By Capt. Michael Carvelli, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest columnist
It is true that the U.S. Army does not follow its own doctrine, and it continues to do so even at the misfortune of soldiers. The stark lack of critical tasks degrades even the best of units as they plow through their deployments. It is not complacency, as most senior officers and NCOs consistently suggest to their commanders and first sergeants. It is laziness and the belief that "we are good." Wake up: You are not as good as you think!
This is my third deployment to Afghanistan, this time as a company commander. The lessons about being prepared have been taught to me in school and during my time as a platoon leader. They are hard remembered lessons, several times taught through my own failures or from an almost disastrous experience. However, I am determined to continually remember these experiences and ensure those under my command make every attempt to know them as well.
At this current point in time, the Army has digressed into creating a CONOP -- a unique misinterpretation of the Concept of the Operation paragraph contained within the Operation Order (OPORD). At all levels, from division down to platoon, leaders believe that a Microsoft PowerPoint slideshow containing multiple images, sketches, and a verbose explanation sufficiently replaces an OPORD. In fact, it replaces the entire planning process itself at the cost of detailed planning, war gaming, and rehearsing.
I make this request: Please go back to the basics. Set an operational endstate with respect to enemy, friendly, terrain, and civilian considerations; conduct pre-combat checks and pre-combat inspections; and conduct rehearsals.
Ask these questions: Why are we here? Do we have what is needed to conduct the mission? Have we thought through the important aspects of the mission to ensure we are achieving the endstate and have the correct tools and equipment to reach it?
We, as a collective organization, have broken all tenets that are taught in our leadership schools, professional military education courses, and written in our own doctrine. First, span of control is three to five. My current battalion operates with nine companies. That is only to conduct route clearance. We are not even a real maneuver unit. Secondly, the creation of the Company Intel Support Team has replaced the entire function of the battalion intelligence section (S2). We create our own named areas of interest, layer on the various types of intelligence (human, signal, imagery, electronic, etc.) and attempt to target the enemy without a defined situational template (SITEMP). Lastly, brigade commanders have withheld the approval authority for platoon missions. There is even general officer approval for company and battalion missions. So much for ingenuity, delegation of authority, and confidence in lower level commanders.
The lack of pre-combat checks (PCCs), pre-combat inspections (PCIs), and rehearsals in forward deployed units is astounding. PCCs and PCIs are the first step in assuring that your subordinates are prepared for their mission. Are their sensitive items tied down? Extra batteries present? Optics and night vision operational? Weapons clean? Schools preach these, but I watch the leaders around me fail to apply these lessons.
Rehearsals are sessions in which a unit practices expected actions to confirm the plan, reveal unidentified coordination measures, synchronize the overall plan at key points in time and space, and update all aspects of the plan. Most units show up 20 minutes before their departure time, make sure everyone is present, tell them what they are doing today, and leave the base.
My first sergeant and I have "thumped" each of our platoons for their lack of attention to detail concerning PCCs and PCIs. They have all had to construct a Platoon Standard Operation Procedure (SOP) for vehicle load plans and rehearse the reloading of ammunition to the gunner, conduct rollover and fire drills, and practice every SOP they have developed. Almost every time, each platoon has changed or enhanced their SOPs solely through their rehearsals on the base. We are actually achieving progress! Although it is quite painful and creates more gray hairs than I wish to admit.
I express this frustration in the hope that someone reads it and realizes that they, too, are not as good as they think. Above all else, this sobering idea has captured the essence of my company's issues and has put us on a path to success.
CPT Michael Carvelli is an engineer officer currently deployed in Afghanistan. He has deployed in conventional and special operations units. This article represents his own personal views and not those of the Engineer Regiment, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.