COIN Symposium recap part 5

I suspect the British conducted some sort of psyop during the Revolutionary War on us or put something in the water before they left.  It seems everyone I know (including me) has this Pavlovian reaction to assume that if someone has a British accent they must know what they’re talking about and I should probably quit screwing around and make them tea or something before they tell the Queen and I get sent to a penal colony.  It’s even worse when the speaker actually makes sense.  My brain starts to fry and I start thinking that maybe taxation without representation isn’t such a bad thing after all.

All of that leads me to the notes from LTC. Rupert Jones of the UK.  You know the deal by now.  My comments are in italics.  Now excuse me while I make some tea and learn the words to God Save the Queen.

Nobody in the U.S. or the UK (or anywhere else) actually reads their doctrine.  The same applies to COIN doctrine.  A very common refrain during the conference.  It seems almost no one has actually read 3-24 but we all just kind of know what’s in it.  Some people regarded this as a major problem and others didn’t.

General McChrystal’s tactical guidance (link here – Read it if you haven’t already.  It’s all of about 7 pages and worth your time, especially if you have no intention of reading FM 3-24) shouldn’t have been anything new.  It was a recap of COIN doctrine and didn’t break any new ground.  Yet, its release resulted in so much activity throughout the theater that it points to a big gap between doctrine and action (Put that in your pipe and smoke it Col Gentile!).

Is our training really preparing our soldiers to operate in a COIN environment?  We can talk about it just fine but it’s not at all clear we’ve actually internalized it, especially when the chips are down and we’ve got to make immediate decisions with possible life or death consequences.  Do we train soldiers to think about the 2nd or 3rd order consequences of their actions?  This was the first of innumerable mentions of this point by tons of speakers and audience members.  The need to see what will happen as a result of what decisions and actions all soldiers make. Update: (well, not really an update since I’m writing this before it’s been published but this is after parts 1-4 have been)  The comments in response to some of the earlier COIN symposium recaps have indicated that this is a controversial point as well.  I have to admit that I was of this opinion before and so hearing it just reinforced my beliefs but I’m getting the impression that there are a number of people that are arguing that I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about and just about everyone does, in fact, ‘get it’ about COIN and the lessons have been internalized. We haven’t given junior soldiers an understanding of the complex environment of COIN operations or helped them to assimilate such an understanding with their soldier skills.

The UK (and a lot of other countries) are going through some tough economic times and military budgets can expect to get cut in the future.  Despite that, waste in theater is endemic.  We need to be much more cognizant of financial issues and their effect on military operations and budgets.  While this was remarked on more commonly by the coalition members at the conference it seemed there was a growing realization, even among the U.S. military personnel, that the gravy train days were coming to an end and cuts in the military budget (perhaps steep cuts) were inevitable at some point in the future.  Everyone seemed resigned to the fact and indicated we just need to factor that into our future plans.

In addition, the way money is allocated needs to be examined for greatest impact.  An example:

In Helmand province during 2009, British forces had a lack of CERP funds.  During one five month period, company commanders had only $4,000 to spend on projects in their area of operations.  Not a lot of money to spread around if you’re trying to make immediate impact in the lives of locals.

During the same time, the most junior soldiers were free to expend $100,000 at will by firing their javelin missile.  Do we have the right financial priorities?  Is there no cheaper weapon system that will do the same thing in Afghanistan as missiles designed to destroy top of the line battle tanks? During one six month period, the British forces fired 254 javelin missiles @ $100,000 each (that’s 25.4 million dollars!)

(LTC Cabaniss) Later made a good point in his presentation. Commanders need to decide on weapons packages before units go out.  Give a soldier a big, honking rocket that he’s got to lug around with him everywhere and he’ll be pretty likely to use it if given a chance.  After all, it might make a difference and in any case he won’t have to carry it around any more. If you don’t want soldiers popping off ordnance like that, you either don’t give it to them or only allow it to be fired by a leader (the more restrictive the fire the higher up the chain you go – squad leader, platoon, etc…)

Intelligence is a very poor process.  It doesn’t feed into any sort of usable long term product.  There are very poor IT systems and databases in use.  Ah, glad to see somethings haven’t changed since I was there six years ago.  More about this sort of think in a future post.  If I happen to forget about it, please remind me, I think I may have some interesting things to say on the topic.

The Tyranny of Fires

We have become seduced by the easy availability of air and artillery support.  Commanders are giving up maneuver in favor of fire support.  Successive ISAF commanders have worked to reduce civilian casualties but we’ve made very little progress and the issue is a strategic threat.  We need to break our dependence on fires.

Our reliance on fires creates a toxic psychological dynamic.  Among insurgents, the domestic population AND our forces it is assumed that we can’t win without fires and technology.

Assets cost big money to move and maintain in theater.  Every asset owner wants to prove their usefulness and contribute to the mission.  We’ve got a ‘I’ve got it, I’ll use it’ mentality.

Junior leaders need to accept short term tactical risk and apply the skills they’ve learned when in contact with the enemy.  This was seconded by other officers that commanded combat troops in theater.  Leaders up the chain need to know when to tell their junior leaders ‘No, I’m not sending you a couple of F-16s to drop some bombs.  Maneuver and destroy the enemy.  You’ve got more than enough firepower and capabilities in your formation.’  Junior leaders need to be freed from the idea that they can hunker down and just wait for close air support.  They need to actively go at the enemy.  I don’t want to give the impression that junior leaders were portrayed as not being aggressive.  Every officer expressed a great deal of pride and confidence in their troops (genuine gushing would be an appropriate phrase).  It was more like they were saying that senior leaders needed to do a better (? – maybe not the right phrasing-) job of mentoring junior leaders for reacting to combat and breaking down the psychological dynamic mentioned above.  Still, one could imagine the headlines from an operation where a soldier died and a senior commander did not approve supportive fires.  Ugh…

We need to get much better at basic marksmanship.  Five well placed shots are better than 50 poorly placed ones.  I’m sure he wasn’t talking about support types like me but I have to second this thought.  I fire no more than 58 rounds per year in order to maintain my proficiency with my M-16.  I get no practice with optics, coordinating fires, night fire, urban terrain, closed quarters, or alternate firing positions.  I also get no familiarization with any other weapon system.  I find that just shocking considering the party line over the past (at least) 5 years is that given the nature of the conflicts we’re in, the notion of ‘combat troops’ is fading and all soldiers can expect to find themselves in the fight.

We need to get better at demonstrating progress and explaining metrics.  That being said, things have improved in Helmand over the past year.


16 responses to “COIN Symposium recap part 5

  1. Dean, there’s some awesome material here…I can see that I am going to be committing some serious time to it in the next week or so…

    Your opening point re a Brit accent is probably more important that it may seem at first: that perception that the Brits know what they are talking about was probably one of the main, if not THE main one, reasons that we ended up wasting a lot of time with the UK version of COIN a la Malaya and Northern Ireland instead of perhaps stepping back and applying some independent thought to the problems in Iraq and Afghanistan. I was at brief last year where a senior Brit stated that, perhaps instead of sniping from the moral high ground in 2004-05, the Brits should have been taking copious notes on the US way of doing business…

    The point re FM 3-24 being unread is a classic and applies outside the military as well – when I did a review of available COIN doctrine in 07, I was firmly of the opinion that vast majority of commentators, especially those who criticised it, hadn’t actually read it. On a broader perspective, doctrine must be treated like another other supporting capability and formally introduced into service – otherwise its primary use is keeping dust off shelves…

    Agree re fires…both kinetic and non-kinetic fires/effects need to be far more precise and focussed in this environment – soldiers, commanders and staff all need to think through the ‘in order to’ aspect of what they are doing BEFORE they do it…Another contributing factor to the use of stand-off fires is that desire to avoid casualties based on the myth that casualties = negative public opinion = campaign failure which is simply not supported by the evidence…

    Hope your boss already has you pre-booked to attend the next symposium? Yes, seriously…

    • I’m looking forward to hearing other people (i.e. you) deconstruct and interpret this information from their perspectives. Should be good stuff.

      About going to future events…obviously I’d love to but I fear getting future approvals will be difficult. Major props to my unit for sending me this time but we’ll have to see if they have the resources and the interest in sending me again. I might need to hold a fund raiser or something…

  2. PS. Good things happen to good people so hardly surprising that the likes of Tom Ricks are picking up on your work…

  3. Just had another thought on the Brit effect…I think that a good part of it is based upon the obvious confidence of the speaker that he or she is absolutely and undeniably in the right even when all evidence points otherwise e.g. 2000 angry Zulus at the front gate. If you can speak and radiate absolute confidence in your words, then all too often you will come across as unimpeachably correct…it is a, part of Leadership 101, and b. part of Conman 101…

  4. “if someone has a British accent they must know what they’re talking about…”

    John Oliver from The Daily Show commented to Terry Gross that he does get away with a lot when he does his “journalist on the street” skits, interviewing Americans, because they all seem to instantly stop and be respectful to his British accent. It’s pretty funny stuff – yes, we have been conditioned…

  5. I myself have worked under conditions where battalion or higher leadership has restricted weapons load out for patrols because they do not trust the troops with the weapons. I find it to be insulting and dangerous and the notion that higher ups know what is appropriate weapons load out for a patrol is just ridiculous. Most battalion staff don’t make it anywhere near where the action is and I bet if they do, they will wish they had everything possible to deal with what ever situation occurs. If command doesn’t trust their NCOs and PLs then that is commands fault for not getting across their intent. Treating soldiers like children is not the answer. And the officers complaining about Brits using $100k javelins are idiots. A $100k javelin is significantly cheaper then any amount of CAS as well as much cheaper then taking a casualty. Change your TTPs to achieve desired results but don’t leave behind the weapons systems that give you a decided advantage over your enemy. That is just common sense.

    • Well, I don’t want to speak for them but I don’t think they’d necessarily agree that the issue is one of ‘trusting’ their soldiers. As I tried to make clear, at no point throughout any of the presentations was there even a hint of dissatisfaction with the capabilities, motivation or courage of the line soldiers. They wanted them to succeed and, when necessary, have the ability and confidence to be lethal to the enemy.

      Regarding the point about weapons loads having to be decided at Battalion level or above I’m outside my realm of knowledge so this is my interpretation of what their position seemed to be. That could be done at company level AND/OR Battalion commanders should have sufficient situational awareness to make those calls. Additionally, you could give firing authority for weapons systems higher up the chain of command. So, instead of letting a private decide if he wants to fire off that javelin, that decision could go to his team leader, platoon SGT, or PL. There can be multiple solutions to this problem.

      Regarding the cost of weapons systems, I think the point was made more to highlight the discrepancy of priorities in Afghanistan. Company commanders had little in the way of money to help shape the battlefield yet privates had the authority to dispense with very expensive materiel.

      Apart from that, I don’t want to put words into the mouths of the speakers.

  6. “British accent”- Sorry, no such thing. There’s the British Isles, most of which (excludes Southern Ireland, and some might say, the Isle of Man) is the United Kingdom; made up of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Collectively, these peoples are known as British. That has therefore, Scots, Welsh, Irish and English accents. It’s the Hollywood conception and BBC accented, and the public “posh” schools in the UK I think you refer to. These obliterate any local accent for the artificially induced ones, for “getting on” in life…

    • Well…I still say there’s something cultural going here. You’d think that after all the Monty Python I watched over the years I would have built up some sort of resistance but apparently no such luck.

      Good thing I wasn’t around in 1776. I’m pretty sure I’d be one of the king’s colonial toadies.

      • iago68:

        Colonial toady to the King (George) ? With your accent? No chance ; unless you’d had the German accent…Our Royal Family today has recent German origins. But then, Saxons- the English (counting Angles) are of German descent, too…Mixed somewhat since, with Danes, Jutes, Celts, and the modern influx of other races…My ancestry is older than that- I’m native British, and therefore shortly to be on a par -status -similar that of native Americans…my accent has aquired a superior-sounding waffle, of which you spoke. Before that, I was Working Class, now I’m definitely aristrocratic, and deny my origins. Thus I have noticed that some people defer to me if they haven’t got that special nasal moan and enunciation (boy! I like that word; ypu can really pile the accent on when you use such words…”Enun-ci-ation, old boy..”) On the other hand, there are some really genuine exponents, who speak “IT” with a naturalness that gives me a pain…especially when, such as my wife, who has been educated that way and is highly intelligent, tolerant and hates swearing as habit. She says, a better (English ) word can be substituted instead. Mind you, when, as she did a couple of weeks ago, really lost her temper (I could tell, she raised an eyebrow…always a bad sign…) she told me to “F—off!” It shocked me more than the bangs of Navy guns ever had. It was educated, measured and bespoke of a Great Wrath to Come, if I continued, probably culminating in a stoppage of a sweet ration or something…Anyway, I’m very glad you Americans can’t master the English (stereotypical) accent. Where would we be with our great movies if that no-nonsense phenomenon was substituted? Imagine if John Wayne had said “The Jolly Old Hades, you will my dear!”. (“Th’ Hell ya’ weill!”) I think the trouble is you Americans don’t appreciate your accents enough. Don’t despise the Bostonian who can’t understand the person from Arkansas or Southwards…and vice-versa, the North. It’s great; so don’t become all the same, as people here seem to want to be. Certainly you military shouldn’t be influenced by it. We should understand that a bullet in the ass hurts in any accent.

  7. O’kay- so I went over the top a bit- but it is surprising how different the two versions of english differ:

  8. Pingback: some Afghanistan links « Alternate Seat of TYR

  9. Pingback: Things I’m reading ed. 100531 « The Hermitage 3.0 (Beta)

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