A 2nd Cav officer: Yes, our failures were real, but they reflected larger problems in the Army — and we are learning from them
- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Capt. Alexander Frank, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest respondent
Thomas Ricks’ recent post in Foreign Policy discussing a report on my unit’s performance during a major training exercise in Germany presents a scathing critique. From my personal experience and through discussions with my peers throughout the regiment, the criticisms he offers are largely valid. However, they are incomplete and utterly meaningless unless viewed in the broader context of the Army’s culture. The points he makes are merely symptoms of underlying cultural problems within the Army rather than the specific failures he enumerates.
In his post, Ricks reviews the Center for Army Lessons Learned reports on our exercise in October. He calls the conclusions of the reports “hair raising” and draws out several key points. The reports found “commanders and command sergeant majors tethered to command posts, rarely visiting subordinate units.” Instead of face-to-face interactions, they stayed in their command posts and issued a steady stream of fragmentary orders, “not feeling comfortable to allow subordinates to operate broadly under their intent.” In sum, he paints a picture of commanders micro-managing from the safety of their headquarters.
On a personal level, this is consistent with what I saw and my own actions as a leader during the DATE. As an executive officer for one of the best line companies in the regiment, I discussed with my commander before the exercise what my role should be — mentoring the platoon leaders based on my two years of experience as a PL, including combat. This would involve moving forward to their positions to walk through their plans and provide on the spot guidance during key moments of a firefight, but from there letting them operate broadly within what we were trying to accomplish.
Despite agreement from my commander and clear intent during the exercise, I was never encouraged to move forward of our company command post and did not take the initiative to do so, despite the opportunity. Leaders at all levels rarely did so.
Overall, leaders — including myself — were focused on the multitude of tasks prescribed to them in the institutional framework in which we operate. For me, that meant taking part in meetings over the radio with various support personnel, filling out logistics reports, and then running errands in the rear such as picking up graphics from our intelligence people.
The Army bureaucracy and culture prizes information flow and reliance on assets and technology, making personal leadership a secondary priority. For example, reports –how to send them, what was the best format, and their content were the key priority prior to the commencement of DATE during our preparations. This over-emphasis on information flow and technology meant that during the actual exercise, there was little attempt to actually gain good situational awareness through battlefield circulations and terrain analysis.
Partial viewpoints on the nature of warfare
These are merely symptoms of broader cultural problems and assumptions about the nature of war in the 21st century that were brilliantly outlined by T.X. Hammes in The Sling and the Stone. Hammes argues that during the 1990s and into the first years of the 20th century, DOD developed an institutional mindset completely centered around technology. The planning and vision papers put out “see increased technical capabilities of command and control as the key factor shaping future war.” The command and control systems created would “exceed the capabilities of any opponent and will provide us with a near-perfect understanding of the battlefield.” The enemy becomes “a series of inanimate targets to be serviced. He who services the most targets the fastest wins.”
This viewpoint formed the basis for the Future Combat System (FCS) and drove our training and mindset for much of 1990s. As a retired general told me who played a key role in the initiation of FCS , “future combat system was hijacked by people who thought you could completely lift the fog of war.” Although FCS was eventually scrapped, the ideas that underpin it still drive Army culture. “Currently, DOD has defined the future as technology and is driving all experiments in that direction.”
A perfect illustration of this a movie I was shown at my Infantry Officer Training course. It starts with a rather chubby colonel in a perfectly starched uniform striding into his command post, a comfortable tent with desks, chairs, and several computers set up. A major informs him that a UAV has picked up an enemy tank headed toward his lines. “Very well,” he says, “put an artillery target right there, and then fire it on my command.” The commander pauses as he watches the tank on a live feed slowly plodding along and then excitedly yells, “Fire.” The fire mission destroys the tank and everyone in the command tent gives themselves a pat on the back for enabling their colonel to destroy a lone tank. The movie focused on FBCB2 — an excellent tool that allows great situational awareness on the battlefield. The narrator introduced it claiming, “FBCB2 and integrated technologies will allow unprecedented low-level initiative and delegation of authority.” Not quite what happened in the video, however, but a good illustration of Army culture and mindset.
The criticisms listed by Ricks of our unit flow from the cultural problems observed by T.X. Hammes and others. Hammes discusses how these attitudes have made it very difficult to effectively fight a complex global insurgency that tends not to approach the battlefield straight on, in tanks. Even in a fight against a more conventional enemy, the mindset Hammes describes proved ineffective, leading to the weaknesses Ricks outlines. Because of the emphasis on information flow and technology, it’s natural for commanders to remain in their command posts where they can have access to the flow of reports from the front and UAV feeds from above. In theory, they can access a near-perfect view of the battlefield and micro-manage their formations thanks to the excellent communication and sensor technologies at their disposal. In such circumstances, commanders moving forward behind their lead assault elements aren’t necessary to get a good idea of the battle or drive their subordinates to take action quickly.
DATE showed the fallacy of this mindset. The opposing forces we fought did not afford us the opportunity when they attacked to form a near-perfect view of the battle. Why? Because they moved so quickly and concentrated their forces so well that by the time reports and UAV feeds were processed, the information was already useless. This occurred because commanders never moved forward to get a good idea of the terrain, and so our enemy was able to utilize it effectively to bypass all of the obstacles and areas we planned to kill them in. The result was that our enemy was deep in our rear before we brought to bear any assets against them. We were unable to develop coherent action in the face of attack and they managed to engage our forces piecemeal one after the other. With their firepower and armor advantage, they were able to beat us in any engagement.
A learning organization
That being said, Ricks tells only one side of the story and ignores the accurate and insightful comments he received from Colonel Barclay. The thrashing we took when we were on the defense served its purpose well. During the next phase of the operation, when we were on the attack, we embraced a far bolder plan with commanders out of their command posts right behind their lead elements. My squadron commander spent the bulk of his time just behind our lead elements where he was able to better influence the fight.
The plan developed by headquarters allowed for more subordinate initiative. One of our platoon leaders noticed a key piece of terrain outside of his area and was allowed to quickly seize it. From there he was able to flank the enemy and we achieved complete tactical surprise. My troop was able to infiltrate deep into the enemy’s rear with no resistance and pick off isolated enemy units in front of us. The enemy was never able to take concerted action against us and instead continued to maneuver ineffectually in small isolated elements, similar to our predicament when we were playing defense. A fellow captain’s company came up on the enemies reserve while they were essentially sitting in a parking lot and destroyed them.
During the culminating live fire exercise afterwards, my company commander dismounted from his Stryker and got behind the lead platoons rather than managing the fight over the radio and FBCB2, as he had been instructed to in the preliminary briefing. When I saw him afterwards, he was giddy with excitement. “I felt connected with the men,” he said. He was actually in a position to influence the battle. Although he might not have been as plugged in to the information flow as well as he could have been further to the rear in his Stryker, he was able to influence the human side of the operation. His mere presence inspired the men, motivated the platoon leaders to take the initiative, and when necessary, quickly make key decisions about individual platoons on the spot. Technology has its place and provides tremendous advantages, but over-emphasis at the expense of the human factor leads to failure in our experience.
Over the past decade, the Army has had to become a learning organization, and my regiment is no different. The important failures early on in the DATE stemming from major cultural flaws I described have driven change. The entire point of exercises such as DATE is to learn those lessons when lives are not at stake, to lessen the chance they will occur on a real battlefield, a point Ricks does not accept or acknowledge. [Interruption from Tom: Please don’t forget the second sentence of my original post: “It is worrisome that this unit appears to have deteriorated so much, yet paradoxically reassuring that the Army is using its maneuvers to identify shortcomings.”]
Bottom line: After participating in those mistakes, I have the utmost confidence in the leaders in my regiment. The next several years will be a key period for us and the Army as a whole as we relearn how to fight a more combined arms hybrid threat than includes conventional mechanized and armored formations. The mentality and culture we develop now will likely determine the character of our institution for decades to come.
CPT Alexander Frank is an infantry officer with 2nd Cavalry Regiment stationed in beautiful Vilseck, Germany, where he is enjoying the travel opportunities while not training. He has a bachelor’s degree in physics from Duke University.