2d TSB PLEX: planning real world exercises in a virtual environment

Maj. Jeremy Haines, 2d TSB’s Plans and Exercises Officer in Charge, and Mr. Chris Hall, 2d TSB’s Lead Exercise Planner, and their team handled the brigade’s DEFENDER-21 planning requirements, ensuring all units were prepared for one of the largest U.S. Army-led exercises. DEFENDER-21 is designed
to build readiness and interoperability between the U.S., NATO allies and partner militaries. (U.S. Army photo by Candy Knight)

As the COVID-19 pandemic was forcing drastic changes to the DEFENDER-20 exercise just as it began in March 2020, military exercise planners from around the globe, including the 2d Theater Signal Brigade’s Plans and Exercises team, were already planning DEFENDER-21.

DEFENDER-Europe 21 is a large-scale U.S. Army-led exercise designed to build readiness and interoperability between the U.S., NATO allies and partner militaries. This year, more than 28,000 multinational forces from 26 nations will conduct nearly simultaneous operations across more than 30 training areas in more than a dozen countries from the Baltics to the strategically important Balkans and Black Sea Region.

The 2d TSB PLEX team handles the brigade’s deliberate and contingency planning efforts, pro- viding expertise in planning, exercises, doctrine, strategy, and opportunity analysis to the Brigade, other DOD components and international partners. Their responsibilities include preparing, coordinating, reviewing, and distributing written operation orders and plans.

“Our PLEX team works closely with the Signal community in theater to identify solutions to en- during problems to strategic and tactical communications, ranging from force structure to standing up new garrisons,” said Maj. Jeremy Haines, 2d TSB’s Plans and Exercises Officer in Charge. “We’re involved in quite a bit of different forums where we work with American or host-nation organizations in order to ensure we can meet the communication needs of Europe.”

Communication is vital, especially when you’re trying to plan one of the largest military exercises ever in the midst of a global pandemic.

“There were multiple forums that we as the planners participated in,” said Haines. “Planning DEFENDER-21 is a year-long process, and the initial planning conference for DEFENDER-21 kicked off in March 2020 in Budapest, Hungry.”

The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March 2020, just as the initial planning conference ended.

“(Our team) came back from the conference and were told that everyone who attended the conference were to immediately go into quarantine,” Haines said.

According to Mr. Chris Hall, 2d TSB’s Lead Exercise Planner, the challenge the team faced that point was “how do we get everyone, which at times was over 500 people, together for the next planning phases?”

While many would see the pandemic as a daunting task, to the PLEX team, COVID-19 was simply added a different dimension to the process.

“This planning process is a year-long process with USAREUR-AF, the 30-plus countries, almost all the USAREUR-supported units having representation at the conferences,” Hall said. “Due
to COVID, the conferences were held virtually. COVID-19 added different sized hurdles depending on different countries’ restrictions. We just had to monitor what the hurdles for certain countries were, and ensure we adapted for those hurdles.”

Additionally, the PLEX team not only had to find a solution to communicate with fellow DOD participants and international partners, they also had to find a way to communicate with the representatives from the various 2d TSB staff.

“One of our biggest roles with planning 2d TSB’s DEFENDER-21 support was facilitating collaboration with the entire 2d TSB staff as we worked through all of the steps of the military decision-making process,” Haines said. “That’s everything from receiving and analyzing the mission, to developing staff estimates and course of action development, to finally producing the operations order and actual document to initiate action at the battalion level.”

Both Haines and Hall stated that the virtual planning conferences were the best option to protect everyone’s health and safety, but the lack of in-person communications led to delays in the decision-making and coordination process.

“During the planning conference virtually presented some unique challenges,” Haines stated. “You lose a lot of the ability to do sidebar discussions where you coordinate directly with exercise participants for support, or work through different problems. At a face-to-face conference, we can discuss issues and develop solutions over a can of soda or some snacks. The virtual realm creates a unique atmosphere, and a decision that normally would have been almost immediately could now take days, weeks or months,” Haines said.

The team also faced technological hurdles with virtual teleconferencing and connectivity as not every international partner had the same software or programs as DOD members.

“Any time you do a teleconference, there are issues. For example, DOD used Microsoft Teams as the teleworking solution during COVID. How- ever, some of our international partners didn’t have Microsoft Teams, so we had to find other solutions, other capabilities to communicate and continue the planning process,” Haines said.

Now that DEFENDER-21 has entered the execution phase, what next for the team?

“Well the initial planning phase for DEFENDER-22 has already occurred, so we’re already starting to get a head of steam going for DEFENDER-22 planning, as well as all the other smaller exercises that are happening,” Haines said.

The lessons learned by the Brigade during the DEFENDER-20 planning process really showed during DEFENDER-21 planning, Hall said.

“(The process) was a lot faster and a lot smoother,” he added. “The Brigade commander and Brigade command team has said that the staff had come so much farther using the process than they did last year. And that was exciting to us. Now, I’m excited to see how the execution goes this year.”