FORT IRWIN, Calif. — In the dusty California desert, U.S. Army trainers are already using lessons learned from Russia’s war against Ukraine to prepare soldiers for future combat against a major adversary like Russia or China.
The actors in this month’s exercise at the National Training Center speak Russian. The enemy force controlling the fictional town of Ujen uses a steady stream of social media posts to level false accusations against the US brigade preparing to attack.
In the coming weeks, the planned training scenario for the next upcoming brigade will focus on how to fight an enemy ready to destroy a city with rocket and missile fire in order to conquer it.
If the images look familiar, they are playing on televisions and websites around the world right now as Russian forces bombard Ukrainian cities with airstrikes, killing dozens of civilians. The information war on social media has brought to light the impassioned late-night speeches of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, as well as Russian efforts to accuse Ukrainian forces of simulating massacres in towns such as Bucha – massacres that l West blames troops in Moscow.
“I think right now the whole army is really looking at what’s going on in Ukraine and trying to learn from it,” Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said. Those lessons, she said, ranged from problems with Russia’s equipment and logistics to communications and using the internet.
“The Russian-Ukrainian experience is a very powerful illustration for our military of how important the information realm is going to be,” said Wormuth, who spent two days at the Mojave Desert Training Center watching an army brigade waging war against the fictional world. “Denovian” forces.
“We’ve been talking about it for about five years. But to really see it and see how incredibly powerful Zelenskyy has been. … It’s a world war that the real world can see and watch in real time.”
In the center, the commander, Brig. General Curt Taylor and his team have torn pages from the Russian playbook to ensure that American soldiers are ready to fight and win against a close and sophisticated enemy.
It is a common tool. For example, his base and the Joint Readiness Training Center in Louisiana both turned to counterinsurgency training during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the military services have focused other training on how to fight in cold weather – mimicking conditions in Russia or North Korea. But these latest changes happened quickly in the first months after Russia invaded Ukraine.
About 4,500 soldiers from the 2nd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, based at Fort Hood, Texas, are in the sprawling desert training area at Fort Irwin, where they will spend two weeks battling the resident 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment of the NTC, which acts as the military enemy. The soldiers of the regiment – known as the Blackhorse – are deployed in and around Ujen, which also includes actors acting as locals.
As the sun rose earlier last week, Army Colonel Ian Palmer, the brigade commander, stood on Crash Hill on the outskirts of town, preparing his soldiers to launch an attack. Files of tanks spread out in the distance. High winds the night before hampered his progress, so the attack fell a bit behind schedule.
He said the exercise uses more drones by friendly and enemy forces, both for surveillance and attacks. His forces therefore try to use camouflage and hide in the field to stay out of sight. “You know, if you can be seen, you can be shot, wherever you are,” he said.
In the makeshift town, the opposition forces are confident they can hold off Palmer’s brigade despite the difference in size. The Denovians only have about 1,350 men, but they throw everything they have at the brigade, from jamming and other electronic warfare to insurgency attacks and propaganda.
The actors have their phones ready to film and quickly post to social media.
Denovian forces want to portray the unit in the worst possible light, Taylor said, and constantly twist the narrative on social media so Palmer’s troops realize they are in a battle for the truth.
It’s a challenge, he said, because “when I have a bunch of casualties and I’m overrun on my left flank and my supply trains aren’t where they need to be and I can’t find the bulldozers, it’s hard to think of anything someone said about me on Twitter.”
The goal of the training, Taylor said, is to teach arriving brigades how to meld all elements of their combat power into a coordinated assault.
“Anyone can play an instrument, but it’s about making music – bringing it all together in sync. And what you saw today was that the artillery was doing the artillery thing, the air force was doing the air force thing, and the maneuver guys were doing the maneuver thing. But part of the delay in their assault on the city was that they couldn’t synchronize those three,” he said.
Again, they can look to Ukraine to see how Russia failed to do this in the early weeks of the war. American leaders have repeatedly noted that during Russia’s initial multi-pronged assault on Ukraine, commanders consistently failed to deliver the airstrikes and sustain their ground troops needed to move into key towns such as than Kyiv.
This failure led Russian troops to bombard cities from the outskirts, strike hospitals, apartment buildings and other structures, and kill civilians.
So when the next brigade arrives as a training center, Taylor said she will face an enemy on board doing just that.
“We’ll be very focused on how to fight an opponent that’s ready to destroy infrastructure because that’s how we think our opponents will fight,” Taylor said. “We have to be ready for urban combat where we have an adversary firing artillery indiscriminately.
Wormuth, the Secretary of the Army, said the training also underscored other lessons the United States is learning from the war in Ukraine.
“As we look at what is happening to the Russians now, it is instructive for us to think about what is right, from a modernization point of view,” she said, noting that some American tanks are very heavy and that the terrain in Europe is muddier, not like the hard sand of the desert.
The military, she says, must determine “what is the right balance between tank mobility, tank survivability and tank lethality?” If you want to make it more mobile, you make it lighter, but that makes it less durable. And so you have to decide where you are going to take risks.
Follow AP coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
Follow Lolita C. Baldor on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lbaldor