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NEWS | April 21, 2021

Meet the ION, training for the future, today

By Spc. Tyler Morford First Army

A Civil Affairs Soldier analyzes a news article shared online in an overseas operational environment, through a relationship with the partnered nation, the unit involved discovers that the article contains disinformation used by non-state actors for a political motive; because of technology used by today’s U.S. Army, this training scenario is played out before the Soldier even steps foot in an overseas operational environment, thanks to the ION.

As Soldiers from the 308th Civil Affairs Brigade, Homewood Illinois, and the 415th Civil Affairs Battalion, Kalamazoo, Michigan, gain experience at Fort Custer Training Center during a validation and evaluation exercise, a controlled network called the ION, utilized more than 15 miles away, designed to simulate current and future operational environments is employed to digitally, and physically, engage these Soldiers in an efficient way, cutting both time and resources that would have been spent on training.

The ION, or Information Operations Network, is a closed intranet network that can digitally replicate a city, continent, or theater of operation through the production of replicated websites, social media outlets, news articles, and fictional state or non-state actors within training scenarios in order to physically and digitally engage Civil Affairs Soldiers who gain real-world experience in a multidomain operational environment. An exercise format is created based on the unit’s specific training needs according to their operational environment; during the unit’s training, content is injected into their digital environment in real-time, influencing the unit’s real-time decisions.

Col. Kelly M. Dickerson, Commander of the 308th CA BDE, explained the importance of this network, “It’s invaluable; as they hit the ground, they already have an understanding of the operational environment, and they’re not just crawling or walking, they’re literally running as they come out of the MOB (mobilization) site, getting to where they’re going, and they’re already starting to do that here. This is so easy to operate, and the Soldiers absolutely love it.”

The Chief of Operations Exercise Director, Capt. Christopher Speller from the 432nd CA BN, explained the development of this system, “We started this about three years ago, a phenomenal experience, it started off very small, but it grew; we started Crimson Dawn, last year was the first real iteration that we did with the ION system, we were able to take that and replicate an information domain, where we could have news sources, social media sources, as well as the actual physical component where we went face to face, and had civil engagements, that set the stage for us to build this exercise, which is Crimson Dawn 3.0, using the new ION system, our capabilities, I have to say, risen ten-fold with that system.”

The network can also help Soldiers improve on vital skills as Col. Dickerson explains, “We have the data at the individual level, we can literally, along the way, assess and then provide injects to make sure they are getting the required training to show what they can do, and provide that feedback down to that team-Soldier level. It also allows us to record all of these assessments and play it back to them, ‘this is what you’ve done, this is where you are, this is what you need to do to improve.’”

Col. Dickerson also described how the ION can shape the Army’s future training environment, “Not only can we provide this environment, we can also take what we’ve learned in past scenarios, and we can apply that in future scenarios, without a lot of effort to recreate the next set of training happening for the next unit that goes out the door.”

Another important aspect is the validators themselves. Capt. Speller explained how important the collaboration is between First Army observer, coach and trainers (OC/Ts), as well as OC/Ts from the 308th, and the ION operations team, “Our partnership with the observer, controller, trainers, is absolutely essential to the success of this exercise, and the reason is, we get that daily feedback, twice a day, as to how the training audience is doing, how successful they are, and if we need to redo a scenario or create a new inject, we want them to validate successfully, but we also want to train and prepare them for the environment that they will be acting in overseas.”