Significant attention is given by military leaders, defence analysts and the media to military weapons and equipment. Without question, these are important contributors to gaining advantage and victory on the battlefield. However, there are three factors – often overlooked – that are, arguably, more important in achieving and maintaining combat readiness and superior combat capability: perhaps because they are not procurement line items. Remarkably, however, these factors can be accommodated by conscious choices made by armies. A 40-year US Army combat veteran summarised these critical factors as: fully manning combat units; stabilising positions in these units; and enabling them to train together. Unsurprisingly, these are interlinked: the benefits achieved stem from their mutual implementation.
Significant attention and money are being dedicated to enhancing training using advanced technologies like augmented reality (AR). The promise of major initiatives like the US Army’s Synthetic Training Environment (STE) is to allow soldiers to experience multiple integrations of life-like combat drills to develop unit tactical skill proficiency that translates to a new level of combat readiness. It is being promoted as a key to “over-matching” peer and near peer opponents. This multi-billion dollar effort has great promise yet could be easily undermined if these three factors are not also addressed. In fact, there are indications that the opposite may be occurring as other restructuring initiatives and operational demands are predicating against even modestly achieving these goals.
The advantages offered in any team in which these three factors are present are generally recognised, yet seem particularly under-appreciated in the military. The first assures that units, particularly at squad and platoon levels, are manned to the level at which they are intended to be employed – the rifle squad at eight, 12, or 13 or a tank crew of four, for example – reflecting the structure required to execute tactics, techniques and procedures for optimum effect. This is not simply a question of efficiency but rather one of survival. Each position in the unit has a role to play, contributing not only to execution of the combat task but also to supporting and protecting others in the team. A missing position degrades that mutual support.
Stability within small units provides unit cohesion – developing trust, familiarity and confidence in each other’s abilities between members. Another major benefit is that each soldier becomes increasingly skilled in the role they play in the team. This is especially true of leaders. Proficiency is only gained through training and experience. A key aim of STE is to provide better means to achieve both. This, however, becomes meaningless if the team is always changing.
Lastly; having the capability to conduct training is of little benefit if adequate time is not allocated to conduct it. Conversations with company leaders reflect a common concern that there are many competing demands from higher headquarters drawing on people and limited available time. Too often, these requirements contribute little to assuring the unit’s mission execution abilities. Though one would expect the primary purpose of the combat unit – to fight – would have priority, this is, in fact, too often not the case in reality.
Achieving higher combat readiness is more complicated than embracing new training technologies, as potentially beneficial as that may be. It must include committing to assignment policies that focus on staffing and maintaining the basic combat units and to a realignment of priorities in garrison, so as to elevate achieving and maintaining both individual and small unit mission proficiency. To do otherwise negates achievement of the standards deemed crucial to future military operations. What remains unclear is whether these factors will gain the essential emphasis needed.
Stephen W Miller in Virginia for MON