Tag Archives: Army

Do soldiers ‘get’ COIN?

Recently I was asked to give a block of instruction on COIN to soldiers preparing to mobilize and eventually go to Afghanistan.  It’s mandated that they get a 4 hour block going over the principles of FM 3-24.  I have a couple of observations about the experience.

I find it strange that while the Army provides resources to develop COIN training they don’t have a ‘standard’ brief or even required themes or messages for instructors to discuss.  That really leaves a wide degree of latitude of what might be taught.

My training was given in two 2-hour blocks over two nights (with that highly coveted 1900-2100 time slot – right after chow and before being released for the evening).  I broke it down this way:

Day 1

Day 2

  • 30 minutes:  Review
  • 90 minutes:  Tactical Decision Game (an improved version of this test run I did a while back)

Day 2 was a home run.  Whereas my first question on day 1 (even before I started the class) was ‘When are we getting out of here?’  On day 2, we not only went over our allotted time because of all the participation from the soldiers but we could have easily gone another 30-45 minutes.  There was simply tons of participation and engagement as soldiers were trying to work through some of the complexities of operating in an COIN environment.

Regarding the TDG, a couple of things worked really well.

  • The game called for two squad leaders and a platoon sergeant.  In all those cases I selected soldiers one or two grades below those who would normally fill those slots (specialist/PFCs for squad leaders and sergeants (E-5) for platoon sergeants (E-7).  I did that in order to emphasize the need for junior soldiers to take initiative AND so they could begin to see/understand the thinking process of their superiors.
  • I had the unit’s leadership at the training and they (both enlisted and officers) were able to provide their own guidance and intent as feedback immediately to the discussion.  For me, that was the big win as this allowed the most junior soldier (in a relatively stress free environment) to give his/her perspective on a situation and receive feedback from the First Sergeant, Sergeant Major or Commander.

I also think it identified areas for increased training.  We had long, productive discussions about rules of engagement, situational awareness, hostile intent, commanders intent and how all of those need to be taken into consideration when making decisions.

But I write about this because a recent post in Best Defense by Col. Gentile reminded me of when I saw him speak earlier this year and he argued that the Army ‘gets’ COIN and our lack of success is a result of the inherent flaws in the doctrine not our implementation of it.  While I think COIN doctrine can certainly stand more work I don’t think that’s the central problem.  While staff officers and commanders may understand and have fully assimilated COIN (a dicey proposition but I’ll go with it for the sake of argument) I don’t think you can say the same about enlisted folks.

That’s NOT to say they aren’t receptive to COIN theory.  I suspect that in many cases soldiers aren’t sure how they’re supposed to implement COIN.  Understanding the concept behind population centrism is all well and good but without context and an understanding of how COIN should integrate with their training execution (probably a bad choice of words there) is going to suffer.

That’s why running the scenario worked so well.  Soldiers had an opportunity to think about how their skills were supposed to mesh with the mission and commander’s intent within a COIN framework.

Finally, this was no kool-aid drinking session.  There was some significant push-back and I think there was a group of soldiers who left unconvinced and (perhaps) unwilling to do all this COIN stuff.  Likewise, I think there was a small group of soldiers who walked into class ready to sign up as the latest cohort of COINdinistas.  Just like in an insurgency, the battleground was for the uncommitted population.

Dragging the Army into the 21st century (in running shoes, of course)

I stopped by my unit earlier in the week and one of the full-timers gave me this article from a recent Army Times.  It seems enough people in the military are starting to use running shoes like the Vibram Five Fingers that I have so often raved about, that the military has decided it needs an ‘official position’ on the shoes.  I suspect this is because traditionalists think they’re ‘weird’ and somehow ‘unmilitary’ (unlike those Nikes or Asics which ooze warrior spirit).  Predictably, every service is coming up with its own rules:

Marine Corps leaders say no problem. Navy leaders say no way. Top Air Force leaders have cleared them for takeoff…

And embodying the contradictions that define the Army…

The sergeant major of the Army is thinking about training for his next marathon in them, but Army officials have banned them from the PT test…

Unit commanders have the authority to (dis)allow them in unit physical training but they can’t be used in the physical fitness test.  Why?

…worries they might give some soldiers an unfair advantage.

C’mon guys.  They aren’t ACME rocket shoes or have springs in them.  Saying these things would give you an unfair advantage is just stupid.  Since they’re designed to replicate barefoot running (and really all they do is provide a thin layer of rubber under your foot to protect it from abrasions and punctures) what the Army is really saying is that they want to maintain the disadvantage of making soldiers more susceptible to injury and poorer performance by requiring the use of traditional running shoes.  I think this was the same dopey argument used in opposing the use of running shoes in the first place and defending the use of combat boots in physical fitness training.  Hey, but don’t take my word for it:

Down at Kandahar, however, military doctors are encouraging their use and even prescribing them for recovering runners.

“VFFs are the best thing out there for rehabilitating lower extremity injuries,” says Navy doctor and physical therapist Lt. Cmdr. John Mahoney at Kandahar.

There are a couple of us at my unit that use these and we’ve accepted the scorn ‘traditionalists’ throw our way.  One particularly sweet moment was when a few of us were leaving the base gym while some SF soldiers were there.  One stopped me to talk about the Five Fingers and mentioned how much he loved them.

Whoa…two seconds later, guys who were suggesting that my shoes could guarantee me entry in the San Francisco Gay Pride parade were suddenly agreeing at how cool they were and how they needed to get a pair. In short, the same thing the commander above noticed:

“Once Navy SEALs start wearing them, everybody in Virginia Beach wants to wear them,” he says.

I get the fact that my rather scrawny physique doesn’t exactly exude credibility when it comes to physical fitness issues but give me some credit here.

Anyway, I haven’t run in traditional running shoes for well over a year now and was hoping to use my five fingers on my PT test next month.  Well, nertz to that, I guess.  That might make things a bit difficult since you do have to change the way you run when you switch back to running shoes.  Oh well, at least I’ll have a built in excuse if my running time isn’t any good.

Grim military news…

One doesn’t know what to make of the U.S. death squad (officially known as 3rd Platoon, Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment).  It really fills me with rage that these guys wear the same uniform that I do.

…five members of the unit staged a total of three murders in Kandahar province between January and May. Seven other soldiers have been charged with crimes related to the case, including hashish use, attempts to impede the investigation and a retaliatory gang assault on a private who blew the whistle.

To which one can only ask, ‘Where the hell were the NCOs?’  The leader of this group was a staff sergeant but c’mon.  This sort of thing doesn’t happen in secret.

…we worked extensively with this brigade while I was in RC South earlier this year.  And I have little doubt the permissive, savage command climate emanated from the top.

And I don’t want to hear any crap about ‘bad apples’.  We need to face facts and realize you don’t get a squad, platoon or company to stay quite about this sort of thing just because one person is a psychopath.  No.  The rot must run deep.

At Abu Gharib we took the easy way out and punished a bunch of low level misfits, leaving those who created the conditions for events there to spiral out of control to carry on with their careers.  You’d think that in the military, where the idea of collective action and responsibility are driven into you from the first day of basic training would treat events like this that involve people’s lives and have real national security implications at least as seriously as when soldiers allow a fellow member to fail in training.  In training, everyone is responsible for everyone else and if one person fails, everyone pays for it under the assumption that the rest of the unit failed to help that soldier succeed.  But here?  We put the killers on trial.  Maybe (maybe) we get the commander relieved.  But then what?  What about the soldiers who knew this sort of thing went on but didn’t do anything about it?  What about the leaders who didn’t maintain enough control to know what these soldiers were doing?

I know we don’t do collective punishment anymore but one wonders at the impact up and down the chain of a ‘virtual’ decimation where the unit is essentially removed from existence and its members scattered to the four winds.  There may be something to be said for such symbolism.  It may not matter to the junior enlisted but I suspect not senior officer or enlisted is going to want the distinction of being a part of a unit that so dishonored the country it had to be erased from existence.

PowerPoint takes another hit

So, what to make of the recent editorial by Col Sellin in which he describes ISAF Joint Command (or IJC which is an acronym within an acronym and kind of seems like an ouroboros to me) as a do-nothing HQ which focuses on:

…endless tinkering with PowerPoint slides to conform with the idiosyncrasies of cognitively challenged generals in order to spoon-feed them information.

I didn’t find the substance of what Col. Sellin said particularly shocking.  I mean, c’mon.  HQs are always bloated, overly choreographed affairs, aren’t they?  I mean, I can remember being at JRTC in the late ’90s and being amazed that the staff officer in charge of the evening shift change brief would start pestering us for our slides at 10am!  I agree, you’d hope that sort of nonsense would fall to the wayside when there was actually a war going on (and one we’re struggling with) but I can’t say I’m totally surprised.

In that regard, I’m really coming to appreciate Afghanistan circa 2003.  Bagram was relatively stable and secure yet it was so new that the bureaucracy hadn’t yet had a chance to crystallize.  It was a time when a couple of NCOs or some company grade officers could actually do stuff without having to figure how to maneuver through a byzantine system (Of course, that was a bit of a double edged sword and there were plenty of bad things that came about from that system too…).

He does hit on what I think is an important point (yeah, go ahead and plug one of your own posts again.  eds.).  The information we’re collecting isn’t being collated and organized so it isn’t getting absorbed into the collective conscious.  Instead, we’ve got…

Each briefer has approximately 1 or 2 minutes to impart either information or misinformation. Usually they don’t do either. Fortunately, none of the information provided makes an indelible impact on any of the generals.

One important task of the IJC is to share information to the ISAF commander, his staff and to all the regional commands. This information is delivered as PowerPoint slides in e-mail at the flow rate of a fire hose. Standard operating procedure is to send everything that you have. Volume is considered the equivalent of quality.

Unfortunately, I’d have to say that’s not unique to Afghanistan or even the military.  Current law enforcement thinking on the use of ‘fusion centers’ is all about pumping information out and not so much on giving it context or meaning.  I suspect that’s just a feature of the ‘lessons’ we’ve internalized over the past 10 years:  that the chief flaw in our failure to prevent 9/11 was that information wasn’t being shared enough.  So now, we share everything ‘just in case’ or hoping that the right piece of information will stick in the right place if thrown around enough.

And this is where Col. Sellin falls short.  He’s got a platform to talk and reach a lot of people and what does he do?  He confines himself to pissin’ and moanin’ about how everything sucks and leaves us hanging.  Look, he clearly knew he was putting his position in risk by writing this article so could he have really said anything that would have worsened his position?  If you’re going to start your article professing what big balls you have (“Throughout my career I have been known to walk that fine line between good taste and unemployment. I see no reason to change that now.”) then don’t soft peddle it when you get to the end.  If the ICJ needs to be disbanded or every one, two and three star general needs to be relieved for incompetence than say so (maybe bring back decimation?).

And that’s where I have a bit of doubt.  Col. Sellin was in his position for two months when he wrote that letter and had obviously reached a position of total disgust (and believe me, I totally sympathize with the guy…I’ve been there…several times).  It would be interesting to know what, if anything, he did to try to change the system he describes.  Even in a place where you ‘can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a colonel’ you’ve got leeway.  There are always some workarounds.  And even for someone as impatient as me, two months isn’t a terribly long time to exhaust all the potential possibilities for change, is it?

And so, is it possible that Col. Sellin’s letter was a self inflicted wound?  A guy who decides that this gig isn’t quite as fun/interesting/important/whatever that he originally thought and needs to find a way out?  Sure, he could pull a Cpl. Klinger but this letter did quite a good job.  Is there any way they could have kept him there?  After all, he essentially called every general officer in range a mindless drone.  How could you keep the guy around without threatening good order and discipline? And he did tell Danger Room “I feel quite rather alone here at the moment.” (Uh, yeah…you just called everyone in your vicinity an idiot..it may be true but did you really expect a group hug afterwords?)

Sellin says he tried to send constructive criticism up the chain before he typed out his UPI piece. He gave his superiors a briefing on “proven organizational methodologies” to streamline IJC, but it went nowhere. “It was only my rant that everyone read,” he says. …The irony? His briefing was a five-slide PowerPoint.

Gentlemen, we have met the enemy and he is us….
UpdateTom Ricks has a letter from Col. Sellin who gives a bit more of his perspective:
I was assigned to the ISAF Joint Command (IJC) in Kabul for the last two months. Since arriving in Afghanistan my job had changed twice and in both cases I had no clear duties. Twice I asked my superiors for a more substantive assignment.
With that in mind and after two months of observing the IJC function and speaking with people from all the sections, I decided to write a tongue-in-cheek description, an obviously over-the-top and sarcastic article hopefully containing threads of constructive criticism woven into the text.
It’s my experience that if you need to explain how a piece of writing was satire and lay out more plainly the central ideas of what your were trying to say you probably didn’t do a very good job to start with.  Especially if your primary theme is that the general officers (the ones who can institute the change your talking about and, therefore, one of your primary audiences) are a bunch of knuckleheads, you probably don’t want to go for subtle threads of ideas.  You want to knock them over the head.  Besides, what are they going to do?  Kick you out of a war zone?
But, here he identifies some important issues:
A second theme was the way in which organizations function and why they don’t e.g. stovepipes, ad hoc or absent processes, run-away egos or adding bodies as a solution to every problem.
Maybe it’s just me but I much prefer this second letter (as a means to an end) to the first.
I, unfortunately, can completely relate to Col. Sellin’s frustration and sympathize with his position.  Events like this are a sign that you have a motivated person whose energy is being stifled.  That energy is going to express itself one way or another, if you suppress it through stupefying bureaucracy you’re likely to get events like this.  (Or a blog named after your dog, right?  eds.)
I suspect these organizations are simply too big to change, even if everyone agreed they were all screwed up without some major shock to the system.  Col. Sellin just ended up being collateral damage.
(h/t P.K.)

COIN Training

I’m simply been swamped recently and and working through a backlog of stuff I need/want to write about.  A week or so ago I wrote about some training I did for some soldiers in an S2 section that centered around COIN doctrine.  The scenarios were inspired by some tactical decision games put together by the fine people who used to run D-N-I net.  We also got to run through some guys from an MP platoon.  I have a soft spot for MPs.  The 805th MP Company was in Afghanistan when I was and they were super to me whenever I needed a security element to go on one of my expeditions.  I suspect they were just bored from driving back and forth to Kabul every day but still, they did North Carolina proud.

The scenarios revolved around a fictional unit arriving in an Afghan province that had not previously seen coalition soldiers.  There was minimal information about the area and so one of the primary missions of the unit was to develop an understanding of the operating environment.  The soldiers were part of one of the initial presence patrols through a local village.

When briefing the intel personnel I asked them to keep a few things in mind:

  • While it’d be pretty rare for an S2 section to be conducting a presence patrol, they should be more attuned to identifying information of intelligence value.  Seeing the sorts of things a combat arms patrol sees should help refine procedures for conducting mission debriefs and developing collection requirements.
  • An understanding of all the things an infantry squad (for example) has to do in addition to intelligence gathering should help intel personnel refine and prioritize collection requirements.
  • The value in getting out of the wire themselves and seeing the environment they’ll be expected to assess.

I think they generally discovered how difficult it is to pick out potentially valuable information.  Our scenarios were in small, contained simulated village ‘lanes’ (probably 80 feet by 20 feet).  While we did have approximately 7 role players in each lane (between 50% and 100% of whom were bystanders or had casual contact with the patrol) there was minimal environmental distractions (like street noise, heat, etc) and they were allowed to take their time.

Some interesting observations:

  • Units might want to prep their soldiers for how to react in a populated environment.  I sort of learned by doing but that’s not really a good method.  I saw soldiers go through the lanes acting like they were strolling down their neighborhood main street and others ready to shoot everyone that moved.  Spending a bit of time talking about how you expect soldiers to interact with the population could yield some major benefits.
  • Communication skills need to be improved.  If there’s one thing every soldier should be able to do in their sleep, it’s a SALUTE report.  I was shocked at how few soldiers seemed to use it.  Some training on how it might be used in a non-conventional situation might be helpful.  I was further shocked to hear terrible radio procedures.  No use of the phonetic alphabet, even when soldiers knew how difficult communications were from previous iterations.  Lesson learned:  Get soldiers on the radio…a lot!
  • I was also surprised in that they often wanted more complication in their training, not less.  I’m not sure that’s always best but it is very nice to see people chomping at the bit for a challenge.
  • While we had observer/controllers there to guide teams through the lanes, there was huge value in having a leader from the unit tag along to observe how their soldiers did.  In our training the leaders were able to identify training needs that they could immediately plug into their training schedule.
  • We were lucky enough to get some ‘civilian’ actors  (i.e. some of the kids of our soldier/roleplayers).  They did a phenomenal job and added a bit of complexity to the scenarios.  Even though it was a training environment, having a 9 year old kid ‘wounded’ by a fake IED caused a lot of confusion.  During one scenario I played a father to a wounded child and dragged a soldier away from his team, begging for first aid.  It was amazing watching the thought process work over this guy’s face as he’d take a step with me, stop and think, and take another step trying to figure out what he was supposed to do.  Huge training opportunities there.
  • Film the training.  We had a videographer there as well as one of the visiting NCOs coincidentally having a video camera on hand.  This will allow for a little Monday morning quarterbacking and let units talk through what happened and what should have happened.
  • This sort of training can’t be rushed.  It’s not well suited to situations where an hour or two pop up in the training schedule.  Ideally, you’ll have 60 or 90 days lead time where an OPORD can be issued, some training can be done at home station, ROE can be discussed, etc.  The lanes can, in fact, be a capstone exercise.

My favorite scenario was the final one where we had a small group of armed men pulling a civilian out of a house, heaping abuse on him and possibly getting ready to execute him.  The backstory was that the armed men were part of the local militia (nominal allies) who were taking revenge for a tribal dispute.  The events clearly would have allowed soldiers to engage with deadly force given their ROE (with appropriate escalation measures) but no one did.  Some groups did a very good job of separating the parties and establishing order (one group did just stand by until the gunmen, not sure how long to go on abusing their ‘prisoner’ just executed him) but no one was quite sure what to do after that.  Really great opportunities to talk about commander’s intent and how that translates to actual actions in the field.

I’ve been working on this training for more than a year now and this was a great proof on concept.  Response from soldiers was very positive (with a couple saying it was the best in they’ve had with was both flattering and a bit scary).  The ball is now in the court of some of these units to see if they want to see more training like this.  There’s a good framework in place and the system is set up to accommodate all sorts of new scenarios (hopefully based on actual events in the future).  More updates as they’re warranted….

Intelligence analysis and the Army – Law enforcement / Counterinsurgency Mashup pt. 5

Just a couple of observations on my most recent drill that saw me interacting with a few analysts.

First, I got to speak with a senior NCO who recently came back from an intelligence school and returned as a newly minted analyst.  I was interested to hear his impressions of the class.  He described his class as ‘very smart’.  Perhaps too smart.  They were so good that no one failed the class exams.  While that would normally be a good thing, Army schools hardwire time in the schedule for study halls and retests.  No failures means that gaps open up in the training schedule.  Apparently the was much gnashing of teeth among the instructors as they had to figure out what to do with the extra time.

I asked him for his impressions about the threat training and how they were preparing analysts to do their jobs in a COIN environment.  I was therefore shocked to hear that threat training continued to focus on conventional forces arrayed in the Soviet model.  To some extent that’s fine.  I guess North Korea’s forces are probably close enough to give such training some value but perhaps it’d be better to talk about conventional forces more generally by picking out forces of a two or three nations (perhaps North Korea, Sudan and Venezuela as three suggestions off the top of my head.  Anyone else have alternate possibilities?) that could be used to highlight differences in their structure and operations.  That way they could teach how such differences impact how analysts do their jobs.

What was even more shocking was hearing that there was NO instruction about intelligence analysis in a counterinsurgency environment.  Are you kidding me?  What the hell has the Intelligence Center been doing for the past nine years?  Apparently their capstone exercise involved a COIN operation but if they hadn’t given the students any context on how analysis there differs from analysis in conventional fights they really didn’t do anything except set the students up for failure.

Second, I got to speak with some younger analysts and was just chewing the fat (so to speak) when I mentioned the Afghan restaurant that I recently went to.  I mentioned, since most hadn’t deployed yet, that if they want a little taste of cultural flavor they might want to stop by and get something to eat.  Afterwords, I overheard a couple of the more senior people talking and one said that a few soldiers live in the area of the restaurant and were uncomfortable going there.

Now, that’s disappointing for a couple of reasons but particularly from an analytical perspective.  We all have biases and operate with unexamined assumptions but one rarely finds a decent analyst who isn’t intellectually curious and willing to at least consider alternate perspectives.  If your job is likely to involve analyzing the Afghan environment it seems the least you could do is become familiar with some basics like food.  How in the world are these soldiers likely to act if they really do deploy and have to engage the local population?  Ugh.

And this feeds into another problem.  At least among some, there’s a belief that analysts can do their job entirely in front of a computer (in fact, my S3 tried to push that crap on me – the guy was a total douche).  There’s no way I would expect anyone from a lowly infantryman to combatant commander to trust analysis about Afghanistan (or anywhere else) from someone who had never walked through an Afghan village, driven down a road, talked to locals or been outside the wire – especially if they refused an opportunity to do so.  I’m not saying analysts need to go out on every patrol but it is very difficult to do analysis under the best of circumstances.  To do it while intentionally shutting off an avenue that would allow direct experience of the subject to be analyzed is just crazy.  And if analysts (particularly military analysts) have a problem with that, it’s time for them to find a new line of work.  Analysts should be chomping at the bit to see the stuff they’re analyzing.

So…linking back to my posts of last week.  These are reasons why I say prescriptions demanding ‘better analysis’ just aren’t going to get us very far.  We recruit analysts based on their score on a bullshit multiple choice test and then don’t train people for the situations they find themselves in.  Should we be surprised that they don’t produce high quality, thoughtful and thorough analysis that unlocks the secrets of a country with different language and culture?  I suppose our current system keeps out the functionally illiterate but that’s about all you get.  Otherwise, you have to hope that people self-select into the field.  Let me rephrase that…our best hope that we’ll get good, qualified analysts in the Army is that 18 year olds will recognize they they possess (or not) raw analytical talent and decide to volunteer for that position.

Now think back to when you were 18.  Is that the person you want selecting who’s qualified to be an analyst?

And, just to put things in an even rosier perspective…as bad as this system is that I’ve just described?  Analytical selection and training in law enforcement is worse.  MUCH worse.

Counterinsurgency parameters

I was perusing the latest issue of Parameters this weekend and there are some worthy articles of note:

Counterinsurgency 3.0 by Peter Charles Choharis and James Gavrilis.  First let me say that I absolutely HATE the title.  I didn’t think I was going to have much nice to say about the article either when it stated.  I was totally put off by this statement:

First, the Anbar Awakening established a successful precedent of US military partnering…that could be considered ‘COIN 1.0’

Next, COIN theorists led by General David Petraeus described the Clear-Hold-Build strategy…that can be termed ‘COIN 2.0’

There remains, however, a substantial doctrinal need to move from tactical methods…to the strategic use of international aid to defeat insurgencies broadly and decisively.  The authors term this new strategic approach…’COIN 3.0′.

There are a LOT of problems with that formulation and framing of both the actual and theoretical histories this way that I don’t think do anyone any favors. It makes this whole COIN thing seem like it’s on a linear, inevitable progression and that what happened in their ‘COIN 1.0’ and ‘COIN 2.0’ realities were somehow inferior to COIN 3.0.  I think that gets us into dangerous waters of thinking that there’s one, ultimate COIN strategy and once we find that we can plop it into any insurgency and get success.

But, if you strip that silly talk out of the article it’s pretty good and they get into some valuable discussions about the role of aid and development in insurgencies.

…civilian and military policy-makers have incorrectly assumed that international development aid is inherently beneficial to local population; necessarily fosters stability; and invariable leads to a grateful populace that will shun insurgents, thereby advancing US strategic goals.

They argue that current thinking about how to stabilize Afghanistan is focused too much on a top down system and that generally the problem is seen as one of ‘not enough’ instead of ‘not allocated properly’.

A couple of interesting points here.  The first is that we probably shouldn’t think of our efforts in Afghanistan as a zero sum endeavor.  A ‘win’ for us or the insurgents needn’t automatically translate into a ‘loss’ for the other.  It’s possible to think of scenarios where the local population could have an increasingly negative view of both groups (A pox on both your houses).  It’s also theoretically possible, although highly improbably, for a scenario to occur in which both groups win positive support from the locals.  What I’m saying here is that maybe we need to be a bit more explicit in figuring out which scales we want to slide and how best to do that.  Let’s go to the 2×2 matrix for a look…

The second is that the authors point out that aid has a dark side to it that we need to take into account.

But as anyone who has ever implemented a foreign assistance project knows, aid in inherently disruptive and potentially destabilizing, and development does not necessarily translate into pro-American or pro-Afghan government sentiments…It can distort traditional labor markets, depress prices of locally produced goods while inflating prices of other commodities, and strain natural resources…[it] may upset established economic relations between family members, villagers, clans and tribes, and among villages and towns…

Development affects who and what is respected, valued, admired, and obeyed.  Thus, aid designed to quell violence might actually unleash dynamics that generate conflict, as individuals and groups compete for new sources of wealth and power.

So, not just when talking about combat operations but even in aid distribution it’s critical we understand the consequences of what we do and how we do it.  This is why it’s critical intelligence assets not only look at the capabilities and intent of enemy forces but also friendly forces and other actors.  A tall order under the best of circumstances.

But, our current organization and incentive system is designed to do things the unhelpful way…

…local commanders often have little time or expertise to assess and implement the full strategic potential of development aid.  Frequently, the civilian aid workers assigned to Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) have to focus on specific projects and are evaluated according to standard development metrics, such as the number of schools built, roads paved, or wells dug.  Given the emphasis on finishing aid projects before PRT deployments end and the brevity of certain deployments, as short as a few months in some cases, there is little opportunity to tackle challenges that require extended, fundamental change.

They kind of lose me at the end of the article because their suggestions seem pretty general and vague.  The problem is, as they readily acknowledge, that’s the hard bit.  So, saying community members will help develop, design and monitor projects sounds great but how do you do that while gaining “the support and trust of a traditional society even as foreign aid transforms it”?

Second, I really (REALLY) recommend Combating a Combat Legacy by Chad Serena.  He argues (and this is an underlying theme of most of the articles in the issue) that the Army is gong to find itself committed to a wide range of missions for the foreseeable future.  Many of those missions are going to have components outside of traditional, conventional combat and there is no indication that any other actor (within the US government or in the international community) will be doing those things so either the Army develops that capability in preparation for those operations or we can bumble around for a few years until, out of desperation, we throw something together only to forget it as soon as possible.  Serena is the most explicit, saying:

The combat-centric legacy of the US Army is stable and durable…Its persistence impedes the ability to conduct either sequential full-spectrum operations…or simultaneous full-spectrum operations.

And really, who IS going to do the stability, nation-building, humanitarian, good governance, etc. stuff?  Are we any closer, 9 years into our missions, of designating someone other than our militaries to do this sort of stuff?  If not, we aren’t doing ourselves any favors by sticking our fingers in our ears and repeating ‘We only do manuever warfare’ or ‘Not my job’.  Personally, I’d like to see someone explicitly given the tasking (along with the resources and authority) to do such work and it would be great if they were outside the DoD umbrella.  But really, is that going to happen?  Is there anyone in power today actually advocating such a thing?

So, since we can’t expect any real change on that front we would do well to be prepared for what is likely to come.

According to Serena, our doctrine is a confused jumble of undefined terms that allow the bureaucracy to carry along doing what it likes (big, conventional warfare stuff) while wearing enough of a fig leaf to claim to be totally into the full range of potential operations.

…it seems that the pre-9/11 definition of full-spectrum prevails and the Army will continue a gradual shift towards a combat-centric force and away from the full-spectrum force developed in Iraq.

This is also because of the claim that the expansion of our capabilities since 2001 have, in fact, made us less capable of engaging in full spectrum operations (and a big problem here is that the term ‘full spectrum operations’ is as vague as a fortune cookie and can mean different things to different people).

This claim suggests that the US Army’s efforts to become a full-spectrum capable force in OIF actually diminished its ability by thinning its capacity to engage in HIC (High Intensity Conflict) or MCO (Major Combat Operations).  There is some truth to this claim.

You know there’s a ‘but’ coming, right?

There is also quite a bit of truth to the argument that were the US Army not so fundamentally incapable of conducting full-spectrum operations in support of strategic imperatives on the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, such a radical adaptation would not have been required and the force would not be out of balance, however balance is defined.  Additionally, it is highly likely that potential future adversaries learned quite a bit from this process and will react accordingly by dispersing operations across the spectrum.

My gut reaction reading this was “Yeah, but it’s an army” and I felt like the combat portion of its mandate was being reduced from its sole mission to, maybe, first among equals or even just one in a crowd.  I don’t think Chad would agree with that and I’m not sure I’d even agree with it but it was my impression.  That gave me pause since I’m a tree-huggin’, flower power, tofu eating kind of guy and if I think we’re deemphasizing the combat portion of the military too much I get a bit worried.  So, I need to reflect a bit on why that nagged at me a bit.  Maybe that’s why I liked the article so much.  Good stuff to chew over.

COIN Symposium recap part 3

If you’re going to send an anti-COIN advocate into the COINdinista lion den you probably couldn’t get a better person to do it than Col. Gentile.  He’s been on the record for awhile with his clear opposition to the Army emphasis on COIN and I was very happy to see him on the speaker list for the conference.  Since what he said was at odds with the positions of many other speakers I’m going to inject my comments (in italics) along with points made by other speakers during their presentations (identified by name).   None of these speakers referred to or spoke directly about Col. Gentile’s comments, rather I’m picking what I found as relevant in their presentations and inserting them here.

Ok, colonel…help me see the error of my ways.  His argument:

His presentation focused on 4 fundamental premises:

  1. Army COIN doctrine is in need of serious and fundamental revision
  2. For many reasons the Army has found itself straightjacketed by COIN from the tactical to strategic levels
  3. The defense establishment generally and the Army specifically have been seduced into thinking COIN and nation building can actually work
  4. The above prevent us from seeing alternatives to COIN

COIN doctrine is based upon methods of fighting insurgencies in the 1950s and 1960s that is:

  • nothing new
  • historically inaccurate (the narratives put forward by Killcullen, Patreaus, et. al. does not reflect reality)
  • underpinned by dubious cause-effect theory

There was no debate during the creation of FM 3-24 (the COIN field manual) despite what the party line is.  We need one for its revision.

He then argued that the Army is actually pretty good at population-centric COIN and that are lack of success is more a demonstration of it’s ineffectualness rather than any failure to adopt or implement COIN principles.

I find this to be complete nonsense.  There’s a big difference between understanding the principles of COIN (or even just being able to parrot them without understanding) and actually implementing them.  COIN training remains unfocused and treated as something separate than ‘regular’ army training.  I spoke to one person who conducts COIN training for deploying soldiers.  Out of a 60 day mobilization training schedule, 2 weeks are devoted to a COIN course and, according to this person, only the second week actually focuses on COIN principles (plus the COIN course is generally only for leaders so you have to hope the COIN message is translated correctly).  So you have about 10% of your training time devoted to COIN.  Less when you consider the amount and type of training soldiers go through before their mobilization training.

Rupert Jones (UK) – Traditional war-fighting techniques are deeply ingrained in our soldiers.  When faced with a high stress situation (insurgent attack, etc.) what are soldiers going to do:  rely on muscle memory of innumerable trainings on how to respond to a conventional attack or hope they remember the brief training they received once or twice and may have infrequently trained with?

Our skills at combined operations warfare have atrophied over the past 3-5 years.  If we don’t address this we can expect to get spanked in the future.  He argued that we can’t possibly predict what kind of conflict we might face in the future so we should train for the most dangerous which would be a conventional war.

We can’t?  Isn’t the whole defense acquisition process is based upon predicting future conflicts and arming ourselves for them.  So we undertook the F22 and F35 projects on a wild guess?  Hmmm….color me dubious of this line of reasoning.  I think what he’s saying is that there’s no indication we’ll need a conventional force for the foreseeable future but he really WANTS a conventionally focused force and so we should train for one just in case.  That being said, I think there’s probably some truth to the assertion that we’ve sacrificed conventional capabilities recently.  I’m guessing that a big part of that is the huge requirement of troops in both the Iraq and Afghan theaters.  Once we get the Iraq albatross off our neck I imagine we should be able to maintain both a COIN and conventional capability.  The lesson here is that we shouldn’t go diving into unnecessary wars AND expect to maintain our full peacetime capability not that we shouldn’t train for irregular warfare.

A knowledge of combined arms warfare is needed to learn COIN.  Combined arms warfare teaches initiative which creates an environment for the force to learn and adapt.

Hmmm…file this under ‘combined arms will cure cancer’.  If your argument is that people have become seduced by the siren song of one line of thought (COIN), I’m not sure the answer is to get a competing singer with promises that the answers to all your problems are really with combined arms.  If combined arms is so good at preparing armies to fight insurgencies please explain Iraq 2003-2007 and Afghanistan 2001-now.

Col. Gentile also strongly objected to the cliche that ‘COIN is the graduate school of war’.  He argued that ALL war is very complex.  I’d agree but say that while all war is complex the complexity moves further down the chain of command in COIN.  A private in a fighting position on the Fulda gap has a limited number of responses to a Mechanized Rifle Regiment bearing down on his position and whatever his individual response is, it’s unlikely to have long lasting strategic impact.  That is not true in COIN.  A junior enlisted soldier could make a decision which could have serious strategic implications (just ask the soldiers at abu Gharib).

While he didn’t reference it specifically, Gentile seemed to be advocating what was known as a ‘counter-terrorism’ focused strategy.  Focus on applying ‘precise military force’ against insurgents without nation building.

His argument suffered from (at least) two significant flaws:

  1. He never really defined ‘precise military force’ and how many wedding parties can get nuked while still using the term unironically.  And if you’re going to abandon the whole ‘nation-building’ (or population centric…they AREN’T synonymous terms as one questioner pointed out) approach how exactly is one to develop the intelligence gathering capability that will allow one to do that precision targeting?
  2. Imagine if this president (or, for that matter any president) announced to the nation:  “I’ve decided our strategy can’t succeed.  Therefore I’m abandoning our efforts to support the Afghan government, withdrawing virtually all our forces and we’re going to work on plinking terrorists off from a distance.  You remember how we did things before 2001?  Yeah, we’re going back to that.”  Now, that might be a good strategy BUT does anyone think there wouldn’t be a virtual revolt in Congress, the media and the public at this?  Remember all the hoopla over bringing a couple of terror suspects to trial on U.S. soil?  In what bizarro world would this decision NOT have immense and terrible domestic repercussions?  Like it or not, our partisanship has boxed us in and there are some courses of action that are just plain closed off to us.

Now, Gentile might respond by saying something like ‘Hey, that’s a political decision and I’m a military man.’ or ‘Leadership is about making tough decisions.’ but to not even acknowledge that his recommended course of action would cause huge fissures in our domestic political environment is being naive at best and disingenuous at worst.  For such a program to even be conceivable the military would need to get into the political field as it’s never done before in order to provide the president with cover to avoid the inevitable charges of treason, cowardice and selling our our ‘brave young men and women’.  It’s unclear just how far Col. Gentile would be willing to stick his own neck out to bring about the changes he recommends.

Col. Gentile also made the claim that there appeared to be a disturbing trend that there was some sort of a COIN purity test and officers that didn’t drink the Kool-Aid might suffer accusations and professional harm.  His one bit of ‘evidence’ for this claim was a story in the Army Times a few months ago that identified a battalion commander who was much more kinetic focused than his peers and some of his subordinates made the claim that the commander didn’t ‘get it’.  Maybe, Gentile argued, a more kinetic environment was appropriate for the conditions in the commander’s area of operations.  I have no idea about that but the idea that ONE unfavorable article in the Army Times translates into some sort pattern of official sanctions and retribution against officers that don’t fall down and sing the praises of COIN is ridiculous.

Blogger down!

I had drill this past weekend and we were occupied with Soldier Readiness Processing.  This is one of those dehumanizing things where you get shuffled from station to station and see various medical personnel who test, poke and prod you in various places to check off whatever boxes they need to in order to clear you to deploy to a fun and phenomenal places around the world.

A couple of observations…

First, this process is much easier to go through as a senior enlisted person.  When you’re junior ranked you’re kind of at the whim of everyone, you’re in the dark about what’s going on and there’s just an abundance of suckage.  But, get a bunch of stripes and chevrons and you can relax a bit and have some fun.

So…in cases like this…more rank is better.

Second, if you find yourself getting an immunization for meningitis and ask the medic if there might be side effects they may reply that there might be a little discomfort in the area of the injection.  Don’t believe it.  I’m working through a bit more than that right now….ugh.

My new beret…

I had to break down and buy a new beret as my old one was getting paper thin and looking more gray than black.  Now I am possibly the only member of the U.S. Army who actually likes the beret (if you thought DADT was controversial you’ve obviously never heard soldiers talk about the beret) and as I was in the process of preparing it for wear ( a process which involves shaving it -!-, wetting it down, shaping it on your head and then wearing it around the house until it dries) I thought of why I like the thing.  I came up with two reasons:

  1. The army cap is fine and practical for keeping sun and rain our of your eyes but it really isn’t very impressive to look at.  Think of the impressive headgear of militaries in the 20th century and glorified ball caps aren’t going to be at the top of anyone’s list.  The beret looks smart and I find that people who argue otherwise are generally among the first to fawn over the berets worn by special forces, rangers, airborne, etc…Besides, we’ve had the beret for almost 10 years now.  People really need to get over their issues about it already and deal with it.
  2. There’s a saying in vogue among those practicing COIN to highlight the principle of encouraging a sense of ownership among indigenous forces…”If they sweat for it, they’ll defend it.”  The new Army uniform is almost entirely designed to require little work from soldiers.  The ACU is wash and wear, the combat boots are canvas and suede requiring no polishing, medals can now be bought pre-shined and coated with a finish that guarantees nothing more than dusting.  The beret is one of the few pieces of the uniform that require some sort of effort from the soldier and can demonstrate (to some degree) the amount of pride a soldier has about his/her uniform.

As a side note…my first beret was made in China and my new one is a product of New Zealand.  Those Kiwi sheep must produce some tough wool since this beret is much thicker than my original, seems to be almost completely waterproof and was much easier to shape.

I guess prison labor isn’t always the best choice…