Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Confessions of an Adjutant: the sausage-making of awards policies

I'm a few days late to this discussion, but I wanted the passion surrounding this Air Force Times article on awards to subside a bit before I wrote about it. A soldier may fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon - but that fighting isn't exclusively with the enemy. There are few things soldiers love to argue more about among themselves than awards and fight about it they will. It's such a personal topic, often shrouded in jealousies ("They gave that guy a BSM?!?"), nebulous guidance that leaves awards to commanders with different criteria, rank-based determination of awards, awards for merely doing your job, and the "everybody wins, everybody gets a medal" mentality.

With 6 years of active duty I held a few positions: tank and scout platoon leader, troop XO, assistant S3, brigade planner. I was even an Assistant Support Platoon Leader for two days (seriously - two very long days). But for an entire year I was a squadron adjutant (for you non-military types, think HR representative and administrative assistant to the CEO for a 500+ person organization) at the end of a deployment, through a redeployment cycle, and into a deployment ramp-up and that was the hardest year of my short military career. As the center cog of the awards sausage-making machine I think I can shed some light on why awards are so hard and why there isn't an easy solution to fix the problem.

We should begin by visiting Army Regulation 600-8-22, "Military Awards" which is the Army's user manual for awards. Section 1-12 tells us that "the objective of the Department of the Army Military Awards Program is to provide tangible recognition for acts of valor, exceptional service or achievement, special skills or qualifications, and acts of heroism not involving actual combat" and that "implementation of the provisions of this regulation is a command responsibility." Bottom line is that commanders award awards to recognize what soldiers do. The remainder of the regulation goes through approval authorities, time limits, revocations, and standards for each awards. Gripping stuff.

How does this work in the real Army, beyond the regulatory constraints of Human Resources Command? Well, awards policies effectively fall into three categories: peace-time achievement, peace-time service, and war-time achievement and service.

Peace-time achievement is the simplest to deal with. Commanders have the discretion to give awards for singular acts of excellence, the level of which award depends upon the commander's rank and excellence of the act. Giving awards out make commanders feel like they're really doing something for their soldiers and not merely for those soldiers trying to accumulate promotion points. Top tank at Table VIII gunnery? Here's an ARCOM for the crew. Chaplain's assistant organized a bad-ass Easter Egg hunt? AAM! For lesser achievements commanders can give challenge coins, which they tend to apply liberally. Basically, these awards are the commander's whim, they don't happen too often, and in spite of Ex's anecdote I've rarely seen officers receive them.

The next category - peace-time service awards - is where things start to get complicated. We can start with the fact that there are only so many types of awards - Army Achievement Medal (AAM), Army Commendation Medal (ARCOM), Meritorious Service Medal (MSM) - before we get into medals reserved for General and Flag Officers and their enlisted counterparts. The three awards mentioned are given in peace-time for one of two reasons: permanent change of station or retirement/resignation/end-term-of-service. Generally, retirees E-8 and under get MSMs for their 20+ years of service. Got it. Most units have a rank cut-off for non-retirement awards. For instance, E-4 Specialists and below get AAMs unless they were absolute studs - whether they were moving to a new duty station or getting out of the Army. E-5s to E-7s (maybe -8s) and O-1 thru O-3 get ARCOMs, unless you're coming out of a success command in which case it's an MSM. Etc. Basically there's a matrix for what you get and you know what your service award is going to be before you even start providing that service (unless you're a total stud or dud).

I imagine you're telling yourself a couple of things. First, that this systems isn't complicated at all. Second that for the most part these awards are virtually meaningless and that they might as well just give it to you when you sign in to the unit. The reason this is where awards get complicated is that the first two awards I mentioned, AAM and ARCOM, are the only two awards commanders give for achievement and also the bulk of service awards. The problem is that one soldier gets an AAM for something mundane and stupid and another soldier will get the exact same medal for 5 years of service to his nation. Between that and "everybody wins" a lot of people start questioning the sanity of the system. As an adjutant I had to explain to the commander why someone didn't deserve an award in accordance with our matrix in stead of substantiating why any soldier should get an award. It's ass backwards, it cheapens the system, and it makes soldiers disgruntled.

And that's all before we wade into the minefield that is war-time awards. Achievement awards in combat usually fall under the "heroism" heading (not always - sometimes an intel analyst will really make a breakthrough and the commander will award him or her). Each commander has different criteria for heroism, to include gradations of heroism, with approval for those determinations at the 2-star or higher level. This leaves a lot of room for the commander's whim. It also means that there is a lot of space - physically as well as time and perceptions of reality - between the point where the act took place and the guy who signs off on the award. This can obviously lead to problems. Silver Stars and above usually get thorough treatment and vetting, but criteria for Valor devices (a bronze "V" you pin to an award to denote it was for heroism) vary widely because they require (on the whole) lesser documentation and vetting. You also have problems with the fact that heroism isn't effectively defined in the regulation (how about that definition on page 183...). Beyond that, what delineates heroism deserving a Bronze Star Medal (BSM) with V device versus an ARCOM with V device? Entirely up to the commander. As an adjutant, I didn't take it upon myself to screen the award recommendations for content (that was a commander-to-commander issue) and merely just checked the admin blocks so that the recommendation wouldn't hit a bureaucratic hurdle. But I did lose count of the number of times the commander asked me "Why is this on my desk? This isn't heroic." Frankly, I didn't know what heroic meant when we're comparing completely different situations that occurred when I wasn't around.

War-time service awards are similar to peace-time awards (matrix solution by rank and position) except that MSMs are rarely given and everybody wants a BSM - wars end after all and it's a super thing to put on your resume. Our brigade's policy was Sergeants First Class and above were to be awarded BSMs unless an exception was made. Oh the fight over making sure those couple of young lieutenants who shouldn't have gotten one didn't - it would have been easier to get them Silver Stars than downgrade a recommendation from BSM to ARCOM. Command policy was unless ineligible everyone got an award and according to the matrix. Many of us wondered what the point of that was, especially as we already received combat patches and Iraq Campaign Medals for emitting enough brain waves to board a plane and do our jobs for a year. Why did we need another medal for the exact same thing? The best answer I had was: the commander ordered it.

Frankly, our Army gives out too many awards and too many of these are for simply doing your job. Some awards mean a lot to the people who received them - and you should be proud if you think you deserved it. On the whole - and here's really the crux of the matter - commanders give out the awards they do in the way they do because they want to do right by their soldiers. You don't want to be that major without a BSM going into a lieutenant colonel promotion board and your commander doesn't want to be the guy that ruins your career over a bit of colored ribbon. It's a broken system that awards mediocrity, but those awards mean a lot to the people who get them. And for those that don't deserve them, they know it and it doesn't mean anything to them. For that reason I'm not sure getting rid of all non-combat/heroism awards is the way to go (in spite of what I said on Twitter the other night). I'm proud of some of my medals, including non-combat, and not of others. Medals may cause many an argument, but why deprive commanders of their ability to recognize their soldiers because some admin or supply clerk got a Bronze Star? Life's unfair and that's okay - awards sausage-making has always been ugly. It's not like Brits a hundred years ago weren't bitching around the campfire about that dick from the next company over who got the VC because his uncle was in the cabinet. Or Romans on Hadrian's Wall having the exact same conversation (only about whatever awards they got back then). Soldiers bitch about medals. They always have and they always will and that's because it's important to them.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The doctrinal novelty of "Prevent, Shape, Win"

Or not.

Here's an excerpt from the 1993 revision of FM 100-5, Operations (which was the Army's capstone doctrinal manual until it was re-numbered as FM 3-0), under the heading "The Role of Doctrine":
Doctrine is the statement of how America's Army, as part of a joint team, intends to conduct war and operations other than war. It is the condensed expression of the Army's fundamental approach to fighting, influencing events in operations other than war, and deterring actions detrimental to national interests.
Sounds an awful lot like WIN, SHAPE, and PREVENT, huh?

P.S. Three principal roles, folks, not principle. Geez.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The real threat of hybrid conflict

Talk to ten different military analysts about the meaning of the term "hybrid war," and you'll probably get 20 different answers. Some folks like to talk about hybrid threats, others about hybrid warfare; some talk up hybrid adversaries, and still others worry about hybrid conflict. Usually what they're getting at falls into the grey area between irregular warfare conducted by poorly-armed non-state militants and the purportedly more traditional, "conventional" conflict waged by high-tech, capital-intensive state militaries. In the hybrid future, we're told, irregular adversaries will employ high-tech weapons while sophisticated state enemies are likely to adopt guerilla-style tactics—avoiding American strengths while maximizing their own.

Nearly all wars are a strategic hybrid: a mix of violent action, diplomacy, and messaging, combining destruction, coercion, and persuasion. The modern hybrid war construct implies that future conflict will take on a more tactically hybrid character: that states will employ guerilla tactics in concert with heavy weapons, or that sub-state groups will use sophisticated weapons hand-in-hand with terrorism and insurgency.

You see, as Conrad Crane has said before (and as I love to repeat), there are only two kinds of war: asymmetric and stupid. Capable adversaries will always seek to capitalize on their own strengths and focus on our weaknesses. The hybrid concept simply tells us that violent actors will seek to diversify their capabilities and become less predictable by employing weapons and tactics more frequently associated with different parts of the sophistication and organization spectrum.

Big deal, right? If a weapon system or tactical method is proven to be effective, shouldn't we expect that our adversaries will make it a part of what they do? Frank Hoffman says hybrid war is defined by a "blend of the lethality of state conflict with the fanatical and protracted fervor of irregular war," which I'm not sure tells us all that much of anything about how it differs from the sort of war we already know. If those capable of state-like lethality had access to a sustaining base of manpower imbued with the "fanatical and protracted fervor" of violent extremists, why haven't they blended the two before now?

Hoffman does put his finger on the characteristic that seems important to the whole range of hybrid warfare disciples, and that's increased lethality. But dramatically increased battlefield lethality has been a challenge for miltary planners and theorists for a century and a half, one that has been addressed pretty well by those militaries with economic and intellectual capacity to adapt. For our adversaries to combine weapons lethality with "fanatical and protracted fervor" doesn't pose nearly so significant a military challenge as does the combination of lethality with effective force employment.

The big problem with the modern hybrid war concept is that it's based both on a misunderstanding of military effectiveness – one that fails to acknowledge that we do, in fact, know with relative certainty what works on the battlefield (Stephen Biddle calls it "the modern system of force employment," and has specified its component parts pretty elaborately in a 2004 book called Military Power) – and on a blurring of the real distinction between success in battle and success in war.

Still, not every organized violent actor fights the same way, and there are a variety of reasons for that. But if you want to kill the enemy, destroy formations, and seize and hold ground, you do your best to employ your forces in line with the dictates of the modern system. That is, if you want to fight, you do the things you have to do to get good at fighting—you learn to shoot, move, and communicate in dispersed formations, operating with a combined-arms team that seeks maximum cover and concealment to blunt enemy firepower, and you procure the weapons and equipment that facilitate those skills.

Some of those that have learned the modern system are still not capable of producing favorable war outcomes, owing to strategic failures or other circumstantial limitations. And other entities do achieve political success even when they simply cannot do the things that are neccessary to operate effectively on the modern battlefield, whether for internal political, cultural, or economic reasons. That's because they wage war in a strategic fashion (asymmetric, even!)—by minimizing the importance of fighting to the accomplishment of their goals.

Futurists hawking hybrid concepts that focus on tactical or technological hybridity often seem to overlook this basic point: tactical effectiveness is really important, and almost every violent actor is going to do his best to achieve it when the political, cultural, doctrinal, or financial barriers are surmountable. But tactical effectiveness isn't everything, and it's often extremely difficult and extremely expensive to achieve and sustain. All the "hybrid warfare" idea tells us is that in the future, the range of potential adversaries is not so clearly dichotomous when we look at buying power, human capital, and tactical and strategic imagination as it may have been before. Sometimes guerillas will want to fight, because they've gotten better at it. And sometimes armies will want to talk, because they think it's gotten too expensive to fight.

We needed a new term for that?

I bring all of this up in relation to an article that ran on AOL Defense last week, headlined "How to Fight Hybrid Threats: Tanks, Airstrikes, and Training." The piece could just as easily have been called "How to Be Good at Battle: Shoot, Move, and Communicate." I don't mean to be too dismissive, though, because it's a useful reminder to the general audience of the point I made above: we know certain things about how to fight effectively, and our recent involvement in the sort of conflicts where fighting power has thus far failed to translate well into "victory" ought not make us forget that.

The piece is built around an interview with Dr. David Johnson, a RAND scholar and retired Army officer who published a book last year about the lessons of the Israel's recent wars. I'm sure some of you will have read (or at least skimmed) Hard Fighting: Israel in Lebanon and Gaza when it first appeared; if not, it's available for free (pdf) on RAND's website, and the AOL Defense interview does a good job of getting at some of the major conclusions.
The driver of the hybrid threat, for Johnson, is the spread of long-range weapons: anti-tank guided missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons (called "man-portable air defense systems," or MANPADS), even relatively unsophisticated long-range rockets like those used by Hezbollah in 2006. When Israeli airstrikes alone couldn't find and destroy the well-hidden rocket launchers, Israel sent in ground troops, only to be bloodied by unexpectedly fierce resistance.
Here we see the bankruptcy of the hybrid idea as a tactical construct laid bare: what's just been described as "the driver of the hybrid threat" is in fact the driver of nearly all tactical adaptation over the last century or so: the problem of the offensive in the face of overwhelming firepower—increasing weapons range and rate of fire, the deepening of the battlefield, and the consequent limitations on tactical and operational maneuver.

So why is "the hybrid threat" any different to the basic military problem we've been trying to solve for all this time? Johnson contends that a shift in Western states' priorities from inter-state war to counter-guerrilla operations has pushed them to forget about that basic problem: instead of worrying about the perfection of protected maneuver in order to close with and destroy a lethal enemy, Israel and the U.S. have focused narrowly on the subsidiary issue of how to identify and target the enemy.
So how can the US prepare for hybrid threats? In part by going back to the future, said Johnson, whose books include a history of how the US learned to use tanks and airpower in World War II. "It is a problem that can't be solved by a single service," he said. The Air Force and Army today work together more closely than ever before in providing air support to ground troops in Afghanistan, but air-ground cooperation has gotten good in past conflicts as well, only to break down post-war when bureaucratic and budgetary battles between the services start to matter more. Hybrid threats will impose serious limits on helicopter operations – as the Soviets found out in Afghanistan after the CIA provided the mujahideen with Stinger missiles – so support from higher, faster, and harder-to-hit fixed-wing aircraft will be essential. Conversely, the Air Force will need the ground troops to root out hybrid enemies from their hiding places, he argued, just as the Israeli Air Force proved unable to spot Hezbollah's rocket launchers from overhead. "Ground maneuver is the only thing that will make him visible because he's hiding from everything overhead," said Johnson.
The challenge of so-called hybrid war is that it's reminded us of the need to consider these two questions together: firepower and maneuver, attack and defense, target identification and force protection. The excerpt above is like a billboard for Biddle's modern system (miraculously, Johnson doesn't cite Military Power in his recent study, though he does take lessons from a recent monograph Biddle co-authored about the Lebanon war): artillery and air power are used in close combination with ground forces to pin down the enemy, force him to keep his head down and allow friendly ground forces to maneuver on his position. But how to separate him from the population, to force him to come out and fight? Well-trained infantry must be capable of meeting the enemy in his sanctuaries – whether forests or mountains or urban areas – to identify, isolate, and fix him for destruction. These are the fundamentals of combined-arms land warfare, as useful for Americans in 2018 as for Germans in 1918.

But this is all somewhat peripheral to the real cause for concern with hybrid war: it exacerbates the expectation–outcome gap so often responsible for puncturing our will to fight. The real problem with so-called hybrid adversaries isn't that they're so much more dangerous than the range of threats we've prepared for—it's that they're so much more dangerous than we expect that they should be, because they're not states. We don't expect Hizballah or the Taliban to be able to deepen the battlefield with anti-access technologies, the sort of weapons that allow them to target exposed forces even when they're not on patrol. We don't expect guerilla fighters to take on Western infantry and armor on the conventional battlefield. When it comes down to it, we frankly don't expect sub-state groups to be able to kill Americans in what we've always considered to be the sort of straight-up battlefield fight in which U.S. arms are dominant; this explains the widespread freak-out in response to Wanat, where American soldiers were killed and positions overrun by Taliban infantry using infiltration tactics and small arms.

I recently mentioned Patricia Sullivan's "War Aims and War Outcomes: Why Powerful States Lose Limited Wars," a paper that I think can help us to understand the true political danger of the hybrid threat. Sullivan constructs a model for war outcomes in asymmetric conflict in which
strong states select themselves into armed conflicts only when their pre-war estimate of the cost of attaining their political objectives through the use of force falls below the threshold of their tolerance for costs. The more the actual costs of victory exceed a state's prewar expectations, the greater the risk that it will be pushed beyond its cost-tolerance threshold and forced to unilaterally withdraw its forces before it attains its war aims. (497)
She goes on to make a compelling case about the difference between wars of coercion and wars of destruction, but that's less germane to our point here. What I'm getting at is this: because we don't expect irregular adversaries to fight in conventional ways and with conventional weapons, we're not prepared for the sort of casualties that are normally associated even with wildly successful conventional ground combat. (This expectation is exaggerated yet further by the experiences of Desert Storm and OIF I, when U.S. forces inflicted historically unprecedented casualty ratios on conventional enemies due to a remarkable confluence of American technological edge, extraordinarily poor Iraqi force employment, and good fortune. Our recent opponents have been irregulars who mostly lack the capacity to engage our forces using the modern system and regulars who proved unwilling or incapable of doing so.) In short, we have forgotten that land warfare has significant costs in men and materiel, even when waged successfully.

is the real threat of hybrid conflict: that it reminds us of how bloody war is and has always been; that it delivers that reminder during a strategically inconsequential war; and that the lessons we learn about cost tolerance during that strategically inconsequential war shape our expectations for the future in perverse ways and leave us unwilling to sustain the necessary costs when the next Big One comes along.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Strike 1: more on ends and ways in limited wars

I wrote a post (Ends as wasting assets) and it appears to have been a swing and a miss. Not only did Gulliver not understand it, I've had some other feedback along the same lines. Which leads me to believe I really missed something. Please do not consider this a comprehensive explanation of my previous post - that will come later this week when my paid work is caught up - but I did want to hit a two things from Gulliver's post.

First, it seems that Gully's primary confusion with my post is my linking process-driven operations (such as in Afghanistan) with policy-makers who care more about (as Gulliver said) "doing right-looking things than right-ending things, because campaign plans and operational concepts aren't the purview of those politicians."  I don't doubt that he's confused. This was the biggest logical leap of my post. One of those leaps that seemed clear in my head, but that particular intra-cranial clarity was a singularity.  I think my point of view posits that policy-makers don't "care more" about right-looking than right-ending things. The causality in this situation stems from the fact that for the political and policy-making class (which includes high-level decision-makers in U.S. Government agencies who are not General or Flag Officers, including within the Department of Defense, and sometimes including these GOFOs) looking and ending are the same thing in their process-oriented world view. It isn't that they don't care how things end, it's that they believe that if they do the right process it will end correctly. This is a nuanced, yet important, distinction from what Gulliver stated. And this, I believe, is a fundamental aspect of process-driven policies - ends are subservient to the process. It gets a bit tedious to think about this way, but process-driven is ways-driven, giving primacy to one branch of the strategic calculus over the other. Including ends, which while not necessarily primary at least helps decides ways and means.

The second point I'll address now is with regard to the CvC quote I used that surprised Gulliver. I'll avoid his dependence upon the "somewhat more fluent Paret/Howard version" which although true is somewhat blasphemous for CvC constructionists such as myself who prefer the Graham to better understand what strategy wonks of yore had worked with. But before we get into a supranerdy debate on translations of classic texts, let's get on with it. Gulliver is right that the quote I used was meant to set the conditions by which absolute war can come to fruition. CvC does note that the nature of war re-shapes the character of of the political contest. Gulliver points out that "in limited war, our actions are conceived as violent but discrete and purposive acts of policy, while as war moves toward its absolute form our actions are increasingly divorced from discrete political objectives short of the destruction of our enemy."

But this is the whole point of my last post. Limited war does not necessarily attempt to achieve discrete and purposive acts of policy, although that is the ideal. In the wake of the industrial wars of the 20th Century, those events that would push any war, intended as limited but that does not swiftly achieve its purposive objectives, towards its absolute form no longer push in that direction for Western nations.  Modern liberal thought (in the global sense of the rights of the individual above the state, not American domestic political thought) negates the ability of Western nations to wage absolute war because of its human toll. So what happens when decision points occur that in the past would have led to absolute forms of war when limited war fails to achieve its limited ends in a limited time frame?

My postulate is that process has usurped absolute war in such circumstances. Policy and politics can no longer decide to eradicate peoples or their armies in entirety in limited wars (destroyed armies are a bitch to rebuild), so when limited ends can't be met something must replace the nature of escalation to absolutism. I believe this is process - with the assumption that modern liberal thought dictates that many in the policy world would believe that process trumps violence in achieving ends. If it didn't, if we didn't appeal to the rational minds of individuals, the probability to return to industrial warfare would increase. The violence of which would not be proportional to the limited ends of interests, vice security.

So yes, my exegesis of Clausewitz veers somewhat from what he intended (and yes, that counters my constructionist critique of Gulliver's use of the Paret/Howard translation - so shut up and I don't want to hear it because it was a joke), but I think that logically it makes sense given the improbability of absolute war - especially for conflicts begun for limited ends.

I hope this clarifies my previous post - at least somewhat. Again, I hope to tackle the confusion more in depth later this week. Until then, this will have to do. But isn't Clausewitz fun???