Ridge Runner training program offers meaningful, challenging training opportunities for SOF
by Sgt. Sara Yoke
JFHQ-WV Public Affairs Office
CAMP DAWSON, W.Va. –The global security posture remains dynamic and unpredictable. Accordingly, Special Operations Forces must maintain the highest levels of readiness to support the Geographic Combatant Commander. The West Virginia National Guard's Ridge Runner Irregular Warfare Training Activity provides realistic and challenging scenarios simulating today's operational landscape.
Recently, a company from 3rd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) traveled from Fort Carson, Co. to W.Va. to utilize the Ridge Runner program to prepare for employment within the European theater of operations.
“This training enhanced our company’s preparation for forthcoming operations in the EUCOM AOR, as well as increased our tactical and technical proficiency in our core mission set – unconventional warfare,” said Maj. Michael Lueckeman, the company’s commander.
Just as the propensity of SOF operations have transitioned from a kinetic nature to a more mutually supporting role with emphasis on the human dimension, the methodology for conducting Special Operations is also under continuous refinement.
The Ridge Runner program is a cost effective way for SOF to be able to train on varying aspects of irregular warfare in scenarios that are realistic and tailored to the participating unit’s upcoming mission. The 3-10 SFG(A) staff and Ridge Runner personnel worked together to leverage existing West Virginia resources to add both realism and depth to a specific, requirements-driven scenario.
“This exercise let us work on skills we haven’t used for a while. We brushed the dust off and got back to the basics and remembered why they are so important,” said Capt. Travis Allard, a Special Forces detachment commander.
For this exercise, one of the training goals was to increase the team’s understanding of the seven phases of unconventional warfare - preparation, initial contact, infiltration, organization, build up, employment and transition. These set the framework for how the scenario unfolded during the two-week training.
“Participating in Exercise Ridge Runner increased our ability to deploy our force, prepare personnel for deployment, provide intelligence and communications support, conduct mission planning, and establish and operate an advance operation base – these are all tasks we will conduct in upcoming deployments,” said Lueckeman.
For the infil phase, the Special Forces teams moved to the guerilla force bases using different methods, including a water infiltration route. As they entered the icy waters in canoes and began to navigate, a local swift water rescue team was onsite to ensure safety while also acting as trusted local guides within the scenario.
“Ridge Runner has dynamic infiltration lanes; Ridge Runner allowed us to infiltrate by land, by air, and through waterborne operations. That combined with the excellent facilities at Camp Dawson, the support of the surrounding communities, and the flexibility of the Ridge Runner staff made Ridge Runner the most appealing and beneficial option for our training event,” Lueckeman said.
Ridge Runner has land use agreements to over 500,000 acres of public and private property. Any WVNG facility can potentially be leveraged to support a Ridge Runner sponsored training event, so specific training locations offer varying degrees of flexibility plus will often decrease the Per Diem costs associated with off-site training for the exercise participants. For this exercise, the training occurred on and around Camp Dawson, located near Kingwood, W.Va.
The local community actively supported the training in several ways. Beyond the land use access, many community leaders participated as role players in key leader engagements. By having real community leaders participate, the ODA members gained additional experience by having a community leader convey notional problems (scenario) with the institutional knowledge of that office to encourage the ODA to think beyond their task and purpose of the mission. Helping community leaders with solving local problems leads to rapport building and ultimately accomplishing their mission. This added depth and variety.
Ridge Runner facilitates organic resources in the WVNG or from the community and using the unit's Mission Essential Task List as a base plate, combines the two to make a realistic scenario," said Command Sgt. Maj. Tom Edmonds, program manager for Ridge Runner.
WVNG Soldiers participated as role players in the exercise, acting as the indigenous force that Special Forces Soldiers had to train to become the resistance force. WVNG servicemembers were able to bring their civilian job skill sets to the exercise, reinforcing the scenario as more convincing and providing additional depth to their character development.
“It adds realism in an environment where a Special Forces team would be in a country training civilians to become a paramilitary force,” said Edmonds.
“We had real world rapport with our guerilla fighters,” Allard said about his team’s interaction with the WVNG role players. “The interaction between the two elements was great. In a UW setting, people have skills and connections they could bring to build the resistance capabilities. By working with them, we got them to go outside the box, be resourceful and see if it worked.”
The training exercise was beneficial for all elements. While the Special Forces company increased their skill sets at the individual, detachment, and company levels, the WVNG participants also had the opportunity to gain valuable training they might not otherwise receive, such as small unit tactics, survival, planning and conducting raids and ambushes, and close quarter combat training, Lueckeman said.
“When it’s servicemembers training servicemembers, it is beneficial, and it’s what makes Ridge Runner unique. Many other programs use contractors,” said Maj. Erik Sarson, Ridge Runner’s officer in charge.
Beyond the guerilla warfighters, the exercise was also supported by multiple WVNG elements – fixed wing and rotary aircraft, military police, engineers, transportation and medical. In total, more than 70 WVNG service members either participated or supported the exercise.
Ridge Runner staff also coordinated with local agencies such as the Preston County Sheriff’s Office and the W.Va. State Police. During one scenario, state police officers set up a simulated criminal checkpoint. The narcotics canine was utilized, giving the dog and its handler the chance to train. Detention cells were made available, and the Soldiers were separated and interviewed. Other emergency services such as the local fire department and ambulatory services supported the training.
What is unique to W.Va. is the closely stitched relationship between the military and the residents of the state. The WVNG’s positive response to frequent natural disasters in the state such as flooding, snow storms and the recent water crisis, residents are accustomed to seeing Guardsmen in their neighborhoods helping. For Ridge Runner, that means having a community that is enthusiastic and supportive of training, Edmonds said.
“A needed resource is always just a phone call away,” Sarson said.
Ridge Runner’s staff members pride themselves on working with visiting units to facilitate their training objectives into the most realistic environment possible. Most, if not all of the training will occur in or around local communities.
“Where other training programs are very structured, Ridge Runner is more like a lab. We offer a flexible environment where a unit can come in and try something creative,” Sarson said, referring to a unit’s approach on how to train for a difficult mission.
“One thing that makes training for unconventional warfare like this difficult is that so many elements have to come together. It is usually very challenging, but the Ridge Runner flexibility and the competency of the WVNG allowed this to come together in about four months. Our doctrinal knowledge has been significantly enhanced because of this training,” Lueckeman said. “We have developed a terrific relationship with the WVNG that we hope to be enduring in nature.”