Thursday, August 26, 2010

Old Tanker Syndrome

"Mostly Dead" must describe the horse it was beating - or so I thought. But alas, it is another post-mortem on the Armor Corps. Granted, LTC Weiss seems to fall somewhere between COL Gentile and MAJs Smith and Harbridge when it comes to his thoughts on "how dead" the Armor Corps really is. But this is still what I'm starting to call "Old Tanker Syndrome" (and yes, I noticed that LTC Weiss is an artilleryman) - or OTS.

OTS seems to cause those it afflicts to see the Armor Corps through the lens of their pre-Iraq experiences, when NTC was king and careers were made out of the brigade breach into the Northern Corridor. I'm not going to call it nostalgia - I don't think Gian is nostalgic - but their formative years in the Army were defined by these realities. I think that the biggest symptom of OTS, though, is a pre-GWOT conception of combined arms operations.

For these older field grades with OTS, combined arms operations are those brigade breaches and large maneuver formations - both Gian and LTC Weiss refer to them as lost capabilities. I have to say, as a former company grade, that I take umbrage at that. Tell any lieutenant or captain who has lead in Iraq or Afghanistan that they don't understand combined arms operations because they've never done an old school breach or brigade live-fire. Go ahead. I dare you.

Or maybe these young officers know combined arms better than their superiors - or at least more advanced at younger grades. They know how to work with host nation forces, call in fixed- and rotary-wing fires, artillery, and work with dismounts (conventional and SOF) and mechanized forces. Simultaneously. As lieutenants. If that's not "combined arms" then I don't know the meaning of the term.

And let's take a look at this focus on brigade and above operations. Do both of these experienced officers really believe that younger officers are "unschooled" in combined arms because of the nature of decentralized counterinsurgency operations? Both current theaters have plenty of examples of large-scale, combined arms operations - but just because the unit's front is more circular than linear doesn't dismiss the fact they are brigade-level operations. Further, employing weapons systems in this manner requires greater understanding of their capabilities because of the greater risk of fratricide.

Even during the invasion of Iraq, which was a corps-level operation, all I ever cared about was my commander's intent two levels up, my mission, and the missions of the units to my left and right. After the invasion, nothing changes except I now had to worry about what the units to my front and back and indigenous forces in the AOR were doing. Decentralized operations are the same in high- and low-intensity conflict. Even at NTC, I couldn't tell if we were doing a company or brigade operations, except that latter had three times as many observer/controllers wandering around. It doesn't matter to a company-level officer. Just as experience at corps-level operations isn't a prerequisite to effective leadership of battalions.

What I'm trying to get at, in a verbose way, is that today's younger officers are probably the most tactically competent officers our nation has seen in a long time with regard to maneuver and combined arms operations. Where I'll agree with Gian and LTC Weiss is that technical skills such as gunnery have atrophied - but this can be easily remedied. But the fact remains - the principles of warfare are the same for COIN as they are for HIC and our junior leaders are very, very good at executing those principles. So let's just stop with this "Armor is dead" leitmotif - it's not, nor is it endangered. Don't let OTS jade your perception of the quality and esprit of our Armor Corps. Please.

8 comments:

  1. "Combined arms operations" is yet another buzz-word in the eyes of the beholder. Combining UAVs, attack aircraft, Air Force jets, artillery and infantry at COP Keating is certainly combined arms. Maybe not the combined arms Col. Gentile is used to, but combined arms nonetheless.

    Laughable is the concept that Army corps don't know how to coordinate fires. News flash: That Army transformation we went through five years ago pushed artillery units down to the BCT level, where BCT commanders can control fire. Do we want corps-level micromanagement?

    It's almost as if the latest scare-piece at ChicagoBoyz is ripe for parody by a particularly sarcastic milblogger.

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  2. That is laughable. Like I said, the Army has moved on, mainly for the better in my opinion, but different does not equal inferior. This old-guy perspective seems to put centralization of nearly everything in high regard. But I don't think any modern battlefield would benefit from that. Oh, and combat is pretty decentralized by its nature anyway - you know. Because of the chaos.

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  3. For the most part, I'm with you. I've been hounding Gentile about his sepia-toned view of pre-9/11 training for over two years.

    But, where he has a point is that we are not well trained for high-intensity combined arms operations against a semi-capable opponent (Iran, China, Russia, for example). Sure, we do very complicated operations now at BDE & above and each BDE staff has a lot on its plate, both literally and figuratively. But just because we can skillfully do something complicated at that level does not mean that we can skillfully do all complicated things at that level.

    "Tell any lieutenant or captain who has lead in Iraq or Afghanistan that they don't understand combined arms operations because they've never done an old school breach or brigade live-fire. Go ahead. I dare you."

    I think you're erecting a strawman there. I wouldn't say they necessarily do not understand combined arms ops for that reason, nor do I think Gentile would. But I would say that they most likely do not have a good grasp of old school breaches or old school BDE-level combined arms ops.

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  4. @Schmedlap - I'm not saying that we can do everything at the BCT level. I'm saying the principles are sound. And we'll need to bone up on our gunnery skills.

    And I don't think I'm erecting a strawman here. Says LTC Weiss:

    "Armor, Artillery, Mechanized Infantry, and other branches are unschooled in combined arms competencies because they have been schooling themselves – to a very high degree – on the competencies needed to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan today."

    He says unschooled. I think that is flat out wrong. The competencies needed in Iraq and Afghanistan include combined arms competencies. Weiss seems to think that's not the case.

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  5. I fear that, with the renewed emphasis on "full-spectrum operations" at the CTCs, we're falling victim to OTS.

    As evidence, I'd like to note that O/Cs are, once again, wearing cat eyes on the backs of their patrol caps.

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  6. But, where he has a point is that we are not well trained for high-intensity combined arms operations against a semi-capable opponent (Iran, China, Russia, for example). Sure, we do very complicated operations now at BDE & above and each BDE staff has a lot on its plate, both literally and figuratively. But just because we can skillfully do something complicated at that level does not mean that we can skillfully do all complicated things at that level.

    I actually agree with this last sentence a lot, but I'd counter by saying that just because we can't do ALL complicated things at a high level doesn't mean we HAVE to.

    Tell me if this sounds insane, but I think that what Gunslinger calls OTS is a product of a certain kind of stale, "inside-the-box" thinking that venerates a cult of fire and movement. These folks tend to assume that the Iranians or the Chinese or the Russians would be interested in fighting us in the same ways they would have in the 80s, or that the overall risk we face from that sort of engagement is high enough to ignore the risk we take by shifting the bulk of training time and acquisition back in that set-piece, open-battlefield, fire-and-movement direction.

    And fair enough, if you seriously believe that there's a higher than .005% chance we'll be fighting a two-front war for the defense of Iraq against Iranian and Turkish mechanized forces, a war that lasts three months and inflicts 10K casualties on U.S. forces. If you think that's even remotely plausible, then of course it would make sense to spend a lot more time doing 80s-style NTC rotations to the exclusion of preparation for COIN, or stabops, or SFA training. But I don't think that's reflective of the expected requirement or mission set -- not even remotely.

    Where are the places that massed combined-arms combat oeprations against high-capability armies on the open plain is going to be necessary or even plausible in defense of American security interests?

    Maybe I'm on the wrong track here and doing what the Vietnamitis types did with COIN: make those kind of engagements seem so unpleasant, implausible, and unlikely largely by excluding them from the range of possible mission sets and refusing to prepare for them. Dunno.

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  7. I guess the point I'm making is that while the enemy has a vote, so do we.

    If the point is that we can't do the things well that our national security strategy requires, then that's one thing. But if it's that we can't do EVERYTHING well, then I'd say: so what?

    And of course it's not up to the services to determine the whys and the wherefores, but rather to prepare forces to respond to the direction of combatant commanders, and ultimately, the civilian leadership of the country.

    As an aside: this was pointed out in Gentile's Chicagoboyz thread, but the Battle of Debecka Pass suggests that we might occasionally get ourselves a little too worked up about how the conventional/combined arms gap is closing between the U.S. and other large, mechanized armies.

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  8. Well, to make a long story short, in order to suffer from "Old Tanker's Syndrome" - one needs to be an old tanker. The issue is not - mostly - whether platoons can maneuver as platoons: but if you don't understand fire and movement at that level, you will be lost as you scale up to company, battalion, or brigade level and have to put all the pieces together. Manuevering unmanned systems together with manned systems adds just that more complexity, makes the cat herding that more difficult. So if I were a young whippersnapper, I would not get to cocky - especially if I were spending a lot of time doing dismounted patrols and operating at a grunt's pace. Remember that your numbers are few - and getting fewer. That alone should be a humbling thought.

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