Smokescreens, sandbags, frozen creeks and empty mags

  • Published
  • By Eric M. White
  • 910th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

When the crew door of a C-5 Galaxy opened on the ramp at Youngstown Air Reserve Station, Ohio, Feb. 6, 2022, it was the first time some of the 40 Defenders debarking the aircraft had ever seen snow. The forecast for the next two weeks called for some of the coldest temperatures they’d ever experienced. But that didn’t stop the members of the 926th Security Forces Squadron, based at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. They came to YARS for the Integrated Defense Leadership Course, an innovative approach to training Reserve Defenders which just entered its first full year of operations.

IDLC kicked off in 2021. Air Force Reserve Security Forces squadrons send unit members to YARS for approximately two weeks as either IDLC students or opposing force members under the experienced leadership of cadre members from multiple units. Students are taken through an intense, hands-on training experience targeting training deficits and enhancing real-world combat capabilities. Their time is split between YARS and Camp James A. Garfield Joint Military Training Center, Ohio.

The facility offerings and proximity of YARS and CJAG make it the ideal home for IDLC. The former offers well-equipped lodging, food service and transportation capabilities, simplifying the logistics of housing Defenders from across Air Force Reserve Command for two-week stints seven or eight times a year. YARS also has ample classroom space for workshops and operation planning.

The installation’s 910th Security Forces Squadron recently cut the ribbon on a state-of-the-art training facility that includes an indoor combatives room. Cadre members lead IDLC students through building entry procedures, room-clearing drills using modular walls and close-quarters combat drills, taking advantage of the padded floors and walls. These drills require students to remain calm, determining and executing the best course of action in unique scenarios and high-stress environments.

YARS also has ample outdoor space for students to run battle drills and practice lead tactical squad movements.

CJAG’s unique offering is primarily space—20 thousand acres of it—with areas that seem developed specifically for the type of training IDLC provides. Several land-navigation courses teach students to move through challenging terrain using compasses, maps and geographic markers, all while facing the possibility of engagement by opposing force members.

YARS’ indoor firing range can accommodate several weapon systems and firing positions, but CJAG has wide open, 300-meter pop-up target ranges for honing marksmanship at greater distances. An outdoor pistol range also provides pop-up targets for shooting drills. Several disused buildings provide realistic combat environments for assault operations and varied terrain makes for good static defense locations.

The February course, which concluded on Feb. 21, was the first iteration in the throes of winter and occurred during a period that saw near-zero temperatures, as much as twelve inches of snow in some places, freezing precipitation and occasional thaws that caused normally traversable creeks in the training areas of CJAG to rush with water and ice, six feet deep. The grounds of the outdoor training environments were either frozen solid, shin-deep in snow or chillingly slush-soaked marshes, depending on the day and time of day.

Combat environments are unpredictable. Placing IDLC students in a training environment that is equally unpredictable helps prepare them to perform their function in real-world operations, but it also poses unique challenges to the students and IDLC Cadre who facilitate the course.

Master Sgt. John Hall is a veteran member of YARS’ own 910th Security Forces Squadron and serves as the IDLC course chief.

“Without a doubt, the most challenging part of this iteration was the weather,” said Hall. “They didn’t enjoy CJAG very much, and it was the first winter weather some of them ever experienced, but we accomplished the training we set out to get done.”

Senior Airman Karl Knieriem, one of the 926th SFS Defenders who attended the course, has had similar experiences as a prior service member who served in the U.S. Army. He appreciated the chance to get some updated training with his fellow Defenders.

“Being a long-time Army soldier, coming back in the Ohio environment, looking at those tactics again, there were a lot of new updates, there were a lot of bases that were congruent and things that are still pretty relevant,” said Knieriem.

Despite his prior experiences, Knieriem agrees with Hall on the weather being the biggest challenge.

“In terms of Ohio itself, for this particular training, it was probably the most brutal conditions you can think of in North America,” said Knieriem. “And to marry up that training, the additions to it, the aggressiveness of it and the pace of it, for me personally, that’s what training is supposed to be about. The worst day you ever have in the field should be when you’re in training, not when you’re actually in the field.”

Nellis Air Force Base is located in a mostly desert environment, dry with hot temperatures. It’s very different from February in Northeast Ohio, and not often experienced by Knieriem’s fellow Defenders with the 926th SFS.

“To come into that environment and face what the cold is and what it can actually do and how that can affect your performance, shooting, aiming, and how that can affect your mentality,” said Knieriem. “At first it was a challenge for them. I think they walked away with a whole new idea of what are the traits we’re looking at and how it differs.”

Some of the training activities were new to many of the IDLC students. Others were things they’ve done countless times before—like firing their weapons—but with an added layer of complexity from the cold. Winter gloves, critical to operating in near-zero degree temperatures, affect aiming, shooting and handling rifles. It’s challenging, but that’s the value of the training, says Knieriem.

“That itself is a force multiplier,” he said, referring to the frigid conditions, “to take similar training and put it in a new environment. With that experience, you have something to fall back on and things you don’t normally think of.”

While Knieriem and his fellow Defenders worked through several exercises, like planning and carrying out a static defense plan or scouting and assaulting an enemy-occupied position using intel relayed by headquarters, they had to contend with more than just the cold. Other IDLC students served as opposing force members. The opposing force team worked to undermine the other side, in this case, members of their own unit. But they also follow cadre leadership to make sure the “good guys” have proper objectives and challenges. Both sides get the same caliber of training during the course. Opposing force members learn to think like potential adversaries, gaining experience that can be invaluable in combat environments.

When asked if the students adjusted to the weather during the two-week course, Hall’s reply was, “no,” without hesitation. But he emphasized that the purpose of IDLC is not to make students adjust to the weather, but rather to learn to adapt, overcome the challenges and complete mission objectives regardless of the weather or environment.

Hall wants his students to be able to operate in any region worldwide. By contrast, the next wave of students is scheduled to take the course in May, when the temperature is usually mild and the most severe potential external factor is rain. The IDLC cadre members are confident that the course will be just as valuable to the students.

IDLC doesn’t exist to foster acclimation to extreme climates. It exists to ensure Air Force Reserve Security Forces Defenders are ready to carry out the mission in any climate, whenever the nation calls upon them to do so. As 40 Defenders from Nellis AFB head back to Nevada to warm up and dry out from their time in Northeast Ohio’s February, they carry the weight of new experience that enhances their combat readiness.