The U.S. Army's top official said Thursday that the service is finalizing a plan to allow combat units to resume training in large formations, a key to readiness that's been all but halted by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
As the service follows strict social-distancing guidance, platoons, companies and battalions have been unable to conduct the field exercises, live-fires and other training necessary to prepare brigade combat teams for rotations to combat training centers (CTC) such as the National Training Center (NTC) in Fort Irwin, California, and the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) at Fort Polk, Louisiana.
The Army postponed the 81st Stryker Brigade Combat Team's planned rotation to NTC that was scheduled for May and is now trying to resume rotations to NTC and JRTC sometime this summer, officials said.
Officials in charge of initial-entry training have made drastic changes to Basic Combat Training to ensure that COVID-19 doesn't spread through the training base.
Now, the operational Army is preparing to roll out a plan that will likely involve testing whole units and isolating them so they can begin training again, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told defense reporters Thursday during a telephonic discussion.
"We are going to be rolling out in the near future how we are going to be doing all of that and to be able to turn the CTC rotations back on," he said.
Some of the plan will probably involve ensuring that installations are equipped with robust testing capability to "test individuals and put what we call safety bubbles around a formation so that they can train in large groups and obviously keep people safe and healthy," McCarthy said.
"As you put all that test capability in place, it's how do you now look at a battalion that is moving down the readiness continuum that needs to do company- and battalion-level live fires [and] ultimately get to the combat training center and then deploy to Afghanistan or Pacific Pathways in east Asia," he added. "So it is as much the resources to test as it is once you get somebody you know they are negative -- putting them into an isolated space where they can go out and train in the field with their teammates and then keeping them healthy to be ready for deployment."
NTC, JRTC and the Joint Multinational Readiness Center at Hohenfels, Germany, hold brigade-level training exercises for armor, infantry and Stryker brigade combat teams and are a key measurement for the service's combat readiness.
The CTCs have transitioned from mission-rehearsal exercises designed for tours in Iraq and Afghanistan to decisive-action rotations to prepare units for combat against near-peer adversaries such as China and Russia.
On Monday, the Army reopened Basic Combat Training to new recruits after taking a two-week pause to equip initial-entry training bases with test-analysis equipment that allows installations to know complete test results for several hundred soldiers a day.
In addition, initial-entry training centers have started a 14-day "controlled monitoring" phase of BCT, where groups of up to 30 new trainees are trained separately from others, in case any of them develops COVID-19 symptoms in that time period.
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at email@example.com.