By Michael Strasser, U.S. Army Garrison Fort Drum
FORT DRUM, N.Y. --Providing 10th Combat Aviation Brigade soldiers assigned here with the most realistic training scenarios required planners to think outside the box -- and outside of Fort Drum.
10th Combat Aviation Brigade pilots from Fort Drum, N.Y., executed tactical flight operations during the Falcon's Peak exercise, April 17, 2018. The training ensures that pilots and crews can operate at low altitudes, around 50 feet above the ground, in order to evade radar and minimize air defense threats. Army photo
That was recently accomplished with Falcon’s Peak, a 10-day aviation exercise that simulated a rapid readiness deployment of air and ground troops from Fort Drum to Camp Ethan Allen and Camp Johnson in Vermont.
“Falcon’s Peak was an exercise designed to challenge the aviation brigade using real-world distances and simulated threats that replicate the future of warfare, particularly as we see it in multidomain battle” said Army Col. Clair A. Gill, 10th CAB commander.
Army Maj. Joshua Meyer, 10th CAB operations officer, said that the idea for Falcon’s Peak was conceived while the brigade was on a nine-month deployment in Europe last year, where they participated in Saber Guardian 17 and Falcon’s Talon exercises.
In planning Falcon’s Peak, Meyer said that it would allow them to exercise all of their key annual training requirements.
“Expanding the training area and expanding the routes via air and ground really increased our capabilities,” Meyer said. “It kept us on our feet the whole time. Just the fact that we had to go through a rapid emergency deployment readiness exercise, leave Fort Drum in five days -- and that’s not just packing vehicles and helicopters -- it’s all the briefings and planning that goes into that, as well.”
The exercise involved roughly 850 soldiers, 17 AH-64 Apache and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and nearly 250 vehicles. The aviation unit tested its low-to-the-ground flying, using the terrain in Northern New York and parts of Vermont to avoid detection and counter simulated air defense artillery threats.
“What was uniquely different than typical battalion- and brigade-level training exercises at Fort Drum is that we pushed out into the surrounding communities to challenge our logistical supply lines and mission command systems over distances beyond the geographic boundaries of Fort Drum,” Gill said. “The exercise absolutely challenged those areas we wanted -- and needed -- to be stressed.”
Soldiers also conducted logistical operations to include supply movements, water purification and medical evacuations. Army Maj. Derek Martin, 10th CAB simulations officer and lead exercise designer, said that training objectives on the ground were just as crucial as those in the air.
“It’s not just a drive. They move in a tactical manner, seize the ground they’re coming into and quickly establish a defense and support area where they logistically support the aviation side of this organization,” he said.
The 277th Aviation Support Battalion completed a convoy live-fire exercise following an eight-hour convoy from Fort Drum. Army 1st Lt. Jessica Abbott said the intent was to validate gunnery crews and test their convoy efficiency.
‘It’s Important to Practice Our Skills’
“It’s important to practice our skills and our gunnery tables in convoy live-fire exercises because we have to protect our own classes of supplies as we transport them to these line units on the front line in supporting them throughout the fight,” she said.
Abbott said that 10th CAB soldiers benefited from training outside of the familiar ranges at Fort Drum.
“We’re not always going to be right in our backyard and know what the training area looks like,” she said. “So we have to get there, assess the area, set up and continue the mission.”
That is what Meyer hoped that every soldier took advantage of during the training.
“It’s really planning for the unknown,” he said. “Driving on unknown roads, flying over unknown terrain, not knowing what’s coming next in a scenario and allowing our planners, our pilots, our soldiers, our drivers -- every soldier and officer in our formation -- to react to the unknown. I really think that’s what prepares us for the uncertainties of future combat.”
The brigade was permitted to use Moore’s Airport, a privately owned property in Degrasse, New York, to establish a forward arming and refueling point. This allowed aircraft to refuel during an air assault mission. They were also allowed use of Tahawus Mine in Essex County to simulate a large scale battlefield.
“We sought and gained approval from patriotic community members who lent us their land on which to train,” Gill said. “We spent weeks ahead of time briefing community and state officials on the exercise and its importance to building readiness within the brigade, but also highlighting how the regional support enables us to demonstrate relevance for the future.”
Harsh Weather Conditions
It wouldn’t be a North Country spring without freezing temperatures and flurries, and fluctuating weather conditions forced 10th CAB soldiers to take necessary precautions.
“We had to consider individual soldier safety amid rain, sleet snow and freezing rain,” Gill said. “We had to reposition aircraft and equipment to mitigate forecasted high wind warnings, and we had to put our best crews on mission to fly in adverse, snowy conditions. Our drivers had to think through operating heavy equipment on trails and roads that weren’t always in pristine condition.”
He added, “More than anything, exercises like Falcon’s Peak require leaders at every level to make decisions, sometimes independent of higher headquarters oversight, to accomplish the mission with only commander’s intent and the immediate resources at their disposal.”
Martin said that as the temperatures dropped, it was the junior leaders who rose to the challenge to ensure their soldiers were equipped properly, training safely and staying combat effective during adverse conditions.
The 10th Combat Aviation Brigade conducts a troop air insertion as part of the Falcon’s Peak aviation training exercise at Sexton Field at Fort Drum, N.Y., April 17, 2017. Army photo
“We fought against weather -- springtime in the North Country is always a fun issue -- but it’s part of the exercise,” Martin said. “You have the enemy situation on the ground, the terrain and the weather. How to defeat those is always the greatest challenge, and I think this exercise really got after that.”
The 10th CAB formation took the fight back home April 17, returning to Fort Drum to face the final objective. Soldiers from 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, served as the opposition force and the air assault element.
“My job as exercise director was to bring forth an effective, realistic, tough opposition force, and so I established a very complex defense here at Fort Drum,” Martin said. “Our aircraft were able to fly in against it. They attacked, conducted a large air assault in the end which culminated the exercise and we were very successful tactically.”
Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Samuel Harvill was one of the Black Hawk pilots who reached Fort Drum undetected by the OPFOR.
“We never had any indications we were being tracked by the enemy, and that’s because of our tactics -- how low we were flying and utilizing the terrain to mask the aircraft from that enemy threat,” he said. “If they can’t see us, they can’t hit us. It proves that what we are doing is working, and that if we keep training this way and keep building on these procedures and techniques that we are learning and developing right now, I think we will be a very effective force in the future.”
The culminating event was named Operation Po Valley Breakout in recognition of a historic 10th Mountain Division campaign in Italy during World War II.
“In fact, Falcon’s Peak took place exactly 73 years to the day when our forefathers assaulted Hill 909 and 913 during the spring offensive of 1945 in Italy,” Gill said. “I’m most encouraged by how this formation, the Falcon Brigade, embodies the spirit and intent of mission command to fight and win in any environment, anytime.”
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