A half century ago, on October 6, 1973, two foreign armies invaded the nation of Israel and, in a matter of hours, one of the most sophisticated armies in the world was brought to the brink of destruction. As Syrian tanks attacked in the Golan Heights and Egyptian forces poured across the Suez Canal, Israel’s small but highly capable army struggled to adapt to a form of warfare that had substantially evolved in just over six years after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Antitank guided munitions and highly mobile air defense systems created new, unanticipated challenges that demanded a change in tactics and made old ways of employing armor and airpower obsolete. The Israelis adapted quickly, learned from early miscalculations, and were eventually able to turn the tide, but only by the thinnest of margins. The 1973 Yom Kippur War provided clear and convincing proof that the character of modern armored warfare had changed forever.

The Israeli experience drove General William DePuy, commander of the newly formed US Army Training and Doctrine Command, to commission an in-depth study of the war as the US Army was emerging from a decade of counterinsurgency in Vietnam. Fundamental changes were needed in the Army’s doctrine, equipment, and training. One of the greatest observations from this study was the conclusion that the Israelis, though initially caught off guard by novel weapons, were able to win because of their superior combined arms doctrine and emphasis on training. This study, along with other currents moving in the post-Vietnam Army, eventually led to the Army’s AirLand Battle doctrine, the Big Five weapons programs, and the creation of the combat training centers.

US soldiers assigned to 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division maneuver M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks through a breach area during Rotation 23-08 at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, California, June 10, 2023. (Credit: Spc. Casey Auman, Operations Group, National Training Center)

Major General Paul Gorman, director of training for General DePuy, argued that the Army must provide a facility to audit the readiness of units against the unforgiving reality of the future battlefield so that US soldiers would never go into battle unprepared for the first fight. His 1976 white paper recommended Fort Irwin, California as the location for America’s premier facility. Thus, in 1981, the National Training Center (NTC) was born as the world’s foremost mounted combat training center with the mantra to “win the first battle of the next war.”

While history does not repeat itself, as Mark Twain is said to remind us, it often rhymes. The ongoing war in Ukraine presents a momentous change to the character of warfare, akin to the Yom Kippur War a half century ago. Everything from ubiquitous commercial satellite technology to handheld drones and sensors has rendered the battlefield transparent to any competent adversary. The battle for and control of the electromagnetic spectrum presents an opportunity for either side to capture a critical advantage. The ability to mass precision weapons at extended distances behind the front lines prohibits the concentration of logistics and combat power, complicates combined arms maneuver, and forces the prioritization of protection. Finally, small tactical actions (often at the platoon and company level) are uploaded and spread on social media in real time, weaving a narrative that is vulnerable to being quickly co-opted by our adversaries to drive strategic outcomes.

If NTC is to keep faith with the founding vision of General DePuy and Major General Gorman, then the lessons of the war in Ukraine should inform the continuous and steady evolution of the way that we replicate the first battle of the next war. Adapting to this unfamiliar environment and incorporating the steady flow of observations from Ukraine is our number one focus and top priority here at NTC. Thus far, this adaptation has manifested in four ways: the transparent battlefield, greater use of mass precision strikes, greater synchronization required above the brigade level, and the battle of the narrative. This article, as part one of a two-part series, will provide an overview of how NTC is adapting to each of these emerging trends. Part two will provide specific recommendations for unit command teams as they prepare their units for this emerging operational environment.

The Transparent Battlefield

The 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, fighting on its home turf as the opposing force (OPFOR) at NTC, has long exploited its inherent advantage to emplace scouts, partisans, and unarmed observers around and among rotational training unit (RTU) formations as they deploy into an unfamiliar desert. Building on observations from Ukraine, NTC has expanded this capability significantly with a dedicated intelligence fusion cell that collects commercially purchased satellite imagery (often less than twelve hours old), open-source intelligence from an internal social media network, electronic signals, and drone footage to achieve and maintain target custody of the high-payoff targets across the RTU. Where units are located but not identified, unarmed scouts in plain clothes approach unit formations with commercially available radio frequency tag readers, seeking out unit designations to inform the OPFOR situational template. Social media posts from local role players are also culled for intelligence value. To closely mirror conditions in Ukraine, most communication among OPFOR scouts and partisans occurs over a civilian cellular network that is limited to exercise-only traffic but enables reliable long-range communication vulnerable to exploitation by RTU forces. Satellite imagery and peculiar radio frequency signal profiles are used to direct a plethora of unmanned aircraft systems at echelon to find and fix high-value targets.

The key to survival for US forces in this environment is to mask indicators that betray unique or critical capabilities. In today’s battle of signatures, you can’t be invisible, but you can look unimportant. Large, static command posts accompanied by large, obvious satellite dishes are quickly identified and rapidly destroyed. The most effective command posts in this environment are small and mobile and appear insignificant—not entirely invisible but easily confused for battalion combat trains or a small group of supply trucks. During a recent rotation at NTC, battalion command posts adapted quickly to the constant strikes and several battalions learned how to make their command posts look like anything but a command post by dispersing vehicles, hiding antennas, and reducing signatures. As a result, the OPFOR misidentified three out of five command posts it sought to target with artillery strikes on the final day of the rotation. We cannot stop the enemy from detecting us, but we can stop him from understanding us.

Along these lines, the OPFOR from the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment has adapted to this transparent battlefield by often hiding in plain sight in urban terrain or among the abandoned forward operating bases left over from NTC’s counterinsurgency days. Their vehicles are consistently parked at great distance from the command posts or covered with tarps draped between buildings. Antennas are concealed in courtyards or mixed with urban clutter. A recent OPFOR command post was hidden in a building with all the doors and windows boarded up and accessible only through a tunnel from an adjacent building. When operating in rural terrain, command posts are often fifteen kilometers or further from the front lines with carefully selected retransmission sites placed throughout the area. OPFOR commanders utilize microterrain to embed their command posts within the existing landscape and tuck in behind steep terrain to shield against artillery attack from low-angle fires. The OPFOR also seeks to hide by giving the appearance of being elsewhere, employing deception command posts that mirror the size and electromagnetic signature of a brigade tactical group. These deception operations are supported by both plastic and inflatable decoy vehicles that emit realistic signals.

11th Armored Cavalry Regiment “Blackhorse” opposing force command post established with dispersion and concealed within microterrain, September 2023. (Credit: Lt. Col. Rick Ferrell, National Training Center)

Mass Precision Strikes

A second adaptation at NTC based on our early observations of the war in Ukraine is the increase in quantity and effectiveness of OPFOR artillery. The king of battle has returned to Fort Irwin. In a typical rotation, units experience over one hundred separate artillery strikes per day. With the long reach of OPFOR artillery, casualties are no longer confined to the maneuver battalions but spread throughout all elements of the formation. Consistent with observations in Ukraine, the majority of OPFOR artillery strikes are observed with OPFOR unmanned aircraft systems.

In addition to drones for surveillance, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment has recently been fielded with over one hundred TS-M800 quadcopter drones. Each drone is equipped with a single simulated 40-millimeter grenade round and a MILES (Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System) sensor enabling it to be defeated by small arms fire or electronic warfare jamming. Often employed in swarms of twenty to eighty drones, these attacks are intended to rapidly overwhelm and disrupt a unit’s defenses while striking fixed targets identified from previous live OPFOR reconnaissance. Upon arrival at NTC, the rotational training unit is issued a complement of handheld DroneDefenders—a directed-energy counter-drone tool—and a two-vehicle M-LIDS system to help defend against this threat.

This growth, in both unmanned aircraft systems and fires capability, enables the OPFOR to hold rotational training unit forces well behind the front lines at significant risk of not just disruption, but also complete annihilation. Commanders must prepare for this by devoting greater attention and effort to rear-area protection.

Effective units understand that the keys to defeating the OPFOR precision-strike capability are, first, raising its cost through rapid counter-fire and, second, lowering its reward through signature masking and wide dispersion of vehicles. Current US doctrine is clear that the primary responsibility for the counter-fire fight is the division counter-fire headquarters often led by the division artillery commander. NTC’s 52nd Infantry Division replicates this by applying simulated rocket fires against enemy artillery originating beyond the brigade’s forward boundary.

Effective counter-fire at the brigade level starts with the mundane but important task of properly constructing a digital fires kill chain that flows from an intelligence collection system to the firing batteries. This takes time, practice, and technical expertise. The Army Intelligence and Security Command system known as FADE-MIST provides US units with a gold mine of timely and relevant targeting data on OPFOR systems. When this system is properly trained and integrated with DCGS (Distributed Common Ground System) and AFATDS (Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System) servers, we have observed tactical intelligence data on valuable time-sensitive targets move from an observer to a fire direction center and on to a firing battalion in a matter of seconds. When this system is not effective, manual processing times are rarely fast enough to defeat OPFOR displacement. In one particularly noteworthy example, a young Army specialist was credited with stopping an OPFOR attack in the central corridor when he correctly identified, after extensive home-station training, the unique signature of a 2S6 air defense system using the FADE-MIST tool. Passing this data digitally to a properly configured AFATDS system enabled the rapid destruction of this high-value target moving within the enemy main attack. The attack became vulnerable to Apache helicopters and failed to meet its objective once the OPFOR air defense was destroyed.

US soldiers assigned to 4th Battalion, 1st Field Artillery Regiment, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division prepare to conduct live-fire operations during Decisive Action Rotation 23-06 at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, California, April 5, 2023. (Credit: Pfc. Anastasiya Ludchenko, Operations Group, National Training Center)

Even with its highly effective detection technology, the OPFOR has learned that it is a dangerous proposition to fire artillery at a US brigade combat team. OPFOR artillery that is destroyed by rotational training unit counter-fire is not reconstituted and ammunition is not replenished. To be effective, the OPFOR must have strict target selection standards and minimal target location error. OPFOR artillery cannot afford to miss. This is why masking of signatures is so important and why the key to rotational training unit survival is quite often as simple as looking unimportant. As an example, a recent aviation battalion at NTC established a fake command post within a widely dispersed tactical assembly area. The command post was fully equipped with nets, vehicles, and even the unit’s guidon proudly posted outside while the real command post resided over one hundred meters away in a small, inconspicuous building. An OPFOR drone swarm attacked the wrong target at great cost in resources and with the limited effect of a single US guidon destroyed.

Habits from our counterinsurgency experience have taught many junior leaders to concentrate vehicles into tight formations behind long strands of poorly constructed wire barriers and protected by a dismounted guard force. This posture does little to protect against the greatest threat to our forces today: high concentration of enemy drones and artillery. In the case of our logistics formations, such a posture often neatly packages our most valuable commodities, fuel and artillery ammunition, in dense concentrations to form lucrative targets for OPFOR drone and artillery strikes. Effective units, by contrast, grow comfortable with wide dispersion of critical assets even as this complicates command and control, lines of communication, and unit security. A brigade combat team commander offered a simple rule of thumb during a recent rotation: “If you can throw a football between two vehicles, you’re too close together.” In response to this environment, we are seeing more units form base clusters in their rear areas, with widely dispersed groupings of vehicle and individual fighting positions that allow soldiers to get below ground in the event of an artillery strike.

Division-Level Synchronization

Operations in Ukraine have made it clear that attacking a prepared defense on today’s lethal battlefield requires the full synchronization of effects in multiple domains to degrade integrated air defense, electronic warfare, and artillery systems. The recently published Field Manual 3-0, Operations changes the US Army’s foundational doctrine by defining the division as the principle tactical warfighting echelon. As a result, brigade combat teams are no longer self-contained units of combat power able to operate independently. They are inextricably tied to the movement of the brigade combat teams on their flanks and, most importantly, to the conditions set by the division and corps under which they operate. Brigade combat teams require and are dependent on the convergence effects of their higher headquarters to degrade or disintegrate the integrated fires and air defense networks that are so lethal to the concentration of combat power necessary for combined arms operations. NTC replicates this approach by providing dedicated convergence windows for the brigade combat team, during which the division provides maximum protection from enemy artillery for brief windows to enable decisive operations. Brigade combat teams must plan and organize transitions to synchronize these windows and remain closely coordinated with units on either flank.

In addition, US Forces Command has recently directed division headquarters to deploy to both NTC and the Joint Readiness Training Center several times per year as a training audience. At NTC, these division-level rotations occur either in front of or alongside a BCT rotation and stress the prosecution of a robust deep fight and sustainment operation in a live environment over extended distances.

The Fight for the Narrative

The fourth area where NTC has adapted to emerging observations from the war in Ukraine is in the growing importance of social media and the strategic narrative. The widespread adoption of social media in every corner of the globe has changed the way information moves on the battlefield. Tactically insignificant events at the squad and platoon levels take on strategic importance when they are filmed and rapidly uploaded to social media, where they feed competing narratives in a global conversation. The United States has historically struggled to operate effectively in this important layer of the information environment. By comparison, Ukraine’s effective use of this new tool of strategic influence over the last two years has profoundly improved its position on the world stage.

NTC replicates this reality by creating a robust social media environment where civilian role players are equipped with government cell phones that operate exclusively on an internal training network. Role players use these “box phones” with instructions to photograph and post information about both rotational training unit and OPFOR troop movements, activities, and command posts. As a result, the social media environment at NTC rapidly fills with timely and tactical intelligence ripe for exploitation by either side.

Rotational training unit soldier interacts with role players on the battlefield during Force on Force, May 2022. (Credit: Sgt. Hunter Xue, Operations Group, National Training Center)

In addition, the OPFOR carefully scripts events, even forfeiting tactical success in some cases, to reinforce a narrative of the rotational training unit’s war crimes, abuse, and incompetence. The training objective is not to force the rotational training unit staff to engage in a public relations battle with the enemy but to force it to identify false narratives and “be first with the truth.” Rotational training units’ public affairs officers must provide compelling information to their higher headquarters to counter false but seemingly credible claims by the enemy. In a particularly common example, the OPFOR commander will order the destruction of a town by artillery to allow the surviving defenders from the OPFOR unit to safely retrograde. This destruction will be filmed by rearguard elements so that it appears that US forces have caused the damage and resulting civilian casualties. When the story splashes across social media and begins to be reported by the local INN news team (role players acting as journalists), the 52nd Infantry Division headquarters will require the brigade combat team to provide a response. Effective units will quickly assemble radar and artillery data to confidently show that US forces did not cause the damage to the town.

Although no commander wants to be dragged into a public relations struggle while also fighting an existential battle for survival against a peer adversary, it is naive to assume that strategic leaders will be able to wait patiently for the facts while credible claims of US atrocities circulate on the global media. This is a reality of future war and something that staffs at every tactical echelon will have to be prepared to address.

The global nature of communications also raises the issue of personal cell phone use on the future battlefield. There have been a myriad of instances of both Ukrainian and Russian soldiers getting themselves and their units obliterated through the undisciplined use of personal cell phones to communicate with families back home. Worse, these devices pull innocent loved ones into the conflict by making them potential direct information operations targets rendered vulnerable in the battle of signatures.

52nd Infantry Division policy at NTC forbids the use of personal cell phones in the division area of operations but we know that soldiers depend heavily on these devices for all manner of personal needs and parting with them is often socially difficult and inadequately enforced. Recently, NTC has begun purchasing the same advertising technology data used by commercial advertisers to track device locations over time. While individual identities remain masked, simple aggregated operational security analysis can quickly reveal which company or battalion is where throughout the area of operations by correlating clusters of devices with unit headquarters locations back at home station. As a recent example, data purchased by NTC showed a cell phone taking a circuitous path across the desert in excess of 120 miles per hour. Analysis of this device correlated it with an attack aviation battalion headquarters at home station. We were then able to determine the exact route an Apache took to evade OPFOR air defense systems because one of the pilots presumably carried an active cell phone in the cockpit.

NTC has also recently purchased commercial cell phone detectors to help units identify unauthorized cell phone use in their formations. In World War II, the simple act of lighting a cigarette at night in a foxhole could cost American GIs their lives. Today’s soldier is as dependent on a cell phone as many GIs of 1944 were on nicotine, and we need to learn to train without this risk in our midst.

The four categories above outline and describe the preliminary steps that the National Training Center is taking to adapt to our observations from the war in Ukraine. These adaptations are just steps in what must be a continuous process. The conflict in Ukraine is still far from over and we have much more to learn about not just the events that have already taken place, but those that still lie in the future, as well.

As NTC continues to adapt we are looking at ways to replicate the challenge of loitering munitions, like the Russian Lancet system, more effectively. We are developing mechanisms to more realistically constrain artillery consumption rates to reflect both the limited availability of these systems and the tube life limitations that are constraining the use of artillery in Europe. Finally, NTC has recently added trenches, hedgehogs, and dragon’s teeth to many of the OPFOR defensive positions to prepare units to breach these kinds of obstacles.

The National Training Center’s mandate since our founding forty-two years ago is to prepare the Army’s combined arms formations to win the first battle of the next war. The current conflict in Europe has provided us an unmistakable glimpse of the outlines of that future fight. The preliminary adaptations listed above are our first attempt, consistent with emerging Army doctrine and Forces Command training guidance, to adapt for that fight. In part two of this article series, we will provide recommendations on how unit commanders can effectively prepare their formations to succeed in this evolving environment.

We still have much to learn.

Major General Curt Taylor has commanded the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California since April 2021. This is his third assignment at a combat training center, having served as an observer coach-trainer as a captain and a lieutenant colonel. Prior to taking command of NTC, Taylor activated and deployed the 5th Security Force Assistance Brigade in training operations with allies and partners across the Indo-Pacific region. Additionally, he commanded a Stryker brigade at NTC in 2017 and deployed an Armor battalion to Afghanistan in 2012.

Special thanks to Captain Joe Davey for his assistance with and editing of this article. The secretary of the general staff for the National Training Center and Fort Irwin since May 2023, Captain Davey previously served as an observer coach-trainer on the Cobra Team as a part of Operations Group. Prior to his assignments at Fort Irwin, he served as the commander for Apache Troop and later Hatchet Troop in 2-13 CAV, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Spc. Duke Edwards, US Army