One of the most striking images from the early weeks of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was the motionless, miles-long column of Russian military vehicles outside Kyiv. Faced with stronger resistance than they had anticipated, troops were stranded for days as their food and fuel ran low. That stark example inspired U.S. Army readiness experts as they put together this summer’s National Guard training exercises.

Mid-July weather in Louisiana — where the two-week training is taking place — is nothing like winter in Ukraine, but the commanders are applying the same principles. One trainee scenario, which has been used in past exercises but gains some resonance from the supply shortages seen in Ukraine, forces troops to figure out how to continuously get water to soldiers in the sweltering heat and thick humidity. 

Chief of the National Guard Bureau Gen. Dan Hokanson meets with soldiers at the Army’s Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk, La., July 2022.

CBS News / Eleanor Watson

Brig. Gen. David Gardner, the commanding general of the Army’s Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk, told CBS News the challenge of distributing something as low tech as water can be unforgiving, with many variables at play. A soldier can only carry about a gallon at a time and may consume two to three gallons a day in the heat, which means the unit has to solve the problem of ensuring soldiers have enough water to drink, even though they can’t each carry all that they’ll need. 

The soldiers must figure out how much transportation is available to move the water and how to protect the delivery routes from enemy interference. Gardner said the same principles apply to other critical resources, like fuel and ammunition. However, the soldiers in the training are kept hydrated and safe throughout the exercise, Gardner added.

The exercise is one of about two exercises the Guard does each year at U.S. Army training centers big enough to accommodate the training of a brigade — roughly 5,000 troops.

Gen. Dan Hokanson, the chief of the National Guard Bureau visited the training center and Fort Polk this week to meet with the commanders leading the 79th Infantry Brigade Combat Team of the California National Guard through the training with realistic combat scenarios. 

“It’s the most difficult training that they will ever do,” Hokanson said in an interview, “In fact, what they say is at the training centers, you learn the hardest lessons you’ll ever learn and not during actual combat.” 

While on a tour Tuesday, Hokanson met with different units at the training area, which takes place across more than 150,000 acres. Since the training simulates real scenarios, the soldiers he met with were dressed in full uniform, despite the heat and humidity.  

The last stop on his vehicle tour brought him down dirt roads in the sprawling forest area to observe a short-range air defense unit. This, too, represents an initiative with elements of the Ukraine conflict. Training for U.S. wars in the early 2000s did not require these systems because the U.S. military largely dominated the air. 

“When we were training for Iraq and Afghanistan, we didn’t even have air defense units with us because there was no threat, but what we’ve learned from in the early Russian invasion of the Crimea region and the Donbas, and what we’re seeing now is how important it is to have air defense systems on the battlefield to protect us against helicopters, jets, and drones,” Hokanson said. 

To make battlefield training scenarios as realistic as possible, the National Guard has added other features, too — obstacles that appeared in the early months of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, like drone attacks and disinformation campaigns.

The training center has included a 4G network in the exercise so the soldiers have to sift through potential misinformation and counteract it with information useful to the public. 

“It’s important when you’re in an environment that you’re providing that balance and truth to the population so they can see something that may be counter to what they may be seeing from the Russians or the Chinese,” Hokanson said. 

The exercise in Louisiana consists of two weeks of “training days,” but commanders consider the weeks before and after the exercise when soldiers are moving equipment and personnel to Fort Polk as a part of the training. For this event, the California National Guard moved over 1,000 pieces of equipment by rail to Louisiana, the largest rail move in California Guard history. 

The two-week training ends Friday with a live fire exercise using real bullets and artillery.