Friday, March 26, 2010

"Campaign continuity" and the specialization of the force

Yochi Dreazen of the WSJ reports today that the Defense Department is embarking on an initiative that will send Army and Marine units to the same AORs repeatedly, hopefully allowing those units to retain some of the geographic, cultural, and human terrain knowledge that contributes to effective operations.
The Pentagon is revamping the way it deploys troops to Afghanistan, putting in place a new system that will return units to the same parts of the country so they can develop better regional expertise and closer relationships with local Afghan power brokers.

Senior military officials say the “Campaign Continuity” initiative will determine the specific provinces and regions where many of the 30,000 soldiers and Marines who are being sent to Afghanistan as part of the Obama administration’s retooled war strategy will end up serving.

The plan represents a significant change for the military, which has long rotated its combat forces through both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Under the new system, the Pentagon will essentially be assigning responsibility for the Afghan war to the same small number of Army and Marine units.

“They’ll be going back to the same place and seeing the same faces, so they won’t need to relearn everything from scratch,” said a senior military official familiar with the plan. “It will allow for continuity of effort in a given location.”

The new system is the latest example of the military’s continuing effort to remake itself for the long war in Afghanistan.
I find this move really interesting, if only because the argument has been consistently made over the last decade that specialization is objectively bad for the total force. There's something to that argument, I think, which has usually been made in opposition to the creation of specialized units for training and advising foreign security forces.

As we've discussed here in the past, the Army is adopting a model that treats the training and advisory (or Security Force Assistance) mission the same as every other mission that a combat brigade engages in -- which is to say major combat operations, COIN, stability operations, etc. Units being sent to do SFA are identified at the beginning of their ARFORGEN cycle, provided with a brief period of specialized training, an augmentation of three- to four-dozen additional field grade officers to lead training teams, and are ready to be sent on their way to perform any SFA mission in the AOR of the COCOM to which they've been made available. Then when their "Available/Deployed" period is up, they go back into the ARFORGEN cycle as a regular old combat brigade, doing a year of Reset, and then training up for a "traditional" deployment.

This model is being developed for a couple of reasons, which the Army hasn't stated expressly but which are still pretty obvious: 1) to retain force structure by using the SFA/training mission as a means to justify the continued existence of a large number (in this case, 45) of Active Army brigade combat teams, and 2) to retain flexibility in the force, by allowing a brigade that spent all of 2012, say, doing SFA to deploy to Freedonia for combat operations in 2015. The unit maintains the capability for full-spectrum operations, and so do its individual members.

So what does this have to do with "Campaign Continuity"? Well, for one thing, you're tying up a certain number of brigades on a certain mission and a certain piece of terrain for an intederminate period (that is, the rest of the war). You're also making those units unavailable for what we've identified as high-priority training missions elsewhere in theater, and even beyond. Brigades from the 101st Air Assault and the 82nd Airborne divisions, for example, have performed or have been tapped to function as SFA brigades (or AABs in Iraq). If we assume that those two divisions will be assigned pieces of terrain in RC-East, then we lose those brigades to the training and advisory mission.

All of which means that there's a smaller pool of available units to pull from when picking SFA brigades, which means that that mission will rotate through a pretty limited number, which means, at least in some sense... specialized advisory units. (Except not that specialized.)

I know this is gonna sound crazy, but I... [I don't know if I can do it!] I agr... [Seriously, I just can't write this down!] I AGREE WITH TOM DONNELLY AAAGGGHHH!!!
Thomas Donnelly, a defense analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said Gen. McChrystal “clearly has the strong personal backing” of Defense Secretary Robert Gates as he presses for initiatives like the Campaign Continuity plan.

“It’s no longer a question of adapting a previously existing force for a different kind of war,” Mr. Donnelly said. “At this point, it’s a question of restructuring the entire force for Afghanistan.”
[Man, that was painful.]

I'm sure there's someone on this, but we ought to be thinking about whether all these great ideas about Afghanistan are 1) reducing our flexibility in that war, and 2) foisting limitations on the force that will make it less useful in the future. I know this is the root of the back-and-forth that's been taking place on a grander scale over the last several years -- win the wars of today versus prepare the force for future contingencies -- and I think we all know where I generally come out on that one.

But isn't the point of the ARFORGEN model creating a flexible, rotationally deployable force that can be tailored to specific mission sets? I know you can't develop "campaign continuity" in a 12-month train-up period, but how much tangible positive effect can we expect from this? And are we working towards something like the Vietnam model, where we had "campaign continuity" by unit but individual replacement rendered that unit-level continuity completely irrelevant (and had a number of other pernicious side-effects)?

8 comments:

  1. "which means that that mission will rotate through a pretty limited number, which means, at least in some sense... specialized advisory units. "
    “It’s no longer a question of adapting a previously existing force for a different kind of war,” Mr. Donnelly said. “At this point, it’s a question of restructuring the entire force for Afghanistan.”
    Stupid question: Couldn't you avoid the later by having specialized COIN units made up of experienced officers and ncos? Advisory not (only) to the ANA - but to the "normal" US troops coming in. If you put one officer / sergeant with local experience in every company / platoon, wouldn't that suffice to reap the advantages, while keeping the remaining Brigades versatile ?
    (I'm sure there a lots of problems with this idea, too ...)

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  2. The Army is not interested in doing individual rotations, as it's determined that the positive effects of unit cohesiveness, shared experience, shared train-up cycle and deployments, etc etc, outweigh the positives of keeping one unit in one place. (Well, at least up until this point.)

    You ask an interesting question, though, as right now you have SFA brigades being augmented by additional officers. So why couldn't you have brigades doing stability operations be augmented by a dozen SO-focused field-grades? Well, for one thing, you're not going to chop your brigade up into small teams to perform SO in the way that you would to do SFA in many instances, so those augmentee officers would essentially be replacing the regular "legacy" officers in the unit... and that ain't gonna work.

    What we're seeing now is the tension between the Army's aspiration to maintain a full-spectrum force and the potential benefits of specialization. In this case it's geographic specialization rather than mission specialization, and that's probably easier to recover from. But it does have second-order knock-on effects on other parts of the force (as you see here, where presumably all the new SFA brigades will have to be tapped from divisions that are NOT 10 MTN, 82 ABN, and 101 ABN. This, of course, ignores the fact that elements of these divisions have been doing SFA in RC-S and RC-W over the last year, not just doing ground-holding missions in RC-E).

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  3. "In this case it's geographic specialization rather than mission specialization, and that's probably easier to recover from."

    It seems to be working well for the SF Groups, who rotate back to the same AO and have great familiarity with the people and terrain. This also seems to make their shorter rotations less problematic. One of the downsides to short rotations is that you spend an inordinate amount of time getting oriented. The Groups don't have that problem if they keep rotating back to the same AO and re-establishing recent relationships.

    And yes, geographic specialization is less problematic than mission specialization. Units will still perform a wide range of missions and need to be ready for that full range. They'll just being doing it on the same piece of ground - no issue there with readiness. Seems to be consistent with Gates preference for fighting today's war.

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  4. It seems to be working well for the SF Groups, who rotate back to the same AO and have great familiarity with the people and terrain.

    Are you talking here about Afghanistan in particular, or the regional/continental alignment of the SF Groups in general? Because the latter is a way, way different thing if you ask me.

    This also seems to make their shorter rotations less problematic. One of the downsides to short rotations is that you spend an inordinate amount of time getting oriented. The Groups don't have that problem if they keep rotating back to the same AO and re-establishing recent relationships.

    Of course I totally agree with this. I didn't mean to suggest that I don't understand why they want to do this, because it makes sense on its face. But let's go a bit deeper here: how much benefit can we expect to reap from geographic continuity when a brigade is only spending say 12 out of every 30 months in the AO? Unless you're going to scrap the rotational cycle (they're not), cut into dwell time again (they're not), extend deployments (they're not), institute stop-loss (they're not), then all of a sudden we're talking about geographic and mission continuity for brigades that, if they're in country now, will be lucky to get 1.5 deployments to the same AO before our commitment to Afghanistan ramps down.

    Units will still perform a wide range of missions and need to be ready for that full range. They'll just being doing it on the same piece of ground - no issue there with readiness.

    I probably wasn't clear enough on this point, but what I meant to say is that if you're decreasing the pool of Active Army BCTs from which you can select SFA brigades by, for example, those three divisions, then now you're picking from 29 BCTs instead of 45 (or thereabouts, not including Guard or Reserve obviously). And if there's timely and aggressive movement towards this rotational SFA brigade stuff by theater, then suddenly we've got say four to eight BCTs designated as regionally-aligned SFA brigades in Available/Deployed cycle at any one time, another four to eight training up for that mission, and another four to eight coming off that mission and resetting. So now maybe you've cut your excess combat power in half because you've got 16 Afghanistan-only brigades, maybe eight or ten or 12 BCTs tied up doing or prepping for SFA missions... You see where I'm going with this? The 29 non-Afghanistan BCTs are going to spend somewhere on the order of 50% of their time either training up for or being deployable for SFA missions, and suddenly you wonder if it might not have been more operationally- and cost-effective to just throw together Nagl's advisor Corps.

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  5. I think you're interpreting this a little too narrowly/literally. They're saying mainly RC-E, not only RC-E; I guarantee that the Army's BCTs in other parts of Afghanistan will fall under this plan too. Also, it's not just units in the divisions the article happened to identify. As I understand it, this is more of a rough guideline and it will lead to units with previous Afghan experience - not just from those divisions, but also units like 3/1 ID and 4/4 ID - going back to roughly where they went before, when possible. Rotation schedules won't always permit it. For example, the 173rd, which they've cited as an example of this newfangled policy, deployed right on its normal rotation schedule, and it actually did not deploy to the same brigade AO as either of its previous OEF deployments - in 2005 it was in RC-S and in 2007-8 in the other chunk of RC-E. Only one of its battalions is actually in the same AO as last time.

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  6. Also, I think Schmedlap is talking about the CJSOTF rotations, not the theoretical regional alignments. It seems to me that the CJSOTF rotations have worked quite well, and that the recent change in them is probably going to leave the good system at battalion level alone, while allowing 7th and 10th Groups to go back to regional Latin America/Europe stuff a bit at the group level. All sounds good to me.

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  7. I was talking the CJSOTF-A and CJSOTF-AP thing, as Tintin noted. A few months ago I asked my old BC why CF aren't doing that and I pointed to the SOF rotations. His explanation, "because they cracked the code!" I think that is a field-grade-ism for "it's a good idea."

    "... all of a sudden we're talking about geographic and mission continuity for brigades that, if they're in country now, will be lucky to get 1.5 deployments to the same AO before our commitment to Afghanistan ramps down."

    If you see that as an issue, then I suspect you and I have different expectations for how large and how rapid that ramp down will be.

    Ditto Tintin's comment in regard to the final paragraph of your last comment.

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  8. Gulliver, thanks for the heads-up on this post. Have been busy but been thinking about effects/implications.

    Do not want to de-construct entirely, as its in initial stages, but I think this breaks down in both startegic and logistical terms:
    a) From a strategic standpoint, I think the move does really "adopt a series of far-reaching operational and organizational changes" which are centered on "diplomatic" efforts.
    b) From a logistical standpoint, the diplomatic benefit/burden is placed on the units to perform according to not only their combat/intel capabilities but also their relationship-building capabilities (i.e. coalitions with power brokers).

    Both will define how individuals and units as a whole are assessed.

    Geographic specialty can aid diplomatic efforts of brokering relations as well as stabalizing economic resources (the threads between relations; what tribal belts fight over or agree on), but the cost of this may be the responsibility placed on those continuity units. Sometimes when one gets too invovled in something, it weighs heavily. On the other hand, remaining committed in this way can generate both individual and organizational expertise and excellence.

    This is more of a larger, organizational-administrative view but I think it is important to consider in light of the discussion as we move forward. The implementation has tactical implications in defining who among us is a warrior and who is a diplomat, which can help further detail how we go about COIN strategy.

    For example (and I will end on this), civilian agencies and private companies can assist in this "continuity" effort as professionals/analysts can seek projects in coordination with units. (Note: This is in no way a promotion of private contracts, but only serves the sharing of ideas). How can they be incorporated, though, if at all, to share part of the responsibility? Cultural analysts can be a key part of this.

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