Physically and Mentally Refreshed

Last week, lots of folks were celebrating the seven-year anniversary of Metal Gear Solid V.

When I first played MGSV, I hadn’t touched a game in the series since MGS2 when it originally came out, and I never finished it.

So when I jumped into MGSV, there were a lot of holes in the plot for me. Most of the time, I had very little idea as to what was going on.

But I quickly became obsessed and played until I reached 100%.

At the same time, the unit I was in was spending a lot of time in the field. In the field, you tend to get dirty. And sweaty. The whole thing is generally uncomfortable.

But it’s not just an issue of comfort. Hygiene and cleanliness are important aspects of a healthy military force.

Which is why the shower on Mother Base was so intriguing to me.

After each mission, I always went to the shower. I was out there, in either Afghanistan or Africa, crawling around, running, sweating, getting blood everywhere… it only makes sense to shower when you get back.

There’s something about the sound of the shower in the game, the dripping, and the echo, that made it seem very real.

The game inspired me to purchase a field shower – which I had seen on deployments before but never used myself. I bought one from Amazon, packed it in my ruck for a field problem, but never actually used it (I still have it).

As I’ve written before, the game has a way of hitting people in different ways. This was one small way for me, and I haven’t seen the sentiment shared anywhere else.


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You are your culminating exercise

That was a comment made during a recent Pineland Underground episode.

And it strikes me as true.

When a military school is good, the culminating exercise brings it all together.

If it falls short, it might be worth relooking.


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The Command Post is Dead

soldiers in a tank from the animatrix

Great podcast episode (and article full of references) over at Mad Scientist Laboratory. This one on the command post of the future.

Today’s centralized command posts are incredibly vulnerable to enemy fire, while “Command Posts-in-Sanctuary” — those out of reach of adversary strikes — are limited by communications capabilities. To find an appropriate middle ground, we should adopt decentralized, mobile command posts that can support command and control and mask their locations and communications.

410. Sooner Than We Think: Command Post Survivability and Future Threats

Tell me – why do we need to have a command post these days?

I’m not sure that we do. We need to get much more comfortable operating decentralized. Leaders (commanders) need to give clear guidance and intent. They also need to be out there, on the ground.

They don’t need a big screen to look at.

But if they do want to look at the big screen, it will be in augmented reality, via headset, while on the move in their vehicle.

And these skills need to be trained. By going to the field. For more than three days at a time.


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How important is culture training, anyway?

afghanistan shura meeting culture

I was excited for this episode on the importance (or un-importance) of cultural training / cultural awareness in military operations.

Just like the information operations episode – which I wanted to dislike – this one nailed it.

It has become axiomatic that cultural intelligence is key to success in counterinsurgency operations. But is it? This episode examines this assumption—is the cultural training we receive in the military indeed the linchpin to success, or is it a red herring, even a harmful distractor, in the absence of coherent strategy? Why does cultural awareness tend to be absent at the strategic level, and does this really matter? As with much of the questions we discuss on the Irregular Warfare Podcast, the answers are by no means simple—but are important for both policymakers and practitioners to understand.

COIN AND CULTURE: HOW IMPORTANT IS CULTURAL INTELLIGENCE IN COUNTERINSURGENCY? Irregular Warfare Podcast

Cultural training has become an obsessive topic for me over the past few years. I have conflicting feelings.

On the one hand, it seems like cultural training – and especially language training – should play an important role in military operations. Knowing your adversary and the environment in which you might be operating is a no-brainer. The ability to understand what is being said and the writing on the wall will also help.

On the other hand, does that knowledge actually lead to any tangible wins? To develop the linguistic and cultural understanding we’re talking about – beyond the Wikipedia level knowledge – takes years and years of work. Is that juice worth the squeeze?

That’s what this episodes explores.

On the way military leaders treat cultural training as a “secret sauce” to achieving success:

[according to military leaders]…cultural intelligence was key to the success of counterinsurgency, or any intervention when you’re fighting wars amongst the people, and it’s held almost to be like some secret sauce – you get this understanding of the environment, you understand the people, and then you can exert influence and achieve your objective.

Dr. Christian Tripodi, ~7:00

Few people will push back against a senior leader saying “we need to understand the language and we need to understand the culture.” Yes, of course, that sounds good.

But why? Does it actually work? Can we demonstrate where this understanding meant something?

On politics as culture:

…politics – which is hugely important – and is the war-winning aspect of the whole shebang… Military actors become political actors and they are thrown into a deeply complex political environment and they are asked to become part of that environment…

Dr. Christian Tripodi, ~11:30

We tend to think about culture as the squishy things – the little rituals and norms of a society. Placing your hand over your heart after greeting, understanding differences in spatial boundaries, etc. But politics is a huge element of culture and one we tend to place in a different bucket altogether.

Think of the United States – our politics is part of the culture. How do you even begin to explain the way politics work in the US without roping in all of the cultural influences we see at play? They are deepy interconnected.

“We’re trying to be culturally aware, but we don’t like your culture!”

Sir Simon Mayall, ~15:30

This was a great portion of the episode which gets into how we “mess up” culture all the time. Sir Mayall uses an anecdote that demonstrates how we can get culture wrong at the organizational level by doing things which may make us feel good and demonstrate our cultural leanings but has harmful effects on the operational environment.

And of course, we see this all the time at the individual level. The GWOT is rife with examples. There’s a good anecdote from the end of the foreign fighters episode which illustrates this, as well.

On the military-centrism of applied counter-insurgency:

Western military professionals respond to counter-insurgency in very particular ways. They interpret it initially as a small version of “big war,” so they devote a primarily military response to addressing that… when they realize that only gets them as far as a stalemate because military primacy only matters to a certain degree in COIN, they incorporate some other methods, some population-centric methods, they engage with the locals, build some schools, build some hospitals, but they never divert far from their preferred mode of operation which is essentially the application of the compellence of force.

Dr. Christian Tripodi, ~19:30

It’s not going to matter – even if you’re Lawrence of Arabia:

Even if we had units who were fully culturally aware – they spent years immersing in this… it’s just too complex with local politics, for even the best-intentioned, best-informed external actor to ever fully-understand what they’re getting enmeshed in…

Kyle Atwell, ~20:00

This is the push back we don’t see very often, and it’s accurate. There is value in cultural knowledge, but it is not going to win the war. It might make things run a little more smoothly, and it might reduce the risk of a strategic faux pas, but that’s pretty much it.

Now, there is an argument to be made for integrating cultural understanding in the strategy that informs campaigns and operations. In many ways, that’s a more difficult proposition.

But in terms of the way we typically discuss it – training individuals and units on culture – all of this seems pretty dismal, no?

So at the end of the day, should we even being doing this culture stuff?

The simple answer is yes.

Sir Simon Mayall, ~40:00

Yes, it’s worthwhile. There’s a role for it. And it’s acutally important.

But the complicated answer is yes, we should train this stuff, but don’t expect it to win you any wars.

That’s just sorcery.


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Future Warfare Attributes

mass effect female warrior

I love this slide.

These are the types of attributes we want in our leaders to be effective in future war.

I don’t think anyone would argue against them. Would love to know the story about how these were decided on.

But boy! What an ask!

Is our system designed to select for these types of attributes? Or to train them?

Unfortunately, I think the answer is a resounding no.

How do we fix that? Is it even fixable? Are we asking too much?

Worth thinking about.

  • Nonlinear thinking – Understanding, working with, and making predictions using complex, asynchronous ideas and patterns over time and space.
  • Strategic patience/inaction – Willingness and ability to inhibit action and tolerate ambiguity in order to be able to act decisively at the right moment in order to increase the effectiveness of action.
  • Fast cognitive fusion – Analyzing, synthesizing, and making decisions based on high volume, high velocity, multisource information in order to monitor, understand, and direct multiple, interdependent, semi-autonomous units and systems.
  • Inductive/abductive reasoned action – Ability to observe, analyze, and willingness to act on partial information in the environmnet, drawing inferences about generalized rules and patterns (inductive) or likeliest cause-effect relationships (abducitve) given data observed.
  • Technological fluency – Ability to comprehend and control multiple, integrated semi-autonmous technological systems and evaluate and integrate multiple information streams from battlefield sensors, cyber, etc. to effectively operate these systems.
  • Psychophysiological durability – Physical, psychological, and cognitive robustness, endurance, self-awareness, and self-management in the face of the prolonged stresses of extended, autonomous operatoins and exteme stresses of extended high-intensity combat.
  • Teamwork development and synchronicity – Ability and willingness to rapidly develop and sustain strong teamwork onds and working relationships to be effective in dynamic, extended combat operations.
  • Complex spatial awareness and visualization – Developing and sustaining awareness and visualization of spatial relationships and movements in complex three dimensional, subterranean, and urban environments.
  • Predictive social reasoning – The ability to understand and predict the perspective and likely perception of actions/activities by other groups and individuals in order to enhance the effectiveness of combined/synchronized cross-domain actions.

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Picking up brass with a Green Beret

soldiers picking up shell casings while wearing gloves

The first time I met someone from special forces was on a MOUT site at Fort Bragg back when I was a Private. We were the OPFOR for some green berets.

They had simunitions, we had paintballs.

There are three things I remember about that training:

  1. They were good – all of their movements were crisp and professional (I kept getting shot before I event saw anyone)
  2. They were older – like, way older. I was probably 19 at the time. They all looked to be in their mid-30s or early 40s.
  3. They were humble – story below.

At the end of one of the training days, we were under the stars with white lights picking up brass from the exercise. We had a platoon of infantrymen from the 82nd there, but every member of the SF team was out there picking up brass with us.

I remember plucking brass off of the concrete and dropping it into my helmet while a Segreant First Class next to me told me about Special Forces, the training, and the mission. He told me about the different schools he hasd gone to. He told me how he speaks a foreign language as a job requirement. He told me about trips to South America and working with partners.

All of that was cool, but it’s not what struck me.

The thing that struck me was the fact that he was out there picking up brass. He wasn’t above it. It displayed a professional maturity I wasn’t accustomed to yet – my experiences to date had been infantry training and being a new soldier in the 82nd.

Picking up brass was something privates did while the platoon leadership waited.

This was something different.

Something to admire.


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All the reasons we’re bad at irregular warfare

soldiers talking to civilians
Image Source: army.mil

The Irregular Warfare Initiative is back on its game and recently released episode 33 (AN UN-AMERICAN WAY OF WAR: WHY THE UNITED STATES FAILS AT IRREGULAR WARFARE).

Incidentally, they just released episode 34 as well (CHINA’S STRATEGICALLY IRREGULAR APPROACH: THE ART OF THE GRAY ZONE).

I haven’t listened to the latter yet, but I’m willing to bet it will feature a discussion about how sly and cunning the Chinese are at IW (as opposed to the US).

I’ll say up front that the reason our adversaries rely on irregular warfare is because they have to — they really don’t have many other options.

And the reason they’re “good” at it is because they are not constrained by the same moral/ethical/legal boundaries that we are.

They’ll weaponize anything.

They also don’t have to contend with the political ramifications – as we do – of foreign exploits because of the authoritarian nature of their governments.

This doesn’t mean that we’re “not good” at IW, it just means we have to work a whole lot harder.

On to the podcast.

There were some great points made in the epsidoe and areas worth exploring further. These indlcude:

  • We never fight the war we want (tanks/troops in the open, fire for effect)
  • The difficulty training for irregular warfare (a day in the field represents a month 🤦‍♂️)
  • An argument to send military “observers” to other nations/conflicts to build knowledge
  • How personnel systems lose wars (this one is so true – and needs to more attention)
  • The importance of language skills for SOF personnel
  • The fact that SOF is and should be the primary actor in GPC – competing in the gray zone prior to conflict

Finally, towards the end there is a question posed as to what SOF should look like in IW. I’d offer it looks like a lot of things, but one of those is highly trained SF/CA/PSYOP forces out there doing there jobs. It’s the investment in human capital, not impressive tech, that will move the needle.


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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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VR gaming to combat suicide

I love this.

“The unique part of this VR training is that it’s voice-activated, so you’re required to say things out loud that maybe you’ve never had to say before,” said Master Sgt. Shawn Dougherty, a VR training facilitator at Travis, in a press release. “Actually saying phrases like ‘do you have a gun in the house’ or ‘are you thinking about harming yourself.’ We’ve seen over this week, even with squadron leadership, saying uncomfortable phrases like that, they actually say them quieter than other phrases that they’re more comfortable with. “ Dougherty said the training is helpful because it allows airmen to “get those reps” asking those questions so that they are more familiar if they have to ask them in a real-life situation.

The Air Force is using virtual reality to try to stop its suicide epidemic

This, in my opinion, is way better than simply being on the receiving end of another suicide awareness brief. Gaming has a role in training.

This generation is a generation of gamers. We have the tools and the technology to be more interactive. This is a step in the right direction.

Reps, reps, and more reps.


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Nothing frightens me more than crossing Range Operations

soldiers picking up shell casings while wearing gloves
Soldiers pick up brass 7.62 mm shell casings after a qualification range event on Camp Atterbury, Ind., Nov. 6, 2015. U.S. Army photo by Master Sgt. Michel Sauret (link)

You’re a company commander. You spent the entire year training your company on their mission essential tasks. You developed, wrote, and published a solid unit training plan that methodically trained the inidividual and collective tasks of everyone in the unit.

You’re nearing the end of your command and it’s time for the big event – the culminating exercise that you’ve been working towards. The one you’ve been telling everyone about. The one who naysayers laughed off as too complex. You have enablers and units participating from outside of your organization. You invited your leadership (and their leadership) to observe and provide guidance.

It’s all perfect.

You get out there, you’re on the ground, and things seem to be happening. You occupy the land, tents and antenna are going up, soldiers are laughing and working – spirits are up and everything is coming together.

You suddenly get a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach.

Did we tell range control about this? Did we reserve this land?

You shake it off. The enthusiasm of the soldiers is evident. They’re excited for the training. Some of the external enablers start showing up and shake your hand with a big grin, excited to be part of this training.

You check the map. Are we even in a training area?

Is this… a golf course?

You realize that none of this has been done the right way. Somehow, you forgot to reserve the training area (typically done at least three months out) or coordinate with range operations to occupy and conduct training.

You wonder, should I tell anyone? The soldiers look so enthusiastic. How embarressing would it be to tell everyone that you messed up and we have to pack it up and go home. Should you even call range control? You’re supposed to be out here for a week.

Maybe no one will notice?

This isn’t real. This was a stupid nightmare I had the other night. 

Training anywhere is mired in administrative minutiae – mostly for good reason – safety and scheduling. It is very easy to miss a key requirement which could tank a training plan.

There’s something about being exposed to administrative heat and light over time that can make you intrinsically fearful of that wrath. More so than anything “real.”

Advice I’ve always lived by is “the fastest way through a dense bureaucracy is directly through it.” That is, don’t try to find the short cut or go around it. Just do the work right and do it early. It’s (usually) faster.

The stress of administrative mistakes is a real thing. Maybe it’s related to high allostatic load.


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