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Old 02-08-2014   #1
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Post Training observations

Quick recommendation: Look at the article "Training observations" on Volume 2 Issue 1 of the Journal of Military Operations.

It's about observations after a two-week battle group* exercise (apparently Brits). It gives a nice glimpse of how difficult it is to shake off "Afghan-ism"s.
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Old 02-08-2014   #2
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It looks like the author was talking about an armoured BattleGroup exercise on Salisbury Plain or Germany.
The lessons are split. Some of them are 'Afghanisms' and relate directly to the use of TTPs in Afghanistan. Interesting that no mention was made of the 'Afghan Snake'. Most lessons in my opinion simply reflect a lack of experience. The British Army increasingly focused training away from high tempo combined arms operations against a peer/near peer opponent from 2008. There is very little experience left. This linked with resource constraints that mean that few units do much effective tactical training with their vehicles mean that trying to recover from this training/experience deficit will take time.

The article would have benefited considerably from additional context, in particular the exercise scenario. Understanding 'why' is far more useful then knowing 'what'.
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Old 02-08-2014   #3
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Quick recommendation: Look at the article "Training observations" on Volume 2 Issue 1 of the Journal of Military Operations.

It's about observations after a two-week battle group* exercise (apparently Brits). It gives a nice glimpse of how difficult it is to shake off "Afghan-ism"s.
The problem only arises when you apply troops out of role. For example using armour in an infantry counter-insurgency role.

Has the British military (or the Yanks) really learned anything from the war in Afghanistan? And what if anything that they learned there must be discarded before they can get back to 'proper' soldiering playing soldiers like in the style of WW2 driving up and down in tanks?

All this again reminds me of the outstanding man and his magnificent book The Anatomy of Courage

Lord Moran wrote six months after the armistice:

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The clear, war-given insight into the essence of a man has already grown dim. With the coming of peace we have gone back to those comfortable doctrines that some had thought war had killed. Cleverness has come into its own again. The men who won the war never left England; that was where the really clever people were most useful. I sometimes wonder what some of those good souls who came through make of it all. They remember that in the life of the trenches a few simple demands were made of all men; if they were not met the defaulter became an outlaw. Do they ask of themselves when they meet the successful of the present how such men would have fared in that other time where success in life had seemed a mirage? Are they silently in their hearts making those measurements of men which they learnt when there was work afoot that was a man’s work? They know a man, for reasons which they are too inarticulate to explain, and they are baffled because others deny what seems to them so simple and so sure.

Last edited by davidbfpo; 02-21-2014 at 11:29 AM. Reason: later quote in q marks
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Old 02-08-2014   #4
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I read a long time ago that based on observations after the world wars, a rule of thumb was that it takes an army three years to discard lessons learned and go soft and unrealistic again, and it takes about two decades till the very last experienced NCOs and officers leave the army.

Most training in the field lacks wartime experience after a few years already, since even the most junior NCOs and officers with wartime experience move into cushier jobs than training green troops outdoors.
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Old 02-09-2014   #5
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Has the British military (or the Yanks) really learned anything from the war in Afghanistan? And what if anything that they learned there must be discarded before they can get back to 'proper' soldiering playing soldiers like in the style of WW2 driving up and down in tanks?
As with any conflict the issue is determining which lessons are specific to this time & space (the war) and which lessons are applicable to all times & space (a war). The process that the UK is going through is therefore much like that it underwent post-Boer War (demonstrated in Spencer Jones excellent book From Boer War to World War), indeed many of the lessons are not new and are simply old lessons relearnt.

Afghanistan was a limited war fought with limited means and to uncertain strategic ends. The big lesson from Afghanistan is how to use military means to achieve policy ends in the current (western liberal) social and political climate which demands wars of discretion be fought not for national interest but for moral imperatives, with a finite horizon and very low appetite for risk.

At the lower tactical level the lessons revolve around targeting and planning cycles, understanding and mitigating risk, use of PGMs, the reluctance to use Fires (indirect & direct) to suppress and a focus on using them to destroy (this in turn born out of an intolerance for collateral damage), tempo and combined arms manoeuvre (emphasis being on manoeuvre).

Structurally UK infantry has fundamentally reshaped and augmented battalion HQ structures and Rifle Coy structures. Adaptive Force brigades are geographically focused on specific areas and career streams are opening up similar to the US Foreign Military Service Officer stream.

With most company commanders and below having known nothing but Afghanistan the army is to a large extent captive to its own experiences, there is a depth but not breadth of knowledge. Few have experience of training in combined arms manoeuvre against a peer foe or of operating outside of a Forward Operating Base lay down.

In 1914 approx 40% of the BEF's established 165,000 strength had served with the Colours for 2 years or less. The British Army is already discharging officers and soldiers who have completed their minimum engagement period but who have never deployed on operations. Armies are traditionally young and traditionally inexperienced.
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Old 02-09-2014   #6
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As with any conflict the issue is determining which lessons are specific to this time & space (the war) and which lessons are applicable to all times & space (a war). The process that the UK is going through is therefore much like that it underwent post-Boer War (demonstrated in Spencer Jones excellent book From Boer War to World War), indeed many of the lessons are not new and are simply old lessons relearnt.
12 years later. What would be interesting is what the ranks of the the officers with Boer War experience were at the time of the Boer War. This also for the senior NCOs.

Bought the book on Kindle, thank you.

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Afghanistan was a limited war fought with limited means and to uncertain strategic ends. The big lesson from Afghanistan is how to use military means to achieve policy ends in the current (western liberal) social and political climate which demands wars of discretion be fought not for national interest but for moral imperatives, with a finite horizon and very low appetite for risk.
It was a cock-up.

The decision to stay and get involved with 'nation building' rather than leave after the Taliban broke and ran for Pakistan with the threat to come back if AQ ever returned was a catastrophic error.

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At the lower tactical level the lessons revolve around targeting and planning cycles, understanding and mitigating risk, use of PGMs, the reluctance to use Fires (indirect & direct) to suppress and a focus on using them to destroy (this in turn born out of an intolerance for collateral damage), tempo and combined arms manoeuvre (emphasis being on manoeuvre).
It is at this 'lower tactical level' that future senior officers and senior NCOs learn their trade. The question is whether these future generals and sergeants major have been exposed to war/combat/operations sufficiently to give them the needed grounding? Or did they just have the odd 6 months tour over a number of years?

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Structurally UK infantry has fundamentally reshaped and augmented battalion HQ structures and Rifle Coy structures. Adaptive Force brigades are geographically focused on specific areas and career streams are opening up similar to the US Foreign Military Service Officer stream.
How exactly does all this improve the Brit military as a fighting force?

Whenever I hear of reorgs and reshapings I think of this quote:

Quote:
“We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. Presumably the plans for our employment were being changed. I was to learn later in life that, perhaps because we are so good at organizing, we tend as a nation to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.” - Charlton Ogburn, pp. 32-33, “Merrill’s Marauders: The truth about an incredible adventure,” Harper’s Magazine, January 1957
Previously falsely attributed to Gaius Petronius Arbiter

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With most company commanders and below having known nothing but Afghanistan the army is to a large extent captive to its own experiences, there is a depth but not breadth of knowledge. Few have experience of training in combined arms manoeuvre against a peer foe or of operating outside of a Forward Operating Base lay down.
Well that is another self inflicted wound.

The Brit rotation was 6 months in Afghan and then 18 months sitting around doing apparently very little before the next tour.

I asked again and again (in the Afghan thread) whether the most productive use of the 18 months had been made. No satisfactory reply. I am left to assume that the Brits being financial over extended anyway that there were no respources available to continue with training in other phases/types of warfare.

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In 1914 approx 40% of the BEF's established 165,000 strength had served with the Colours for 2 years or less. The British Army is already discharging officers and soldiers who have completed their minimum engagement period but who have never deployed on operations. Armies are traditionally young and traditionally inexperienced.
Not sure where you are going with this.

I would suggest that an important statistic is rather what percentage of officers and senior NCOs with significant combat exposure are retained to be in place for the next war ... and having passed on their experience in the intervening period.

I remind you a lesson from the Australian experience (this quote from the Brit document 'Serve to Lead'):

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"In August 1942 the 39th and 53rd Battalions of the Australian Militia, composed of 18 year old conscripts, collided with a Japanese brigade advancing south across Papua New Guinea’s Kokoda Trail. The 53rd battalion turned and ran. The 39th battalion, which a few weeks earlier had received an influx of experienced officers and NCO’s, stood its ground and over the next month fought the Japanese to a standstill. This action is regarded as a test in laboratory conditions of the impact of leadership on fighting performance."
So sadly the Brits have missed the point again.

PS: good to see you back posting. May be travelling to mud-island shortly, you around?

Last edited by davidbfpo; 02-21-2014 at 11:32 AM. Reason: q marks added
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Old 02-09-2014   #7
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12 years later. What would be interesting is what the ranks of the the officers with Boer War experience were at the time of the Boer War. This also for the senior NCOs.
For the officers generally Major & above. The Boer War was unique in the annals of British Imperial military history in that it had an institutional effect on the British Army, most probably because it involved most of the British Army. It would be interesting to see what % of the US Army (Active & Reserve) have participated on operations in Iraq & Afghanistan.
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Bought the book on Kindle, thank you.
You are very welcome. I'm sorry to say that I don't receive commission!

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It was a cock-up.

The decision to stay and get involved with 'nation building' rather than leave after the Taliban broke and ran for Pakistan with the threat to come back if AQ ever returned was a catastrophic error.
it will be interesting to see what Chilcott says on the matter. What Chilcott has revealed so far is the absence of any coherent strategic decision making apparatus. That said, the UK does generally get a Government it voted for & that reflects society at large.

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It is at this 'lower tactical level' that future senior officers and senior NCOs learn their trade. The question is whether these future generals and sergeants major have been exposed to war/combat/operations sufficiently to give them the needed grounding? Or did they just have the odd 6 months tour over a number of years?
Well, in a year on operations on the Western Front in 1916 the average subaltern would spend 101 days at the front of which 2/3 would be in frontline trenches. So a FOB deployed subaltern (as most Infantry platoons were) in Afghanistan would fit in slightly more frontline time (circa 150 days) then his 1916 contemporary. The difference of course being that a subaltern in WW1 had 4 x 101 whereas in Afghanistan a subaltern in 4 years would expect to deploy only twice. I'm not aware of WW2 being significantly different in terms of ratios, but I would have to do more analysis.

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How exactly does all this improve the Brit military as a fighting force?
On the plus side:
Better targeting cycles
Better ISTAR
Better medical support
Better C-IED
All Pl Sgt & Coy Comds (and above) are operationally experienced, most combat proven.

On the minus side aspects of basic field craft are down (the Afghan snake is still too prevalent) and our planning cycles remain cumbersome and tempo low. At the strategic level an emphasis on the Army has lead to a haemorrhaging of Navy capabilities which I think the UK will rue in the long term.

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Whenever I hear of reorgs and reshapings I think of this quote:

“We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. Presumably the plans for our employment were being changed. I was to learn later in life that, perhaps because we are so good at organizing, we tend as a nation to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.” - Charlton Ogburn, pp. 32-33, “Merrill’s Marauders: The truth about an incredible adventure,” Harper’s Magazine, January 1957 Previously flasely attributed to Gaius Petronius Arbiter
Phew! We're only doing the one!


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Well that is another self inflicted wound.

The Brit rotation was 6 months in Afghan and then 18 months sitting around doing apparently very little before the next tour.

I asked again and again (in the Afghan thread) whether the most productive use of the 18 months had been made. No satisfactory reply. I am left to assume that the Brits being financial over extended anyway that there were no respources available to continue with training in other phases/types of warfare.
It was a self-inflicted wound. But there was no political or military appetite to break the army out of shape. Britain was committed to operations in Afghanistan, the nation & the Army were not at war per se. Was it smart? IMHO no, but it suited the Army to do what it did the way it did it. The fact that no politician would sign off on anything that looked like a deeper more enduring commitment to Afghanistan is in my opinion just a happy coincidence. Conflicts reflect the nature of the societies that wage them and the UK military commitment precisely matched the UK political commitment.

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I would suggest that an important statistic is rather what percentage of officers and senior NCOs with significant combat exposure are retained to be in place for the next war ... and having passed on their experience in the intervening period.
I agree, but we cannot keep them in if they do not want to stay. Many I suspect will leave because of the lack of operational opportunities.

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PS: good to see you back posting. May be travelling to mud-island shortly, you around?
Long weekend! Back to the grind tomorrow. I'm around all summer; it would be good to meet up again. I'd better warn you now though, the island is not so much muddy as sunken in the bottom half!
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Old 02-09-2014   #8
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On the minus side aspects of basic field craft are down (the Afghan snake is still too prevalent)
Do you mean what we call the Ranger file, long single-file formations?
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Old 02-10-2014   #9
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Do you mean what we call the Ranger file, long single-file formations?
Yup! The only thing harder than getting the military to innovate is dismantling a tradition...
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Old 02-11-2014   #10
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An OC of mine used to refer to single file as 'idiot file'.

However, is a single file always necessarily an idiot file? Is it not a matter of balancing pros against cons? I assume (please correct me if this is wrong or simplistic) that a reason for it in Astan was to follow narrow routes, where IEDs were (perceived as) the main threats. Kinda like a cleared route through a minefield.

Terrain can be another reason for using the idiot file, if narrow channels of undulation or vegetation in otherwise flat or open ground provide the only cover or concealment. A double edged knife of course, given that these channels are ideal places for IEDs.

Another reason for single file could be control during night movement, think Falklands with its battalion snakes.

I suppose what I'm getting at is that emotive labelling of tactics or methods that - under the right context - can be quite valid, may lead to unjustified exclusion of those methods. (Junior) commanders can be quite sensitive to emotive labels. Saying 'the use of single file needs to be carefully tested against its tactical disadvantages' is not the same as saying 'use the idiot file at your peril.' 'Afghan snake' is of course not as emotive as 'idiot file', and may well have the context built in.

I'm not bringing this up to pin-pick on this particular example for its own sake, but as a training observation I made years ago. My section commander under afore mentioned OC did all he could to avoid using single files during one exercise, sometimes to the point of ridiculous. It opened my eyes to other such examples where labelling can have an adverse effect on training. However, I'm still interested to see if my assumption as to why single file was so prevalent in Astan is correct.
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Old 02-11-2014   #11
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An OC of mine used to refer to single file as 'idiot file'.

However, is a single file always necessarily an idiot file? Is it not a matter of balancing pros against cons? I assume (please correct me if this is wrong or simplistic) that a reason for it in Astan was to follow narrow routes, where IEDs were (perceived as) the main threats. Kinda like a cleared route through a minefield.

Terrain can be another reason for using the idiot file, if narrow channels of undulation or vegetation in otherwise flat or open ground provide the only cover or concealment. A double edged knife of course, given that these channels are ideal places for IEDs.

However, I'm still interested to see if my assumption as to why single file was so prevalent in Astan is correct.
Yes, you've pretty much got it. It sometimes is the best tactical option for small patrols. But when it becomes your default formation and you lack the ability to move competently in any other way, that's a problem. Most of Helmand, let alone Afghanistan, is not a minefield.
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Old 02-11-2014   #12
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Yes, you've pretty much got it. It sometimes is the best tactical option for small patrols. But when it becomes your default formation and you lack the ability to move competently in any other way, that's a problem. Most of Helmand, let alone Afghanistan, is not a minefield.
I quite agree.

It is a training and education problem to correct an experience mindset. The 'Afghan Snake' developed from the requirement to minimise the threat from IEDs. IED belts tend not to be widespread and tend to be focused around FOB locations, this means that most deployed infantry (in FOBs) will have operational experience of mostly moving in a particular manner - that becomes their default approach. Once you understand the threat then you understand when a particular TTP is relevant and as importantly when not. IED belts are obstacle belts, they are less likely to be found in a highly dynamic environment where locations have not gone static and the Forward Line Own Troops and/or Forward Line Enemy Troops are not well defined; UK training for contingency operations is focusing more on this latter type of operational environment.

I often think that low level tactical training focuses too much on what to do at the expense of why. If you do not understand the why then you cannot easily adapt.
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Old 02-12-2014   #13
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When you restrict soldiers to strictly follow in the "Barma lane" ( as cleared by engineers) they have little choice but to use single file. In addition when ridiculously overloaded soldiers are sent out on 'patrol' what do you really expect?

Back to our discussions on the Afghan thread the question of what was the purpose of sending out these human pack mules? To draw fire from the Taliban so as to allow them to be taken on through an air strike?

It is not the patrol formation that needs to be ridiculed but rather the aimless wondering around. Don't lose sight of the real problem.

(all that said clearly patrol formations must be varied according to the ground/terrain and the proximity to the enemy. This was also discussed at some length in the Afghan thread)

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I quite agree.

It is a training and education problem to correct an experience mindset. The 'Afghan Snake' developed from the requirement to minimise the threat from IEDs. IED belts tend not to be widespread and tend to be focused around FOB locations, this means that most deployed infantry (in FOBs) will have operational experience of mostly moving in a particular manner - that becomes their default approach. Once you understand the threat then you understand when a particular TTP is relevant and as importantly when not. IED belts are obstacle belts, they are less likely to be found in a highly dynamic environment where locations have not gone static and the Forward Line Own Troops and/or Forward Line Enemy Troops are not well defined; UK training for contingency operations is focusing more on this latter type of operational environment.

I often think that low level tactical training focuses too much on what to do at the expense of why. If you do not understand the why then you cannot easily adapt.

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Old 02-12-2014   #14
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On the plus side:
Better targeting cycles
Better ISTAR
Better medical support
Better C-IED
All Pl Sgt & Coy Comds (and above) are operationally experienced, most combat proven.

On the minus side aspects of basic field craft are down (the Afghan snake is still too prevalent) and our planning cycles remain cumbersome and tempo low. At the strategic level an emphasis on the Army has lead to a haemorrhaging of Navy capabilities which I think the UK will rue in the long term.
The problem with looking for positives out of Afghan is that the guys in the flip-flops and a pocket full of rounds have won the war at tactical level and are about to outlast the the 'invaders' in all respects.

The greatest negative is that while experiencing combat exposure there are few if any actual combat skills that can be taken away not only as lessons learned but as skills acquired.

Given the greatest weakness of the British officer corps - that being arrogance - they may start to use failed and fruitless tactical methods as a basis for training the next generation of soldiers. This would be disastrous.
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Old 02-12-2014   #15
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When you restrict soldiers to strictly follow in the "Barma lane" ( as cleared by engineers) they have little choice but to use single file. In addition when ridiculously overloaded soldiers are sent out on 'patrol' what do you really expect?

Back to our discussions on the Afghan thread the question of what was the purpose of sending out these human pack mules? To draw fire from the Taliban so as to allow them to be taken on through an air strike?

It is not the patrol formation that needs to be ridiculed but rather the aimless wondering around. Don't lose sight of the real problem.

(all that said clearly patrol formations must be varied according to the ground/terrain and the proximity to the enemy. This was also discussed at some length in the Afghan thread)
'Afghan snake' is only appropriate to high IED threat areas and British troops are trained to only use it in such areas. Unfortunately the British operational experience is almost exclusively of operating in high IED threat areas - we are all victims of our own experience. I have spoken to plenty of Brit Commanders who have used other patrol formations in theatre, varying according to ground/terrain and enemy threat.

Overloading is an issue. British soldiers have a historical tendency to not trust the supply chain and carry a little bit of everything 'just in case' and always too much ammunition. There is a Risk Management issue as well. Patrol commanders are accountable in a court of law for why they did/did not carry the equipment they did. I've yet to hear a Patrol Commander being held culpable for carrying too much, but I have for not taking something that with hindsight was needed.

Every patrol has a task, no task then no patrol. I'm not denying that some patrol tasks may be abstruse - but they all have tasks.
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Old 02-12-2014   #16
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The problem with looking for positives out of Afghan is that the guys in the flip-flops and a pocket full of rounds have won the war at tactical level and are about to outlast the the 'invaders' in all respects.
Debatable. Interested what matric you are using for this - perhaps on the Afghanistan thread?
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Old 02-12-2014   #17
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I often think that low level tactical training focuses too much on what to do at the expense of why. If you do not understand the why then you cannot easily adapt.
“Form over function.” - Wilf.

Would it be a shortcoming inherent to the low level, as a result of insufficient contextual insight at that level? Or is it imposed through excessive form from higher levels? My guess, probably a bit of both.
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Old 02-12-2014   #18
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“Form over function.” - Wilf.
With the deepest respect to Wilf who I have found in a different forum where he is up to his usual tricks.

Then in our discussions of a few years ago it was evident that much of the discussion comes from 'theorists' with no combat experience at that level.

Of course all this theorising ceases when war finally arrives and the first combat is experienced and the first casualties are taken.

It is then that one can look back at the futility of the time wasted on this theorising.

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Would it be a shortcoming inherent to the low level, as a result of insufficient contextual insight at that level? Or is it imposed through excessive form from higher levels? My guess, probably a bit of both.
Certainly at the 'low level' it will be found that 'contexual insight' with be in short supply - except for those few who are destined for promotion up the ladder - and that is why 'drills' and 'encounter actions' are important - indeed critical - components of infantry training.

This lack of contextual awareness increases in times of mobilisation of reserves and/or civilians to any conflict when fresh semi-trained or untrained people are radpidly processed.

Given the movies and the computer war-games it would be difficult to take the modern junior soldier's eye off what he sees/learns there.

I've used the scenario where you brief platoon level soldiers that they need to think like the enemy on how to take on troops who always move in single file, with the machine gun(s), command groups etc in predicable positions in the formation. With half acting as enemy and rotating it is very soon that they start to make the necessary adjustments themselves. The good thing about this is that they believe they saw the need rather than had it imposed on them. Psychology 101.
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Old 02-13-2014   #19
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Debatable. Interested what matric you are using for this - perhaps on the Afghanistan thread?
Is there any doubt that come the end of 2014 when all but a few 'advisors' have left what is going to happen in places like Helmand?

Certainly the end result is going to find the Taliban and the drug trade remaining intact and in place and claiming victory.

Reading Company Commander one is able to see clearly how the Brits had no idea how to take the war to the Taliban and were mainly confined to Beau Geste forts rather than operating out of a growing and expanding 'ink spots'.

Afghanistan has proven to be a sad and tragic experince for the British military.

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Old 02-14-2014   #20
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Is there any doubt that come the end of 2014 when all but a few 'advisors' have left what is going to happen in places like Helmand?

Certainly the end result is going to find the Taliban and the drug trade remaining intact and in place and claiming victory.
A viable scenario, but that does not equate to the tactical defeat of Coalition Forces on the battlefield, more to a flawed strategy. If the strategy had however remained one of simply Counter-Terrorism at arms length then the endstate you infer would be a strategic success.

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Originally Posted by JMA View Post
Reading Company Commander one is able to see clearly how the Brits had no idea how to take the war to the Taliban and were mainly confined to Beau Geste forts rather than operating out of a growing and expanding 'ink spots'.
That was 2008. It is hard to inkspot if your pen has run dry. We all know that the UK was overstretched in Afghanistan in 2008, even at the time it was recognised, but the Main Effort remained in Iraq. To expand from inkspots the UK would have had to collapse in to focus combat power and then to expand out. Collapsing in was not a politically viable (in UK or by Karzai), sending more combat power was not politically viable so the only option was to slog it out. Was it a mess? You betcha - but then the Coalition reorganised refocused, surged and 'inkspoted'.

Quote:
Originally Posted by JMA View Post
Afghanistan has proven to be a sad and tragic experince for the British military.
I think they view it more as immensely frustrating at the operational level and disappointing at the strategic level. Corporately I am not aware of any feeling of sad or tragic.
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