15 April 2010

On Clarity

Most military officers are familiar with the operations order. The "OPORD", as it's known, is an outline-style document consisting of five paragraphs which contain the plans for an entire operation. In current usage, the modern OPORD might contain anything from detailed plans for a raid on a village, to the diabolical master plan for executing a hamburger-grilling fundraiser for the family readiness group. Few realize, though, that the OPORD we use so often today harkens back to the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus, from the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Says the British historian Sir B.H. Liddel-Hart, in his book Great Captains Unveiled:

Gustavus' orders are a model of which a modern staff officer might be proud, the paragrahps numbered, each short, crisp, and embodying one specific point; the whole in a logical sequence that is reminiscent of modern practice--information as to the enemy, intention of the commander, and method of execution first, then administrative arrangements and finally intercommunication.
(Contrary to what some SAMS essays might claim, this format was not invented by the US Cavalry.)

We should note that Gustavus' writing was clean, simple, and to the point, unlike much military writing today. Some might attribute the decline in writing quality to the rise of bullet-points and cartoonish graphics in Microsoft PowerPoint, which is ubiquitous in the military.

However, Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Gen. James Mattis and other senior military leaders have led a revolt against PowerPoint. According to Gen. Mattis, "PowerPoint makes us stupid". Moreover, Brig. Gen. McMaster reportedly banned PowerPoint within his command, believing that it inhibits clear thinking and communicating.

Indeed, the lack of clear written communication has helped contribute to less-than-stellar performance on the battlefield on at least one occasion. During the Lebanon War of 2006, several Israeli commanders had difficulty understanding orders from their headquarters. Some Israeli generals issued orders which blatantly parrotted buzz-words from Effects-Based Operations manuals (which were rarely understood in the IDF). As a result, Israeli units were given directives to "freeze operational space" and to "cause distress" within the enemy.

I have no idea what "freeze operational space" means. I challenge Dan Halutz to explain this one to me.

The IDF should have stuck with doctrinal terms--"attack", "defend", or "seize"--which are defined in doctrine manuals and easily understood. This is particularly important when troops are in combat with the enemy--a confusing and chaotic prospect to begin with.
It's what St. George would do.


MikeF said...

A typical response by me in Iraq to a lazy OPORD.

"I understand what you're saying, but what do you want me to do?"

In one case, I was cross-attached to a mech unit in Baqubah two months after AQ declared the city as their new caliphate. They were doing a battalion size operation with 500 soldiers in Buhritz, a nasty suburb. They asked me to screen Tahrir, an equally sized nasty neighborhood with 50 men. Same size, same threat.

In effect, the battalion S3 just drew a squiggly line on acetate over one neighborhood just to satisfy his linear understanding of doctrine. The endstate of the mission was the battalion would clear for the day and everyone would be back safely in the FOB for dinner.

So, I did what they asked. My troop secured a soccer field for 12hours while the unit did their clearance. We weren't very productive that day, but it was better than recklessly getting my guys hurt. Two months later, in the neighborhood that I was supposed to screen, the Strykers faced a hellious assault of deep-buried IEDs and rigged houses.

Mike said...

I hate this PowerPoint slide from PEO Soldier as much as I hate the M4...


Instead of improving the operation of the weapon (6,000 rounds fired withh 882 stoppages in an "extreme dust enviroment") we get slides like the above with plenty of sexy graphics but no real substance.

The above slide is followed closely by this one explaining Afghan stability and COIN:


The military needs to get back to the idea of plain speech and clear ideas. If it takes more than 30 minutes to brief a platoon sized patrol that is going only about click out than something is wrong... likewise if I am trying to understand the commanders intent but it reads at the 20th grade on the Readability Index Calculator... well shit.

Climb to Glory!
Against All Odds!

Michael C said...

I could spend hours agreeing with you, but I'll just say I love the idea of banning powerpoint in specific units. It requires commanders to step up first and acknowledge that as a format, powerpoint 9 times out of 10 limits communication, not enhances it. But it requires that commander first.

Great find too.

MikeF said...

Here's one more for you since the Mike's are dominating this thread. In small wars (and wicked problems in general), one way to overcome poor orders and bad plans is to get the stakeholders involved early on in the planning process. Since most small wars are fed bottom-up, this approach makes a lot of sense.

For instance, my Squadron S3, when possible, would include Company Commanders in all aspects of MDMP. In one case, my troop actually covered the entire Part One, b/c we had been the battlespace owners previously.

Additionally, we strived to get the Aviators included in Course of Action development. Because of rest cycles, we rarely were able to get the actual pilots at planning, but some did attend rehearsals for big operations.

I tried to do the same thing on the Company Level TLPs with my PL's, PSG's, and SL's.

Mike said...

While most small wars are fed from the bottom up this is usually only true for the insurgent side of the house. The counterinsurgent forces are usually top down driven and this makes for horrible planning, decision making and direction of the war. For the US military to go to a bottom up way of war would be to go against more than a century of training, doctrine and tradition. In other words, it is very much impossible.

My previous deployment an Infantry company was attached to a Cavalry squadron. We had platoon level missions being directed from squadron with so many of the blank spaces filled in that we had almost no control over the missions-- we were just to execute whatever the slides said. Sure we had some leeway on other types of missions but it was frustrating to wake up and find out that we were being directed on how to accomplish the mission in our AO by leadership that were 20 miles away in an office looking at a computer monitor. Vietnam was my fathers war but it’s eerie how the similarities keep popping up.

Commander intent should be no more than a couple of sentences and the PL and his NCO’s should come up with innovative ways to accomplish that intent. The simplest reason is because they will have the most experience outside of the wire interacting with the local population. This experience means that good troops will pick up on any changes in the population that are indicative of insurgent activity. Leadership reading reports and living in PowerPoint slides will never be able to make sound, timely decisions under such conditions. Flexibility in planning and execution of missions must be maintained at the lowest levels possible and the role of senior level leadership should be in supporting those activities.

Climb to Glory!
Against All Odds!

MikeF said...

Good catch Mike. I should have stated, in MikeF's world, operations in small wars would be ground up. Intelligence collection and situational awareness, with the exception of SIGINT and some HUMINT, is driven from the bottom. As some of the boys from CNAS have written, the intelligence community has struggled shifting from top-down to bottom-up processes. Simultaneously, many bureaucratic commands have failed to realize that the subject matter expert on X area is typically the ground commander of X.