Sunday, June 7, 2009

Stick A Fork In My Soup...It's Done

I'll try to make this post coherent. I haven't reached the hallucinatory stage of sleep dep yet, but it's coming. If I start seeing Keebler Elves dangling off of my semi-colon key, I'll hang it up. As usual, I let Starbuck do most of the heavy lifting assembling links and literature while I'm out working my day/night job and he's on crew rest, or "manicure-pedicure time," or whatever Aviators are calling it these days. Starbuck pointed out a great article in SWJ by SFC Morgan Sheeran on COIN, COIN doctrine, and the joys of being on a Transition Team. I guess some of the frustrations of Transition Team guys are universal, cutting across space, time, and theaters of war. Starbuck and Sheeran both refer to the titanic struggle between the Army's intellectual pachyderms over the role of COIN in the Army's training and force structure paradigms. Some say the Army has not yet embraced the conduct of COIN as a core mission set, while others posit that we've gone too far in adopting the precepts of COIN and, as an Army, have failed in our responsibility be able to crush our enemies in a Big War. Starbuck and Sheeran both point out that as COIN has not been ensconced as a part of the Army's professional education system, we are probably too COIN-lite rather than COIN heavy.
The best instructive example for how the hidebound military missing the boat on COIN is Vietnam and The Ugly American. When I first read the book* I was struck by three things:
1. The State Department is still plagued by a lot of the problems ascribed to it in the book. Several years ago, I would've said that the DoS is still exactly as ineffective as it was in the book. However, in the last couple years I've been exposed to and worked with some DoS personnel who had a true ability to adroitly wield soft power.
2. The Department of Defense--or, if you will, the military culture-- is still plagued by a lot of the problems ascribed to it in the book. I would not have made this observation back when I was blaming everything on State, but that was before I was exposed to every level of the military bureaucracy and saw the sausage being made close up.
3. Most pertinent to this post, the book was a great primer on the type of war being fought in Vietnam (an insurgency, or national war of liberation) and the (COIN) strategy needed to defeat it. Now, the accusations of fighting the war in a totally inappropriate manner were levied against the French, as Lederer and Burdick published the book in 1958. So, for a full generation before the Vietnam war became the elephant in the room for the US, there was a viable roadmap available describing how to win Vietnam. And it's not like the US officer corps had never heard of the book or didn't get an opportunity to contemplate it's lessons; the book won a Pulitzer, for crying out loud. Heck, Marlon Brando starred in the movie, and this was back when he was still considered a mensch and wasn't doing photo shoots for adult magazines nuzzling nutsacks.
We've got a lot of really bright (and well read) officers and NCOs out there debating the breadth, depth, and efficacy of our COIN doctrine, and our ability to matriculate and execute a viable COIN strategy in our current conflicts. But bureaucracies are resistant to change. The military thinkers who complain that the formulators and executors of our current strategies are working in a vacuum are, themselves, working in a vacuum. A viable, enduring COIN capability can only be developed by implementing large changes across the entire spectrum of DOTLMS PF (Doctrine, Organization, Leadership Development, Materials, Personnel, and Facilities)--not just strategy, doctrine, or military education. This means that the entire military bureaucracy needs to be engaged, convinced, and modified. No easy task, but trying to institute change or develop a capability without engaging across the bureaucratic front will lead to fatally flawed initiatives.
External Transition Teams are a case study in a good idea poorly (or at least, not comprehensively) executed. All of SFC Sheeran's criticisms of the use and abuse of Transition Teams are accurate, and anyone who has spent a little time on a TT could probably add to the litany. External Transition Teams are (or were) a good idea, but they are going away. This is because the building and employment of Transition Teams contained flaws in the original concept that ultimately proved fatal, both to the mission and to the TT entity itself. The two primary flaws were a failure to factor in military culture and an incomplete mission analysis.
First, External TTs are just that, external. SFC Sheeran bemoans, what appears to the TT member, the willful ignorance of the Battlespace Owner on considerations of the proper employment of TTs in executing a COIN strategy. Let's not forget, though, that this guy is the Battlespace Owner, responsible for everything that happens, or fails to happen, within his battlespace. Now, he has foisted upon him TTs of unknown quality and character, possessing disparate strengths and weakness, composed of strangers to his unit that did not participate in the unit's pre-mission training, and who, by definition, run around in his battlespace as largely independant actors. Thus, TTs are often viewed as entities to be endured, rather than assets to be exploited. Also, whatever improvements any give TT generates within its partner unit, those improvements are going to be slow, incremental, and initially fragile. The unpredictability of the pace and quality of partner nation capability building does not lend itself to the one year road map with which the Battlespace Owner is going to hit the ground. Battlespace Owners are justifiably loathe to declare External TTs and the development of their partner units the main effort--even though in a COIN environment viable and effective partner nation units are the only long-term, sustainable success mechanism.
The failure in mission analysis, at the genesis of TT building and employment, stems from a lack of understanding of the Army/DOD bureaucracy. There is a holy trinity of mission accomplishment consisting of manpower, resources, and authorities. Failure to address any part of this trifecta will endanger the mission. This trinity is often transparent to members of Big Army units: the manpower is your unit, resources are the budget you get from higher, and your authorities are contained within the orders you are issued. Anything not covered gets pushed higher. With regard to its mission, manpower was the only dimension of the holy trinity addressed in the mission analysis for TTs, and that was done poorly.
TTs have personnel. However, these troops were culled throughout the force with little vetting. The personnel and force management pressures on the Army caused by multiple big unit rotations to CENTCOM means that the two primary selection criteria for service on a TT have been a pulse and respiration. A significant percentage of TT troopers are/were not volunteers. So, a unit designated to serve autonomously in the battlespace with often unproven partner nation units is to an extent composed of unqualified or unwilling members. This does not strike me as a recipe for success. TTs are expected employ judgment, maturity, and tactical acumen as they move and operate autonomously through the battlespace on thier mission. The slapdash manner of personnel selection has meant that the utility and proficiency of many TTs has been dependant on the assignment roster lottery. On a team as small as a TT, one or two toxic members can eviscerate the team's effectiveness. It does not seem improper to me for a battlespace owner to view TTs as elements that need to prove themselves before they become trusted agents.
As far as resources (above and beyond sustainment) and authorities: none, nada, zilch, sifr. A TT leader must go to the Battlespace Owner and have his projects racked and stacked with all the other competing priorities that the BO is staffing and adjudicating. How much of a priority does an external, suspect, semi-autonomous unit get, when whatever resources that are allocated for a TT are decremented from the battlespace owners own coffers? How many extra hours is the staff going to put in, slaving away on a TT initiative that is not guaranteed to yield tangible results in the near term? Yuh, I have so often run into staff officers who feel that they need to expand their horizons and find extra shit to do for units that do not reside on their line and block chart.
Training to achieve proficiency at COIN tasks is difficult because there is no "go" or "no-go." Most of the characteristics of a successful COIN practitioner are the results of years of training, operating, and experiential learning. Whether in a TT or in one of the new Brigade Advisory and Assistance Teams, it is difficult in the near-term to give the right guy the right tools and training to accomplish an often ill-defined mission. Three week jaunts to a CTC won't cut the mustard.
This brings me to the Gentile argument. I think that our military is exceedingly good at the big war "kill people and break things" mission set. It's what we do, we do it well, and the military is resistant to other, "peripheral" missions. But to use a martial arts analogy (who'd've thought?), it's relatively easy to kill somebody; doesn't take a whole lot of training, and technique and finesse is not necessarily required. What distinguishes a martial artist from a killer (and a COIN practitioner from a Big War GI Joe) is the ability to, under duress, maim rather than kill, to injure rather than maim, to hurt rather than injure, and finally, to talk rather than fight. Developing a martial artist requires the development within the fighter an comprehensive knowledge of the use of force, just as developing a COIN practitioner requires far more time, effort, and expense to deveop than a one-dimensional soldier whose responsiblities are limited to his wartime MOS duty performance. The Army has warfighting down pat; in most COIN environments the warfighter's frustrations stem in large part from the enemy's refusal to participate in a stand up fight. That we have strayed from or under-prioritized our charter to go to the far ends of the earth and dispense a liberal application of brute force to whomever needs a spanking is an observation that is, I think, invalid and inaccurate. However, we do need to study how best to select and train our troops to fight in ways that are not conventional slugfests.
Hmm. A requirement to identify, assess, select and then train soldiers for missions that aren't conventional and that require the soldier to operate in ambiguous situations with a high degree of autonomy. Gosh, it's a wonder we never identified this requirement before. Actually we have, and you probably know where I'm going with this.
If you want to know how to train troops for politically sensitive yet strategically important missions, how to nest the right personnel with the appropriate resources and requisite authorities into missions, and know how to guage how intransigent the military bureaucracy will be to acknowledging, supporting, and prosecuting the necessary DOTLMS PF changes to facilitate acquiring this capability, then look at the history and development of SOF--and, for the COIN mission, Army Special Forces. The DoD was unable and unwilling to support the radical change (the holistic approach that SFC Sheeran identifies) on its own. It took Congress to force DoD, through the 1987 Nunn-Cohen Amendment to the Goldwater-Nichols Act. Before that, the military adamantly refused to reform itself, redistribute its time honored equities, and to redress glaring lacks of capability above and beyond the normal Big War fighting requirements.
Whether COIN (in this post, I've used COIN universally; however, I'm pretty certain that I could make an argument that what we're really talking about here is FID) is going to be taken seriously as a DoD-wide requirement will depend on our big brain thinkers addressing and marketing DOTLMS PF-wide changes, and disrupting equities, and redefining where our centers of power and advancement are. Whether the military will be able to do that on its own, or needs to be forced, is yet to be seen. What is certain is that we will not have a functionally sound and reliable core (or corps) of Big Army COIN practioners until we do. Whether Big Army should be allowed--or forced--to create and support this mission, or whether it should reside within SOF is for another post. All I'm saying here is that Big Army has not done what needs to be done to quicken the production of these types of soldiers. And that the thinkers that spend time pondering whether and how we should cannot limit themselves to strategy and doctrine. If you don't engage and defeat the bureaucracy, those soldiers will never be forthcoming except by accident. And once we do get them, they'll probably all need haircuts all the time, anyway.

* Full disclosure: I'm not Mr. Army Professional Reading Guy. I finally read The Ugly American when, as an instructor in an Army school, I had to teach it, and worse, grade my students' essays on it. So, I don't read as much as I should. I'm figuring, just so that I can be considered qualified to participate in the debate, I'm going to have to break down and read Kilcullen's Accidental Guerrilla. Of course, that'll be after I finish my current professional reading project, which is re-reading Don Pendleton's Executioner, Books 1-317

1 comment:

  1. Great piece, but damned if I have an answer.