Monday, December 10, 2012

Not Very Pret-y

Let me qualify this post in several ways; first, I am not a huge Tom Ricks fan - I find that his default setting is way too often "stenographer for guys with cool guns" - and, second, that Ricks himself states in the article that his information appears preliminary and fragmentary.

That said, back in November Ricks posted this article to his blog, his lead being that the 2nd Cavalry Regiment (Stryker) was reamed in an Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL) collection report for its performance at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center (JMRC) in October 2012.
I am also not familiar with JMRC, but I am guessing from both its designation as a Readiness Center, and the exercise that the 2CR participated in, that it is the USAEUR equivalent of the National Training Center (NTC), where maneuver units are evaluated for their ability to perform their core tasks to Army standard.

The original CALL document is worth a glimpse for the unsurprising conclusion that 2CR's conventional warfighting skills have...shall we say, slipped a trifle in the past decade they've spent chasing raggedy-assed muj around the less-paved parts of southwest Asia?
What is most dispiriting to me as a sergeant, though, are some of the first observations that CALL team made of 2CR. This wasn't some sort of minor slippage of high-speed mad supertrooper skilz we're talking about here. Some of total fails on the 10- and 20- level tasks the evaluators dinged 2CR elements for included:

- Priorities of work for occupying a position are not established or adhered to.
- Sleeping areas established prior to preparation of fighting positions.
- Vehicles, fighting positions, CP’s, and tents not camouflaged.
- Field sanitation standards not enforced, Soldiers defecating randomly on top of the ground in unit positions.
- Range cards not prepared or inaccurate.
- Lack of uniform and personal hygiene standards.
- A lack of small unit leadership and on the spot corrections.

Read the CALL document; trust me, things get worse at the higher levels. It sounds like resupply, troop discipline, planning and training, medevac, commo, and TOC operations (among others) were fucked up like a football bat. These guys sound completely ate up, and if you read the whole thing it sounds like the 2ACR is a really effed-up unit.

But what it's NOT?

What if the problem with the higher-level tasks isn't the unit but, rather, what it's been training to do and doing for the past decade.

Here's the commander of the JMRC as quoted by Ricks:
"...the actions reflective of Soldiers who have operated in a COIN only environment over the past several years, and a training environment designed to challenge leaders at multiple levels."
Emphasis mine.


I'm willing to cut these guys some slack on the higher-level tasks. I can well understand that going from being coiffed in a FOB for a 12-month rotation to having to figure out how to work a jump TOC and retrans sites and ambulance transfer points doesn't happen overnight.

But, c'mon; stuff like priorities of work? Camo? Laying out the fartsacks before digging ranger graves? Casually shitting all over your positions like a herd of cows?

That ain't rocket science. That's a bunch of sergeants not doing their fucking jobs.

You've all heard me lament the damage done to my branch, the Field Artillery, by these pestiferous little wars we've been enjoying over the past ten years. Now this little bit of bad news makes me wonder - what ELSE the Army has been doing to itself while the Nation has been out Shopping for Victory and Supporting the Troops?

Shitting at random inside your own positions, boys?


  1. I would hope and expect that the Army uses these exercises as training opportunities rather than strictly as career-ending unit evals. And I wonder how much time they had to prepare?

    But I would primarily give some remedial instruction to the Commanders and S-3s. They set the tone. And that tone seems to have been lackadaisical. Maybe they thought they would get a pass.

    "Commanders and command sergeant majors tethered to command posts, rarely visiting subordinate units." Sounds like they did not trust their own staff in the CP? Or were they just too warm and comfy in front of a stove?

    "Senior NCOs didn't understand their role in sustainment. Logistics and medical evacuation of the wounded also stunk." What no blame for the S-4 shop? Apparently no prior planning at all was done for this exercise. And probaly no pre-EXs.

    "Units are so reliant on digital connectivity that when it was down, it resulted in a "total loss of situational awareness of operations." This is a major problem that has been around for a long, long time. It needs to be fixed. Back in the 70s during post-Vietnam field exercises our Battalion Sergeant Major loved to shut command post generator down during critical moments. Took us a while to finally get the message - carry on with the mission even if you have to resort to WW-1 methods. The problem today is much bigger with the huge amount of susceptible electronics.

    Regarding slit trenches: hopefully the Regimental and Battalion Sergeants Major have already held a Saturday potty training demonstration by the responsible NCOs. And maybe a wall of shame is needed in some company ready rooms.

  2. Chief,

    Having seen both ends of these sorts of exercises, I can tell you I'm not terribly thrilled about what will happen if/when the US Army faces someone as competent as the US Army.

    My favorite exercise "mishap" happened during Urban Ops when a section sergeant sent his whole squad into a funnel two at a time. Each fire team got slightly closer to their objective, but not even close enough. The best part was when he was through his entire squad, he tried telling the next squad to go through, and they almost did it; before the entire exercise got stopped by the evaluators. The platoon apparently hadn't been issued 'grenades' for the exercise, so, you know, go in head first.

    Seriously, things you'd never think should happen go down in these exercises, and in my opinion, its important that this sort of stuff happens so people realize how shitty they actually are at their job. If an insurgent team (of 2) can overrun a tank company's COP and commandeer a M-1's co-ax, then, well, maybe things have gotten pretty bad. But it's bad everywhere.

    On the plus side, US soldiers, after a few months in Iraq or Afghanistan make some really nasty insurgents.

    Seriously, though, NO ONE does well at these things that I've ever heard of. It's not really designed for that. Every once in a while a report surfaces and people get bent out of shape before returning to do nothing land, but the reality is that the Brigades share a pretty equivalent level of incompetence in that they all suck and are all doing ok at the same time.

    But chief, outside of the light world, no one's setting up jump TOCs, although with the Army moving towards FSO (Full Spectrum Operations) training, it's being stressed to a greater degree than before.

    PF Khans

  3. Chief,
    Pls note that the dig pic you used are not US soldiers.
    They appear to be Brits.
    If the US military had a real opponent like a hard core NVA regt. things would need to tighten up fast or things would go south in a NY minute.
    I wonder if students in Ranger School are still required to dig in every time they stop for a period of time.?

  4. I did not read the full report but the deficiencies noted can't be related to having fought in COIN style. Wrong priorities of work, failing to cam up or dig in, random crapping on the position, leaders barking nonsense out the door of the CP - these are all failures of leadership that are dangerous no matter what the unit has been doing, and seem always to arise no matter what the unit has been doing anyway (read some of the comments to Ricks' post about how the same sort of things happened in Germany, or before/after deployment to Bosnia).
    We all know that an Army stands or falls on its junior leadership, NCOs especially - and it's precisely this sector of the Army that has suffered a lot over the last few years. Sergeants and junior officers get out rather than go on their fifth deployment in seven years, to be replaced by promising-looking privates and corporals who may or may not live up to the stripes they were given almost out of necessity. The same thing happened in the latter years of Vietnam with the "shake n bake" sergeants; the difference was that there were still a lot of good long-term NCOs for them to emulate and be mentored by.

  5. That was what really burned my biscuits, guys; this doesn't seem to me to be an issue of what kind of war these guys were fighting in the tules; it was a simple failure of front-line leadership; team leaders, squad leaders, and platoon sergeants. This is infantry-skills 101 like it's been done since Christ was a corporal.

    I get that the collective tasks and especially the leadership tasks are ate up; they always were when we went to NTC or JRTC. Units tend to take shortcuts in the real world unless there's a real enemy (and a real enemy in jim's sense, not a bunch of ragged gomers with a homemade bomb or three) to make you pay for fucking up. Part of the point of these Training Center rotations is to catch just that sort of stuff.

    But back in my day the cavs were among the most STRAC guys in the service. The 11ACR, the Blackhorse, the Border Cav, took pride that they had to be hardcore because of their position right on the intra-German border. The Cav looked at themselves compared to the regular armored divisions like the airborne did next to the straight-leg divisions; as the elite, the best at what they did.

    Reading that attention-to-detail 10-level shit was this screwed up makes my old platoon sergeant blood boil. How DARE they let my Army get that screwed?

  6. Oh, and those ARE Brits, jim. I just liked the sign that Snuffy made to remind his officers who does all the digging...

  7. Great shades of Kipling and the stanza from "The Eathen" where he says: 'the backbone of the Army is the non-commissioned man!' Or did he get it from Frederick the Great - I am not sure who said it first?? Maybe Julius Ceasar said it of the 'chosen' men of his legions.

    In any case I do not believe the ultimate responsibility here was with the failure of leadership by 'team leaders, squad leaders and sergeants'. Those small unit leaders take their guidance from Lieutenants and Sergeants Major. And this reader audience know perfectly well where those JO's and senior noncoms get their guidance.

    The company commanders and the field grades and the Colonel himself are the ones responsible. Chief Petty Officers don't run a tight ship, the Captain does. The same goes for Cavalry Regiments.

  8. mike: True, the commander can delegate authority but not responsibility. But these guys are supposed to be professional soldiers and long-service NCOs. If for no other reason their own pride and their pride in their outfit should have ensured that these troop-level failures never should have happened.

    Agree that this reflects very badly on the officers commanding this outfit and its elements. But the pride of the U.S. Army - at least when I was on active service - was that we had an NCO Corps capable of performing these troop-leading tasks. We sneered at the Soviets because supposedly their officers had to do everything; their NCOs were a bunch of sad sacks incapable of leading four privates to a latrine.

    I'm glad SGM Plumly died before he could read about this. He'd have been furious, or sickened, or both...

  9. Did the Regimental CO and his lower level commander[s] delegate the authority to get this unit ready for the eval? Or were they just "barking nonsense out the door of the CP" as Brian says? I vote with Brian.

    And why are we assuming that the 2nd Cav squad leaders and platoon sergeants are "long-service"?

    I think Brian's comment above regarding promising-looking privates and corporals who may or may not live up to the stripes they were given almost out of necessity is closer to the truth. These young sergeants were playing Prince-of-the-Kaserne because they had no idea of what troop leading tasks they needed to focus on. They needed some direction. Blame the 1st Shirts and Sergeants Major if you wish. But those senior NCOs needed some head shaping also.

  10. FDChief: "This is infantry-skills 101 like it's been done since Christ was a corporal."

    Actually, Chief, many of these are volatile skills, many of which are lost by being performed by civilian contractors. I discussed this some 15 years ago with a group of retired senior officers. In short, the consensus was:

    Before contracting, a leader was responsible not just for tactical and technical proficiency of his unit, but the very basics of their life. This responsibility was held both in garrison and in the field. He fed them, clothed them, provided them sanitation, or at least insured that these essentials were looked after. We used the local Naval Air Station as an example of how these command responsibilities were being taken off a leader's shoulders, as family housing was about to become transferred to a civilian contractor. When it was Navy Housing, a leader had a chain of command connection to the quality (or lack thereof) of family housing. It was about to become a commercial relationship, access to which is outside the realm of those in uniform. Mess and logistics had already gone down this road. In short, where support services were once a leader's responsibility, it had become "Pure F--ing Magic", done by an outside "Merlin the Magician".

    If a leader no longer has to think about these basics on a daily basis, he will need significant retraining to think about them when in the field without "Merlin". After all, in Afghanistan and Iraq, sanitary facilities just "were there".

    An age old saw was, "Train the way you will fight and fight the way you trained." Training isn't just exercises, but experience gained in operations, and our Army just isn't being subjected to a small unit leader having to determine, for example, where and how his troops should shit anymore, except in the one off rotation to a training center, where there isn't a Halliburton to set up Port-a-Potties. Probably, for many of these leaders, field sanitation was nothing more than an abstract.

    The same goes for the impact of COIN on commanders. There is a huge difference between maneuvering a regiment and managing one conducting COIN. The "good habits" of command in COIN are "bad habits" in conventional maneuver.

    Now, the tactical and technical "bad" habits may be relatively easy to address. What really worried the group of us mentioned above is the divorcing of command from essential support services that are now contracted out. While Goldman Sachs and WalMart can leave their employees to fend for themselves in terms of food, clothing and shelter, can an Army effectively do so? There is something almost "sacred" about the responsibility of command that is no where present in the corporate America that our contracting out tries to emulate. A commander's necessary "core competencies" and "responsibilities for the welfare of the troops" are vastly more far ranging than those of a private sector manager. Sluffing those responsibilities on a contractor is done at great peril.

  11. Al,
    The dichotomy is between Theater war and phony war.
    We have chosen phony as our guide post.
    I agree with your cmt.

  12. jim-

    Regardless of phony or not, the current employments of our maneuver forces are not in a maneuver environment. Collective training is vital to battlefield success, and the lack of maneuver experience or training is definitely taking its toll. Ask Chief about the skills lost when Arty units were being deployed repetitively as non-arty assets in Iraq, for example.

    However, the "outsourcing" of basic troop support functions is a totally separate issue, and began before the current love affair with COIN or a "phony war". We have a full generation of leaders with little or no experience in feeding, clothing and housing their troops. If they are not called upon to think about that on a daily basis, they are going to fail to think about it when under the stress of maneuver exercises, no less should they face a real deployment to maneuver warfare. The 3rd ID suffering ration shortages in Iraq comes quickly to mind.

  13. Al - Good points all. Where have you been hiding lately, is all well?

    Regarding 2nd Cav, I have been talking this over with one of my neighbors, a retired mechanized infantry MSgt from the Vietnam era, who has a nephew in a Stryker unit at Fort Lewis. I shared with him a copy of the JMRC Collection Report that FDChief linked to that gave details on the evaluation. His perspective below is admittedly pure speculation, but seems valid and on point.

    The Stryker AV itself, although new in service and well loved by the troops, is a maintenance headache. He opines that the entire work-up period to the JMRC exercise was used up in ensuring the vehicles were at 100% readiness. Therefore there was no time left on the training schedule to cover fieldcraft, ‘fighter management’ (a term he derides, me too), sustainment ops, et al.

    I told him it did not seem possible as the Stryker is less than ten years old. His rejoinder is: 1] Half of Strykers in service have had to be sent back to depot for rebuild (I am amazed why they need a rebuild so soon). 2] They are a complex system, not the engines which are a common diesel in the Army, but their digital comms, onboard computer(s) and other electronics, intricate hydraulic systems, etc. 3] While their drive trains may be simpler than the old M113 tracks, still 8X8 drive ain’t simple especially when it can be transferred back and forth between 8X8 and 8X4, and the weight of extra armor plate added on after fielding has not helped either. 4] Iraqi sand! 5] Up until now there has been no dedicated Stryker maintenance MOS – the first group of 20 were just recently graduated this year and all Stryker units are impacted. 6] There is a major effort now in the Army to upgrade a Stryker Maintenance Training System which has been found lacking. 6] All NCOs in Stryker units regardless of MOS are taking up the slack.

  14. Mike-

    Just returned home from three weeks visit to the States. All is well, here and there, except for a touch of jet lag here. ;-)

  15. Not surprising really, I've seen the same thing in the Air Force, though not to the same degree. Units are starting their readiness inspections again and many are failing for all the reasons cited here.

  16. Andy is spot on. It shouldn't come as a surprise.

    I would guess that if the Miami Dolphins were to practice and play only basketball for a year or two, they would have a bit of trouble being a contender in a football game. A maneuver regiment that does not practice or conduct maneuver for a few years would be in the same boat.

  17. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  18. Frankly, I think a lot of Senior NCO's are failing. There's an old joke that's gone around for the last 10 years that the only thing E-9's care about over in the sand box is whether you're wearing your reflective belt and proper PPE (personal protective equipment) on the base, fob, whatever. There's a lot of discipline going on, but IMO it's focused on the wrong stuff, like reflective belts.

    Now, there are a lot of good SNCO's out there too, taking care of their troops, mentoring, setting standards and holding people accountable to those standards. And I get that it's really important to "sweat the small stuff" and completely understand that a lot of little problems are usually a sign of much bigger problems.

    However, there's a lot of queep (warning, air force slang) that ends up displacing the important stuff. The tangible, easily quantified metrics become the highest priorities regardless of how important they actually are. There's an obsession with turning red and yellow boxes into green boxes on excel spreadsheets. In my reserve unit, the most important command item last week was fucking travel vouchers. The second most important was the mandatory computer-based training. CBT's ballooned over the past few years from a few basics to over 20 courses that must be completely annually. I suppose that's not a big deal to an active duty unit, but that's huge for a reserve unit.

    The new, "operational" reserve has managed to get by thanks to money to fund extra people coming in outside of monthly training and a lot of volunteerism to man deployments. The money is already gone and the volunteerism will go once the economy turns around (assuming, of course, it actually does). I think the reserves will get hit especially hard, probably at a time when the services will lean on the reserve more and more due to the coming RIF's.

    Anyway, I'm rambling now, rant over.

  19. Andy

    While I can't speak for the budgetary process in your unit, by the nature of our mission, my brigade back when would have significant amounts of money tied up in open travel orders/vouchers. Until the vouchers were cleared, any and all unexpended obligations were unavailable for use. HOWEVER, the lead SNCO in the S-1 shop finally cancelled the travel orders for a CW4 who was 3 months behind on a given trip, even after several requests. He said that at his pay grade, the per diem wasn't important. His next paycheck was docked the price of the airline ticket for his return to home base after ferrying a helo to the depot for overhaul. Needless to say, he went ballistic, but came to BDE HQ, filled out a travel voucher and his orders were amended to reactivate them, to get his money back in the next pay period.

    Interestingly, virtually every member of the command suddenly decided to get their travel vouchers submitted as well, whether late or not, and submissions were timely for a good period thereafter!

  20. Al: Point well taken. I was just coming off RA in the late Eighties as the mess sections were converting from the old GP Large-housed field kitchens to the MKT kitchen trailer and lots of hot A's and even B-rations were being replaced by the "T-rats"; prepackaged aluminum food trays that were simply heated rather than cooked. By the early Nineties a lot of RA units we worked with when I was in the AR didn't really HAVE a mess section; they had a Mess Sergeant (by that time often an E-6 or even E-5) and a couple of "cooks" whose jobs involved lighting the MKT burners and sliding in tray packs...

    From there I understand that a hell of a lot of CSS functions have been outsourced, so I suppose that it shouldn't have surprised me that the maneuver units have lost these skills...

    Still - is that something we really want?

    What this made me think of was the preceding post where we did some arm-waving about China and the possibility for a naval engagement in the Far East. And I got to thinking about the implications of the U.S. having to fight a genuine blue-water naval war, the first since 1945, and thinking "Y'know, the single biggest change since then has been the complete disappearance of the U.S. Merchant Marine..."

    Can you imagine trying to organize a "convoy" to deliver munitions and machine parts to the PI or Taiwan out of a gaggle of contract merchies, 95% of whom are crewed by Sri Lankan or Javanese lascars?


  21. Andy: I think that this CALL document definately points out the problems in at least this unit's NCO corps. The old saying was "A unit only does well the things the commander checks" - which is mike's point about the higher-up failings - and I've seen this in action, too. A unit gets evaluated on, say, pure strength numbers. And the commander makes it clear that what's important to him is having those MTO&E slots filled if it means retaining every gimp, wheezer, idiot, and doofus.

    So the unit ends up with these CatIVs and suffers...

    Same-same with critical tactical tasks. When the commander doesn't make it clear that his subordinates are expected to know how to do even the things that the contractors do for them, they won't. Human nature and all...

    The hellish thing is that it's SO much easier to lose these skills than to regain them. And with the expected RIF coming, as you point out...


  22. Al,

    The problem with the reserves is that we are held to the same administrative "standards." The rules clearly say that vouchers must be submitted within five days after the end of travel. Problem is, there aren't paper vouchers anymore, they're done only on a centralized computer system. And to access this system you need your DoD CAC card, a reader for the card, software for the card reader on a computer that is compatible with the software. Oh, and you need a scanner as well to digitize the required receipts.

    Depending on the orders and the nature of the TDY a reservist may not have access to a government computer and scanner to file the voucher before they are at their home of record. Or they may not have all their receipts yet, so they can't file. So, right from the start, they are not able to file in five days because no access to the voucher system at home (some do have access, but many do not). So they come in on the next UTA in a few weeks time and it's already overdue. So, let's say they file it on their UTA, which is always a weekend. It's not adjudicated until the next week because, of course, the finance people at the central facility don't work weekends (and even if they did, it takes a few days to process). If there are any errors the voucher gets kicked back. Problem is, can't be fixed by anyone except the reservist, so it waits until the reservist comes in a month later. So now they are 60 days overdue. Multiply this over an organization of almost 2000 people and there are a lot of overdue vouchers. We have no power to fix this problem.

    Here's another example. For intelligence personnel according to our regulations new personnel arrive at the unit have to be mission qualified by a certain date after joining the unit. For active duty, this is 45 days. Reservists have a year. Sounds fair until you consider that "one year" is actually 38 days for a reservist. And, unlike active duty, those 38 days won't be devoted to getting mission qualified - after all there is ancillary training, annual medical appointments, commander's calls, holiday partys, etc. on the UTA's. So we are lucky if we get half that time once all that other stuff is accounted for.

    There are systemic problems that create an endless stream of "crises du jour" because some General can't understand why there are constantly so many overdue vouchers, or why personnel aren't mission-qualified on schedule, or 100 other things according to the regs. The extra time spent detracts from actual wartime training. We've been able to paper-over the problems by bringing people in on orders, but there's no money for that now.

  23. Andy

    I understand the voucher problem. Automation has made many "housekeeping chores" more onerous, for the very reasons you cite for TDY voucher processing. AND, the immediate availability of status info makes the resulting immediate "follow up" a PITA, as you are getting dinged in 5 days versus the 90 days in the example I gave. The system in the anecdote I offered was automated at the BDE level, but used paper voucher submission, so any troopie could do the work at home at their leisure. We set 15 days after completion of travel for AC troops and 30 for RC (we had some RC assets under our budget umbrella). That was good enough to manage our budget quite precisely - and far better than waiting for budget reports from 3rd Army. BTW, the software package we used was actually written by a Reservist in his "spare time", and was one of the first ever approved for use by the Army.

    That said, why a command need to clear unexecuted travel obligations in 5 days defies logic. My guess is because computers "allow" it.


    Many of the outsourced and "consolidated" support functions have been changed to such in the name of "efficiency". However, as one of my more superior grad school profs put it, "effectiveness must be achieved before efficiency can be addressed". In a way, it depends on what "category" we put mess and field sanitation into. In the case of the discussion I mentioned above, we considered such functions a "leader's responsibility", in that in a very close second to the "mission" is "the welfare of the troops". Yet we contract out that second "sacred" leader responsibility all too often, and it becomes "out of sight, out of mind". Thus, mess and field sanitation, for example, go off the mental checklist of tactical leaders. It's not that they are bad leaders, it's just that these functions are "normally" not their responsibility, UNTIL...... 97+% of the time, the question is, "Where are the Porta Potties?" (a contracting issue at echelons way above the tactical leader) not "Where in our position shall we locate the slit trenches?", an issue determined by the situation, and ranging from squad leader level on up. You can offer equivalent subjects across the whole range of support. The leader is no longer the provider of troop support, but a customer. Not sure, in the long run if these "efficiencies" lend to "effectiveness".