A return to extended field training

I have to preface this post with a few warnings.

First, I know there are some units and job specialties that never got away from extended field training. There are also some training events, tank gunnery, for example, which almost always serve as a form of extended field training.

Second, I don’t actually “love” being out in the field – as others might claim they do. I enjoy training, and I view being out in the field as a necessary part of being in the profession – this is how we train. That doesn’t mean I enjoy being bitten by strange insects, being overly cold or hot, sleep-deprived, and away from friends and family. “The field” is where we train – so it must be endured.

Third, this is an Army-centric observation. But I’d be curious to know how extended training exercises have (or have not) changed in the other services since the beginning of the GWOT.

Finally – I love my smartphone and bring it with me to the field (when appropriate/allowed).

Ok, warnings complete.

The below is a trend that I have observed over the past twenty years and something that I’ve been thinking about recently, as the profession turns towards thinking about how to train and prepare for future conflicts.

When I first joined the Army, just before the start of the GWOT, it was not uncommon to conduct extended field training at home station. These were not field exercises tied to an upcoming CTC rotation or pre-mission training for a pending deployment. These were just training exercises that we did regularly. Ten-day field problems, in fact, seemed to be the gold standard. Deploy to the field on a Monday or Tuesday, and come back the Wednesday or Thursday of the following week.

Of course, this meant that you would be training over a weekend.

These were painful training exercises where days dragged on and bled into one another. We lost track of time and what day it was. And it wasn’t fun to be out in the field for that long away from family, friends, and civilization.

Ten days is a long time, and it is almost certain to rain.

But I’d be lying if I said these weren’t some of the best training experiences I’ve ever had. You just can’t replicate the training value of extended field operations. You can’t replicate it with classes, VR simulations, hip-pocket training, or out-and-back field problems where you don’t actually live, eat, work, and sleep in the field.

Being out there over time has its own value. You learn things about yourself. You learn how to adjust your kit. You learn fieldcraft from your peers. You learn how to operate as a small team, out there. You learn the strengths and weaknesses of yourself and your teammates.

These extended field exercises are where units get good.

For me, these early training exercises occurred at a time before the smartphone.

When we went to the field, we were really cut off from the rest of the world. We could completely focus on training – there was literally nothing else to do.

Then the wars started.

And to quote an unknown French general: “War ruins a perfectly good Army.”

Lots of things changed during the first couple of years of the GWOT. One of those things was a reluctance to conduct extended field training.

I remember coming home from my first deployment and learning that conducting any type of training over a weekend would require the Division Commander’s approval. That essentially put an end to extended field training at home station. The unspoken subtext here was “you better have a damn good reason for wanting to train over a weekend.”

This was well-received by nearly everyone. We were all veterans now and had experienced real combat. Why would we need to be out in the field for over a week anymore?

This mandate – which I understand became widespread at the time – had pure intentions. It was meant to preserve family time at home at a time when we knew we would face repeat deployments. It was a good thing.

As a result, field problems at home station became increasingly short.

Smart leaders know it’s not a good idea to deploy to the field on a Monday or return on a Friday.

We started seeing a lot of two or three day field exercises.

Any training is good training, but squeezing in an FTX between Monday and Friday is not the same as being out there for five, seven or ten days on end.

This is not to say extended field training didn’t happen. It did. CTC rotations necessitate longer times in the field. And units routinely engaged in progressive train-ups (squad level STX/live-fires –> platoon level STX/live-fires –> company level STX/live-fires, etc.). Many of these train-ups occurred over longer periods of time – a week or more.

But the trend, so it appears, is that these types of extended field exercises are occurring less frequently.

Unfortunately, I think a lot of the changes we implemented during the GWOT (with good intentions) are ingrained and hard to budge from. Asking a formation to stay out in the field for longer periods of time – over weekends – is tough. You are asking them to miss family events, social functions, and hobbies.

On top of this – and this one hurts – we really need to improve our electromagnetic signatures – not just with our military equipment but with our personal devices. Not only do our smartphones and watches emit signals which put us at risk of detection, but being connected (during combat) opens us up to an entire world of threats.

Source: Twitter

When cellphones – and then smartphones – emerged and became ubiquitious over a decade ago, commanders at all levels had to wrestle with their permissibility in the field. It was not uncommon early on for commanders to outright ban bringing phones to the field.

That seems to have changed as well. Banning phones seems heavy-handed and overly harsh.

We have become so accustomed to constant contact that the idea of leaving the smartphone at home teeters on unreasonable.

What if there is an emergency? What if I’m expecting an important call from someone?

It’s all very strange, because times have changed. And that expectation of constant contact is real. The world we live in today is not the world we lived in during the 1990s or early 2000s.

But the threats that we are likely to face in a future conflict have changed as well, and they are very real.

And they carry serious consequences.

These changes create additional challenges for commanders to contend with. None of them are easy.

Much of the discussion surrounding future conflicts revolve around improvements in technology and leveraging that tech on the battlefield. Getting the best tech and employing it tactically is important.

But as our own wargames (and FICINT scenarios) demonstrate, the opening shots of a conflict between great powers will likely ‘cancel out’ many of the tech advantages of each actor. With that, the side that is able to operate in a tech ‘blackout’ – while leveraging that same tech when available – will likely have the advantage.

This means a return to extended field training to develop the analog skills required when all that tech goes down. This means training in “tech blackout” conditions. This means using communications windows (to include use of personal devices) to replicate what we may face on the battlefield.

There is a way to bring back this type of training without being overly harsh about it or creating unsafe conditions. It takes deliberate planning, unit buy-in, creativity, and empathy. But it can be done.

And if we are serious about the profession, and winning the next conflict, it is necessary.

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Our adversaries are paying close attention

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I’m a little late on this one. A couple of weeks ago, the Irregular Warfare Podcast sat down with Admiral James Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman to discuss future war and their new book 2034.

What would a conflict with China look like? How will irregular warfare fit into a conflict before and during large-scale combat operations? Retired Admiral James Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman join this episode of the Irregular Warfare Podcast to discuss the theme of escalation to large-scale conflict, which they explore in their New York Times best seller 2034: A Novel of the Next World War. In answering those questions, they emphasize the nature of human behavior in conflict and how escalation can get out of control.

Irregular Warfare in the Next World War – Modern War Institute

I haven’t read the book yet – but it’s on the list.

We’ve reached a place in time where technology is advancing so quickly that standard analysis isn’t enough to prepare for future war – we have to use our imagination.

There’s a short discussion towards the end of the podcast that caught my attention as prescient. The guests are asked to reflect on our current vulnerabilities and how our adversaries are working towards exploiting them.

“It would seem preposterous for us not to imagine that our adversaries are very much aware of our internal political dynamics and at every corner trying to take advantage and exasperate the divisions that exist within American society, and are paying close attention.”

Elliot Ackerman

It really does feel like we are living through an inflection point in American history. There’s a lot going on internally, but our adversaries are watching very closely – and the enemy always gets a vote.

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Video Games as FICINT

A lot of talk about “FICINT” or ficitional intelligence lately. This is good. Things are moving so quickly these days it’s hard to make logicial conclusions about what’s coming next.

Long-time readers will know that I’m a gamer – it’s my hobby. More than any other medium, I’ve found inspiration to think, write, and reflect, through games. I’d argue that games have always been loaded with meaning and narrative, but it’s true that as the gaming industry and community has matured, the plots and topics embedded have as well.

I never really thought of games as FICINT, but over the years I’ve written a number of pieces pulling directly from games as a way to think about mental health, stolen valor, suicide (and here), the military’s role in a zombie apocalypse, the RPG elements of military service, the importance of “staying alive,” military deception, the absurdity of war, soldiers vs. warriors, decision making, and grand strategy. I’m sure there is more, but that’s off the top of my head.

And I’m not alone. There are plenty of writers who are finding the intersection of war, warfare, and gaming. See this recent article in WOTR on the video game Eve and what it may teach us about the forever war. One of my favorite authors in this space is Matthew Gault, who also is a part of the Angry Planet podcast.

I always get the impression that when folks write about gaming and its relevance to anything outside of entertainment, it isn’t taken as seriously as film or literature. Maybe that is changing, but it’s changing very, very slowly. There is still a bias against gaming, and to many, it’s still considered a thing for children.

The reality is, we’re more than thirty years into a still-growing field. Three out of four Americans play video games. The video game industry is expexted to surpass $181 billion globally in 2021 (compared to $34 billion for the film industry).

When I joined the military in 2001, most soldiers played video games. Sure, there was a cadre of older soldiers who had joined in the 1990s (or earlier) who weren’t really into it, but the shift was already taking place 20 years ago.

The men and women joining the military these days have only lived in an era of “next-generation” video game platforms. Even the original Playstation and Xbox were before their time.

We’re at a perfect point to leverage games to help us understand the world around us. It is relevant.

There have been plenty of FICINT-like pieces written using Star Wars or Game of Thrones as a frame of reference. Those are taken seriously.

Why not games?

As an aside, my original intent for this post was to lament the fact that I’ve only recently gotten interested in the gaming photo community. I was first introduced to it through Dead End Thrills, which captures gorgeous screenshots. As I was looking at relaunching CTG, I wanted to find a space to share more gaming stuff that wouldn’t clog the blog. That’s what I use Instagram for. There is a whole community of gamers who are sharing screenshots. It’s also another way to expand the reach of the blog and hopefully bring in folks who might not have an inroad to ‘critical thinking on war and warfare.’

And the reason for the lamentation is the fact that I’ve missed so many great opportunities to share. Fallout 4, Red Dead Redepmtion II, Death Stranding, the Last of Us II. All done, and games that I’m not likely to go back to for awhile.

Thankfully, the Mass Effect Trilogy remaster will be coming with a photo mode.

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FICINT: Imagining our own destruction

This blog is becoming a shill for great podcasts.

During this episode, Mr. August Cole discusses fictional intelligence (or FICINT) and how it can help leaders understand emerging concepts such as the cognitive warfighting domain. August observes that plausible fictionalized future scenarios which are rooted in academic research communicate to leaders and decision makers better than do white papers and powerpoint slides. He also emphasizes the importance of experimentation and stress testing ideas. One of August’s primary goals with his writing is to use FICINT and narrative to prevent strategic surprise.

The Cognitive Crucible Episode #33 Cole on FICINT and the Cognitive Warfighting Domain

When I read Ghost Fleet, it scared me. Future war is terrifying.

But it also motivated me to work, and to keep working to get ahead of some of the challenges it prophesizes.

Ghost Fleet is a work of “FICINT” or “fictional intelligence,” a play on the other “INTs” of the intelligence community (SIGINT, HUMINT, etc.).

One of the key findings of the 9/11 Commission Report is that we suffered from a failure of imagination. FICINT offers a way to imagine future threats, and then, hopefully, prepare for them.

This was a great episode. Things that stuck out below:

On writing about a “Crimea-like” unconventional warfare campaign waged by the US (Underbelly).

“What rules would US and allied forces break in wartime? When you go back in history, it’s quite clear that norms and rules are broken in every single conflict, like unrestricted submarine warfare in the 20th century – so what’s the equivalent of the 21st century? Is it going to be breaking down all the barriers of data access?”

Returning to the idea of “what rules are we going to break,” Cole empahsises the point that we can use FICINT to start thinking through these problems now.

“The more time we can invest in understanding the ethical, legal, operational, and doctrinal implications now, the better chance we have to make those decisions as carefully as a country like ours needs to during a large scale conflict.”

The podcast wraps up with Cole recommending listeners read Agency by William Gibson. Gibson, for the uninitiated is the author of Neuromancer, which is the inspiration for much of the “cyberpunk” genre of fiction.

I haven’t read either (yet), but Cyberpunk 2077 is up next.

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