Nine-month Army Central rotation proves total force concept

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (June 24, 2016) -- Col. John L. Rafferty Jr., commander of the 18th Field Artillery Brigade out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, didn't say exactly what his opinion was about the total force concept back in August 2016, when he left the U.S. for a deployment to Jordan. But upon his return, he said, he was sold on the concept.

Rafferty took command of the 18th Field Artillery Brigade in June 2015, and August of that year, he'd been shipped off on a nine-month deployment to the United States Central Command area of responsibility, where he set up shop in Jordan. He took with him from Fort Bragg about 75 Soldiers from his own headquarters, and about 20 Soldiers who'd end up manning AN/TPQ-53 Counterfire Target Acquisition Radars in theater.

In theater, he commanded the Combined Force Land Component Commander's "Force Field Artillery Headquarters," both under U.S. Army Central Command. The FFA HQ included about 650 Soldiers who manned about 24 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems in five locations throughout AOR.

Battalion-sized units from the New Hampshire and Michigan Army National Guard, along with battery-sized units from Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, manned those HIMARS systems.

"It was my first experience as an officer commanding a mixed force of active and reserve component troops," he said. Now, "I can honestly say that I'm a believer in the total force concept, and really believe that we are one Army. In many cases our forces are interchangeable. And in some cases our skills complement one other, which makes for a very strong and effective team. It really was a thrill to command that force, and I did learn an enormous amount as a brigade commander with that new force that I hadn't been exposed to."

From his headquarters in Jordan, Rafferty was responsible for, among other things, maintaining contingency plan readiness to defend multipole countries in the AOR. They had 24 HIMARS systems spread out across five locations in the AOR to support a requirement "to deter potential adversaries, be prepared to fight as required alongside our partners," he said.

Rafferty also had to stand up "Joint Fire Cell - Syria," a targeting and intelligence fusion cell he said was focused on eastern Syria, north of the Euphrates River Valley.

"It was really the ISIS, or Da'esh support zone that provided fighters, equipment, and resources from Syria down into the fight in Iraq," he said. "So in that way we were supporting the fight in Iraq."

Also, Rafferty was responsible for building partner capacity with allies in the CENTCOM AOR, including Jordan, United Arabian Emirates, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Bahrain, Qatar, Tajikistan, and Oman.

"We touched nine different countries. In some cases they were established relationships. And we begin to see what the potential is for interoperability. In other cases, interoperability is the goal."

In UAE and Jordan, where most of the artillery forces are, the Jordanians and UAE military have systems similar to the United States, Rafferty said.

The "have a very professional and focused army and artillery force," he said. "They are willing partners and great hosts."

He said the opportunities there went beyond typical familiarity training, to training with the goal of "fighting alongside one another. That's interoperability. Our path to getting there was through training and combined live-fire. That's what builds trust. Trust is the basis for interoperability. With like-systems and a willing partner, you can get towards interoperability."

In Saudi Arabia, he said, they focused on building partner capacity. U.S. artillery, he said, hasn't done much if any "meaningful" training alongside Saudi partners for some time.

"We built a relationship with the corps artillery commander, a two-star general in the Saudi land forces," Rafferty said. They were able to identify things the general wanted to accomplish in the way of training and work with him to accomplish that.

"We put together a triaging program with his staff, and a couple of months later we spent two weeks in Khamis ... where we trained alongside one of his artillery staffs and one of his artillery firing batteries," Rafferty said. "We exchanged techniques, and we observed and provided feedback, and built a pretty strong relationship. That, I would say, would be working towards building partner capacity. They learned from us, and we learned some things from them."

Along with his replacement, Rafferty later went back to meet with the Saudi Arabian artillery commander. Rafferty said that commander had already prepared a list of new things he wanted to train on, and in new locations, to expose more of his soldiers to working with American forces.

Rafferty characterized that as the start of a lasting relationship.

"If they move towards like equipment, then we'd have the conditions set to move towards interoperability," he said. Now, he said the Saudis have they have mix of U.S. and Chinese systems. He said he thinks they may be moving towards HIMARS systems, though he can't confirm that.

Rafferty said he was impressed with the relationships he was exposed to with partner nations in the CENTCOM AOR, but also with the impact of having worked with U.S. forces from outside the Regular Army. Working with the National Guard, he said, was pretty much like he expected it to be -- especially at the lowest levels

"I expected almost exactly what we found: that the platoons and squad level would be extremely good, and in some cases maybe better," he said, describing them as "crews together for a long period of time, really entrenched and tight teams.

"I didn't know much about above the platoon level. I didn't know what to expect from battery commanders, from battalion commanders. And like any unit what you find is a range of experience levels. So that's my job as a commander, to apply leadership to places that require more. That's what you do for an active duty, that's what you do for a National Guard unit."

Now, coming back from the CENTCOM AOR, he said, he's got plans for the future. First is to create to create more training opportunities with reserve component units. The way the Force Field Artillery Brigade fought -- multi-compo -- is the way it's going to stay, he concluded.

"That's how we are going to fight as field artillery brigade in the future: a mixture of active and reserve components," he said. "We'd be stupid not to train that way. That's one of my tasks for this year ... to either incorporate ourselves into National Guard field artillery brigade training, or incorporate them into ours. Either way, we have to develop a training relationship that is going to prepare us for how we are going to fight."

Also, he said, he was impressed with the communications capabilities he experienced in theater, and wants to sustain at home what the Soldiers learned in theater.

In the AOR, he said, the brigade there was split across five countries, and he said he'd been impressed with how the communications and mission command capabilities he used there allowed him to run his mission across that distance.

"It really is very impressive," he said. "Every day I was impressed of what our mission command systems enabled us to do."

Now he wants to exercise that at home. Though it'll be hard to replicate the CENTCOM AOR on Fort Bragg, he said, the Global Response Force recently went out to Nellis Air Force Base and Creech AFB to train with the Air Force. That's on the other side of the country from where he is, and he said he'd like to get involved in that training in the future, to bring his headquarters in on it.

That will provide his team "an opportunity to exercise the theater-wide fire control capabilities that is a core competency of us. I can't let it deteriorate over time."