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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WAR ROOM: Words must align with actions

Yes to this.

…the most important thing that the United States does in terms of its foreign policy is what it does in the world. You can’t just talk about it in nice ways if it’s inconsistent with what your actions are.

THE INTERIM NSS: A TOUCHSTONE – War Room – U.S. Army War College

This episode of WAR ROOM is about the interim National Security Strategy, but the above quote from Dr. Jacqueline Whitt struck me because it resonates so true to something a little smaller in scale – information operations. Good IO is not something you “do” after the fact or something you “sprinkle” onto a well-baked plan. It’s not something you crowbar in, either.

We all know the saying “actions speak louder than words,” and it’s true in this regard too. If our words are inconsistent with our actions, well then it just looks like classic propaganda.

I’m a new listener of the US Army War College’s podcast but – like so many other recent additions to the podcast world – is quickly becoming a must listen.

I know everyone thinks they should have a podcast (they shouldn’t) but there are so many insitutions where it absolutely makes sense.

This is one of them.

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Analyzing the Virtual Terrain: Pokemon Go and Military Planning

where-are-the-pokemon-go-gyms-in-your-neighbourhood-find-out-with-this-handy-map-1051083

There’s not much to say here other than what I think many in the military are already thinking: what are the implications for military operations in dropping a virtual layer of terrain over the world?

If you’re unaware, Pokemon Go is a mobile game that uses GPS and terrain data to generate virtual locations through a smartphone. Basically, a historic monument, mural, or local bar might have an additional existence in a virtual dimension. A space in the “real” world of limited significance (a painted fire hydrant, for example) might be very important when viewed through he augmented reality of a smartphone app.

It feels like we’re on the cusp of a complete reimagining of how we look at at terrain, from a military viewpoint.

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Fieldcraft: Platoon Leader Planning Board

COA Sketch

You may recall a couple of years ago (sheesh!) I was posting ‘fieldcraft‘ articles pretty frequently. Well, the intervening year had me busy doing the King’s work, but now I’m back in the field and thus, a new fieldcraft post.

It was highly recommended to me by my commander that I develop a “planning board.” You may recall my post on building a plexiglass map board. It’s kind of like that, but a little more involved.

The purpose of the board is to provide the leader with a tool in the field for planning a mission. It is highly customizable, and I based mine off of my commander’s, though I added things that I thought I would find useful.

My board is made out of four pieces of 8 1/2″ x 10″ plexiglass (from Lowe’s Hardware), copious amounts of 100 MPH tape, some transparency sheets, dry erase markers, binder clips, plain pieces of white paper, excerpts from the Infantry Leader Card GTA, and an execution matrix that I created.

This isn’t hard or expensive to build. It just takes a little time.

After building the thing, I wasn’t really sure how useful it would be. I brought it with me to NTC, and I can confidently report that it was a great tool. Most useful was the blank space in which I could draw out simple COA sketches and the execution matrix which pretty much ran my scheme of maneuver. Often I had simple graphics that I could use for a given mission which helped me on the ground (yes, I brought this thing with me on missions).

This is definitely something I’ll take with me on deployment. I’d like to refine it, though. I actually didn’t use a lot of the weapons data – so I might modify what I put on that front piece – maybe planning info? I’d also like to find a way to stow this thing on my gear without needing an assault pack. I’m not sure what that would be – maybe a D-ring attached to it? I don’t know.

Anyway. It’s a good tool and I’m happy to share it with you.

Instructions:

1. Tape the edges of the plexiglass first.
2. Use a piece of 100 MPH tape to connect the pieces of plexiglass together, ensuring you leave enough space so that it will close on itself.
3. With the fourth piece of plexiglass, tape it to the top (or bottom) of the middle piece so that you have the ability to insert a map or graphics. You can also place extra pieces of transparency paper inside of this space to keep until you need to use it. Use a binder clip to keep it closed.
4. Place a piece of white paper on one of the boards and tape it down, and then place a piece of transparency paper over it and tape that down – this provides you a space to write/draw on.
5. Use one side to tape down relevant data – I chose weapon system information, engagement area development, and call for fire information.
6. On the backside, tape in a pouch to store markers, protractors, and whatever else you want to store.

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PowerPoint is a Crutch

Or rather, it can be.

Once every couple of years, someone writes about how terrible PowerPoint is for the military. And then a counter argument is written about how PowerPoint isn’t the problem, it’s the way we use it that’s the problem.

We gnash our teeth and it gives us something to talk about around the water cooler for a few days before it disappears again.

In the past, I found myself getting annoyed at the idea that PowerPoint itself was a problem. I’ve always been of the mind that if used effectively, it can compliment briefing and teaching. I still believe that.

There are two recent incidents, however, that have challenged that belief, and I’m starting to move towards the ‘PowerPoint is bad’ camp.

A few weeks ago I was charged with running a rifle marksmanship range and needed to develop a concept of the operation, or CONOP (much more on that here). What I really needed to do was develop a plan – the no shit, how am I going to execute this?

The unofficial gold standard is the “one-slider.” That is, a single PowerPoint slide jammed with information that lays out, in general terms, what is supposed to happen. ‘One-slider’ isn’t a doctrinal term, but everyone knows what it is.

Step One : Look to see if this has been done before – does an old version of that ‘one-slider’ exist? If so, is it still relevant? Can it be modified?

A ridiculous amount of time can be spent searching for a 90% product to ease the pain of having to build your own.  Often, a 90% solution could have been created if one went straight to planning and executing instead of foraging.

In my case, I had about a 50% solution and had to build the rest. As I was building my ‘one-slider,’ I wondered:

“If I didn’t have PowerPoint, how would I do this?”

There aren’t many folks left at the Company-level who can answer that question anymore. Those folks are the ones who served in the military pre-9/11, when email wasn’t that big of a thing and people sent runners all day to do their communicating. The “sharedrive” was a filing cabinet and no one would leave work unless there was already a timeline for the next day – soldiers wouldn’t be getting any late night text messages with that information because text messages didn’t exist yet.

The right answer, as it turns out, is the operations order (OPORD) in a written format. Or if the intent really was to deliver a simple concept, then maybe I could physically write out what I intended on accomplishing on a single sheet of paper, neatly.

The point is, the presentation tool we use has a significant effect on how we plan (or fail to plan). And as MG(P) McMaster said, “…it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control.”

The second thing that happened, or rather, hasn’t happened, is a class that I’ve been wanting to pitch for a couple of weeks now simply because I haven’t built a slide deck. I’ve attended so many briefings and classes in the military and civilian world given with beautifully crafted, colorful slides – some with animation – that they have affected the way that I envision myself briefing or instructing. My vision, of standing up in a darkened theater with gorgeous, simple slides seamlessly transitioning behind me to a riveted audience before I deliver “one, more, thing,” weighs on my mind as I delay – again – beginning the process of building that slide deck for a short class. I need to spend time building the slides, making sure they’re relevant, using the correct graphics, and then finding a projector, a screen, and a room big enough to fit the participants.

Meanwhile, the nature of the class is such that it can be pitched under a tree with a couple of 3 x 5 cards as notes – just as effectively.

I suspect that part of the allure of PowerPoint is that is can be saved and it is forever. Once I’ve created a good ‘one-slider’ I can go back to it and swap out some details and be done with it. No real planning has occurred, but it briefs well. Likewise, there is no “digital record” of the class I wanted to pitch if I did it under a tree with 3 x 5 cards. No slide-deck to send around. Just my good word that I did it. And if I wanted to do it again, I’d have to save the notes. Yikes.

So while I haven’t completely abandoned camp and deleted my copies of PowerPoint, I’m more mindful now when I am using it or feel compelled to use it. If I have to brief or instruct and I instinctively reach for a slide-deck,  I now ask myself if this needs to be briefed on PowerPoint (and who said so), and if so, what are my constraints, or am I creating my own?

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