 rounds of small-arms ammunition, 5,528 2¾-inch rockets, 76 canisters of assorted smoke, and 28 Hellfire missiles.
The 563d ASB's B Company "Bandits" provided both AVUM and AVIM maintenance support for the entire exercise. The aviation maintenance facility was established at McGregor Range Base Camp. The facility had two clamshell-type shelters that were capable of housing any of the brigade's aircraft. Maintenance activities performed during the OPT included—
- Nose gear box changes.
- Generator seal changes.
- Engine removal and installation.
- Engine mount repair.
- Sheet metal repair.
- Bushing repair.
- Night-vision goggle repair.
- Avionics systems troubleshooting.
- Fuel lines fabrication.
- Scheduled services.
- Boroscope inspections.
- Maintenance test pilot support.
- Technical supply support.
- FARP operations for all gunnery ranges.
- Downed aircraft recovery team (DART) exercises.
- Special tooling supply.
- Instrument and transducer installation.
- Aircraft weapon systems and services trouble-shooting.
- Aircraft flight control correction.
- Main rotor and tail rotor replacement.
- Engine, gearbox, and transmission seals replacement.
- Landing gear servicing.
- Pedal housing repair.
- Estimated cost of damage calculation.
- Jettisoned rocket pod recovery.
- Bearing reaming.
- Injector spring replacement.
- Skid shoe repair.
- Nondestructive inspection.
- Nut plate repair.
The 563d ASB's C Company "Chargers" deployed to McGregor Range Base Camp to provide signal support for the OPT in preparation for the deployment. C-Company provided strategic and tactical communications support to hundreds of Soldiers by way of its JNN, CPN, and FM radio retransmission team. The JNN supported full-spectrum aviation operations for the brigade by providing Non-Secure Internet Protocol Router Network (NIPRNET) and Secure Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNET) voice and data for the brigade commander and staff.
C Company's use of electronic systems, such as CPOF, the Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System, Tactical Airspace Integration System, and Distributed Common Ground System–Army, provided the brigade with vital mission command assets to manage the battlespace. The CPN provided essential NIPRNET and SIPRNET voice and data capabilities to the ASB and their numerous support sections, including the battalion TOC, command group, operations cell, staff sections, company command posts, and SPO section.
The FM retransmission team provided a critical FM communications link between the battalion and brigade TOCs and the FARP located at Wiley Benton Airstrip, bridging a 43-kilometer gap and allowing for effective mission command at the battalion and brigade levels.
DART Training Preparation
The 563d ASB Soldiers conducted both ground and aerial DART training during the OPT. The DART team was composed of Soldiers from all four of the battalion's companies. Each company provided a unique or required skill set or piece of equipment that was essential to a safe and effective DART mission. The Soldiers from A Company provided the MRAPs for convoy security and the LHS that was used to execute the ground recovery mission.
The B Company Bandits provided most of the personnel for the DART team. The AVIM Soldiers from B Company had the special knowledge and tools required to prepare the downed aircraft for both ground and aerial evacuation, which included certifying the sling-load configuration for air movement.
The HSC Soldiers primarily provided mission command in the battalion TOC and also provided wheeled-vehicle recovery using the HSC's HEMTT wrecker. C Company personnel assisted in ensuring that the convoy was able to communicate with battalion and brigade TOCs through Blue Force Tracker, satellite communication, and two-way radios.
The first DART mission conducted at Fort Bliss for the OPT was a ground mission. The downed aircraft was an AH–1 Cobra helicopter that had been taken from the Defense reutilization and marketing office yard at McGregor Range Base Camp and transported to Stewart Drop Zone in preparation for the mission. The AH–1 Cobra was in two pieces; the cockpit and tail were separated.
A Company picked up the helicopter from the scrap yard and transported it to Stewart Drop Zone using the LHS. The B Company first sergeant and DART noncommissioned officer-in-charge were present to ensure that the aircraft was laid down in a manner that would best represent an actual downed aircraft.
The second DART mission was an aerial mission that used two CH–47s as the lift mechanism. The tail boom section of the AH–1 Cobra was secured inside one of the CH–47s while the other sling-loaded the fuselage section. Because of the low weight of the fuselage section, the CH–47s traveled at approximately 10 knots per hour to transport the aircraft safely to its next location, which was on the convoy live-fire range that the battalion would use a few days later.
An hour after leaving Stewart Drop Zone, the Cobra was dropped off and the fuselage section was scattered around the site in preparation for another ground DART exercise that would be conducted in conjunction with the convoy live-fire exercise.
Both DART exercises were coordinated through the brigade TOC with either the ASB commander or executive officer initiating the exercise with a staff inject. Once the brigade made the radio call reporting a downed aircraft, the 563d ASB TOC quickly went to work. Within an hour, a hasty military decisionmaking process (MDMP) session was conducted, companies were notified, and initial planning began.
At the 1-hour mark of each exercise, a course-of-action brief was presented to the 563d ASB commander and executive officer. Based on the brief, the commander decided on the method of extraction: air, ground, or destruction. This brief also established the timeline for the DART team and ground or air convoy movement team. The timeline included rehearsals, precombat checks and inspections, and a full sand table exercise that was overseen by the 563d ASB command team. The battalion staff in the TOC provided the mission command for all exercises, tracked the progress of the missions through Blue Force Tracker, and sent the information to the brigade TOC using feeds from CPOF.
The 563d ASB DART teams executed the missions in an outstanding manner. Although each DART mission was unique in its posture and extraction mode, the highly motivated Soldiers of the 563d ASB executed their mission to standard and, in keeping with the battalion motto, kept the brigade fighting.
Effects on the Mission in Afghanistan
While executing its support role, the 563d ASB ensured that it kept the 159th CAB fighting and thus continued its proud heritage of world-class support to its supported units. The capstone training event for the battalion's OPT was a combat live-fire exercise that incorporated MRAP operations, weapons training, air-ground interaction, 9-line medevac reporting, aircraft coordination, reacting to an improvised explosive device strike, and DART missions.
The valuable experience gained through the tough and realistic OPT at Fort Bliss greatly enhanced the unit's readiness and preparation for operations in Afghanistan. The 563d ASB, Task Force Fighting, has surpassed 100 days of combat operations in Afghanistan while serving as the sustainment support for the Aviation Task Force assigned to Regional Command South. In Afghanistan, the unit conducted numerous DART missions and was well prepared for them because of the OPT.
The battalion greatly enhanced sustainment operations by relocating two SSAs without any degradation of support to its customers. It also moved the arrival/departure airfield control group twice with no loss of service or negative operational impact. The battalion initiated numerous cost-saving measures that saved more than $63 million in the identification and accountability of mountains of excess supplies and equipment.
Because of the OPT, the 563d ASB was ready to conduct combat operations in support of its wartime mission and was ready to deploy to Afghanistan. The battalion trained to be ready to support the 159th CAB and "Keep Them Fighting."