Reporting from Ft. Bragg, N.C. — Their parachutes were rigged. Their weapons were secured. Three days of food and supplies were strapped to their bodies.
In full combat gear, hundreds of paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division dropped from the North Carolina sky at 23 feet per second. They hit the ground hard and scrambled to their feet, rifles ready.
It was only an exercise, but for paratroopers just back from Afghanistan and Iraq it was a back-to-the-future moment, part of a new training focus that looks beyond America's current counterinsurgency wars.
For the first time in years, Army troops are training for "full-spectrum operations" — mounting large strikes against all types of enemies, not just insurgents.
The paratroopers among the scrub oaks at Ft. Bragg didn't role-play at cajoling village elders, helping with bridge or road projects, or training local police and soldiers — their main duties in Afghanistan and Iraq before returning to the North Carolina base in recent weeks.
Instead, their mission was to seize a simulated overseas airfield and kill or drive off imaginary enemy forces.
Drained by grueling hearts-and-minds efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military is refocusing on fighting and killing the enemy, not nation-building.
Writing recently in Foreign Affairs magazine, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said, "The United States is unlikely to repeat a mission on the scale of those in Afghanistan or Iraq anytime soon — that is, forced regime change followed by nation building under fire." Instead, U.S. forces will probably be called on to help other countries' armies defend themselves, particularly against terrorist attacks but also against conventional armies.
Lawrence J. Korb, a former assistant secretary of Defense who closely follows military planning, said flatly: "We aren't going to be doing counterinsurgency again. … We're not that good at it." Many units' major combat skills are rusty because of the counterinsurgency focus, Korb said.
Many of the paratroopers who leaped out of C-130 cargo planes at Ft. Bragg have served a number of tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, "we're focusing on the basics again — full-spectrum operations," said Lt. Col. Christopher LaNeve, the division's operations officer, as paratroopers lugged their gear and parachutes to board aircraft.
LaNeve said the "operational tempo" — military speak for the relentless demand for counterinsurgency troops in Afghanistan and Iraq — has not allowed time for more traditional training. But for the first time since 2001, the entire 82nd Airborne, 22,000 soldiers strong, is back at Ft. Bragg for an extended period.
"We're not going backwards, but we are looking to the past to help us go back to what we do best — close with and destroy the enemy," said Maj. Jason Brown of the division's 3rd Brigade, which took part in the exercise.
The Army's "full-spectrum operations" doctrine was published in 2008, but most troops are only now beginning to train for it as U.S. troop levels diminish in Iraq. Even if a unit is scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan or Iraq, "they will be trained to fight and win in a full-spectrum operations environment," said Col. Peter Utley, director of training for the Army's operations staff.
Counterinsurgency, which used to be the focus, is now just one of many training scenarios. "You have to be able to deal with any challenge presented to you," Utley said.
When the brigade heads to the Joint Readiness Training Center at Ft. Polk, La., next month, the make-believe enemy force will not be Afghan or Iraqi insurgents but soldiers from a fictitious country called Cortina. Scenarios will involve large-scale combat.
If a world crisis erupts affecting national security, the first U.S. unit ordered into action would almost certainly be the 82nd Airborne. The division is the nation's designated "global response force" — what paratroopers call "the president's 911 call." One brigade is designated to be first on call — at the moment, the 3rd Brigade.
The paratroopers could be ordered to support special operations forces attempting to rescue civilians held by terrorists, or to assist an ally's troops in a military crisis. They also could be sent to assist civilians in a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis.
They could face a showdown with a conventional army as well, Korb said. For instance, the Obama administration has said that military action against Iran is an option if that country continues to develop nuclear weapons.
North Korea, another country at odds with the United States over nuclear weapons, could use its huge standing army to invade South Korea, where about 28,000 U.S. troops would need immediate help. And the always-volatile Middle East could erupt into crisis at any time.
If called upon, the 82nd Airborne paratroopers could be required to ship out within as little as 18 hours.
The nine-day exercise on Ft. Bragg's Sicily Drop Zone this month involved more than 2,000 paratroopers and airmen. Huge Air Force cargo planes dropped not only paratroopers, but also heavy vehicles and artillery pieces. It was the type of large-scale mission rarely attempted in Afghanistan or Iraq.
"This is about as hard as it gets," LaNeve said as his paratroopers boarded their planes. "If you can get this right, you can do anything."