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NC PATCON8 Sandtable Exercise AAR

Saturday (3 OCT 2015) at the NC PATCON I was invited to participate in the sandtable CPX. The basic scenario was that a base defense operation took in a young female refugee, who reported that two adolescent females were being held hostage in a nearby house by criminals. Our mission was to mount a rescue, to be planned in real-time, at night. I was given the task of operations chief, working for an operations officer (S-3)/second-in-charge (2IC), with the team as a whole under the command of the CO/first-in-charge (1IC). Other team members included a medical detachment leader, and a recon leader. CA also played the role of one of the two platoon leaders available in the exercise. Our goal was to dispatch a recon unit, and then execute the planning phase for this operation through the briefing of the assault team.

The exercise was conducted in a suitably makeshift tactical operations center (TOC), using prepared intelligence materials (a map and some Google photos prepared by the exercise coordinator (Grenadier1). All other materials were makeshift, and lighting was realistically poor. Communication among the various elements was via handheld radios, which added to the realism, and introduced unexpected uncertainty, as noted later.

First, I will describe the baggage I brought to the exercise, the adjustments I had to make to my previous experiences, and things I overlooked or could have done better.

My background as a Marine officer included the typical infantry training from individual rifleman skills all the way up to platoon leader skills. In addition, as an air support control officer, I have a large amount of experience with command and control at the Marine Expeditionary Unit, Brigade and Force level (consisting of an infantry battalion, regiment and division, respectively, plus organic air support, fire support, armor, medical, logistics, and so on).

All of that was helpful, but not sufficient, and much of my experience had to be adapted to the situation at hand.

One adjustment was that the exercise was conducted in Army lingo. A lot of what I knew from Marine Corps operations planning either didn't translate directly, was irrelevant (no organic air, for example), or had to be adapted at a different scale. Throughout the exercise I kept running into issues which almost fit, but I had to keep telling myself "adapt, adapt, adapt".

One key adjustment is the lack of encryption. Practically all of my command and control experience used encryption routinely due to the sheer volume of information passed. Not only were the radios in this exercise not encrypted (of course), I was concerned that a third party in the ether somewhere might overhear our transmissions and think something was seriously going wrong in the real world. For example, each time I wanted to say "victim", "hostage", "targets" or "enemy" and the like, I was imagining somebody punching up 911 wondering if all hell was breaking loose down at the farm! This caused me to censor my language and add "simulated" all the time or try to talk around clear details such as "be prepared for the support team to approach from your rear and prepare a base of fire on road X at the north side of the intersection with road Y".

I also didn't check for, or as ops chief, generate, a communications plan. We were constrained to using one channel, and so I had to direct communications in an artificial way that also added a layer of complexity on our single net. I found myself acting as net coordinator, directing the support platoon and medical leader to communicate directly on the TOC net, for example, but it worked well for the exercise. We also had the recon team on the same net, which could have been catastrophic in a real operation.

As with any exercise, some of the confusion we experienced was due to a lack of context that would have been present in the real world (like what C platoon was doing when one of its guys was wounded), but this lack of context also simulates a realistic fog-of-war. You might have come on watch minutes after C platoon had been dispatched, and hadn't yet been briefed when the victim arrived.

Another adjustment for me was that the unit sizes were small, yet their roles were those of a typically much larger unit given the level of integration with support units. The relevant Marine Corps deployment would be an infantry battalion, or possibly a regiment, with its own recon and medical attachments, yet our simulated force was barely a platoon in size (including the phantom A "platoon"). I would have called these units squads and fire-teams based on their size alone, although their missions were that of respectively larger units. I think that this is a realistic adjustment a militia unit might actually require; a relatively small unit will have to take a big bite of responsibility and conduct operations with a higher level of understanding of the overall mission and available resources. So, in the context of this exercise, a militia leader in charge of a dozen men will actually need the skills that a Marine platoon leader (normally a 2ndLt) would require. In other words, his mission and responsibilities would define where he would "plug-into" the doctrine.

One thing that didn't need adjustment was the various staffing roles. As ops-chief (typically a very experienced gunnery sergeant), my job was to keep distractions off the plate of the 1IC and 2IC, allowing them to come up with a workable ops plan. These two guys (Shane Bean/1IC and Tony Barley/2IC), did an awesome job of planning without experience in this side of things at all. As I mentioned in the debriefing, both of them started out with the mistakes all second lieutenants make: personally getting on the radio and wanting to build the sandtable models, respectively. But, after I did the typical gunny thing of taking the toys away from the kids (in that genial uncle sort of way that they do), both of these guys really came up out of the water, took the initiative, and did a great job leading the team. Both of them learned to delegate to all the members of the team and kept their attention on the big picture.

So, in that context, here is a partial list of mistakes I made, and which others can learn from:

- I did not pick up on the callsigns the recon team was using, and kept using "Recon" for lack of a better alternative. Without a comm plan, I should have gone with the flow of what he was trying to do.
- Although I kept copious notes of the mission briefing, I consistently left the notepad on the opposite side of the too-large table. A cargo pocket would have made a world of difference.
- I do not normally wear a watch. For this kind of mission, a watch would have been essential. Better would have been a big $5 Walmart wall-clock.
- I didn't take charge of the physical layout of the room, and should have arranged the tables differently in a chevron shape around the map (might not scale well, looking for suggestions for that) with plenty of room for several people to work within. Related, I should have placed the maps on the wall, preferably oriented to real-world directions.
- I did not sandtable some of the other buildings in the neighborhood, although their presence was part of the blocking plan. This caused some confusion during the briefing.
- I did clarify some of the aspects of the plan as it was being hashed out by the command, but I should also have suggested that the position of the assault and base-of-fire teams be swapped given the obstructions of some of the out-buildings around the target.
- I did not ask C platoon about the nature of the casualty they encountered, but instead began immediately coordinating a medevac. This oversight could have been catastrophic.
- I did not orient the target building sketch to the map until during the briefing. Fortunately the mission plan was not affected, but it could have been.
- I asked the recon team for specific details without waiting for their usual check-ins (a bias from my USMC experience where I would normally ask the recon OIC/NCOIC for this information whenever I needed it, and he would then coordinate accordingly).
- I did not log communications, which would have been helpful if I had taken a round.

Things that became apparent after the exercise:

- The blocking force should have been equipped with a megaphone. Once shooting started, this would have allowed them to notify the inhabitants of the other buildings of the rescue and possibly require less blue-on-blue blocking! "This is Bob Smith and we are rescuing Sally and Betty from a gang. Please do not shoot us." over and over would make a great public-affairs tool. It could have been also helpful for negotiating with the gang if necessary should the situation devolve.
- Comm plan! (more later)
- (trigger warning LOL) When it was time to start the exercise, several people were outside recovering from an intense five-hour Constitutional therapy session. My waifu went outside to gather them, and no one, to a man, came inside to participate, even though several of these people had previously expressed interest. Waifu wasn't offended at all, and this isn't what this is about: the simple fact is that in combat-related matters, women cannot command men (although they can support them, and do that very well). This is a simple fact of life that must be addressed, there is no room for political correctness in the world we are about to enter. I know this is a broad generalization, but in your heart you know it to be true. Similarly, during the debriefing it was mentioned that peeing in a jug in the TOC is a no-go if women are going to be involved. I also think this is not true. Yes, peacetime sensibilities will be offended, but in wartime, actual wartime, not the playtime with guns that rear-area real-world operations are today, I think everyone will understand the need. And no, you can't just "hold it", because that 18 year-old in the field with a rifle needs your brain on his problems, not your bladder. In my caveman view of the world, in a crisis women will mold themselves to the alpha males in their group. As evidence, today, they mold themselves to big daddy alpha government. And they are unhappy as hell, and are disgusted by men who think that is OK. Do not let today's social justice warrior (SJW) mores cripple your team later. End of soapbox.

This exercise was designed to take place in two parts: plan the mission and then execute it. Because of time constraints, the second phase was skipped. I recommend that a third, preliminary phase, call it deployment perhaps, take place before the mission is briefed. The reason I suggest a deployment phase is the tendency to mentally minimize context, such as comm plans and "what was C platoon up to when we started". Having a deployment phase to the exercise will not only train deployment skills, but will also force the TOC team to take responsibility for any short-comings in the plan and its execution. Possible deployment activities include:

- Siting and setup of the TOC.
- Real-world legal issues, such as potentially alarming radio traffic, amateur radio restrictions on traffic during training and how that changes in emergencies, and legal rules of engagement for rescue situations in which courts and cops will be back shortly once they feel it is safe for them to re-emerge from hiding.
- Deployment of forces for the start of the exercise, perhaps in a defensive and reserve posture.
- Comm plans, including non-electronic means.
- Simple doctrine such as how to communicate with recon, when to commit medical support, how to link up in the field, typical actions on the objective, how to signal attack, abort, and so on.
- Logistics plans, including resupply on the objective.
- Training team members on their roles, such as what does each member do during planning, briefing and missions.
- Bases and other territory under the control of the team.
- Situation of adjacent elements, such as the attitudes and composition of the nearby households.
- Watchstanding arrangements and how to activate the TOC (Navy CIC experience would help here).
- Succession plans.
- Circumstances under which command members will deploy and how roles might change afterward. For example, for the attack in this exercise, perhaps the 2IC deploys with B platoon so that if things go awry or if an opportunity arises and additional elements are attached, the B platoon leader can fight his platoon while the 2IC coordinates.

Overall, I was very impressed with how the exercise was planned and conducted, and think this should be a staple for future events.

If nothing emerged from this other than improved esprit de corps and mutual respect among all participants, it was well worth the time.

Addendum for when you sometimes set all the procedures aside and have a frank discussion.
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