Leadership: Dealing With Private Intelligence Networks

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May 21, 2006: In wartime, the U.S. Army has a tendency to let the troops improvise, and run with whatever they comes up with. This is causing some problems with those parts of the military bureaucracy that put order before effectiveness. Case in point is the battle going on between the U.S. Army intelligence "lessons learned" organizations, and the troops who are basically creating their own "lessons learned networks." The new, improvised "lessons learned" networks are faster, and to the troops, more useful, than the established ones. Because there's a war going on, the brass have not shut the troops down. Even generals understand the long, and short term, impact of bad press.

As far back as World War II, the U.S. Army gathered very current information about the enemy, wrote it up and distributed in written form to the troops. There were also pamphlets, and one page bulletins, of Lessons Learned (in combat). There were also paperback books (field manuals) with more abundant, but more out of date, information on the enemy. What the troops really wanted was the latest stuff, the kind of information they could use if they went to war tomorrow.

This idea of Lessons Learned has come, and gone, several times since. In 1985, TRADOC (the army Training and Doctrine Command) set up the Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL) This outfit was created to collect and distribute lessons learned in the Army's new, NTC (National Training Center, which used laser tag like equipment to produce very realistic combat training.) When the 1991 Gulf War came along, CALL was all over it and as the World Wide Web arrived in the mid 1990s, CALL began making much of its material available via the Internet. CALL was a particularly bold move by the military, as the "lessons learned" often contained detailed criticism of current military practices. The main purpose of "lessons learned" was to preserve the practices that worked, and change those that didn't, and to get it all out to the troops. When the Afghanistan and Iraq wars came along in 2001-3, a flood of new material flowed into CALL. And that's where the trouble began. Not everyone agreed with the wisdom of invading Iraq, and journalists began visiting CALL to find "failures" that could be used to bolster arguments against the Iraq operation. Naturally, no good deed goes unpunished, and the army soon shut down CALL access for civilians. But this also leads to restrictions on access for military personnel as well. With over two million active duty and reserve troops out there, journalists were often able to get someone to go into CALL, or similar military web sites, and get what they wanted. But CALL became less useful for the troops, which caused the troops to improvise. After all, it was their lives that were on he line, not some risk-averse military bureaucrat.

CALL had been maintaining a special web site for troop feedback for years, but it, and TRADOC in general, were not as fast at assembling, analyzing and passing on data as the troops believed they should be. So via bulletin boards, email lists and chat rooms, the troops began putting together their own "lessons learned" systems. Journalists generally didn't know about these, could not get access, or dismissed this as just uninformed chatter by bored troops. But these Internet communications proved to be a powerful tool for transmitting up-to-date information for the people headed for combat, from those coming back (or still there.) The brass could not crack down on most of this, because it wasn't public. Some commanders were concerned about letting the enemy in on American combat secrets, but most officers realized the benefit for U.S. troops was far greater than any risk.

Occasionally, commanders would set up official information clearinghouses for their troops. One such effort was undertaken by the three Stryker brigades stationed at Ft. Lewis, Washington. These units, with their new wheeled armored vehicles, have become the leaders in using new combat technology. The troops consider themselves geeks with guns, and enthusiastically incorporate new technology into their operations.

But such blatant competition for CALL caught the attention of TRADOC, and sparked a brief battle between the Pentagon and the Stryker commanders. TRADOC backed off, and admitted that CALL could be faster and more responsive (which was why the Skryker troops set up their own information system.) All this was possible only because of the Internet. Troops now can get information more quickly, and express their opinions forcefully to the brass. While the military is not a democracy, the generals now know a lot more about what the troops think, and why, and that's for the better.

 


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