Seduced By Success; An Army Leadership Untrained for True War?


Our friend at Op-For, the urbane and erudite sophisticate LTCOL P (supplying some cogent comments of his own), points us to a superb article in AFJ by Daniel L. Davis outlining the very real possibility that our immense advantages over our foes in the last two-plus decades has left many of our middle and senior leadership untested and overconfident in our warfighting capabilities.

Imagine one of today’s division commanders finding himself at the line of departure against a capable enemy with combined-arms formation. He spent his time as a lieutenant in Bosnia conducting “presence patrols” and other peacekeeping activities. He may have commanded a company in a peacetime, garrison environment. Then he commanded a battalion in the early years of Afghanistan when little of tactical movement took place. He commanded a brigade in the later stages of Iraq, sending units on patrols, night raids, and cordon-and-search operations; and training Iraq policemen or soldiers.

Not once in his career did an enemy formation threaten his flank. He never, even in training, hunkered in a dugout while enemy artillery destroyed one-quarter of his combat vehicles, and emerged to execute a hasty defense against the enemy assault force pouring over the hill.

Spot-on.  Such sentiment applies to ALL SERVICES.  Even in the midst of some pretty interesting days in Ramadi and Fallujah, I never bought into the idea that was being bandied about so casually that “there is no more complex decision-making paradigm for a combat leader than counterinsurgency operations”.   It was utter nonsense.  The decisions to be made, as the author points out, above the troops-in-contact level, were seldom risking success or failure either in their urgency or content.  We had in Iraq and in AFG the ability to largely intervene with air or ground fires as we desired, to engage and disengage almost at will, against an enemy that could never have the capability of truly seizing tactical initiative.  Defeat, from a standpoint of force survival, was never a possibility.  To borrow Belloc’s observations of Omdurman, “Whatever happens, we have got, close air support, and they have not”.

Having a brigade of BMP-laden infantry rolling up behind the fires of a Divisional Artillery Group, supported by MI-24s and SU-25s, which stand a very real chance of defeating (and destroying) not just your unit but all the adjacent ones, is infinitely more challenging than even our rather intense fights (April and November 2004) for Fallujah.  The speed and tactical acumen of the decision makers will be the difference between holding or breaking, winning and losing, living or dying.   The author points out some significant shortcomings in our current training paradigm, and brings us back to some fundamentals of how we train (or used to, at any rate) decision-makers to operate in the fog and uncertainty of combat.  Training and exercises, designed to stress and challenge:

At some of the Combat Maneuver Training Centers, Army forces do some good training. Some of the products and suggestions from Army Training and Doctrine Command are good on paper. For example, we often tout the “world class” opposing force that fights against U.S. formations, and features a thinking and free-fighting enemy. But I have seen many of these engagements, both in the field and in simulation, where the many good words are belied by the exercise. For example, in 2008 I took part in a simulation exercise in which the opposing forces were claimed to be representative of real world forces, yet the battalion-level forces were commanded by an inexperienced captain, and the computer constraints limited the enemy’s ability to engage.

Many may remember the famed “Millennium Challenge 2002” held just before Operation Iraqi Freedom. Retired Marine general Paul Van Riper, appointed to serve as opposing force commander, quit because the exercise was rigged. ”We were directed…to move air defenses so that the army and marine units could successfully land,” he said. ”We were simply directed to turn [air defense systems] off or move them… So it was scripted to be whatever the control group wanted it to be.” For the U.S. Army to be successful in battle against competent opponents, changes are necessary.

Field training exercises can be designed to replicate capable conventional forces that have the ability to inflict defeats on U.S. elements. Such training should require leaders at all levels to face simulated life and death situations, where traditional solutions don’t work, in much more trying environments than is currently the case. They should periodically be stressed to levels well above what we have actually faced in the past several decades. Scenarios, for example, at company and battalion level where a superior enemy force inflicts a mortal blow on some elements, requiring leaders and soldiers to improvise with whatever is at hand, in the presence of hardship and emotional stress.Simulation training for commanders and staffs up to Corps level should combine computer and physical exercises that subject the leaders to situations where the enemy does the unexpected, where key leaders or capabilities are suddenly lost (owing to enemy fire or efforts), yet they still have to function; where they face the unexpected loss of key communications equipment, yet still be forced to continue the operation.

Such exercises should not all be done in nicely compartmentalized training segments with tidy start and end times, and “reset” to prepare for the next sequence. Instead, some exercises should be held where there is a beginning time “in the box” and no pre-set start or end times until the end of a rotation two weeks or more later. In short, the training rotation should replicate the physical and emotional stress of actual combat operations in which there is no “pause” to rest and think about what happened.

I couldn’t agree more.  However, in a budget-crunch environment where significant funding is going toward advancing political and social agendas even within DoD, I am not at all sanguine about such training occurring.  Worse, rather than having leaders champion the need for it and constantly fight for training dollars, I fear that such a requirement will be dismissed as less than necessary, since we already have “the most professional, the best educated, the most capable force this country has ever sent into battle.”  While our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines are indeed superb, and honed at the small unit level, our senior leadership is much less so.  What’s worse is that leaders who have no experience in battlefield command against a near-peer force have begun to assert that technological innovation makes such training superfluous.  That the nature of war has changed, and we are now in an era of “real-time strategy” and “global awareness”.   To steal a line from The Departed, there is deception, and there is self-deception.

Anyway, the Armed Forces Journal article is a thought-provoking read.

26 thoughts on “Seduced By Success; An Army Leadership Untrained for True War?”

  1. It’s the Navy that worries me. WWIII is just over the horizon, and it will be a naval one with China, and the USN has not been to war against another navy in 70 years. This may not turn out well. That is a long time to go, without any experience other that hypothetical, as used in wargames, no matter how realistic. At least the USMC, the USAF, and the US Army Have been to war since the end of WWII, even with the odds stacked as heavily in their favor as it has been.

  2. STB, I had the same worries when transiting the Atlantic for three-carrier ops north of Libya in 1986. It had been a very long time with no opposition for the Navy at that point. And democracies traditionally lose the first battle in a conflict. I even used my game Sixth Fleet to play out what was to happen. IIRC, the ship closest to Tripoli got hit in every game. The Libyan AF was gone, as was their Navy.

    The actual plan was better than I expected. VADM Kelso did a good job of battle management. Lots of stuff that never hit the press happened. My ship, which was the closest to Tripoli, was untouched.

    So, if we have a good leader, and good intel, we should be OK. There is an old game called Seventh Fleet that could be used to game out what could happen. I hope the Naval War College in Newport is doing a lot of wargaming on this.

    1. Salty, you make a valid point, but Admiral Kelso has been retired for more than twenty years and passed away in 2012. His mentors did fight a naval war, but they are all long gone, too. In fact, everyone involved with the 1986 Libya mission in a meaningful staff position is long retired too.

      The institutional knowledge and emphasis that shaped Frank Kelso is now FIVE generations removed from the Navy’s CDRs and CAPTs.

    2. URR, successful deterrence requires the perception of US strength in the eyes of Chinese leadership (our most likely antagonist). Under pbho, US strength is waning quickly. Our will is gone.

      That being said, the core of our tactical expertise is in the Carrier Strike Group commanders and staff, then our Naval Aviators, Cruiser commanders, and SSN COs. For China, CSG 5 out of Japan is the most important CSG. The current pCO training for SSN COs seems adequate ( Our aviators should do OK with air-air / strike warfare based on training at Fallon and Red Flag. I do wonder about the surface fleet, with it’s unique vulnerabilities, off-balance focus on training, and small numbers.

      I see indications of good training, which include the AF in Guam and the excellent Japanese MSDF. But I have no real idea how hard we train to win in a conflict with China.

      Lex’s career (and internal knowledge of who was selected for major afloat commands) indicates that good warriors are placed in positions that need warriors. There is always that 20% that never gets the word, so Holly Graf as a 2nd command tour CG CO is a cautionary tale.

      Cdr Salamander had a lot of info on the effect zamlots are having. Which will prevail is a good question. We do not have the time to build a new fleet if our Left-Handed Lithuanian-American Lesbian Leadership screws up. Perhaps our Naval leadership has instituted serious war-winning training. Perhaps.

  3. Strikes me as more than a touch of last-waritis.

    Not once in his career did an enemy formation threaten his flank. He never, even in training, hunkered in a dugout while enemy artillery destroyed one-quarter of his combat vehicles, and emerged to execute a hasty defense against the enemy assault force pouring over the hill.

    When was the last time a US formation was ever in that scenario? Maybe a handful of times in Vietnam, a few more in Korea? We aren’t going to fight WWII again, for the same reason WWII wasn’t WWI, which wasn’t the Franco-Prussian War, which wasn’t the War of Southern Aggression, which wasn’t the Napoleonic wars… Any nation with the scientific and industrial resources to become a near-peer has more than sufficient resources to become a nuclear power, and a war between the US and a nuclear power isn’t going to involve Divisional Artillery Groups.

    I’m all for equipping and training for a near-peer competitor, and there’s certainly value in putting commanders in a Kobayashi Maru scenario, but given limited resources it should be very low on the list.

    1. We have an alarming tendency to have such crystal balls predicting the character of our next war broken over the heads of those who do not understand the basic nature of war.

    2. I would offer, as does the author, that we need to train our leaders in making decisions rapidly with imperfect information and situational awareness on a battlefield dominated by massed fires and rapid maneuver.

      1. Why? In modern warfare a US military officer is only slightly more likely to see massed fires than they are to see a testudo.

    3. “…War of Southern Aggression….”

      Sir, those is fightin’ words. Lincoln’s War, or War of Northern Aggression is far more accurate. I can’t blame Yankees, given Yankee coookin’, for coming south.

      For the sake of discussion, let presume you are correct that few modern commanders will ever see massed fires on his positions. They might see it and if they can’t handle, it could lead to a lost battle, and once that first battle is lost, guess what will happen.

      NTC is supposed to a grinder. The troops should see training as realistic as possible, and the training should grind on you. Everyone should the stuff they could fight and get hard and heavy. Maybe they will never see some of it in combat (but I think you are living in a fantasy world if you think it won’t happen).Sweat bullets in training, then you leak blood on the battle field, and that’s the point of training.

      The only serious problem I can see with the NTC is I don’t think it can handle anything larger than Battalion.

      1. NTC is sized and equipped to handle a Brigade Combat Team. But part of the problem is, NTC has been out of the maneuver business a while as well. Reasonably, they tailored their OpFor to Iraq. But in doing so, they lost the expertise to present a maneuver capable near-peer force in realistic maneuver. They’ll get that back faster than the rotational units, but not as fast as we’d like.

      2. The truth hurts. The facts are the illegitimate governments of the South started the war by seceding illegally, and they fired the first shot. Lincoln wanted nothing more than the peaceful abolition of slavery. By throwing a temper tantrum before he even took office the deep south guaranteed he would only get the latter.

        I have no problem with difficult training, even no-win scenarios, if we have the resources. When resources are limited we need to focus training on the skills our soldiers are going to actually need. Responding to a large scale offensive by mechanized infantry supported by artillery isn’t one of them. Or, rather, it has a rather trivial solution: Hunker down and call in air strikes, the enemy having helped us solve the big problem in our favored means of warfare, finding something to bomb.

    4. We spent 20 years perfecting AirLand Battle Doctrine, and then were faced with a 2nd rate enemy on terrain that was absolutely the perfect place to highlight our advantages, and minimize the enemy’s, and still struggled to quickly dispatch the main body of his force. And nobody expected to have to put two full heavy corps and one light corps into Saudi/Kuwait/Iraq. They shipped us from Germany, for chrissakes. We had ZERO contingency planning for that.

      And there WERE times there when commanders had to worry about enemy brigade and divisional formations popping up. We did lose track of major enemy formations.

      1. But that was 20 years ago, and we were just beginning to reorient away from facing down the USSR.

        And that 2nd rate enemy represented the best non-nuclear adversary we could face. We dealt with them handily, that’s one of the reasons we aren’t going to face a force like that ever again. Hell, the Iraqi’s learned their lesson from the first go-around and pretty much gave up on conventional forces, instead sucking us into an insurgency campaign. Considering that strategy has been successfully used against us twice (possibly three times depending on how you count Iraq), that’s what adversary planners are going to choose over conventional arms, which have never defeated us.

    5. No massed fires? Feel free to bet your life on such a misguided and gimmicky analysis. But please don’t bet mine on it.

      1. The concentration required for massed fires simply makes you an inviting target long before you’re ready to actually threaten anyone. If you don’t believe me, ask the Republican Guard.

        But battleships will always dominate the seas.

    6. Jeff, I’ll not go round and round with you, but I will say you are good regurgitating the northern party line which is full of lies as I discovered from my studies in Ohio libraries. Yankee writings themselves are pretty damning.

      1. So you’re claiming that South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas didn’t secede prior to Lincoln’s inauguration, making it impossible for their secession to be the result of anything other than Lincoln’s election? Or that Confederate troops didn’t fire on the unarmed Star of the West, and later Fort Sumter?

        I’m sure your research in Ohio showed you exactly what you set out to find, but the fact remains that morally, legally, and tactically the South started the war.

  4. Don’t be too sure about the USAF. When is the last time the USAAF or USAF lost more than 1 or 2 aircraft in a single engagement? Probably Vietnam, with maybe one or two instances in Desert Storm (but I need to check on that.) Big Blue, as an institution, is not preparing its crews to lose anything even close to the types of attrition that one saw in the early and mid-twentieth century. I predict that we will fight a near-peer foe sometime in next decade and we will lose a large number of aircraft, not because of incompetence but just because of the nature of that kind of fighting. When I say “large,” I’m talking about 10 to 15 percent, of an aerial strike package, maybe even as high as 20 percent. Even those appalling levels of death and destruction wouldn’t reach the level of Army Air Corps losses for some operations in WWII. Wikiquote on the Second Raid on Schweinfurt:

    “Of the 291 B-17 Flying Fortresses sent on the mission, 60 were lost outright, another 17 damaged so heavily that they had to be scrapped, and another 121 had varying degrees of battle damage. Outright losses represented over 26% of the attacking force. Losses in aircrew were equally heavy, with 650 men lost of 2,900, 22% of the bomber crews. The American Official History of the Army Air Forces in the Second World War acknowledged losses had been so heavy that the USAAF would not return to the target for four months.”

    Could our present aircrews handle those kinds of losses? We may find out soon enough….

    1. I can foresee serious degrading of USAF morale under ETO conditions. The AF is going to have a very hard row to hoe if we end up fighting China, and I think that’s the most likely foe in the next one. Frankly, in the next big one, losing the first battle may be tantamount to losing the war. I don’t think there is going to be time to do anything like a WW2 build up while we barely stay in the fight, or simply nibble around the edges as we did in North Africa.

      What I fear is a knee jerk reaction instead of a thought our response to China. I think the best thing we could do is quietly deep six anything with a Chinese flag on it, then sit back and watch them atrophy. They absolutely must have foreign trade to survive now, and if they lash out, they can be cut back very easily. A strong Submarine force is needed for this, and we are neglecting that as much as we are anything else.

    2. QM, the Chinese are putting a great deal of energy and money into secure inland rail lines and pipelines. The intent is to move supply lines from easily interdicted SLOCs to places where missile defenses and a large AF can defend them, like Xinjiang.

    3. Supply lines like that can buy time. But cut them off from access to the sea and their trade, for the most part, will die. Without it, China dies as a power projection entity.

  5. Interesting read and comments. Sitting at Subway at Ft Irwin right now, getting ready to go watch a battalion staff that is smoked and planning their next mission. They fought a movement to contact yesterday, losing about a quarter of their combat power to artillery and another half to direct fires. They managed to block the enemy advance, but it was tough. Plenty of stress on the CDR and staff. Today, while preparing for a defense, they will have to contend with the local populace. As they will tomorrow and every day after until done. NTC is well on the way to blending the elements of Combined Arms Maneuver and Wide Area Security to force units to do both. Incredible opportunity for training in rapid decisions, which we as an institution find hard given the amount of information available. (Recall post a couple days ago on this by URR.) Right now there are 3 CABs, one Cavalry Squadron, an ENG BN, an aviation TF, two support Bns, an artillery BN, portions of an MLRS BN, and a chemical BN here. All training live in the box, except the one I am covering, which in simulations that are linked to the live operations in “the box.” (Imperfectly, but a good start. This is NTCs start to address the 3rd CAB now in the ABCT.) It is not a perfect training event but will stress and train staffs and commanders like no other event available. There is a case to be made for the continuous free play and elimination of reset periods, but we train the people and casualties and vehicle losses are so high that there would rapidly nobody left to train. Plus there is plenty of self induced friction… as for the ability of the OPFOR, I beat them pretty handily a year ago on their 3rd or 4th maneuver rotation, but the guys that fought yesterday are much improved than I fought last year.

    1. You do want to stress the commanders and staff, but the reset period is important because of the AAR. Sure, CDRs and staff will learn from some of their mistakes on their own, but because they are deliberately stressed, they’ll miss some of the lessons that an outside observer like you can see. And that’s the whole point, to learn.

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