Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing.”—Sun Tzu
Especially over the past 10 years, we have shown a singular disregard for this truth. The SOF-CF dichotomy is emblematic of the problem.
‘Special’ warfare is a relatively new concept. The tactics employed are not. Raids and reconnaissance are as old as warfare itself. During WWII, regular infantry often had to step up and accomplish missions that would today have entire AORs locked down so that TF Whatever can swoop in and clear the target. The assumption is that ‘mere’ grunts can’t handle that level of mission.
But they have had to. Repeatedly. The CAP platoons in Vietnam were regular Marine 0311s, for the most part. And warfare doesn’t look like it’s going back to massed formations in the Fulda Gap anytime soon. It hasn’t for a very long time.
Whether it is called “hybrid warfare,” “irregular warfare,” or any other buzzword, our potential or actual adversaries don’t care about the division between what is “conventional” or “unconventional” warfare. They care about winning. “The only thing more terrible than a battle won is a battle lost.” So we see non-uniformed irregulars mixed with uniformed units and tanks. If our ground forces are going to be able to complete their missions in that kind of environment, they have to be able to function at a higher level than they have necessarily been trained for recently.
In order to build this kind of broad-ranging higher level of capability, two things will have to happen: Training will have to increase, and small unit leaders will have to have greater autonomy.
More training shouldn’t be too hard. I say “shouldn’t” with the full knowledge that it will be made that hard. On average, your regular Marine infantryman will estimate that out of four years on active duty, he spent at least a year “standing by to stand by.” The wasted time spent sitting around the barracks or doing pointless busy-work “working parties” in the infantry is mind-boggling. While that time might not be able to be packed with live-fire stuff, small unit tactics don’t necessarily need a great deal of space or resources to practice.
I blame the wasted time in lieu of training (as well as the ridiculous fighting loads) for some of the horrible infantry tactics on display in many of the combat videos coming out of Afghanistan in recent years (crossing open fields upright in daylight, sitting on rucks in the open without any cover while ‘holding security,’ the list goes on). Too often this is a matter of both higher leadership squashing initiative while they have meetings, and small-unit leaders lacking the initiative to say, “Company hasn’t got anything for us until 1600, so we’re going out into the backyard to practice movement to contact.”
Of course, the other factor in increasing training will be reigning in the out-of-control base bureaucracy that is range control. All too often, the structures put in place to coordinate training and ensure safety have turned into actively shutting down training for little to no reason, often on small matters of paperwork. The people in charge of ranges and training facilities need to have it reinforced to them that they exist to facilitate training, not to hinder it.
A massive amount of lip-service has been paid to the importance of small-unit leadership in the past decade, with very little actual action taken to reinforce that importance. The ‘Strategic Corporal’ was all the rage a few years ago, but when the BC is watching every move via ScanEagle in the COC, and BCT commanders won’t accept a recon team’s reporting unless they can corroborate it via drone, it becomes obvious that nobody in charge really wants corporals making life-or-death operational decisions on the ground.
Yet we have historical examples ranging from the CAP platoons in Vietnam–barely squad-sized and essentially operating on their own in Vietnamese hamlets—to Presley O’Bannon at Derna, with only four other Marines, where the small-unit decision-making has worked, and worked very well. The man on the ground has a far better understanding of the situation, especially if he is supplied with enough context before stepping off, than the man in an air-conditioned COC 50 miles or more away. Pete Blaber, in his book, “The Mission, The Men, and Me,” harps continually on listening to the man on the ground. Yet the man on the ground is often overruled because of his rank by someone who does not have eyes on the actual situation.
Let’s face it, the idea that the officers are the NCOs’ intellectual betters is obsolete. A lot of enlisted men have college degrees now, and even many of the ones who don’t are furthering their educations on their own. I once spent five hours in a truck with two other sergeants and a captain. The three sergeants were talking history and philosophy. The captain couldn’t keep up. So the fact that the guy with the shiny on his collar went to college doesn’t mean he knows better than the sergeant or corporal who may not have, but has already deployed several times.
In reality, for political reasons, these suggestions would go over like a lead balloon. The officer corps is comfortable, and the bureaucracy is entrenched. Much of the SOF community likes having plenty of work and being able to wear the ‘special’ tag. Unfortunately, in many cases, this does result in runaway egos, which can be a serious problem. The foremost personal attribute of the professional warfighter has to be humility, otherwise, how can he be honest with himself and his teammates when something has to be corrected?
The idea of raising standards also would not go over well at a time when many public figures within the DoD are saying that standards have to be lowered so that women can meet them. Unfortunately, the true cost of that inanity will be paid in blood soon enough.
As small wars and hybrid wars proliferate and the Great Game asserts itself once again, does it really make more sense to put an increasing burden on a relatively small percentage of the military, while the rest sits on its hands and begs for work? Or would it make more sense to lift the rest of our warfighters to the level where they can take up the same burdens many of their forefathers took, without being ‘special,’ but just because they were the men in the time and place to do the job?
(Featured image courtesy of defense.gov)
Note: Peter Nealen’s latest American Praetorians thriller, “The Devil You Don’t Know,” is now available for pre-order here.
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