Support: March 11, 2004

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In Iraq and Afghanistan, American troops are increasingly using their most powerful weapon, flexible training. The U.S. armed forces learned a valuable lesson sixty years ago, during World War II; that training for combat has to change constantly because during a major war the weapons and tactics used by both sides will change. Even before American combat troops went on the offensive in mid-1942, reports of how Allied soldiers were doing on the battlefield were being studied for ways to change American training. Not everyone agreed that training methods and subjects should constantly change, but by 1944, everyone was a believer. In every war since, it was a given that some of the first U.S. troops who saw combat, should be shipped back to the training centers to help adapt the training to whatever new conditions there were on the current battlefields. 

This approach to combat training has intensified during the current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. For one thing, there are now teams of historians and researchers out there with the troops, reporting back to training bases in the U.S. This information is used to modify current training methods, and develop new ones. Thus soon after combat occurred in Afghanistan and Iraq, training back in the United States was being modified. Not just training, but also tactics and all manner of techniques used by units supporting the combat troops. It was recognized as far back as World War II that if you adapted to new conditions faster than the enemy, you had a major advantage. In Afghanistan, al Qaeda and Taliban adapted to American weapons and tactics they had never encountered before (like smart bombs), and after a few months these weapons were not as effective as they first were. But American troops were adapting as well. The "adaptation race" continues in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

In addition, trainers in the United States stay in email contact with many of the men and women they trained, and get feedback about which training methods or subjects need modification. This makes it possible to improve training methods even more quickly. If you are fast enough in making the changes, troops arriving in the combat zone won't as much additional training to bring them up to date on the latest wrinkles. This has been a problem since World War II, where some of the sharper division commanders set up special "combat refresher courses" for newly arrived replacements. Even though there was no email back then, or much intercontinental telephone service, information on what new tricks the enemy was up to could have been sent back to training bases daily. This wasn't done because no one in a position of authority realized how important it was and made it happen. Some division commanders, being closer to the action, did realize the need for acting faster on retraining the troops for what the enemy was doing recently. But once the troops in combat got access to email, another Iraqi war first, the training units in the States and the troops at the front realized how mutually useful it would be to communicate. 

In Iraq, the frequent adjustments have to do with new attack methods used by hostile Iraqis, especially with roadside bombs. Troops in Iraq will use digital cameras to photograph new roadside bomb designs, describe them, and then email text and photos back to the trainers. Troops a few weeks away from arriving in Iraq can then be shown the latest road side bomb designs, the better to spot and avoid them. This approach went a long way towards dealing with the "newbie disease." New troops arriving in Iraq did not have to learn so many new things, as their up-to-date training had prepared them well.

The increased speed in noting, recording and acting on new enemy methods can backfire if you are not careful in guarding the information. Most of this information, like how roadside bombs are designed, is of little interest to the media or general public, but the Iraqi guerillas would love to be on the distribution list. It seems that the dozen or so Iraqi resistance groups do not communicate that often with each other. American troops have a better idea of all the bomb making and ambush tactics used by all the Iraqi resistance groups than any one Iraqi group does. So this collected information has to be handled carefully lest it serve to make the isolated Iraqi resistance groups more lethal.

Most people outside the military don't realize how important, or lethal, training is. But for thousands of years it has been one very real secret weapon.

 


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