Leadership: Why It's So Hard To Fix Things

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November 18, 2010: American operations in Afghanistan and Iraq brought out the military historians and survey teams in force. The Department of Defense was determined to avoid the usual wartime pattern and not make the same mistakes twice during the War on Terror. This is not easy to do. As far back as World War II, there were organizations in the U.S. military that looked for "lessons learned" and tried to get the information passed around to everyone as quickly as possible. This was difficult because the training all the troops (be they army, navy or air force) received was laid down in manuals and training courses. It was exceedingly difficult to change training manuals, if only because of the time required to rewrite them and publish new ones. The training courses were based on the manuals and the military, like any bureaucracy, lives to do things "by the book."

But there are other problems. It's easier to identify a lesson than to get an organization to act on it and implement a useful solution. For that reason, the British like to use the phrase "lessons identified" to make clear that just noting a problem does not solve it. When you uncover a problem, you are calling into question the wisdom of some earlier decisions. Large organizations do not take kindly to such criticism. Excuses and creative explanations will emerge if a lesson learned threatens some cherished program. For example, before the invasion of Iraq, the attitude in the Department of Defense was that heavy forces (tanks and all their accompanying armored vehicles) were on their way out. But what led the dash to Baghdad? Tanks. Embedded journalists made it pretty obvious how useful the tanks and other armored vehicles were. The Department of Defense had a hard time absorbing this lesson. Another example occurred when many helicopter gunships got shot up when they flew, according to current doctrine, deep into enemy territory to attack Iraqi tanks and troops. This "lesson learned" has sparked a major debate in the army aviation community, for billions have been spent to build an attack helicopter force that can "go deep." Now that it's been tried on a real battlefield, and failed, painful decisions are called for. Such decisions may not be made. It's happened before.

But there are other problems as well. "Lessons learned" often become twisted to support pet projects. The air force has, since 1991, come up with quite different "lessons learned", than the army, for the very same battles. Air force doctrine sees air power becoming the dominant combat force, while the army sees the primacy of ground forces unchanged. The air force also has a hard time accepting the fact that in Afghanistan and Iraq, their contribution was to have aircraft circling overhead, dropping smart bombs at the command of army troops down below. Air force "lessons learned" play up the traditional air force use of complex combat missions, using highly trained pilots and expensive electronic equipment. The air force does not want to dwell on the valuable contribution of their heavy bombers acting as delivery trucks for smart bombs ordered by combat troops.

The new smart bombs (the GPS guided JDAM) put the man on the ground in charge. The army guy selects the target and simply orders the air force bomber circling overhead to drop it on command. This is a "lesson learned" that's had a hard time winning acceptance in the air force. Yet the army concluded that that the lesson learned is that the air force needs to put more "trucks" overhead so that the ground troops can make greater use of this new form of firepower. Worse (for the air force), the army also learned that they could use their own GPS guided weapons, and soon had rockets and artillery shells doing just that. This cut down on the need for bombers overhead. The army also found that UAVs, especially small ones operated by the army, eliminated a lot of the aerial reconnaissance the air force had been providing for the last century. The army always wanted more of this air reconnaissance, and now they had it, in the form of Raven, Shadow and Gray Eagle UAVs. Eventually the army had thousands of these, and were getting unprecedented amounts of air recon. It changed the way the army fought, and made the ground troops even less dependent on the air force. The air force has identified this as a problem, but is still searching for a solution.

The army and marines quickly identified more problems, mainly that Arabs have difficulty in using compromise to settle disputes, and are quick to use mass murder to get their way. This is nothing new, as Arabs, and their governments have been demonstrating these traits for a long time. There were those in the Pentagon (and in organizations like the Special Forces) who were aware of this, but senior leadership did not appreciate these lessons identified until they had their faces rubbed in it. These Arab characteristics are self-defeating, and eventually the Islamic terrorists (representing the interests of the minority Sunni Arabs of Iraq and their unlikely allies in al Qaeda) triggered a massive backlash by the Sunni Arab community, and the now armed, trained and organized Shia Arab majority. Another lesson learned was that history is important. This was something the U.S. Army began stressing in the 1970s, but not everyone bought into it. Now more generals and admirals do.

Afghanistan forced everyone to take a closer look at Afghan history, which revealed some interesting local customs (tribalism, corruption and the great honor bestowed on those who take loot.) But Afghan history also reveals an acceptance of change, a desire to get away from the constant warfare and blood feuds, and the willingness of traditionalists and warlords to resist those changes. Another lesson re-learned was one the British noted over a century ago; "you can't hustle the East."

Normally, no one really wants a totally dispassionate look at the lessons learned. No one wants the chips to fall where they may. Too much collateral damage that way. Yet, in the end, truth and logic will rule. The true meaning of each lesson learned will be there on the next battlefield, whether you have come up with the best implementation of the lesson or not. In wartime, the lessons identified are quickly followed by learning and solutions. In peacetime, you can put off the reckoning. But not when an enemy is trying to kill you, and failure to react to lessons identified and learned can get you killed.

 

 


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