- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at email@example.com.
By Brig. Gen. John Scales, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Best Defense guest columnist
According to Stars and Stripes, the Army decided during the summer to deactivate the Long Range Surveillance (LRS) companies in the force structure — presumably their role is to be filled with various unmanned platforms. Now, I have never served in a LRS company so I have no parochial axe to grind, and I am not privy to the various models and analyses that may have led to this decision. However, I am mindful of a time more than twenty years ago when I was very much involved in the analyses leading up to some significant force structure decisions.
A key tool in these analyses was a complex computer model that handled detailed force-on-force scenarios with tens of thousands of troops on either side. The scenarios generally had U.S. Amy forces defending against a much larger modern army. As I analyzed results from various runs that employed different force structures and weapons, I noticed some peculiar results. It seemed that certain sensors dominated the battlefield, while others were useless or nearly so. Among those “useless” sensors were the LRS teams placed well behind enemy lines. Curious as to why that might be so, I dug deeper and deeper into the model. After a fair amount of work, the answer became clear. The LRS teams were coded, understandably, as “infantry”. According to model logic, direct fire combat arms units were assumed to open fire on an approaching enemy when within range and visibility. So, in essence, as I dug deeply into the logic it became obvious that the model’s LRS teams were compelled to conduct immediate suicidal attacks. No wonder they failed to be effective!
Conversely, the “Firefinder” radars were very effective in targeting the enemy’s artillery. Even better, they were wizards of survivability, almost never being knocked out. Somewhat skeptical by this point, I dug some more. Lo and behold, the “vulnerable area” for Firefinders was given in the input database as “0”. They could not be killed!
Armed with all this information, I confronted the senior system analysts. My LRS concerns were dismissed. This was a U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command-approved model run by the Field Artillery School, so infantry stuff was important to them only in terms of loss exchange ratios and the like. The Infantry School could look out for its own. Bringing up the invulnerability of the Firefinder elicited a different response, though. No one wanted to directly address this and the analysts found fascinating objects to look at on the other side of the room. Finally, the senior guy looked at me and said, “If we let the Firefinders be killed, the model results are uninteresting.” Translation: None of their force structure, weapons mix, or munition choices had much effect on the overall model results unless the divisional Firefinders survived. We always lost in a big way.
At the time I was in no position to raise hell about this but it bothered me. That model had been used for years to determine “optimum” courses of action, decisions that affected the allocation of billions of dollars. I know these defects persisted into the 1990s, although I hope that by now they have been fixed.
My tale is merely cautionary. Do the senior decisionmakers truly understand the models and analyses that ground this force structure choice? Has there been a thorough discussion and understanding of the assumptions that are often deeply embedded in the models?
John Scales is a retired Special Forces brigadier general and veteran of both Vietnam and Afghanistan. He served in all three Army components and, while in the National Guard, was a senior engineer at SAIC.
Photo credit: Barney Elliott/Wikimedia commons