Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The Army shouldn’t cut back on training in how to confront a live, thinking enemy

By Capt. Paul Lewandowski, U.S. Army Best Defense guest columnist Earlier this month, the Army Times reported that Combatives, the Army’s program for teaching hand-to-hand combat, was being scaled back from four multitiered intensive training courses to a single two-week master trainer course. These cuts, on top of a de facto moratorium on Combatives competitions, ...

Staff Sgt. Timothy Sander/DVIDS
Staff Sgt. Timothy Sander/DVIDS
Staff Sgt. Timothy Sander/DVIDS

By Capt. Paul Lewandowski, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest columnist

Earlier this month, the Army Times reported that Combatives, the Army's program for teaching hand-to-hand combat, was being scaled back from four multitiered intensive training courses to a single two-week master trainer course. These cuts, on top of a de facto moratorium on Combatives competitions, effectively mark the end of Army Combatives as a major program. The dissolution of Combatives is endemic of a larger problem throughout the military -- the fact that training for compliance is overwhelmingly favored over training for effect.

For many leaders, the reduction in Combatives certification requirements seems like a godsend. No longer must commanders send capable soldiers and NCOs to Combatives courses for weeks at a time. They now need only send a single NCO, and in two weeks he or she can provide all soldiers in the unit with the required training at the minimum standard. That commander can update the unit's spreadsheet to show "Combatives training" as "green" for another a year. For a brigade support battalion or aviation maintenance company, hand-to-hand combat skills appear useless, and Combatives training takes valuable time away from soldiers executing their assigned duties within the unit.

By Capt. Paul Lewandowski, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest columnist

Earlier this month, the Army Times reported that Combatives, the Army’s program for teaching hand-to-hand combat, was being scaled back from four multitiered intensive training courses to a single two-week master trainer course. These cuts, on top of a de facto moratorium on Combatives competitions, effectively mark the end of Army Combatives as a major program. The dissolution of Combatives is endemic of a larger problem throughout the military — the fact that training for compliance is overwhelmingly favored over training for effect.

For many leaders, the reduction in Combatives certification requirements seems like a godsend. No longer must commanders send capable soldiers and NCOs to Combatives courses for weeks at a time. They now need only send a single NCO, and in two weeks he or she can provide all soldiers in the unit with the required training at the minimum standard. That commander can update the unit’s spreadsheet to show "Combatives training" as "green" for another a year. For a brigade support battalion or aviation maintenance company, hand-to-hand combat skills appear useless, and Combatives training takes valuable time away from soldiers executing their assigned duties within the unit.

In the view of many commanders, all training is simply a form of regulation compliance. Training tasks are dictated by a plethora of protocols specifying what is to be trained and how often. Everything from equal opportunity training to cold weather injury prevention is prescribed at the Army level, and every unit is required to maintain extensive name-by-name records. The core theory behind this compliance-oriented training is that there are only two kinds of soldiers in a unit: those who have received the training to the minimum standard, and those who have not.

In certain tasks, providing soldiers the minimum standard of training in accordance with clear, published, specifications is the best and most effective method. However, there is a disturbing trend in which more and more training is being treated as "regulation compliance." Reporting the results of training on a spreadsheet or PowerPoint slide captures the effect of training only in the most narrow, linear sense. It treats the soldier who sleeps in the back of the classroom and the soldier practicing until his/her hands are callused as one and the same. Effective military training has an incredible transformative power that cannot be articulated within a slide deck — such as when a squad finally develops the camaraderie to be a high-functioning team, when a young soldier understands that his/her responsibilities aren’t a burden but a source of pride, or when a young lieutenant finds the courage to lead by example. Training has the power to do more than alter a slide — it can alter a soldier.

Combatives training is a sterling example of transformative training. The basic Combatives course is 40 hours of instruction almost always done as consecutive eight-hour days. The course curriculum is physically demanding, with virtually no conventional classroom time. It is extremely taxing on soldiers’ bodies and minds. To graduate Combative level I, students engage in roughly two hours active fighting against one another. Students also must execute a "clinch drill" in which the soldier closes with and takes down a trained instructor who, meanwhile, is actively striking the student in the head and body. The instructors wear boxing gloves but the only protective equipment for most soldiers is a mouthpiece. The vast majority of students report these two aspects of the course — the active combat against other students and being hit full force while achieving the clinch — as the two most harrowing, yet rewarding, aspects of the course.

This type of intensive training offers each individual soldier an unscripted version of combat. Virtually no other training pits individual soldiers against a reactive, intelligent, aggressive enemy. National Training Center rotations, field problems, and tactical lanes all are structured as plays, where the "enemy" is actors following a pre-written script. This type of structured training is important for testing systems and equipment, but as the military has seen over the past 12 years, the enemy doesn’t behave like an actor following a script. The enemy is innovative, aggressive, and at times inscrutable. In short, the enemy on the battlefield behaves much like a Combatives opponent. This is because Combatives, at its core, is warfare — human beings vying for dominance of an environment. Combatives training puts soldiers in an emotional state very similar to what they face in combat — and it trains them to function through it.

Combatives training develops the hard-nosed, gritty, courageous mentality every soldier, regardless of function or position, needs to possess. Soldiers who pass the Combatives course know how to keep functioning when their bodies tell them to stop; they know how to fall back on their training when fear starts to set in, and how to swallow their pride and move forward when they’ve had a setback. Combatives course graduates are the best mechanics, operations NCOs, and infantrymen — not because Combatives gives them more skills in their respective duties, but because it teaches them to execute their duties to a higher level or performance. These types of results — producing soldiers who become more capable in every aspect of their careers — are what intensive, effects-oriented training can achieve.

It is telling that the Army views a program like Combatives, for which the benefits are real but unquantifiable, as disposable. It is indicative of a move away from training for effect, and toward a "train to the test" Army. The heart of the problem, and its solution, lies with commanders who expect and demand compliance with every single published standard. Leadership is setting priorities — choosing to execute some training and not others. Superiors must support their subordinates’ efforts to conduct the training that will produce the most mission-effective unit, not the most effective slide deck. This is an easy idea to espouse, but when the time comes, a commander will have to stand in front of his or her superior and explain that cold weather injury prevention, or traffic safety training, is going to be staying at "zero soldiers trained" for the foreseeable future. In the culture of the Army today, that is an act of moral courage.

Leadership is choosing a course of action and leading subordinates in its execution. It means looking for training that transforms soldiers and units. When every training task becomes a priority, then nothing is a priority. If the Army continues to sell out effective training in favor of expedient training, we have to ask ourselves: What kind of soldiers will we be sending into the next war?

Paul Lewandowski is an active duty Military Police captain and Operation Enduring Freedom veteran. He represented Fort Riley at the 2011 All Army Combatives Championships. This essay represents his personal views and are not necessarily those of the MP Corps, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Thomas 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 ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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