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We contine a multipart series on training for war by retired Army lieutenant colonel Tom Kratman, creator of the popular Carrera military science fiction series, with latest entry Come and Take Them. Does it seem as if the United States land armed forces have lately been training to be cadres of world policemen and social workers rather than soldiers prepared to win a war? Here Kratman distills lessons from years as a commanding officer in the U.S. Army, where he retired a lieutenant colonel. Kratman’s argument: an army is for winning wars. And to win wars, you have to train men (and some women) to be warriors.


Training for War, Part Three

by Tom Kratman

Tasks, Conditions, Standards

Everything in training in the Army and Marines, though the terminology may differ in the Corps (or in the other services), is a task, done under certain conditions, to certain standards. That, at least, is the theory. In practice… well, not so much.

One of the problems resides in or around the concept of standards.

The first of these problems is, well, just what do standards mean without conditions. Everyone’s seen the captain whose company always puts on a good show, where the troops’ hair is always cut, the lockers sorted to perfection, the floors in the barracks gleaming, never a cigarette butt in the police call area, etc. Quite likely, too, that there’s never a DUI, that everyone contributes to Army Emergency Relief, and the operationally ready rate for the vehicles approaches one hundred percent. “That captain has high standards,” say his superiors.

Does he really? What if looking good is all they do? What if the reason for the one hundred percent OR rate is that the vehicles are never used, nor even inspected closely, lest something go wrong or be found wrong?

In fact, that captain has a very different set of task, conditions, and standards he’s operating from. The task is: Look good enough to higher to get that coveted water-walking OER. The key conditions are: To the exclusion of everything else. And whatever standard we might think to apply are meaningless, because of the real task and the real conditions.

That example is extreme, of course, but it is not unreal. Sometimes it even works to advance the inherently illegitimate task, and the clear bastard of an officer. And, naturally, the troops not being dummies, and training being everything and everything training, this kind of program is also training them, to put appearances first, last, and always.

Vignette Six: Nobody is useless, but some people’s highest and best use is as a bad example.

The mission to attack Cerro Galera, on the southwest corner of the Panama Canal Zone, just northwest of Howard Air Force Base, was so miserable – it being densely overgrown and extremely steep – that it was assigned almost by roster. The mission was partially evaluation driven, with serious bad OER karma for commanders of units that failed the evaluation. It was also partially real world driven as, in the event of hostilities with Panama, there was a fair to middling chance that the heights would have to be cleared.

The battalion commander could apparently care less about real world considerations; what mattered to him was his OER, and part of his set of conditions for gaining that water walking OER was, “to the exclusion of all other ethical and moral considerations.” In support of that, and even though he could not have done it for real war, nor for legitimate training for war, he spontaneously and surreptitiously altered the conditions. Instead of the attack up Cerro Galera going in as a real simulation, the battalion commander had ropes installed all along the slope to make the going much easier and faster than it should have, or legitimately could have, been.

(As an aside, it came as a surprise to no one who knew this battalion commander when, later, as a colonel promotable, commanding a training brigade, he browbeat his headquarters company commander into falsifying his Army Physical Fitness Test score. It was something of a surprise, though, when the Chief of Staff of the Army allowed the wretch to be promoted to brigadier general and then retire, rather than court-martialing him as he plainly deserved. But then the Army’s major task is, all too often, “look good” with conditions, “no matter the cost in ethical precedent.” Oh, yes, it is. How do you suppose officers like that thrive?)

This illustration leads to something else:

Axiom Nine: In the absence of valid conditions, standards are completely meaningless.

A few examples: 1) Task: Engage target with a rifle … Conditions: Given range of one hundred feet, an infinity of ammunition, a zeroed rifle, no wind, on a perfectly clear, sunlit day, with the target painted bright orange. Standards: hit the target at least once. 2) Task: Run twelve miles. Conditions: Given three days, a smooth flat pavement, athletic clothing and shoes. Standard: Arrive. 3) Task: Conduct reconnaissance patrol. Conditions: given an MTO&E1 infantry squad, a perfectly flat golf course overlooked by a hill, the hill being accessible, in the absence of an opposing force, with various displays laid out on the golf course, in plain sight, without camouflage, said displays showing friendly and enemy equipment, in an inactive NBC environment, with a working radio, in the daytime, without fog or precipitation. Standards. The unit identifies eighty-five percent of the equipment displayed…

You get the idea. Cub scouts could do any of those. Brownies could do any of those. There’s nothing wrong with the standards, per se, but the conditions make those standards meaningless.

Conversely, try this:

Task: Conduct Deliberate Attack

Conditions: Given an MTO&E infantry company, with sixteen hours to prepare, from issuance of the warning order from battalion to crossing the line of departure, with the operations order from battalion coming not more than four hours after the warning order, the LD being at a distance of four kilometers, the objective being two kilometers past that, with the entire area between the LD and the objective subject to direct enemy fire, mines, indirect enemy fire, in an active NBC2 environment, with an enemy platoon one third the strength of the company, dug in, said platoon blocking access to the objective, with trenches and bunkers, the enemy having tactical, protective, and supplementary wire emplaced, plus a protective minefield. The OPFOR has both MANPADS3 and light cannon for air defense. The company will be supported by the battalion’s heavy mortar platoon, two sorties of A-10s, and one battery of 105mm towed guns. Ammunition for indirect fire support is not constrained. Terrain is jungle. There may be streams and / or swamps to slow progress. Casualty assessment will be mixed MILES and evaluator judgment.

Standards: The objective is taken. The OPFOR platoon blocking the way suffers not less than seventy-five percent casualties. The company suffers not more than twenty-five percent casualties. No friendly unit endangered by friendly fire or action.

I trust it’s not too hard to see how those standards are actually fairly tough to meet, given those conditions.

Note that changing any of those standards or any of those conditions requires some thought and judgment. If you reduce the size of the enemy force, maybe you want to eliminate the two sorties of A-10s. If you make the minefield more substantial, maybe you need to give the company more time and attach a platoon of engineers.

As a general rule, too, I’d suggest that for collective combat tasks the following table for force rations should be adhered to.

Yes, by the way, I am saying that the most rear echelon of service support units still needs to be trained to fight, to defend and also to attack, and that that table gives a fair estimate of the chief condition – force ratio – to do so successfully and train to do so successfully. What? A maintenance platoon conduct a deliberate attack? Yes. See the German “Snail Offensive,” Russia, 1942, at Military Improvisations During the Russian Campaign, CMH Publication 104-1, which is available on line, for free, at history.army.mil.

So that’s one problem with standards, when they’re established without reference to the conditions. The other problem is when the standards aren’t really standards at all, when, instead, they become “performance measures.” What’s a performance measure? It’s generally a step which, if taken in the right sequence, is thought to equate with success at the task. The ARTEP, the Army Training Evaluation Program, is replete with performance measures masquerading as standards. The big problem, though, is that performance measures usually lack quality control and too often key on trivia. Trivia? I recall a test on using a lensatic compass at Fort Stewart, in the 1980s, whereby whether a soldier passed or not had to do with which thumb went over which when using the center hold technique. It was absurd, the more absurd for how seriously it was taken.

Not quite so trivially, but perhaps as uselessly, the ARTEP will have dozens of steps, say, for that deliberate attack mission, from receive the warning order to initiate necessary movement, to establish assembly area, to conduct troop leading procedures, to move to the line of departure…

All of those have some value for an evaluator to look at, but none of them, taken alone or together, equals success in quite the same way as: “The objective is taken. The OPFOR platoon blocking the way suffers not less than seventy-five percent casualties. The company suffers not more than twenty-five percent casualties. No friendly unit endangered by friendly fire or action.” And if you can’t evaluate based on those, once again, look to the conditions to see if you have made them thorough enough, and difficult enough, to simulate war reasonably well.

Changing conditions, toughening them, is also a way to effectively heighten the standards but without the demoralization attendant on changing them, which changes say, in effect, “I told you you were good before. I lied. That’s why I’m raising standards now.” Toughening the conditions can consist of reducing preparation times, changing light and weather conditions, adding obstacles, directing the route over unbreached and unbridged obstacles, making it an active (as in they’ve been used) chemical warfare environment, increasing the enemy force, change it to a nighttime task, etc.

1 Modified Table of Organization and Equipment

2 Nuclear, Biological and Chemical. Inactive means nobody’s using them.

3 Man Portable Air Defense Systems. Stingers, Redeyes, Blowpipes, Strellas, Grails, etc.

Copyright © 2013 by Tom Kratman

This series continues with “Training Part for War, Part Four.” Tom Kratman is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and the author of many science fiction and military adventure novels including Carrera series entry Come and Take Them.