Over-Reliance on Cell Phones in Garrison Nearly Led to a Disaster at Combat Training Center

By Matt Lensing, MTI Contributor

Army leaders follow the doctrine, “train as you fight,” when planning unit training. According to Field Manual 7-0 Soldiers must train in, “environments as close to combat-like conditions as possible,” so they are prepared for the, “stress, chaos, uncertainty, and complexity of war.” This includes preparing subordinates to operate in a degraded environment when the enemy directly targets communications networks, or jams your systems. I didn’t realize the importance of this principle of training management until my Soldiers’ primary form of communication, cell-phone, was taken away.

The Cost of Over-reliance on Cell Phones

I saw first hand the cost of cell phone dependency when my infantry battalion deployed to the “box” to conduct force on force maneuvers at the National Training Center (NTC) in Fort Irwin, CA. Upon arrival to NTC the unloading of trains and consolidation of equipment was synchronized through cell phones and group messaging apps. As the battalion executive officer I participated in synchronization meetings on my phone multiple times a day to report progress and receive updates from higher. We operated just as we did in garrison getting the mission done through text messages and pin drops on Google Maps, but that changed when cell phones went away.

Although everyone knew personal mobile devices were not allowed when we maneuvered against the simulated enemy I did not stress my subordinates to issue orders without cell phones in the months leading up to our rotation. This was abundantly clear a couple of days into the rotation when our Forward Support Company had to resupply our infantry companies with ammunition. 

The distribution platoon had to drop off expended ammo residue at a designated location, and draw new ammunition from a different spot. I provided explicit instructions to deliver the ammo once we reached our new position. I even reinforced the order by sending my logistics officer to accompany the mission to make sure there were no hiccups. I knew this was a no-fail task. At sunup the rest of the battalion would move approximately 20 kilometers away to integrate into the brigade’s area defense, and the enemy was not going to wait if we didn’t have our ammo.

Morning came and we made it to our new location without any major issues. The companies started establishing battle positions. We were in the correct spot, so it should have only been a short time until I saw the platoon rolling up with our ammunition. Minutes turned to hours and still no ammunition. I tried to contact them from my vehicle radio, but no answer. I sent messages through digital systems, but no response there either. The enemy could come rolling into our sector any minute, so I got approval from the Battalion Commander to release a rifle platoon to go to where the distribution platoon was supposed to be and bring them and the rounds to us immediately.

A few more hours went by. I was pulled away to conduct a mandatory after action review (AAR) of the previous battle, so told the remaining leaders to get ammunition to our location by any means possible. The AAR took a few more hours, but I was confident that by the time I got back the ammo would be there. I was gravely mistaken.

When I arrived back to the battalion’s command post there was no ammo, but there was enemy spotted approaching our defensive lines. My heart sank. I failed the one task that would cost us the mission, and put the rest of the brigade in peril. Through a series of miracles including company executive officers and supply sergeants conducting their own hasty resupply missions, the defensive positions repelled the enemy attacks with the little ammunition they had, and effective use of anti-tank systems and indirect fire.

After the Battle

The sun was setting as the headlights of the Forward Support Company First Sergeant’s humvee approached our command post. The ammunition had arrived. It was too late for that battle, but we still needed the ammo for future operations. When I questioned the First Sergeant about why the resupply did not arrive on time I quickly realized it was because of how we trained in garrison, and during the first few days at NTC, where we relied on cell-phones to issue orders.

These were the takeaways from the First Sergeant’s report:

  • Navigation: Distribution platoon was not familiar with using tactical systems to navigate, and most of their vehicles didn’t have functioning systems to plot or follow a route.
  • Shared Understanding: Ammunition pick-up/drop-off location changed, or was not accurately communicated. Also distribution platoon had the wrong battalion command post location.
  • Time: Platoon needed  way more time than estimated to download and pickup ammunition.
  • Communication: The platoon could not reach me on radio, or through digital systems, to let me know they needed more time, and confirm the proper locations.

I own the failures of that day. The Army is supposed to train like we fight, and cell phones are never supposed to be our primary form of communication yet I allowed it to be our go-to platform for months leading up to the rotation. There was no way I could undo all those bad habits once we entered the “box.” This failure uncovered many shortcomings about how my unit relied on personal devices instead of issuing tactical orders on our assigned systems.

In garrison our Soldiers relied on cell phones to share locations, or drop “pins” to wherever they were tasked to go. Each day Soldiers get directions via phone from their sergeants for medical appointments, equipment draws, or even field training. They were not proficient with the digital systems they were supposed to use to navigate in a tactical environment. Since text or cell phone was the primary means to communicate at home station the support company Soldiers were not encouraged to use their radios and digital systems to communicate. That day I sent dozens of messages to the company commander, and the platoon, but they never replied because I didn’t ensure they had the correct systems and were trained on how to use them.

Even after this potentially catastrophic setback our battalion had a successful rotation. We improved each day using our tactical systems the way they were meant to be used. Infantrymen and communications Soldiers worked hand in hand to increase our number of working systems. We ended up with more properly functioning systems at the end of the rotation than we had at the beginning because we knew we would be as lucky next time if we couldn’t communicate. I have no doubt if I had focused more on using our communications systems instead of cell phones in garrison we would have been more prepared for the chaos and uncertainty of that exercise. 

Here are my lessons learned:

  1. Validate communications PACE (Primary, Alternate, Contingent, Emergency) during every field training event: If a system is part of the PACE plan then take it out of supply, make sure you have all the components, set it up, and make sure it works. For some systems this requires getting additional resources like satellite time, or access to a tactical network. Don’t settle for good enough. If you can’t communicate when conditions are perfect at home station then you probably won’t be able to in the field either.
  2. Send low bandwidth orders in garrison: Soldiers at home station have access to computers and cell phones operating on high speed data networks. Resist the urge to cram lots of detail into operations orders, and accompanying PowerPoint presentations, with large file sizes (larger than 5 megabytes). These files are much too large to send in field environments because of bandwidth constraints. Simple text formatted Warning Orders and Operations Orders are more easily transmitted compared to files with lots of attachments.
  3. Don’t use cell phones during training events: Create blocks of time on the training schedule where Soldiers communicate and navigate without their phones for a few hours a week. Then ruthlessly enforce this during field training. Cell phones may still have a place in the PACE plan, but if it’s the Emergency system then validate the other systems work first. 

Digital devices in Soldiers’ pockets today have technology that was only seen in movies a few years ago. While their capabilities are impressive, an over-reliance on these systems poses a serious danger when Soldiers don’t learn to function without them. It is a leaders responsibility to avoid taking shortcuts in training that will cost lives, or the mission in combat.

Matt Lensing is an active duty infantry officer who has served in the U.S. Army since 2007.

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