MIL-OSI USA: Media Roundtable with Maj. Gen. Brett Sylvia, 101st Airborne Division commander

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Source: United States Army

May 9, 2024

Jason Waggoner: We’ll go ahead and get things started. So good morning. This is Jason Waggoner with OCPA. And welcome to the 101st Airborne Division Air Assault Media Roundtable with the 101st Commander, Major General Brett Sylvia. General Sylvia will provide opening comments and then we’ll get right to your questions. But first, here are today’s ground rules. All comments today will be treated as on the record. Please identify yourself and your news organization prior to asking a question. Only one question and follow-up per person to allow time for others to ask questions. If time permits, we’ll start the batting order again from the top. If you have more questions than time allows, please email those to me for follow-up. Please ensure your phones are muted unless you’re asking a question. And we have 30 minutes for this engagement. And with that, I’m going to turn it over to General Sylvia for his opening comments. Go ahead, sir.

Major General Brett Sylvia: Thank you. Good morning, everyone. As stated, my name is Major General Brett Sylvia. I am the commanding general of the 101st Airborne Division Air Assault, based out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky. I’m really excited to be able to spend some time with you all this morning and discuss how our division is implementing the Army’s transformation efforts as we look to the Army of 2030.

So, I’d like to start by describing how we got to this point. A little over 20 years ago, I think that some of you may remember, the Army transformed to address the emerging global war on terrorism. And during that time, we created modular brigade combat teams, and we made those brigade combat teams the Army’s unit of action. As the nature of warfare changes, it’s clear that we have to focus on large scale combat operations today. And the Army recognizes that it must transform to address both current and future threats. So, in doing that, the division has reemerged as a key war fighting formation. So, we recognize that brigades must be enabled to fight the close fight. But that means that the division and the corps and theater armies, we have to fight deeper. So, the 101st has been one of two divisions to test and prototype the Army’s near term transformation efforts. And some of you may have heard the term known now as transformation in contact. So, we’re doing that by introducing the mobile brigade combat team and integrating various technologies to increase lethality and survivability on the future battlefield. Our second brigade has now been designated the Army’s first mobile brigade combat team. As the Army continues this broader transformation to a multi-domain capable combat ready force, our division has embarked on a multiyear campaign to build a unique capability for combatant commanders and for the United States Army. In fact, just a week ago, we completed the first comprehensive field assessment of the Army’s transform and contact efforts by capitalizing on an exercise that we call Operation Lethal Eagle, and it’s based out of Fort Campbell. So, this is a training glide path that we use to experiment with organizational change, building our readiness while at the same time injecting modern capabilities. This 21-day exercise, with the entire division in the field, putting all of our systems at scale and under load, has as its centerpiece operation that we conducted about 14 days into this 21-days of a large-scale long-range air assault. During this operation, we moved a battalion task force-plus about 440 nautical miles on 77 aircraft in one period of darkness so that mobile brigade combat team could fight against a near-peer opposing force. This operation began by launching from Fort Campbell and making use of contested forward arming and refueling points that we established at Camp Atterbury, Indiana, and Fort Knox, Kentucky, before then returning that helicopter fleet to Fort Campbell and hitting multiple landing zones inside our training areas. This large-scale, long-range air assault not only provided another repetition for us to improve our execution of a unique joint forcible engine capability, it also provided us a venue to test new Army technologies, prototype reorganized force structures, employ multidomain fires, and experiment with creative sustainment solutions to be able to mass combat power at scale at the time and place of our choosing. So, as we embark on each of these training evolutions throughout our transformation campaign, we will continue to build greater complexity into each scenario, which will address issues such as more intense airspace deconfliction models and contested logistical hurdles. So even though we haven’t fielded all essential equipment and systems of a future transformed division, our new formations are purpose built and designed to be able to receive future capabilities such as counter UAS, one-way attack systems, and other human machine interface technologies that are in development. So, we believe this is the absolute right approach to ensure that systems are developed from the ground up with the right interoperability and functionality across all war fighting functions and tactical operational echelons. We’re excited to be at the forefront of the Army’s continuous transformation efforts. This process that we’ve embarked on will continue to be iterative, adaptive, and incentivize disciplined innovation, informed by lessons observed from ongoing conflicts, other experimentation efforts in wargaming. We’re honored that the Screaming Eagle division has had the opportunity to lead the Army into the future. The only way to do that for us is by training harder and thinking smarter. We’ll continue to address the evolving security landscape we know with the same level of professionalism that this division has for the past 82 years. So now I’m looking forward to taking your questions.

JW: Okay, sir, thank you very much for that. We’re going to go ahead and start with Mark Pomerleau. Then we’ll go to Dan Schere. So go ahead, Mark.

Mark Pomerleau: Hi. Yeah, thanks for doing this. So, as you guys are looking to introduce new systems kind of on a rotating basis, what does this mean for, I guess, like training, doctrine, and sustainment? You know, I mean, these systems and operations have SOPs, doctrine, and CONOPS associated to them. So, I mean, as you look at this in the future, what challenges does that pose maybe to constantly introduce new systems and new technologies while also in contact in conflict areas?

Major General Brett Sylvia: Yeah. Thanks, Mark. So, as we are figuring out how we would integrate some of these new systems, one of the things that we’ve been given the latitude to do, as we look at the build of the mobile brigade combat team as an example, we’ve been given the latitude to figure out how do we structure that. And so, what we have done is really kind of two things. The first piece of it is that we have taken systems that are available today and we’ve turned them into surrogates, if you will. So, like, if you go back to kind of the interwar period, you know, the Army didn’t have tanks, and so what it did was it took jeeps and it put big placards on the side of them and it said “tank” so that you could figure out how would you then organize yourself in order to be able to integrate that capability? We’re doing the same thing with that. We are taking available, commercial, off the shelf available, you know, UASs or some of the counter UAS systems that we have currently available to us. And what we’ve done is we’ve built some structures inside the mobile brigade combat team, like a–we built a multifunctional reconnaissance company, and that multifunctional reconnaissance company, while it doesn’t have all of the future capabilities in it, it has created a landing spot for some of those systems. And then we’ve taken things like a commercial off the shelf drone, and we put a small placard on it that says one-way attack system. And so, it gives our soldiers the ability to figure out how they are going to use it. It gives our leaders the capability to figure out how would they employ it. And it gives feedback back to the Army in terms of how do we need to adjust the training, how do we need to adjust the doctrine, and then what would some of that resupply look like if these systems were employed in the manner in which we think that they would be employed.

MP: And just quickly, I realize that you guys probably aren’t likely to have SSRs with you again. So, it seems like you’re looking at things that are extremely usable and intuitive. I mean, does that also pose maybe challenges to how some of these will be integrated with traditional operations, either from an Army land perspective or when put into a joint context as well?

Major General Brett Sylvia: Yeah. So, when we look at the contemporary environment and we look at for example, what’s going on in Ukraine, and you see how prolific, systems like UASs are. We certainly are figuring that piece out and looking at that in order to be able to figure out. So, for example, what does a congested airspace look like? You know, how do we do airspace control or airspace deconfliction when you’ve got these, these systems that are all flying around? What are the new capabilities that we need to give? And really kind of more importantly for us at what echelon do we need to have that level of awareness or understanding? You know, some of these because they are simple and intuitive some of these UASs we got, traditionally, we would do a weeks’ long new equipment training, but many of these systems, we got them in one to three hours. We had operators trained, flying these UASs, and putting them up. And so, when we were able to do that and demonstrate that, then we figure out, by putting our entire division out in the field for this type of training exercise, we learn things like the new dependencies that are created when we put these systems out in terms of what impacts it has on other systems. Like I said, in terms of flying more UASs, it poses a new burden on us to figure out airspace control, airspace deconfliction. And so, we’ve got to adapt those systems. And so that’s what is, in my opinion, kind of transformational about how we are doing this kind of modernization piece is putting all of these systems together to figure out those dependencies or to figure out where gaps or fragility in different systems exist.

JW: Okay, sir, thank you for that. All right, next is Dan Schere, and then we’ll go to Allyson Park.

Dan Schere: Hi. Thanks so much for doing this. I’m wondering, just with the rapid change of technology in UAS and counter UAS technology, to what degree do you think that a lot of these changes can just be done with, like, software changes based on what you’ve observed so far versus other more involved changes, I guess?

Major General Brett Sylvia: Yeah, that’s actually something that was, again, when I talk about what was new about how we are doing this, why this is transformational, my prior experiences when I was a brigade commander, I was fielded a whole new suite of communication systems. We went through kind of an eight-week fielding process. They gave us all of this equipment. They taught us how to turn it on, turn it off, and then all of those people that fielded it to us, they departed and they went to another unit to, you know, to do the next fielding. You know, in some cases, what ended up happening, we went to the field that didn’t necessarily work out in the field the way that they advertised. And so, to some degree, some of those things, we ended up parking them and kind of going back to some of the old ways in which we were doing it. And so, what’s completely different about what we did during this 21-day exercise was that, was that when we went to the field, we had users alongside of developers and coders that were there in order to be able to say, hey, this is not fully tested equipment. Take it. And we’re here kind of over the shoulder to figure out how it actually works. We’ve got families of systems and we’ve got new systems that we put out there. And we had to figure out how do we then pull this stuff together and how do we make it integrated, how do we make it interoperable? Some of those fixes are hardware, but many of those fixes, as you identified, are software. And so, it does give us the ability to be able to say, you know, alongside, with users, alongside developers and coders, how do we then make these adjustments and how do we make them more rapidly? And so, there’s this commitment across the entire enterprise in terms of being able to figure that out. At the same time, we have these very kind of organic innovation ecosystems that we’ve created now, where all of our brigade combat team commanders across the Army get together on a regular basis and get on a Microsoft Teams call and talk about what they’re learning, sharing lessons so that we can make a lot of these innovations and really kind of tighten that innovation loop and make it a lot quicker, a lot faster.

DS: Sure. And also, are you learning anything about how to bring down the cost per kill for this technology? I know that’s something that the Army has been interested in doing.

Major General Brett Sylvia: Yeah, I think that we all see that. You know, we all see the fight that’s taken place in CENTCOM, and I think that we identified that cost proposal that’s out there. And I think that’s why the Army is going this route, in order to be able to kind of flood us with, in some cases, untested capabilities so that we can start to figure out what’s some of the tactical innovation that’s going to take place. I’ll give you a quick example. You know, the electromagnetic spectrum, obviously is a key component of this fight today and will be into the future. And so, we have to do some mapping of what we look like, our electromagnetic signature. And so, we’ve got guys that are out there buying things off of Amazon, like raspberry pies and things, and figuring out how do we integrate some of those capabilities in new and innovative ways in order to be able to do things in the electromagnetic spectrum and other ways.

JW: Okay, sir, thank you. We’ll move on to Allyson Park, and then we’ll go to Sam Skove.

Allyson Park: Hi. Thanks so much for your time today. So, my question is, what’s your biggest need right now in terms of emerging technologies? So, what kinds of specific capabilities are you looking to develop, test, and field for the Army of 2030?

Major General Brett Sylvia: I would tell you that one of the things that is most concerning to me for the division level fight is that if you can be seen, you can be killed. And that’s not just visually seen, that is, can your electromagnetic signature be seen as well? And so, when we are looking at the division level of what are the capabilities that we need, we’re looking at what are those capabilities that make us smaller, more mobile, more agile so that we can do things in order to make a division command post look more like a battalion command post. And so, it doesn’t look like a lucrative target to the enemy. And so, for us, the big push is figuring out at the division level our communications architecture. How do we get to smaller form factors that are more reliable, more redundant that exists out there. As you make your way down into the tactical echelons, it becomes that UAS-counter UAS fight. That’s that urgent need that I would assess down there inside of our tactical formations of, they’re looking at how do they–how do they more effectively fight that fight when there’s a persistent environment of those–of those UASs. And from that tactical echelon we’re trying to ensure that how do we make first contact with unmanned systems as opposed to manned systems. Our reconnaissance fights up to this point have been reliant on manned systems. And so how are we making that transition to unmanned platforms so that we can trade steel for steel as opposed to blood for steel?

AP: Thank you so much.

JW: Okay. We’ll go to Sam Skove and then to Ashley Roque.

Sam Skove: Hey, sir. To get kind of tactical, the value of drones is obviously very tightly connected to their ability to coordinate fires. I mean, the Ukrainians often either have a drone team working directly with the mortar platoon, or they have drones inherent to the mortar platoon. I was wondering, as you start to introduce more small UAS, what thoughts, even if they’re conceptual now you’ve had about how to actually organize small UAS into Army formations and how that exchange of data will play out. Thanks.

Major General Brett Sylvia: Yeah, thanks, Sam. That was part of the reason why I talked about the communications piece, figuring out how do we tighten up that kill chain in order to be able to go from eyes on to delivery of lethal effects there. And so, we are expending that effort, really when I talked about some of the landing spots for new capabilities, one of the reasons why we’re doing that is that when you look at the UASs, there are small UASs, medium UASs, large UASs. When we think about the small UASs, we can think about those as integral to an infantry squad. And so, you have someone who is able to do that, really as an additional duty. It’s not very burdensome. It provides them the capability that that squad or platoon would need just to be able to see what’s over that kind of that next terrain feature, so that they can prepare for what’s in front of them. When we go to that medium level or that large level, that’s now where we’ve got to figure out there might need to be a formation that is organized specifically to handle that, because the manpower load, the cognitive load associated with those particular systems, may need to make that a primary duty, not an additional duty. And so the integration of these of all types requires us to ensure that we’re thinking about those at echelon in terms of how we then look at those, because they would have unique purposes, small ones, like I talked about for the squad, but medium and long, those are probably the ones that are more connected to that kill chain for indirect fires, or even for other capabilities, air launched effects, or close air support or other things like that, that inform that larger kill chain.

SS: And thank you. Just to clarify, so in that, let’s say that squad, small UAS, the Ukrainians use them pretty frequently to correct for fire. They’re beaming their images from their D3I straight to an artillery unit. Do you imagine a future where we’re doing it at that level where the squad is sending small UAS feeds up to an M-777 battery? Or are you saying more that those heavier UAS would be more fulfilling that role?

Major General Brett Sylvia: I think that what you could see is you could see those small UASs tied to the employment of mortars, and then you could see those medium UASs tied to the artillery, and then you see those larger UASs could then be tied to air launch effects and other higher order precision munitions and strikes like that.

SS: Thank you. That’s really interesting. Thanks, sir.

JW: Okay. We’ll go ahead to Ashley and then to Carlo Munoz.

Ashley Roque: Hi. Good morning, General. I wanted to ask, could you give any more specifics on some of the new technologies and weapons that you’ve been testing out? Anything on launched effects, spike NLOS, et cetera, and lessons or observations from them?

Major General Brett Sylvia: Yeah, we started out our 21-day field training exercise with a command post exercise, a simulation that we fought. And while some of those systems that you’re talking about there are not currently present in my formation, I know that they would be available to me even today if I were to deploy to certain locations. And then there are things that won’t be available to me for another few years. And so, in our command post exercise, we did image forward and look at some of those other systems, like some air launched effects, something like what you addressed with the spike NLOS, or we looked at things like the, you know, the future vertical lift. We looked at the FLRAA aircraft, and how would we integrate that as part of our large scale long range air assault? And so, while we did not have those things organic to us, we did work through in simulation how we, as a division, in shaping the division area of our operations and looking at that deep fight, how would we integrate those capabilities? What would be required in terms of how we organize our staff to be able to employ those? How would we adjust our targeting system, our targeting process, in order to be able to get after that. At the very lowest kind of tactical echelon, we have begun fielding the next gen squad weapon. And so that’s been something that’s been very exciting for us in our ability to figure out now that our Soldiers will be able to shoot further with greater accuracy and greater lethality in order to be able to get after that. And then the other capability that we used extensively as part of the mobile brigade combat team is this infantry squad vehicle. And so, we have just shy of 200 infantry squad vehicles that allow us to use a Napoleonic term, to steal a march. We, as an air assault division, we land as a cohesive element, and so it allows them to land as a cohesive element and move rapidly in order to be able to seize key terrain so that we could continue to keep an air assault division moving and on the march.

AR: Thank you. And I also wanted to ask about, you know, potentially some lessons coming out of Ukraine and EW, whether offensive or defensive, and sort of how you potentially folded these into the exercise that you just conducted.

Major General Brett Sylvia: Yeah, one of the things that we did, I think I addressed the smaller command posts piece of that, making them smaller, more distributed, more dispersed. But the other thing that I’d like to talk about, specifically about some offensive EW, was that in order to be able to deliver an air assault force, 77 aircraft with that battalion task force move in and what we had to do was we had to open up, penetrate an integrated air defense. And what we did was as part of this, we did a multidomain live fire exercise. And as part of that live fire exercise, we put out what we simulated to be that air defense. And so, we used HIMARs, we used Apache helicopters, we used close air support, but then we also integrated both ground based and an air based electronic warfare in order to be able to either destroy the enemy’s air defense or to suppress that enemy air defense, so that we could open up that corridor for that large helicopter force in order to be able to penetrate in and insert that ground force.

JW: Okay, sir. Thank you. We’ll move on to Carlo Munoz, and then we’ll get Matt Beinart.

Carlo Munoz: Hey, sir. Carlo Munoz. Thank you for taking the time to do this. I kind of wanted to follow up a little more on Ashley’s question as far as EW, electromagnetic spectrum operations, and kind of the comms issues you were talking about or prototypes that you’re talking about kind of exploring. Any of that tech that you guys were looking at, I mean, how much of that bled over or crossed into some of the stuff that was going on with Project Convergence and some of the other stuff that’s going on with capability set 25 and the ITN. Was there any crossover?

Major General Brett Sylvia: Yes. So specifically talking ITN, I think that many of you all who have kind of watched this, you all have seen that in the past, when the brigade combat team was the unit of action, we focused the vast majority of our modernization efforts on that brigade combat team and so, over the past few years you’ve seen ITN, the integrated tactical network, has been fielded to infantry battalions. And then a few of these, you know, brigade combat teams that are out there, those are–that are on the immediate response force, some of them that are forward deployed. But now what we did is that not only do all of our brigade combat teams have the integrated tactile network, but during this exercise, they fielded our division, the integrated tactical network. So, during the global war on terror years, we weren’t fielding those systems to our aviation brigades, our artillery brigades, our sustainment brigades. And so, they were still operating with some legacy equipment. And so, then during this, we took those things like the integrated tactical network, and we integrated those across the entire division in some ways to be able to figure out, does it stretch to be able to meet the needs of an entire division? And, you know, do we have the things like air ground integration sorted out? Can we figure out the digital fires piece associated with those? You know, some of it worked, some of it didn’t necessarily stretch. And so, like I talked about, we had those–those developers and teams that were with us in order to be able to help us figure out how do we pull these systems together. I would also tell you that these capabilities are fantastic. They’re tremendous. I feel like this is the best communications gear I’ve gotten in decades, and we’re a better warfighting formation today than we were 30 days ago even with some of the, you know, the issues and gaps that we’re still sorting through. You know, I’ve used the metaphor before that I feel like, you know, before this, I had a–I had a flip phone, and now I have a smartphone. Now it may not necessarily be an iPhone 15. You know, maybe it’s an iPhone 8. And I still got some issues figuring out how to get the Verizon cell tower to talk to the AT&T tower. But I know that we can get there through certain software changes and other things, and the institution, the enterprise, is committed to helping us figure that out. So, I’m incredibly optimistic about where we are, and we are informing the Army so that when they get to the next version, whether it’s capability set 25 or whatever that next iteration is going to be, they will be able to build those next C2 systems fully interoperable, as opposed to what we are doing now, where we are making them interoperable or making them integrated.

CM: I appreciate that, sir. And one quick follow-up. Would it be fair to say that this particular exercise was the first time that the ITN was applied to the division in terms of that concept of the division as a unit of action, is that fair to say or?

Major General Brett Sylvia: It is fair to say, but I would give it a slight caveat, is that I don’t think that we’re going to say any more that the division is the unit of action or the brigade is the unit of action. Every one of these, if you look at where you would fight either in a European theater or an IndoPacific theater, you know, you need to be able to fight at each of these echelons. The brigades need to have to fight, the division needs to, but even the theater needs to have its capabilities. But the reason why I said I would agree with you is that this is the first time that we’ve been able to do this at the division level, and I think it’ll be the first of many in the future.

CM: Okay. Thank you, sir.

JW: Thank you for that. And then, Matt, last question to you.

Matt Beinart: Great. Thank you for doing this. So, I wanted to ask, can you detail some of the specifics that differentiate the organization and structure of this new mobile brigade combat team idea that you worked with during this exercise? And to double check, was the Lethal Eagle exercise the first time working with this prototype mobile BCT structure? Thank you.

Major General Brett Sylvia: Yeah. So, the second portion of that first is, yes, this is the only mobile brigade combat team that exists out there, and this is the first time that it was put through the paces. And so, we did, once we completed the large-scale long-range air assault and put that brigade combat team in there, they fought two iterations of a force-on-force against one of our other regular infantry brigade combat teams in order to be able to get after that. In terms of–and we will do it again in August when we take them down to our Joint Readiness Training Center down there at Fort Johnson, Louisiana, in August. So, we’ll fight it again. And then the idea is to continue to fight it in future iterations or whatever it is that the Army wants next out of our second brigade. And clearly informing the Army after this next iteration in August in terms of how much the Army wants to spread that MBCT to other formations. So that centerpiece of the MBCT is that ISV, that infantry squad vehicle, being able to move every infantry squad much faster, much lighter. Some of you may have seen it, it’s based off of a Chevy Colorado platform, so it’s got a lower fuel consumption, it’s very light. It is strictly for carrying infantry. It’s not a fighting platform. We’re not mounting weapons on it or any of that kind of stuff, it’s just to move them, to steal that march. It’s easy to sling load it. We can put a couple of them inside of a CH-47. So that’s what that–that is the signature item that makes it different. But we’ve also built some other structures in it, like I talked about at the brigade level, there’s that multifunctional reconnaissance company that allows us to integrate new capabilities. And then inside of each infantry battalion, we built multipurpose companies that are providing a landing spot for new capabilities down inside of the infantry battalions as well.

MB: Appreciate that. Just a quick follow-up, but you’ve touched a bit on this already during the discussion this morning. But now at this point following the exercise, what have you learned about what a mobile BCT can offer? And then now looking to this next event, like you mentioned in August, maybe what are some kind of remaining questions that you look to hone in on as the Army kind of thinks about next steps beyond this August exercise? Thank you.

Major General Brett Sylvia: Yeah. The new capability that I believe that it provides is our ability, so if I look at my, you know, my division, the 101st, and kind of our unique capability is to be able to air assault in and be able to have the elements arrive there. But what you can do now with a mobile brigade combat team is that they don’t have to land in a single consolidated location. You can disperse them amongst many helicopter landing zones and then rapidly reaggregate them in a place in which you would want them to. And so, it provides this ability to rapidly move combat power in a way that you could not before, right. Before, I could move 2.5 kilometers an hour when I’m under load. And now I can go up to 200 kilometers in an infantry squad vehicle and I have the capability to carry more. I can put things and strap them on these vehicles in order to be able to have greater resupply so that I have greater endurance when I’m out there on the battlefield as well. So, this allows division commanders and corps commanders to increase our operational reach, to extend the lengths at which that we would be able to fight the formation. So, as we provide this feedback back to the Army, the Army can make a determination in terms of, you know, how many brigades would they want to have this capability, how many divisions to have something along these lines in the future.

JW: Okay. Thank you very much, sir. We’ve run out of time now. I’d like to thank you for your time to do this media roundtable. Thank all of you for attending today and again, if you have any follow-up questions, please send those my way, and we’ll get responses back to you as soon as we can. And that will conclude today’s media roundtable and enjoy the rest of your day.

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