One of the most valuable lessons I ever learned came to me while I was playing enemy on a training exercise. It was a pretty simple exercise, organized to develop low-level tactics and command skills. Rifle sections – infantry squads, in US terminology – went around a circuit of half a dozen different scenarios, and each time they were forced to react to a contact. The riflemen got to test basic drills like reaction to enemy fire, locating the enemy and giving target indications; the section and fire team commanders had to do a rapid combat estimate, come up with a plan and issue orders for a section attack. As I say, pretty simple but very valuable.
For my scenario, I was holed up in a patch of rough ground at the top of a long, gentle slope. On my right the ground fell away to a small stream; to the left was an expanse of thick gorse, great cover from view but prickly and unpleasant to crawl through. My job was pretty simple; fire a few rounds when the section, patrolling forwards around the circuit, came within 250 yards of where I lurked, then keep engaging anything that moved until my position was finally overrun. It was an interesting one for the section commander because going left flanking meant crawling along the stream bed – which looked like it gave good cover from my position, but didn’t really – then attacking up a slope that was a lot steeper than it appeared from a distance; right flanking meant going into the gorse. So I settled myself into a small natural dip with a flask of tea, two packs of Marlboros, a sandbag full of blank ammo and an L1A1 rifle (this was quite a while ago) and waited to see what happened.
What happened was that, time after time, the sections carried out their initial drills quickly and effectively – get down, get into cover, start putting down fire on the suspected enemy position – then settled down for anywhere up to fifteen minutes. In that time the commander was doing his estimate and issuing orders while the troops engaged, but they were doing it in a kill zone. If there’d been a real enemy there, they’d have taken casualties, every time, and the enemy would have had plenty chances to slip away before the assault went in. With a standard battle load of four 20-round magazines per rifle, they’d also have been very short on ammo after a firefight that long – which is kind of unfortunate, because the enemy would be ready to do it all over again half a mile down the road.
Then one section did something different. As soon as his troops had shaken themselves into line the section commander gave a very quick set of battle orders – basically “Objective – enemy in rough ground at top of slope. Charlie fire team, go!” Less than a minute after the first shot they were coming at me, firing and moving first by fire teams, then as the range closed by half teams and finally pairs. Four or five minutes later a thunderflash landed beside my hole and the section swept over me. It was a crude plan – straight up the middle and bags of smoke – but it was carried out fast, aggressively and well. That was the only section I don’t think, for real, I could have got away from. Sure, if it was for real there could have been mines on the slope, but there could have been mines in the stream bed and in the gorse too.
So what was the lesson I learned? It’s that over-planning can be as bad as just rushing in. Through my career, I soon found that the same problem exists at higher levels of command, and if anything, it’s worse the further up the chain you go. Things are going downhill, too. When I first worked in a division headquarters, all the main action took place in one big tent with a dozen command vehicles backed up to it. The G3 map was in the middle, with the G2 map to one side and the combat service support one on the other. People wandered between maps all the time, swapping ideas and arguing about stuff. There were too many half-colonels trying to build empires for themselves but, in general, it was just small enough that it worked.
A decade later I returned to the same division to do basically the same job, but a couple of rungs further up the ladder, and found that in my absence, the headquarters had bloated like a dead whale on the beach. G3 should be running operations to deal with the enemy as described by G2 but the two branches weren’t even in the same tent anymore – they’d just grown too large to share the space. The buzz of activity that had surrounded the maps was gone, replaced by rows of desks and computer screens where people sat like NASA mission controllers, swapping information through chatrooms whose membership came and went as hyperactive majors had ideas for new ones. The daily cycle of meetings had swelled from two – the commander’s conferences at morning and evening shift change – to dozens. Junior NCOs who should have been collating and evaluating ISTAR reporting were spending most of their time preparing PowerPoints for the next briefing. The headquarters was awash with information, but it could take days to actually do anything with it. And, compared to the pogue’s paradise that careerist generals have assembled at Kabul Airport, that division was a model of stripped-down efficiency.
A common complaint of staff officers is that junior commanders constantly try to get out of meetings, and don’t pay attention when they do turn up. But is anyone really surprised? Most of what’s discussed isn’t relevant to them. They need to know their mission, the commander’s intent and the enemy they’re up against; that’s all. Endless PowerPoints of statistical analysis doesn’t matter to them. They don’t need it. They don’t want it. They have troops to look after, operations to plan and lead. They’re commanders, not regional sales managers chasing a writeup in the company magazine.
Our command structure is slowly choking to death on a toxic porridge of swollen staff, endless dissemination of useless data and corporate mistrust of decisiveness. On the ground, our troops work and fight as professionally as they always have, but they’re being let down by the triumph of managerialism over leadership. Reading Black Hawk Down, one thing that struck me was how, in the critical first hour when the force might have fought its way clear with relatively low casualties, it was constantly thwarted by contradictory and frankly idiotic orders given by micromanaging commanders in task force HQ or in the air above the battlefield. A lean, efficient command structure might have been able to assess the situation, come up with a simple extraction plan then execute it quickly, violently and successfully. Our modern system, however, is bureaucratic, sluggish and ultimately destined to fail.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.