Col. Richard Cleveland had a math puzzle to solve for the Army I Corps headquarters last week at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
If he had to, could he squeeze just enough soldiers with just enough equipment onto an Air Force cargo jet and get them to a crisis in a faraway place where they could stream information to a military command?
It was the kind of puzzle that could suddenly matter if a tsunami hits an American ally in the Pacific, or if the Army abruptly needs to build a high-level headquarters to manage an escalating armed conflict.
“It has to be fast, and it has to be sustainable,” to keep a field headquarters running without much backup, said Cleveland, the corps director of current operations.
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To figure it out, JBLM put about 50 soldiers on a test run, sending them on a short trip to build the framework for a high-ranking field headquarters on a tight deadline at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.
They packed tents, food, water and three jeeps loaded with the Army’s latest secret communications gear.
“It’s all about readiness so we can prove that capability for our nation,” said Lt. Col. Mike Gonzalez, 43, an I Corps staff officer.
The drill marked an annual field test for what’s called the I Corps early entry command post. It’s a fairly small team designed to help the Army determine what kind of resources it should pour into disaster relief or the early stages of combat.
If they found a worsening situation, a couple hundred more soldiers would follow from the corps, building a larger headquarters. And, if war broke out, the full corps could deploy, as it last did in 2012 when it was the daily operational headquarters in Afghanistan.
Within 96 hours, we can have this command post on its way anywhere in the Pacific.
Lt. Col. Mike Gonzalez
The corps plans to practice those kinds of scenarios later this year, including one event during which it will build a full field headquarters at JBLM to run in sync with one of the larger annual military exercises in South Korea, Cleveland said.
It’ll be powered by generators and will help the corps figure out how to move one of the Army’s largest combat headquarters.
The early entry command post is not the “tip of the spear.” That’s the Special Operations and Marine units that often are first-responders to crises.
Instead, the command post is the group with a direct line to one of the Army’s three corps headquarters commanded by a lieutenant general. It’s a gatekeeper for military power that can run out of an undeveloped, austere site for days or a couple weeks.
“Within 96 hours, we can have this command post on its way anywhere in the Pacific,” Gonzalez said. “It’s at the first level of going in, assessing and analyzing,” for the headquarters at JBLM.
Since I Corps’ 2012 deployment, most of JBLM’s Army units have turned their attention from the war in Afghanistan to finding better ways to collaborate with allies along the Pacific Rim.
Ground-level infantry units, for example, have participated in monthslong exercises taking them to strings of Asian nations.
Commanders also have tried to keep units ready for unexpected deployments, even though they’re no longer on regular cycles of wartime missions.
That’s why JBLM Stryker brigades have been keeping up with regular exercises at the Yakima Training Center in Central Washington and the National Training Center in the Mojave Desert.
For the command post, last week’s trip to Whidbey Island hit both goals. It provided soldiers a chance to work with equipment they’d use in a Pacific crisis, and it gave them a chance to run through the checklists of what they’d have to do if picked to deploy to an emergency.
That was especially valuable to I Corps soldiers, who mostly work at desks in the historic brick buildings that make up the I Corps headquarters in the oldest part of the 99-year-old base.
They write orders, plan exercises and coordinate events for the tens of thousands of soldiers who serve under I Corps at JBLM in Hawaii and in Alaska.
It all fits on one aircraft, so it’s quick.
Col. Richard Cleveland
For the most part, the group that went to Whidbey Island was happy to get outside and work through problems in the field.
“Anything that gets us out of the office is much appreciated,” said Maj. Andrew Hill, who helped plan the exercise.
On Wednesday morning, a hangar at McChord Air Field held groups of bleary-eyed soldiers sitting with their gear while awaiting their flight to Whidbey Island.
It was a familiar scene for the countless soldiers who’ve moved through McChord on their way overseas since 2001.
That grogginess seemed to wear off when they were called to file onto a bus that would take them to their C-17. Many grinned as they loaded bags in the back of the cavernous jet and crammed into seats along its walls while airmen latched jeeps into the plane’s floor.
They all fit on the plane, and they got there in time to demonstrate that they could do what they were built to accomplish.
“It all fits on one aircraft, so it’s quick,” Cleveland said.
His soldiers smiled, called their kids and took selfies while they waited to get in the field.
“Everybody likes to get out of the office,” said Capt. Lonnie Hill, 40.