Archive for the 'NCOs' Category



Forget the Rules – Trust the NCOs

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 5 months ago

From The Global Post:

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — While battle rages on in warmer climes around the world, the fighting season in Afghanistan is drawing to a close as bitter cold descends upon its mountains and deserts.

American troops typically serve yearlong tours in Afghanistan, so they all must learn to operate in both the heat and the cold, even if the fighting largely subsides. The largest military bases in America are in places like Texas, California and the southeast — many soldiers garrisoned there have little experience in cold-weather soldiering.

For the Taliban, the winter poses nearly insurmountable tactical difficulties. Frozen mountain passes cut off supply chains, radio batteries fail quickly and campfires are easily spotted by drones and thermal cameras aboard attack helicopters.

Between mid-November and early April, particularly at high elevations, attacks on soldiers decline dramatically.

“There are a few hard-core guys that will still set the occasional IED or ambush,” said Terry Arsenault, a former Special Forces soldier who does security contracting work in Afghanistan. “Many [Taliban] head into the cities to live out the winter, some head to Pakistan, others just hunker down in their villages. Mainly they just try to survive.”

Even in the restive southern province of Kandahar, the site of the U.S.-led coalition’s major offensive this past summer and fall, although the weather doesn’t have quite as a dramatic effect on militants, their supply chain is severely disrupted through attrition.

“Because so many [fighters] look for warm places to hole up and plan, the ones who do stay quickly run out of supplies and ammo and are unable to fight for long,” Arsenault said.

And so as the violence wanes, complacency and low morale become the chief problems affecting U.S. soldiers, according to 1st Sgt. David Fiske, of D Company, 1-187 Infantry. Fiske and most of his company were stationed at Combat Outpost Zerok, an austere post 8,000 feet above sea level in Paktika province. Winter temperatures there can dip to 20 degrees below zero.

“The excitement of fighting gets replaced by boredom and long guard shifts in the cold,” Fiske said. “The winter is so much harder on soldiers here — some of them really fall into deep depressions.”

As first sergeant, Fiske’s foremost responsibility is to make sure his soldiers are fit and healthy, so he has learned a great deal about keeping morale up when the temperature falls. He said he often pulls guard shifts with his troops and encourages competitions to stave off boredom and keep skills sharp.

“If you live strictly by Army regulations, with no imagination, your company will suffer,” Fiske said. “You’ve got to nurture ideas among your men — like inventing games, fitness competitions, marksmanship competitions, whatever you can imagine.”

In the primitive, nameless outpost Fiske and his men recently occupied in Talukan, burning fires, around which troops crowded around, joking and playing cards, offset the cold nights and lack of electricity.

“Having the campfires at night gives soldiers something to look forward to — it’s like a community event,” Fiske said. “It also allows me to keep my finger on the company’s pulse and hear what issues are coming up. The loss of light discipline is worth the tradeoff in morale.”

From CBS:

The average Sergeant Major is not characterized by his delicacy. The job requires a sandpaper-grade sternness, pain-inducing vocal projection and withering facial demeanor that can vaporize the slightest precursor of trouble with a single glance. And as the senior enlisted man in a battalion, the sergeant major has to deal with plenty of misguided would-be trouble-makers.

At home it is DUI’s, motorbike crashes, fights and so on – on deployment the infringements are less excessive, but still worthy of the sergeant major’s gruff discipline. “My job,” says Samuels, “is not to control the 1,000 Marines in the battalion. It is to control the 30 Marines who won’t follow what the other 970 are doing.” He says he has to “keep his foot in every door”, and be able to answer all the questions the battalion commander asks him – “which is a lot”.

[ ... ]

But even with the forbidding exterior, there are a few cracks. On one inspection tour Samuels arrived at an outpost in Kilo Company where the 12 Marines, living in the corner of a field, had adopted a local stray dog as a pet.

“Bad for hygiene,” said Samuels gruffly when he first spotted the dog, and said if there was no other way, the Marines needed to take the dog out to the desert and shoot it.

He sat down to discuss other issues, and as he did so the dog lay down at his feet, and Samuels absent-mindedly began petting the dog. When he was ready to leave, the Marine in charge asked delicately “about shooting the dog, Sgt. Major?”

Samuels uttered a guttural grunt, which the Marines interpreted as a negative, and he then turned around to leave.

Rules are rules, and sometimes rules are dumb.  NCOs can decide when they need to be followed and when they don’t.  Any backpacker and camper knows that a campfire is everything to morale on the trail.  And no one should ever come between a man and his dog.  Nothing to see here folks.  Move along.  Let the NCOs do their job.

Micromanaging the Campaign in Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
4 years, 4 months ago

From The New York Times:

The Taliban commander was back in the village. Our base roared to life as we prepared to capture him. Two Chinook helicopters spun their blades in anticipation in the dark. Fifty Afghan commandos brooded outside, pacing in the gravel. I was nearby, yelling into a phone: “Who else do we need approvals from? Another colonel? Why?”

A villager had come in that afternoon to tell us that a Taliban commander known for his deployment of suicide bombers was threatening the elders. The villager had come to my unit, a detachment of the United States Army stationed in eastern Afghanistan, for help.

Mindful of orders to protect the civilian population, we developed a plan with the Afghan commandos to arrest the Taliban commander that evening before he moved back into Pakistan. While the troops prepared, I spent hours on the phone trying to convince the 11 separate Afghan, American and international forces authorities who needed to sign off to agree on a plan.

Some couldn’t be found. Some liked the idea, others suggested revisions. The plan evolved. Hours passed. The cellphone in the corner rang. “Where are you?” the villager asked urgently. The Taliban commander was drinking tea, he said.

At 5 a.m. the Afghan commandos gave up on us and went home. The helicopters powered down. The sun rose. I was still on the phone trying to arrange approvals. Intelligence arrived indicating that the Taliban commander had moved on. The villagers were incredulous.

This incident is typical of what I saw during my six-month tour in Afghanistan this year. We were paralyzed by red tape, beaten by our own team. Our answer to Afghans seeking help was: “I can’t come today or tomorrow, but maybe next week. I have several bosses that I need to ask for permission.”

In my experience, decisions move through the process of risk mitigation like molasses. When the Taliban arrive in a village, I discovered, it takes 96 hours for an Army commander to obtain necessary approvals to act.

Analysis & Commentary

We dealt with this same thing in Seeking Riskless War based on an experience by Vampire 06 blogging at Afghanistan Shrugged.  Illumination rounds were needed in order to conduct kinetic operations against insurgents, with the request to deliver those rounds denied by Battalion command 100 miles away because the eight pound canister might land on a domicile.

This same mentality is evident in McChrystal’s tactical directive that essentially promulgates new rules of engagement under a single signature.  The rules as they stood were restrictive enough, and if McChrystal had wanted to calibrate his reports a closed door meeting would have been the best option.  Instead, publishing the new rules has opened up new space for the insurgents according to the Pentagon.

Four Marines were killed in the Kunar Province while under fire, when after twice requesting artillery and air support, they were twice denied by command who was located remotely.  The problem goes not to the issue of whether there should be rules or whether overuse of kinetics might lead to rejection of U.S. forces by the population.  The problem goes to whether tactical directives should be issued from remote locations to Lance Corporals in the field under fire, thus undermining the decision-making of those sustaining the real risk.

Norville de Atkine in Why Arabs Lose Wars has a remarkable analysis of the role of NCOs and first line command on troops and troop performance (also available here).

The social and professional gap between officers and enlisted men is present in all armies, but in the United States and other Western forces, the non-commissioned officer (NCO) corps bridges it. Indeed, a professional NCO corps has been critical for the American military to work at its best; as the primary trainers in a professional army, NCOs are critical to training programs and to the enlisted men’s sense of unit esprit. Most of the Arab world either has no NCO corps or it is non-functional, severely handicapping the military’s effectiveness. With some exceptions, NCOs are considered in the same low category as enlisted men and so do not serve as a bridge between enlisted men and officers. Officers instruct but the wide social gap between enlisted man and officer tends to make the learning process perfunctory, formalized, and ineffective. The show-and-tell aspects of training are frequently missing because officers refuse to get their hands dirty and prefer to ignore the more practical aspects of their subject matter, believing this below their social station. A dramatic example of this occurred during the Gulf War when a severe windstorm blew down the tents of Iraqi officer prisoners of war. For three days they stayed in the wind and rain rather than be observed by enlisted prisoners in a nearby camp working with their hands.

A strong NCO corps was and is something that the Iraqi Security Forces haven’t been able to implement despite the best efforts of U.S. trainers.  But the trend in U.S. warfare is going in the wrong direction.  While officers might like to claim that they have the utmost respect for and confidence in their Gunnys, First Sergeants, Sergeant Majors, and in the Army, Command Sergeant Majors, the practice of micromanaging conflicts shows this claim is to some extent wishful thinking.

The U.S. officer corps has unwittingly bought into the Western business and industrial model of high level managers micromanaging their employees, metrics, and even day to day actions.  Officers have become more managers than military leaders, and paradoxically this has driven the U.S. military away from the Western strength of the NCO corps and towards a more Middle Eastern model.

I have recommended chasing the Taliban into their lairs by a combination of tactics, including distributed operations (Force Recon, Scout Snipers, small unit operation, and high confidence in their decision-making).  Based on the micromanagement of the campaign by high level officers, this is a forlorn hope and wasted counsel.  We continue to seek riskless war.

Concerning the Importance of NCOs

BY Herschel Smith
5 years ago

In Standing up the Iraq Army we noted the importance of NCOs (Non-Commissioned Officers) to the capabilities, cohesion and performance of an Army.  From Why Arabs Lose Wars, Norvell B. De Atkine, Middle East Quarterly, Dec. 1999, Vol. 6, No. 2:

The social and professional gap between officers and enlisted men is present in all armies, but in the United States and other Western forces, the non-commissioned officer (NCO) corps bridges it. Indeed, a professional NCO corps has been critical for the American military to work at its best; as the primary trainers in a professional army, NCOs are critical to training programs and to the enlisted men’s sense of unit esprit. Most of the Arab world either has no NCO corps or it is non-functional, severely handicapping the military’s effectiveness. With some exceptions, NCOs are considered in the same low category as enlisted men and so do not serve as a bridge between enlisted men and officers. Officers instruct but the wide social gap between enlisted man and officer tends to make the learning process perfunctory, formalized, and ineffective.

From the Small Wars Journal, Professors in the Trenches: Deployed Soldiers and Social Science Academics (Part 1 of 5), we read the following important analysis:

Another major issue that emerged was the relationship between commissioned officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs). Commissioned officers did not believe that NCOs should or will ever assume the role played by NCOs serving the armies of western democracies. This was considered to be mostly an issue of class structure, which was reinforced by the differences in educational levels between the two groups. During the focus groups, many of the NCOs frequently complained about the unwillingness of officers (or even more senior NCO) to listen to them; offering advice was simply not considered an option. Conversely, officers – especially junior officers – frequently micromanaged, often doing even the most routine tasks themselves to ensure success.

A sure recipe for failure, at least on a relative scale.  But it may be that this is a cultural issue, unable to be amended or rectified by training, education and mentoring.  The upshot is that the questioning attitude, initiative, capability to take responsibility and education in the West ensures a strong NCO corps and thus the world’s greatest military.


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