Best Defense

Metz’s critique: The problem is readiness means different things to the Army’s leaders and to company commanders

The thoughtful article by Captain J. Scott Metz in Armor magazine, shared by Tom Ricks here at Foreign Policy, has generated quite a bit of discussion in the senior ranks.

Kampfpanzer Leopard 2 A5 bei einer Lehr- und Gefechtsvorführung.
Kampfpanzer Leopard 2 A5 bei einer Lehr- und Gefechtsvorführung.


By Maj. Crispin Burke, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest respondent

The thoughtful article by Captain J. Scott Metz in Armor magazine, shared by Tom Ricks here at Foreign Policy, has generated quite a bit of discussion in the senior ranks. I think Metz is right on many things, perhaps not so much on others. Here goes:

First, most U.S. tank crews come up short when compared to the top-notch crews fielded by many of our European allies. That’s not a new development though. Dutch, German, and Canadian tank crews usually bested their American counterparts during the Canadian Army Trophy competitions of the mid-1980s. American tank crews rarely placed, let alone took the crown, aside from one time in the mid-1980s, when I’m told an Army major by the name of Peter Chiarelli personally oversaw the training of the top tank crew in third Battalion, 33rd Armor. Today, Western European armies compete in U.S. Army Europe’s Strong Europe Tank Competition, where an Austrian crew placed first in 2016. (Apparently, RT found that endlessly amusing)

What accounts for the U.S. Army’s lackluster performance in competitions and training exercises in Europe? Most observers noted that crews who stayed together the longest tended to fare better, with some European tank crews reportedly staying together for up to a decade. That’s probably due to the fact that European armies are smaller and it’s easier to keep tank crews together when there are only a handful of tank battalions and very few garrisons. It’s much harder for the U.S. Army to do so, with active armored brigades scattered throughout the world, plus several more in the Reserve Component. Moreover, the top tank crews in each nation are specially-picked and often pulled from other duties to focus solely on preparing for the competition. They’re good, but they’re probably not indicative of the total force.

With that said, European armies often send their best crews to multinational exercises, while U.S. crews deploy every tank crew in the brigade. That may actually be for the best, as inexperienced tank crews walk away with valuable — and often humbling — experiences from their foreign counterparts at the combat training centers.

Second, home station training isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. It’s true that company commanders have far fewer opportunities to plan their own training than in decades past — training is just far more centralized and directed these days. Although this has some negative effects on leader development, Army training is much more rigorous than it was in the good old days.

During the 1970s, Army units planned and evaluated their own exercises, known as ARTEPs, at their home bases. Although it might sound tempting to empower subordinates to develop their own training regimen, there was little accountability for organizations to dispassionately evaluate themselves, as Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, U.S. Army (Ret.) observed when he referred to the exercises as “ritualistic kabuki dances with no serious connection to actual war.” The Army then developed the Combat Training Centers, where units trained against a dedicated opposing force, evaluated by a team of expert observers.

In addition to enforcing accountability with training standards, not all Army bases have the resources to conduct rigorous, small-unit training. Ranges can be difficult to book, while evaluators and opposition forces have to be pulled from units across the installation. Small-unit training is great when it’s your own organization — when you’re giving up evaluators and opposing force for someone else’s training, it’s a distraction.

Third, there’s the issue of readiness vis-a-vis the myriad of other training and administrative requirements. I sincerely believe the Army chief of staff (CSA) when he says readiness is his number one priority. In fact, the primary job of the CSA (and indeed, any service chief) is to provide combat-ready organizations to the combatant commanders. When the secretary of Defense approves a brigade combat team for a combatant commander, it comes with the CSA’s guarantee that the brigade is fully manned, trained, and equipped.

Here’s the problem — “readiness” means something different to a company commander than it does for the CSA. While “readiness” might equate to a C-1 rating on the monthly Unit Status Report at the Pentagon, it means dozens of different things to a company commander. Of the pages upon pages of requirements and programs commanders have to keep track of, many of them plug directly into the giant readiness equation. Flu shots?  Readiness. Dental appointments? You bet, readiness. Spare parts and vehicle maintenance? Yup. Supply transfers? That’s readiness, too. Training? See where this is going?

If that’s not bad enough, there are several more programs which indirectly feed into readiness. Physical training tests? If you fail two physical fitness tests, you’ll be flagged, chaptered, and therefore can’t deploy.  Boom, that’s readiness. And that doesn’t even begin to take into account all those other tasks you should probably do — for instance, you’d better make sure soldiers are doing driver’s training or else investigators will crack down on you should they get into an accident.

The problem is, we all know these are important, but what would you actually cut out? In a study cited by the initial author, one company commander said, when asked what mandatory training requirements he would cut, “I mean, they’re all important…they all have to be covered.”

Finally, I’d like to thank Metz for his article. The generals need to read articles like this — as many will readily admit, the higher in rank an officer climbs, the less honest people around him or her become. The Army needs junior leaders like you to speak truth to power.

Major Crispin Burke is an Army aviator who receives hate mail on a regular basis and was even threatened to be flown to the Pentagon for one article he wrote. Follow him on Twitter at @CrispinBurke. This article represents his own views, and not those of the Army, the Defense Department, or David Ayer.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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