03 December 2009

Attention, everyone: Major Neil Smith has the greatest idea ever.

This is quite simply the best idea I have ever heard uttered by an officer of a higher grade.

Are you ready for it?

Okay. Major Neil Smith--"Cavguy" as you might know him--just penned a great article in Small Wars Journal, suggesting that professional military educational courses stop talking about the Fulda Gap and start teaching counterinsurgency (COIN).

A shocking, earth-shattering suggestion to be certain.

Wait, where's my sarcasm knob? Let me turn that down. Ah, here we go.

Certainly, it's distressing that, after nearly a decade of full-blown counterinsurgency campaigns, and the decade prior to that being filled with numerous small wars, we still hear junior and mid-grade officers imploring the Army to finally put more COIN principles into our professional military educational courses (particularly at the captain and lieutenant level).

Indeed, over a year after I penned a scathing critique of the lack of COIN principles being taught at my own captains' career course in early 2007, I got a Facebook message from another young captain who was, sadly enough, being forced to trace enemy tank positions on a piece of acetate.

(Not only are these old tactics, but at some level, all the drawing, coloring and tracing with markers looks less like understanding patterns of conflict, and more like first grade art class.)

Major Smith brings up a few good points about professional military education (PME). The first one is not necessarily a COIN critique per se, but rather a statement that can be made about many topics, as well.

A recurring inquiry to the U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Center and similar organizations involves the search for prepared programs of instruction on COIN subjects for implementation in PME schools and the operational force.
While FM 3-24 [also known as The Counterinsurgency Field Manual] has an on-line, self-directed individual Training Support Package (TSP), there remains little formalized guidance or resources for instructors to baseline COIN instruction. Most current instruction exists as PowerPoint slides adapted from instructor to instructor, institutionally generated material, or direct lifts of presentations from COIN luminaries such as Dr. David Kilcullen.
Ad-hoc and non-doctrinal presentations should not constitute the norm of COIN instruction three years following the publication of FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency and its partner manuals.7
Many an instructor at a professional military course has "prepared" to teach a class by simply finding a set of PowerPoint slides on a topic, looking at them, and reading the material to the class. There's little actual understanding of the topic by the instructor, who simply reads the text and flips the slides, like a second-grade teacher with a read-along filmstrip. In fact, it resembles the situation described by the guys at On Violence:

If you didn't make the presentation yourself, you cannot expand upon it enough. The Army, for example, loves to share PowerPoints and have units use them to train. This creates situations destined for the "storybook" approach. If a trainer didn't make the slides, how can he give a speech on them? Instead, he will read the slides to the crowd.
--PowerPoint is not a Children's Storybook
As an example, our instructor had a doctor's appointment one day and asked me if I would be willing to teach a class on Arab culture. "Here are the slides", she said, as she loaded them onto my then-legal USB drive. Flipping through the slides, I noticed that there were laughable inaccuracies in them that have apparently been passed on from one base to another, and used for years worth of classes. One of the best mistakes in the "Arab Culture" class was the large segment dedicated to Afghanistan.

Read that again---the US Army PowerPoint slideshow on Arab culture talks about Afghanistan.

COIN slides, if they've been passed on from course to course, are likely no better if they're not a.) created and thoroughly researched by the presenter, and b.) using our official counterinsurgency manual as a guide.

And if Counterinsurgency is too complex for the instructor--and, truly, it is a very complex subject--then there's no shame in getting a little outside help. Here's a list of ten people who are pretty damn good in the field of counterinsurgency that would probably be glad to teach a class or two. In fact, let me throw in two more names while we're at it: Bill Nagle (of SWJ) and Chet Richards (one of John Boyd's acolytes).

Seriously, what is the deal with our PME? Eight years into a counterinsurgency campaign, we're still teaching week-long classes on the tactics, organizations and strategic goals of the "OPFOR" (The "OPposition FORce"), a mechanized tank force that only exists at our national training centers, which is modeled after the Soviet Union, and drives hand-me-down vehicles from the 1960s*.

Now, lest you think that we COINdinistas are advocating completely tossing out the conventional battlefield manuals, we are not. As Major Smith explains, we need to be prepared for both, and we need to educate ourselves fully in both realms. (Hence my recent digression into reading about 1st Generation Warfare)

Counterinsurgency is being addressed to some degree in every TRADOC school. The problem is one of standards, qualification of instructors, doctrinal foundations, and the “soda straw” views of an Army with multiple OIF/OEF tours in different locations at different times. If we are indeed fighting in an “Era of Persistent Conflict”, a nested, sequential, and progressive approach to COIN training is required. Developing such a program will force a conscious decision on the tradeoffs between conventional and irregular competencies inherent in any rebalancing of PME curricula. Integrating COIN does not require divestiture of conventional warfare competency. If the Army is serious about implementing the “full spectrum” concept, it must reform its educational base to provide a full spectrum education covering both conventional warfare tasks and prepare for irregular warfare. This instruction must emphasize the “how” to think, to understand the differences and similarities between the two environments and to apply the right approach in the right context at the right time. It is well past time to comprehensively address counterinsurgency in our educational institutions given the ongoing challenges of the current environment.

Focus: What's the right balance between conventional and unconventional warfighting skils?

*--Once again, I thank God that I've been associated with light infantry divisions my whole career and never had to deal with the tank fetish.


Anonymous said...

Sometimes I think I went through the Army that exists in a parallel universe. I remember ten years ago when LIC was raging through Military Review and the like. As a light infantryman, while there was still leftover Soviet doctrine, a lot was focused on Somalia, Bosnia, or similar failed states operations. While NTC & CMTC may have been stuck in the past, and JRTC certainly had it's refighting Vietnam aspect, the first phase in a standard JRTC rotation was pretty much straight counterinsurgency including the importance of the civillian population. COIN is more like the rest of the Army finally saying "duh, what were we thinking?" after years in Iraq & Afghanistan.

Peter said...

The Army should not have allowed a situation like this to have happened. Counterinsurgency, or more broadly, doctrine for small wars, are much more than a temporary expedient to get us out of the situations we're currently in--this is the type of war we're most likely to be fighting in the decades ahead.

Someone at Department of the Army level should throw a lighning bolt at Training and Doctrine Command to get them to straighten this situation out, particularly at the combat arms basic and advanced courses. Hopefully this situation doesn't also exist at Command and General Staff College.