Friday, May 24, 2019

Failing Upward

Wow, Army risk aversion really is getting attention these days:

In a recent essay, retired Col. Kevin Benson calls on the Army to evolve its collective thinking on tactical risk assessment. As he points out, commanders must not be content to avoid risk. Instead, they must deliberately accept tactical risk to create and exploit relative advantages over the enemy. Col. Benson is correct that the Army must revisit how it doctrinally defines tactical risk. However, the chief obstacle to tactical risk taking is not doctrine; it is risk aversion.

From a military perspective, this propensity to avoid risk is most problematic in situations where taking risk is advantageous. There are three main reasons Army commanders tend avoid risk: loss aversion, institutional risk norms, and senior leaders’ lack of comfort with risk.

Losing troops in operations other than war and COIN is verboten under our force protection priority. That creates a culture of caution (you fight the way you train). Career prospects of officers are also harmed for violating that culture or suffering too many losses. Which is related to the difference between characteristics of a successful peacetime (defined as non-conventional war against a peer threat) officer and a wartime officer.

Personally, I'd make our major exercises tests of commanders for how they react to things going wrong rather than aiming at orchestrating a perfect battle. OPFOR should keep throwing things at a brigade making a rotation at the NTC--type training grounds until the Army unit is destroyed. [In a pre-publication addition, this author argues that NTC-style training should be multi-domain, unpredictable, and include non-military factors.*]

The Army National Guard already faces severe problems when its brigades go to the NTC:

The training scenario here is designed to expose a unit's weaknesses but, for some Army Reserve units, it's a sobering reminder of just how difficult the National Training Center is to prepare for at home station.

Good. Yes, the Guard is at a disadvantage compared to active units going to this ultimate test. Given that Guard units can and do go to war, they should relish this.

It should be hard enough that active units have the same sobering reminder of how difficult the NTC is for everybody. Enemies will kill you and not grade you poorly.

"Failure" should be the norm to strip losing of its stigma. Learn from adversity in peacetime and not war. Command post exercises should do the same for more senior commanders. Test them with hidden forces or defy the friggin' laws of physics if we have to if facing a really talented commander.

For the purpose of exercises to test the systems rather than the commanders, just use the staff officers so we see if logistics and communications and all that work when things are going reasonably well. But commanders should be stressed in peacetime.

One lesson of the Iraqi experience in its war against Iran (1980-1988) that I wrote about in this 1997 paper was that Iraq underestimated the Iranian defenders:

Unfounded assumptions about potential threats to U.S. interests can throw off our calculations today. In 1991, the Iraqis fought as we projected they would fight. We cannot count on that again, even in a rematch with Saddam Hussein.

We got lucky enough that in the 2003 rematch we were able to smash Iraq's army again. Although the light infantry jihadis that Saddam used came as a complete surprise to our military. We did overcome that threat to win the invasion (and eventually in the COIN that followed). But we must remember that we had to cope with surprise even when we had the clear advantage on the battlefield. As the author of the Modern War Institute article stated:

Col. Benson is correct when he writes that defining tactical risk sets the conditions for action. This step is necessary but not sufficient. Creating risk-adaptive commanders requires deliberate and repeated training just as any other battlefield skill. If the Army gets this right, it can turn tactical risk from a liability into a relative advantage.

The Army got used to fighting the Iraqi army since 1991. We did get lucky enough in 2003 not to face war-changing curve balls. We won't be so fortunate in the skill and capabilities of a major power adversary in Eurasia.

We must train our officers to be willing to take calculated risks. Make every combat exercise the Kobayashi Maru scenario.

*I didn't want to rewrite this post to include this article, but it is certainly relevant. It would be appropriate for COIN scenarios or even low-level confrontations--don't make me use the term "hybrid war"--that fall short of direct combat. Although for high-intensity combat I don't think the political aspect should be included. And my proposal goes beyond making trips to "the box" hard to making it impossible.