Leadership: February 6, 2004


The latest U.S. Army plan for achieving unit cohesion, and increasing combat effectiveness,  involves taking on the army schools establishment and a decades old habit of favoring individual careers at the expense of unit effectiveness. Although it's been known for centuries that units of combat troops who train together, and stay together for many years, are superior to those that don't, this reality has largely been ignored since the 1950s. For over half a century, the emphasis has been on the educational and career needs of the individual soldier. It's the combat units that are most in need of this unit cohesion, and the combat officers and troops have been complaining for years about the inability to keep infantry squads, tank crews and unit leaders together long enough for the outfit to become a really effective unit. Combat troops have to work together like a sports team, until everyone knows what everyone else in the team is capable of and how they will react in various situations.

The biggest contributor to disruption has been the army school system. It's a good thing that all these professional schools are available, as they have made a difference in the quality of the leadership, and the capabilities of the leaders. But the schools take NCOs and officers out of their units for weeks or months at a time, disrupting training and cohesion. 

Another major problem is the legacy of the "individual replacement" system. For over half a century, combat losses have been replaced on an individual basis. Same thing in peacetime. When a soldier leaves, usually at the end of his enlistment, a single replacement is brought in. This means that units lose over five percent of their troops each month. Where this hurts is at the lowest level. An infantry fire team, of four or five troops, is only as effective as it is coordinated. Take one guy out and replace him with a new soldier, and it takes weeks, or months, for that team to get it's combat edge back. Same with a tank or artillery crew.

The proposed solution is to assign troops to combat battalions only if they can stay there for the next 34 months. The unit will have six months to train, then the unit will be considered available for service. Finally, there will be a two month reset period, where troops who are do to get out of the service, or move on to a new assignment, or a school, will do so. New troops will be brought in to get the unit up to strength and the 36 month cycle will begin all over again.

One of the potential problems with this system is that at the end of each cycle, the unit will lose many of its best NCOs and officers, as they are the ones who are eligible for promotion and have to go off to attend to professional schools that are now required for higher rank. Currently, these officers and NCOs are just sent off to the schools, leaving the unit to find someone to fill in until they come back. The 36 Month system will replace the students in school, and after the schooling is finished, the NCOs and officers will be assigned to unit that needs replacements before it starts its cycle again. This may not be a problem, because experience may reveal that having the same NCOs and officers in a unit for more than one 36 month cycle may not add much more cohesion and capability to a unit. History has shown that units that keep their troops for a decade or more are better than those that are constantly gaining and losing people. But given the high quality of NCOs and officers, the 36 month cycle may be sufficient to get close to the maximum amount of combat effectiveness.

The new system means that about 75 percent of your combat units will always be a peak effectiveness, Even those units that are in the two month break or six months of training can be sent off to a combat zone if its an emergency. Such units will still have excellent NCOs and officers, and the troops will all have completed their individual combat training. During the 36 Month cycle, troops lost due to sickness, accidents or other causes will be replaced in groups, that will go through special training to familiarize them on how the unit operates. Such losses will not be large, and will not, based on past experience, do much damage to the units effectiveness.

The 36 month system is based on lessons learned from earlier attempts, and most of the things that can go wrong have been addressed. Everyone in the army agrees that keeping troops together makes them more effective in combat. At this point, its up to the senior generals to fight off attempts by the many bureaucracies and special interests to wreck the system. In the end, it always depends on the quality of the leadership.




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