We contine with part four of 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.
by Tom Kratman
Vignette Seven: oh, of course the enemy will always set himself up for maximum vulnerability to your drills and standard operating procedures.
(The following is extracted from Carnifex, Volume II in the Carreraverse)
Cano was pissed. Being taken by surprise, ambushed himself by the Duque, was just too fucking much. Bad enough that—
“Relax, Tribune,” Carrera said, not ungently. He was actually impressed with the kid. “I just have some questions. It was a good ambush. Really. What bothers me was that maybe it was too good. Why do you think it was so good?”
Cano didn’t relax. Sure, he wasn’t a signifer anymore; he was entitled to tie his boots in the morning without tying the left one to the right one. Even so, this was the bloody Duque. He was a bastard; everyone knew it. Cano could just see his career flying off to parts unknown and unknowable. He could—
“I asked a question, Tribune,” Carrera reminded.
“Oh . . . sorry, sir. I was . . . I just wasn’t expecting you to—”
“I asked a question, Tribune.”
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. Well . . . sir . . . we’ve done this ambush here maybe a dozen times just since I’ve been leading the platoon. The boys know what to do and, then again, we drill the shit out of it . . .”
“Jamey! Call the Chief of Staff, the I and the Ia. I don’t give a shit if they’re asleep. Get ’em up.”
Hamilton couldn’t figure it out. He knew the company—his new company—was well drilled. Yet every problem thrown at them this brisk Fort Stewart morning they pretty much flubbed. It was taking longer for them to react than it should have if they’d never drilled a step.
It took the common sense of his driver to explain it: “Everything you’ve thrown at them is different this morning, sir. For example, that ambush? Well, you had it placed over there on the right and behind. Normally, it’s always up ahead, either right or left.”
“So they’re having to stop, think, overcome the conditioning of years of doing it the other way, then think of what to do for this. And they’ve drilled so much they’re not good at thinking quick.”
“Oh. How come you’re still a private.”
“I’m new, sir. Not stupid, but new.”
Battle Drills and SOPs1
Drills are preset and rehearsed to the point of conditioned solutions to common battlefield problems. Though I can see the point, for some of them, I’m not a huge fan, overall. There are a few reasons for my lack of enthusiasm. One is that, used enough, the enemy can study them at leisure and arrive at the perfect counter to almost any given drill. Another is that war is chaotic and unpredictable such that the drill is usually somewhat inappropriate. The same generally holds true for Standard Operating Procedures, individual tasks done to perfection, crew drills, and formations.
There are some very good armies that historically have been utterly dependent on battle drills, crew drills, SOPs, and the like. Almost every army uses at least some of that. But for those that use only some, there’s a marked reluctance to get too very dependent on them, in part, I think for the time training them (to the point of conditioning) involves, and in part because an army dependent on drill will tend to select for leadership people very comfortable with drill, with present solutions, which are precisely the wrong people to put in charge of an inherently and irredeemably chaotic endeavor like war.
There are a number of other objections to overreliance on drill besides the two I mentioned, above. I suggest using the below as a set of filters for what should and should not be turned into drill.
Drills, if they’re to be reliable, must be conditioned into troops, almost as if the troops, leaders, too, were Pavlov’s dogs. So if the subject of the drill simply can’t really be conditioned in a normal human being, well enough to rely on it, don’t try to make a drill of it.
Even if the matter is something a normal human being can be conditioned into, conditioning usually takes a lot of time. Time, of course, is usually at a premium. Thus, even if something can, in theory, be conditioned, if you don’t have the time to condition it, don’t waste what time you have on the impossible.
Drills—like the other things, mentioned above—are executed under certain conditions. If those conditions are subject to radical differences such that no amount of practical drilling can condition them all, do not train as a drill something that will only be true infrequently.
Military units suffer losses. They are almost never at full strength. If a drill requires a particular level of manpower or equipment, and you can reasonably predict that that particular level of strength will rarely be met, don’t bother.
Those last two are related. We legitimately and effectively use crew drill for armored vehicle crews. And why not? The inside of a turret—the key condition—doesn’t change. The crewmen have seats they stay in. The gun doesn’t move laterally or horizontally relative to the crew. The internal communications gear typically works. For the other key condition, strength, the crew of an armored vehicle generally lives or dies together; they generally suffer no attrition that matters in the short term. Yes, it sometimes happens but not commonly. So a drill for a crew like that—a crew drill—makes sense.
The same holds true for much that the mortars and artillery do. Their positions may change from place to place, but the important thing, the gun, is always the same. The positions they build to protect the gun and themselves are always the same, too. The casualties they take, mostly to other mortars and artillery, or air, tend to be either catastrophic or insignificant.
Artillery and mortars don’t usually come under small arms fire. Mines are only rarely a problem for them. For the most part they lose men to aerial attack and counterbattery fire from enemy artillery. That fire either is close enough to emulsify the crew, or it’s far enough away, when it explodes, to do only limited damage to the crew, or it is so far away it is irrelevant to the crew.
In the first and the last of those cases, that the artillery crew was drilled numb doesn’t hurt matters. It can still either do the job or it is dead. In the middle case, because gun crews are much larger—or at least ought to be— than the bare minimum needed to load and fire the gun, and because artillery crew drill is simple enough that everyone can be, and in a good crew is, trained to do all the jobs. Therefore, even with some losses, the gun can still fill the important jobs with adequately trained troops and still function at a reduced rate of fire.
The drill at the crew level becomes much more problematic when we rise above the level of a single, simple crew to a platoon of mortars, tanks or tracks, or a battery of guns. Then the key condition is no longer the same all the time. Units above the crew level always have to adjust: to terrain, to the enemy situation, to their own strength. Indeed, the variables for infantry are infinite, a few drills won’t do and the number that might do is impossible.
In any event, before you decide to train something as a drill, ask yourself also whether the conditions—to include your own strength—are likely to be the same in war all the time.
Note that the Russians, one of the more thoroughgoing drill-based armies, show a key point for drills above the crew level: a line remains a line, even when you erase some portion of it. As they do, if you plan on doing a drill or formation with any unit above the crew level, you had best consider making it some variable on a line or similarly simple geometric shape. A wedge or echelon, for example, counts as a line. Only that kind of formation or drill is very sustainable after losses.
Similarly formations: picture a platoon, normally of four vehicles, trying to bound forward by sections of two vehicles. That’s fine, as far as it goes. Ah, but what about when the platoon is down to only three vehicles? Then it doesn’t work so well anyway, and hardly at all in the same way. The three vehicle platoon moves either with an inadequate overwatching force—one vehicle—or the section on overwatch is two vehicles and the single track sent ahead to bound feels alone and abandoned, advancing most reluctantly.
So under normal combat conditions—because, again, normal is understrength—the bounding overwatch drill has less benefit than you expect and need, and all the time spent on drilling such movement tends to be wasted. On the other hand, a company bounding forward by alternating its platoons can work because even if a bounding platoon has taken some losses, it is still capable of covering its own front and has enough sub units left to give each other moral support to go forward.
Time to execute the drill in battle is another consideration. Some things don’t have to be conditioned in order to be done. Even in battle there is often time to give more than one-word drill commands. Before deciding to train something as a drill, consider if there would normally be time to give orders to have your troops act more appropriately than a drill would allow.
Then, too, one should prioritize. Ask yourself if the drill a matter of life and death for an individual, victory or defeat for a higher unit? I don’t mean simply that under some rare circumstances a well-executed drill might be life or death for us or the enemy. I mean is a precise conditioned response virtually always that important?
Sometimes it is. Reaction to a near ambush is that kind of circumstance. So is using a Bangalore torpedo2 to breach an obstacle, especially when attacking a position held by an enemy with a very responsive artillery support network . . . if surprise fails you and you must clear a path quickly.
At a lower level, the individual level, there are also a few tasks like that. The whole field of combat demolitions is dangerous enough to justify drilling troops to do it perfectly every time. The time to put on a gas mask is about that critical, too. Although, as a little experiment in the downside of drills and SOPs, sometime have your troops come under a chemical attack when they are advancing at a crawl under fire, with inadequate cover and concealment. Watch how our boys, already well-drilled on immediate action for a chemical attack, stand up despite the direct fire to put on their masks.
“Only the very simple can work in war,” as Clausewitz observed. Complex drills simply won’t work, even leaving aside that the time required to condition something goes up with that something’s complexity, even as the probability of conditioning it drops.
As suggested above, your enemy is probably not a fool. He will adapt to your drills very quickly, given a chance to study them.
The final problem with basing one’s tactics and training around drill is that there is a mindset, common in many armies, which has no understanding of war as the chaos it is. To these people everything is controllable, everything is predictable. They will forget that war is about prevailing against an armed enemy, who does not think about himself as a target set up to give you the best possible chance of success, but instead will do everything he can to thwart and destroy you.
In peacetime maneuvers, these people and their units often do well, even better than those who see war more clearly for what it is. They then stretch the idea of drill beyond the legitimate limits it has, and try to make everything a drill, everything precise. Skills and purely measurable factors assume an unmerited importance. Worst of all, leaders and troops are not trained to think. Their moral faculties are not developed.
After the First World War there, the victorious French Army developed some very standardized drills for higher formations. The German Army examined these division level drills in wargames on maps and came to the conclusion that they were, most of the time, more effective than the more chaotic approach the Germans had favored. Nonetheless, the Germans didn’t adopt the French methods. The French continued to drill; the Germans continued to treat war as uncontrollable chaos and trained their army accordingly.
France fell in six weeks in 1940.
And now, just to prove that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, I’m going to break the filters I gave above and suggest one drill for heavy units, tank, mechanized infantry, motorized infantry, plus other vehicle mounted units, that meets almost none of them. This is a drill—in two variants—for underway fueling, feeding, and arming.
In the first of these, four trucks—a mess truck, a fuel truck, an ammunition truck, and a trash truck—line up on the road, either to one side or, if the road’s wide enough and the fuel truck has two nozzles, in the middle of it, and the troops go through on their vehicles. At the first truck, the mess truck, the squad leader holds up the number of fingers for the people he has to feed. The mess folks on the truck dish out that many meals, covering one of the meals for the driver, who can’t stop to eat. The non-driving personnel begin wolfing their food down like ravenous, wild, mad, rabid beasts. The driver continues on to the next truck, fuel, and stops the track. He then tries to imitate the others (nomnomnom), while someone plugs the fuel nozzle into the vehicle and the fuel folks oversee the pump. Meanwhile, the squad leader sends one private jogging to the next truck, with a written list of the ammunition needed. When the vehicle is fully fueled, or as fully fueled as it can be made, in times of logistic austerity, the driver puts down his chow and moves up to the ammunition truck, where the ammunition is waiting. This is tossed over and dumped on the floor of the track, pending a rest halt or assembly area where it can be properly stowed. Someone bends down and does the best stowage he can, under the circumstances. The driver might or might not get a bite at this time. The ammunition placed below, the track moves on to the trash truck. While going there, all the trash from the previous day, plus the garbage and paper plates from the meals just consumed (I mentioned “ravenous, wild, mad, rabid beasts,” did I not?) and tosses it over in passing.
The second version is basically the same, except that everybody is moving the whole time. Yes, it takes a little practice. But, with practice, a mechanized infantry company can be fed, fueled, rearmed, and have its trash removed in ten or eleven minutes, while never becoming a stationary target for enemy artillery.
Why do this as a drill though? Good question. Try this: much time in training is wasted by stopping, starting, and building up momentum and inertia. This way cuts way down on that. Too, like Collins’ example of passing out ammunition on the route march to the line of departure, something that simply feels real, and, chrome-like, adds that sense of, “this is what it will be like,” which tends to carry over past the minor event to the major exercise, validating the exercise. Additionally, it has the effect of inculcating in the mind of every man in a heavy, mobile unit that speed is their best asset, more than guns and armor.
As for the disadvantages noted in battle drill, they don’t generally apply to this, since it is not an exercise in using force to overcome force, against an intelligent, self-willed enemy.
Vignette Nine: sometimes the best way to learn to understand and defeat your enemy is by walking in his shoes:
The mission was deliberate attack at the company level, but it was an OPFOR mission, in this case to simulate a Soviet motorized rifle company conducting an assault from the march. MILES would be used.
Well, thought Hamilton, I don’t think it would be unprincipled to use the actual Soviet drill for this. Rather, unless we do use that drill, we’ll be in violation of the conditions for the problem.
So he called together his lieutenants and explained to them they were going to simulate a Soviet unit—“Oh, yes, boys, you are going to command the company in rotation for this.”—doing things the Soviet way, as the only way to properly test their sister company, the platoons of which would be defending battle positions.
And that was what they did for the day; they practiced doing things the Soviet way. This involved rolling in column to about twelve hundred meters away, forming platoon columns as they closed, dismounting just out of small arms range, forming on line, and walking forward firing from the hip. It culminated with the platoon leaders calling, “Into the assault: FORWARD!” and the troops shouting, “Urrah!” and then charging at the run, screaming like Furies and firing like maniacs.
The first platoon of the other company wasn’t expecting that. They ran.
Wow, thought Hamilton, I sure didn’t expect that.
The second platoon of that company ran, too.
Uh, oh., thought Hamilton; I think we have just discovered that our units are going to run for their lives if they ever have to face a Soviet Army doing even the simplistic crap it’s been trained to do. I see no end of bad in our future.
The third platoon was going to run; Hamilton was with them while one of his lieutenants commanded the company. He could see them getting ready to bolt. They didn’t, but only because the battalion commander declared an artillery-delivered FASCAM (FAmily of SCAatterable Mines) minefield right in front of Hamilton’s company. Never mind that as a battalion commander he lacked the authority for FASCAM on his own hook. Never mind that the entire divisional artillery could not have delivered it so instantaneously, if that had been all they had to do.
(In other words, that battalion commander, faced with someone using realistic conditions, decided to adopt an unrealistic condition to avoid what he apparently felt was personal humiliation. For shame.)
The rest of the story is that, when it became Hamilton’s company’s turn to defend by platoons, the sister company had learned to do the same Soviet battle drill, possibly with a couple of improvements. Hamilton’s first platoon…stood. Hamilton’s second platoon…stood. Hamilton’s third platoon stood—and without the battalion commander giving them an impossible FASCAM obstacle.
I think, thought Hamilton, that the difference isn’t so much in the quality of the companies. I think it’s that my men were inoculated by seeing the Soviets from the inside, first.
1 Note: if this sounds familiar, yes, this part of the talk, which I’ve been giving for years, was modified for inclusion in Carnifex.
2 Note: I’m not actually sure Bangalores are still in the system. There are limitations, however, to the MCLIC, the Mine Clearing Line Charge, sufficient to justify making your own, even if they’re no longer in the system.
Copyright © 2014 by Tom Kratman
This series continues with “Training Part for War, Part Five.” 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 and upcoming The Rods and the Axe.