5,500 Soldiers Complete War Games On Oahu Amid Pandemic Concerns

Jul 20, 2020

U.S. and Thai soldiers took part in Hawaii’s largest ground-based military exercise of the year. Leader say appropriate measures were taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

For the past two weeks, the hills above Oahu’s famous North Shore have echoed with the sound of rotor blades and automatic gunfire.

The U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division, based at Schofield Barracks in Central Oahu, completed its largest training event of the year over the weekend. About 5,500 soldiers took part in Operation Lightning Forge for the past two weeks, including 130 soldiers from the Royal Thai Army.

The exercise is designed to prepare one of the U.S. Army’s two, Hawaii-based ground combat units, known as Brigade Combat Teams or BCTs, for possible deployment to the Indo-Pacific region.

Lightning Forge is a critical step for Hawaii BCTs going through the Army’s pre-deployment certification process. Before they are cleared for an operational deployment, the Army requires its brigades to undergo a multi-week wargame at either the National Training Center in California or the Joint Readiness Training Center in Louisiana.

The 25th Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team is scheduled for testing at the Louisiana facility later this year. Lightning Forge is the last chance for the unit’s leaders and more than 4,000 soldiers to polish their skills before rotating through JRTC.  

Colonel Neal Mayo, commanding officer of 2nd Brigade Combat Team, said that Lightning Forge is critical in preparing the unit to be successful at its operational exam.

“Assuming we meet all the standards, we will then be certified to conduct contingency operations across the Pacific, or wherever the Army asks us to do so,” Mayo said during a pause in the exercise. He spoke over the hum of a mobile generator and through a cloth face mask.

Face masks are a new addition to this year’s exercise. Colonel Mayo said that the 25th Infantry Division, his parent unit, has committed to following all of the personal protective equipment and social distancing guidelines issued by state and local leaders.

Colonel Neal Mayo, commander of the 25th Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, spoke through a mask during a pause in the exercise. He said all soldiers taking part in the training wore masks while in situations not conducive to physical distancing.
Credit Ryan Finnerty

When his soldiers are in cramped spaces like a command post that make physical distancing impossible, they wear masks. As proof of how serious the unit is taking COVID precautions, Mayo, his face smeared with green and brown camouflage paint and wearing full combat gear,  points to his own mask.

“If you were to look at the back of this mask right now, you will see a lot of camouflage on it because I’ve been wearing it virtually the entire time I’ve been in the command post,” he said with a chuckle.

Mayo noted that soldiers may remove masks while operating in open-air environments or while maneuvering, but they don personal protective equipment while in close quarters.

The unit also took other precautions to prevent the spread of sickness. Participating soldiers have been sequestered in the isolated Kahuku Training Area, what unit leaders call a “training bubble.” Soldiers are also monitored for symptoms by the unit’s integrated medical staff.

Outside a command post, Major Panfilo Delacruz, a physician and the top medical officer for 2nd Brigade, described the unit’s protocol for handling possible COVID cases.

“We take the soldier, we separate them from the rest of the brigade,” Delacruz explained through a mask. “We take them to Tripler Army Medical Center, where they’re tested, according to CDC guidelines. We have a turnaround time of 1 and a half to 4 hours to get the test result.”

At the time, 43 soldiers were being observed for possible symptoms of the virus. Five of them were considered severe enough to warrant being tested, but Delacruz said all were found to be negative COVID-19.

States and cities around the country have struggled to achieve that level of same-day results in COVID-19 testing, often cited as a critical step in controlling the spread of the virus.

The stakes involved are high, and not just for health reasons related to the pandemic. Exercises like Lightning Forge have become a pillar of the U.S. National Defense Strategy. In the face of an increasingly bellicose China, bi-lateral and multi-lateral exercises are used as opportunities to extend American influence in the Indo-Pacific region by deepening international military partnerships.

Roughly 130 soldiers from the Royal Thai Army joined the exercise. About 1,300 U.S. troops returned from Thailand in March after completing partner training.
Credit Ryan Finnerty

Those include longstanding allies like Australia and South Korea, but also newer partners like India and Indonesia. Some 130 soldiers from the Royal Thai Army imbedded with 2nd Brigade for this year’s Lightning Forge, under the command of Captain Phadungdet Porkachang.

Porkachang said exercises like Lightning Forge helps the two armies better work together on tactics and communication, but they also serve a more strategic purpose.

“In the bigger picture, this training strengthens the relationship between two nations and maintains our readiness for working together in the future in any operation in the Pacific theater,” he said.

The one-thousand three hundred U.S. soldiers from 2nd Brigade’s sister unit within the 25th Infantry Division returned home in March from a partner exercise with the Royal Thai Army in Thailand, an annual event known as Operation Cobra Gold.  

The troops arrived in Hawaii as the pandemic was unfolding in the United States. Army leaders noted that the soldiers all completed the 14-day isolation required by Hawaii state authorities, with no confirmed cases of the virus.

Gov. David Ige has technically granted U.S. military personnel in Hawaii an exemption from the 14-day travel quarantine. However, HPR has learned that senior leaders in the headquarters of U.S. Army Pacific and the broader Indo-Pacific Command have been reluctant to make use of it.

An officer speaking on background told HPR that newly arrived servicemembers and their families are still being directed to isolate at home for 14 days and have been provided the time to do so. In March, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper halted all domestic travel for U.S. servicemembers due to the pandemic. The Department began easing restrictions in May.

Even when the world is not suffering through a global pandemic, large military exercises can be disruptive to local communities. Dozens of helicopter and fixed wing aircraft flights have been logged over Haleiwa, Waialua, Pupukea, and Kahuku as part of Lightning Forge. Convoys of military vehicles are regularly seen transiting the often traffic-choked stretch of Kamehameha Highway between Schofield Barracks and the training area.

As helicopters buzz overhead, 2nd Brigade Commander Colonel Mayo thanked the local community for their support  and acknowledged that the exercises can feel like a nuisance. But he also expressed hope that residents understand the importance of the training and the critical role it allows Hawaii to play on the international stage.

“We have to be ready to respond to any kind of contingency that our army and nation ask us to respond to,” Mayo explained. “We have got to be ready to fight a near-peer adversary if we are called to do so.”

“Obviously, we hope that never happens,” he added.

The term near-peer is national security jargon for a foreign military with capabilities close to that of the U.S. For much of the last decade, the U.S. military has been shifting its focus back to near-peer competition, and away from the emphasis on counterinsurgency, born from conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

Exercises like Lightning Forge are always based around an imagined scenario, typically involving multiple fictitious friendly and adversarial countries; one of them near-peer.

Although it is rarely, if ever named openly, in the Indo-Pacific Theater near-peer competition can usually be inferred to mean China. However, the training can also used to prepare U.S. troops for responding to natural disasters or the evacuation of American diplomats and civilians from abroad.

See images from Operation Lightning Forge 2020 here.