The Best Defense

A worrisome report on the eroded combat skills of an Army Stryker regiment

The 2nd Cavalry Regiment (Stryker) is reamed out in an internal Army study for its performance last month at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center, a training ground in Germany. It is worrisome that this unit appears to have deteriorated so much, yet paradoxically reassuring that the Army is using its maneuvers identify shortcomings.

The conclusions are hair-raising. Everybody from the way senior leaders understand command to the way privates poop comes in for criticism. Here are some of the highlights:

--The report found "Commanders and command sergeant majors tethered to command posts, rarely visiting subordinate units. This results in a lack of mentoring and face-to-face interaction to judge understanding of the operational situation and intent and time to make on-the-spot corrections." And those corrections clearly were needed. 

--Commanders give lip service to "mission command" (basically, telling subordinate leaders what to do but not how to do it) but in reality micromanage by issuing a stream of "frago" orders that make minor changes in organizations and assigned tasks.  "Despite emphasis on Mission Command over the past year, most commanders still do not feel comfortable allowing subordinates to operate broadly under their intent."

--Commanders also do not get out enough.  "Many commanders are tethered to the command post, in essence becoming a chief of staff. Commanders need to execute battlefield circulation, visiting subordinate and supporting commanders in the field to ensure clear understanding of intent and orders."

--Units are so reliant on digital connectivity that when it was down, it resulted in a "total loss of  situational awareness of operations."

--Senior NCOs didn't understand their role in sustainment.  Logistics and medical evacuation of the wounded also stunk.

--Soldiers don't even know how to do basic field sanitation, and were "defecating randomly on top of the ground in unit positions."

"Hit the leather and ride, take it all in stride," indeed. 

I asked Col. Keith Barclay, commander of the regiment, what he thinks of the report. This is his response: 

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Thank you for the note and interest in our rotation.  It was a fantastic training event that all our soldiers and multinational partners benefited from greatly as we developed our leaders and soldiers to operate in support of unified land operations.  As to the report you reference, I have not seen the written training center observations from our training center as of yet, but the after action reviews were very positive.

I would refer you to the 7th Joint Multinational Training Command, commanding officer for his comments regarding any other specific data; he was the deputy exercise director for this exercise and would be in a position to answer your specific questions."

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Tom again. This is what Col. Lee Rudacille, the commander of the training center, had to say:

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We appreciate your interest in our recent Decisive Action Training Environment rotation involving the 2nd Cavalry Regiment.  However, the document that you've obtained is not a comprehensive assessment of the Regiment's overall performance or capability.  I simply recommend waiting for additional material to be available before making comment on the unit's "overall" performance.

Please keep in mind that the purpose of the DATE is to give Army units a highly stressful, complex and challenging environment to evaluate current strengths and weaknesses.  We capture the results in order to sustain the positive, and to improve areas identified as requiring additional training.  As you know, in the last eleven years, the Army has focused almost exclusively on COIN operations.  In the last few years, we've done so in environments with established infrastructure and set logistics systems.  We have Soldiers in leadership positions who have only trained for and conducted COIN operations for the entirety of their careers. This is partly why the DATE was designed - to place us into something entirely different and to challenge us to incorporate a fundamentally different way of leading through Mission Command.  It involves a highly complex set of threats and it deliberately stimulates leaders to think about future battlefields.  The training environment is a safe place to learn hard lessons and prepare for future fights.  It is not unreasonable or remarkable that we found areas in which we must strive to improve.  The Army is a learning institution; we cannot be afraid to hold a mirror to ourselves and honestly see our need for improvement. 

As to the report itself, this particular document is one of several that are for our internal use and not a comprehensive assessment.  Many of the topics in the report were brought up by our evaluators and the 2CR Soldiers themselves during the AAR so that we can learn and improve.  These issues were not central to whether or not we were successful overall when you consider that the DATE required that we combine offense, defense, and stability operations within the context of Wide Area Security and Combined Arms Maneuver, often simultaneously.  They are simply areas that we will improve on.

Again, I am pleased our training in Europe has captured your attention, particularly so since the Army is increasing its focus on training and developing leaders and Soldiers for our future missions which I believe we do well. "

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Tom again: I asked Col. Rudacille if he had read the CALL report, and he wrote back thusly:

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Yes, I've read the document.  Again, I remind you that it isn't an AAR - it isn't comprehensive, it only looks at select areas and it is not indicative of the unit's overall performance.  As the Exercise Director, I observed the unit enjoy many successes during the training, and I witnessed learning at all levels of the formation.  As written, the report reflects events temporal in nature during a single training event, the actions reflective of Soldiers who have operated in a COIN only environment over the past several years, and a training environment designed to challenge leaders at multiple levels.  It is only partly accurate in that it omits the review of the entirety of the DATE rotation containing only a small percentage of the total findings - findings which will reflect the tremendous learning which occurred when confronted with a difficult mission set."

The Best Defense

FP’s book club discussion of 'The Generals'

In case you didn't notice it  (it is hard to find on the site), Foreign Policy has been holding a "book club" discussion of my new book.  Here is my response to the comments, which are very interesting.

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First, thanks to all who participated. I learned from these discussions. I agree with much of what they wrote, but of course here will focus on our points of disagreement.  

--I agree with Tom Donnelly that it would be good if Americans paid more attention to the competence of our senior military leaders. Unfortunately, as we have just seen, they seem to care more about the sex lives of our generals than the real lives of our soldiers. The real scandal of Iraq was not that the public over-valued David Petraeus, but that it tolerated his three failed predecessors. Apparently mediocrity is acceptable if it keeps its pants on.

--I like and admire retired Lt. Gen. James Dubik, but I disagree with his concluding paragraph on the health of our Army. I am especially worried by the state of its general officer corps. Yes, there are terrific officers like him (his first project since leaving active duty is getting a doctorate in philosophy, by the way) and H.R. McMaster. But there are not enough of them to form a critical mass. They remain outliers, often seen by more conventional officers as "50-pound brains" or even smartasses. I think the majority of Army generals are under-educated conformists who tend to veer toward risk-averse mediocrity, a tendency reinforced by the system of mindless rotation of commanders we have used in our recent wars.   

--Likewise, Tom Keaney is a fine fellow and an astute military analyst, but I think he is too quick to provide an alibi for today's generals. Yes, it is more difficult to recognize success in small, unpopular, messy wars like Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan than it was in World War II. Nonetheless, it is possible. Matthew Ridgway clearly turned around American fortunes in the Korean War, succeeding where other generals had failed. Creighton Abrams did better in Vietnam than William Westmoreland did, though perhaps not as much better as some people believe. David Petraeus succeeded in his mission in Iraq-he got us out of there-where his three predecessors had failed.

I think Keaney's sense that the world is just too hard lets off generals like Tommy Franks, who simply didn't understand his job. Yes, the civilians above him were badly mistaken. But Franks seemed to think it was a good idea to push al Qaeda from Afghanistan (a small, unstable Muslim nation) into Pakistan (a big, unstable Muslim nation with nuclear weapons). Franks also apparently believed that once he had taken the enemy's capital, he had won-when in fact, that is when the real wars began in both Afghanistan and Iraq. I would conclude from this and other mistakes that the Army had failed to prepare Franks to be a general.   

--Bob Killebrew has every right to invoke his own version of the ghost of George Marshall, especially because he was the guy several years ago who told me I should learn more about Marshall.

But when I interviewed Marshall's ghost, contrary to Killebrew's sense, Marshall was not at all pleased with the state of American generalship. Lots of little things puzzled and irked him. Yes, as Bob suspected, he didn't understand why the Army has neglected professional military education, which should be its crown jewel during peacetime. He also was shocked to see so many retired generals making a bundle in the defense industry, and also endorsing political candidates and using the name of their services while doing so. Both struck Marshal as abuses of the profession.

But what bothered him most, the old white-haired general said in a slow, steady, quiet voice, was the failure of four-star generals to carry out their roles in dealing with their civilian superiors. He was shocked by the failure of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to speak truth to power on several occasions, most notably during the Vietnam War and during the planning for the invasion of Iraq. Indeed, he almost lost his temper when discussing how Gen. Richard Myers allowed himself to be pushed around by Donald Rumsfeld. "How can you go to war without a strategic rationale?" he wondered. 

--Jason Dempsey, like many readers of the book, thinks that my emphasis on relief is too simple. The problem, he says, is rather that the entire Army general officers corps is overly focussed on tactical issues, and so if one small thinker were ousted, he simply would be replaced by another. (This is my interpretation of what Dempsey wrote, but not his words.) So, he believes, some other sort of remedy is necessary. I disagree. I think that a few well-placed, undisguised removals would encourage the others, as it did with the peers of Admiral Byng.

But where I think where Dempsey and I really part ways is in our assessment of the adaptiveness of others-that is, the raw material of our generals and their successors. I think that there are many intelligent, determined, ambitious Army officers who would get the message that the ability to think and adapt is valued by the institution, and is the route to generalship. A little accountability could go a long way.

In other words, relief should not be seen as an end in itself, but rather as one the two most basic tools of personnel management-hiring and firing. I say, reward success, punish failure, and promote the promising, and you will get more of the adaptive generals that our nation needs -- and our soldiers deserve.