May 17, 2021

INDIAN AEROSPACE DEFENCE NEWS

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The End of the Fighting Generals and the importance of Junior Rank personnel in fighting wars

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The U.S. military uses the term “strategic corporal” as shorthand to capture the growing battlefield responsibility held by leaders of junior rank. That responsibility has become both immense and increasingly routine. For years now, corporals and lieutenants as young as 20 years old fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have regularly made split-second, life-altering decisions with staggering amounts of firepower at their disposal and have been expected to do so in accordance with the national interests, policies, and strategy of the United States.

Generals no longer enjoy the tactical authority they once did. Today, the decision to attack, and how, is usually made by lieutenants, sergeants, corporals, and sometimes even more junior soldiers, who have quietly become the military’s most important battlefield leaders.

The destructive force of armies has always been forged from the collective potential of individuals. With the advent of firepower, however, individual soldiers suddenly attained much more destructive potential. And as that capacity for individual violence grew, leadership could, and did, devolve closer to the individual level.

The development of artillery, and the refinement of rifled firearms, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries allowed division commanders to assume ever more tactical leadership. In World War II, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower typified the trend; he oversaw the planning of the invasion of France while allowing specific attacks to be run by officers as junior as captains. While large battles still occurred during Vietnam, most of the day-to-day combat was conducted by platoons of around 40 soldiers deployed independently, with the platoon commander (usually a lieutenant in his early 20s) making the tactical decisions.

Today, most of the combat undertaken by the U.S. military happens at the squad level, involving just 14 soldiers or fewer. Officers have been displaced almost entirely from tactical leadership, in favor of enlisted service members—staff noncommissioned officers (SNCOs) and noncommissioned officers (NCOs). This trend isn’t necessarily bad. Officers, by virtue of having acquired a college degree, typically have a broader range of knowledge and skills that allows them to evaluate the big picture; they also have relatively less military experience. By contrast, NCOs (corporals and sergeants) and especially the more senior SNCOs (staff sergeants and above) have deep experience in their roles and are better equipped for practical, detailed execution.

It is precisely the fact that the U.S. military has such a highly skilled and dependable NCO corps that it’s able to operate so effectively in small units. This is to its great benefit on the battlefield. Smaller units move faster and are more likely to avoid detection by enemy forces. And if a squad is detected and neutralized, the loss is less disastrous for the army as a whole.

It is precisely the fact that the U.S. military has such a highly skilled and dependable NCO corps that it’s able to operate so effectively in small units. This is to its great benefit on the battlefield. Smaller units move faster and are more likely to avoid detection by enemy forces. And if a squad is detected and neutralized, the loss is less disastrous for the army as a whole.

Meanwhile, Washington’s existing wars are dominated by platoon- and squad-level tactics directed by lieutenants, sergeants, and corporals. Effective tactical leadership by troops of such low rank requires that the chain of command empower and trust them. Micromanagement undermines that trus

Higher-ranking officers have plenty of other work to focus on, including logistics, intelligence, and the coordination of tactical actions across multiple units. These are not unimportant roles; given the large volume of supplies that modern military operations demand, logistics is a major factor in maintaining troops’ morale. That’s why, as generals’ tactical role has declined, their staffs of intelligence officers, logisticians, and other support personnel have grown—and an increasing share of their time is devoted to managing their teams of direct subordinates.

During operations, generals should focus on providing institutional leadership—that is, they should think of themselves as supervisory managers responsible for coordinating between units and command and ensuring supplies flow to their destinations. They should also redouble their commitment to serving policymakers. Their advice should be rooted in their military experience and expertise—but not limited to it. Civilian officials making decisions about war and peace need information filtered through conceptual lenses such as strategic theory, international relations, and other disciplines. A pure tactician can never offer policymakers the level of insight and wisdom that they require.

Policymakers need and deserve the kind of military advice that can only be acquired over a career of studying foreign policy and the use of military force, not just being engaged in its execution. Unfortunately, the U.S. military continues to prepare its officers to become tactical generals. Military education focuses on tactical planning, not strategic or political knowledge. Most officers receive some basic education in strategic studies but rarely get to exercise those skills in their day-to-day work until they become generals.

The military needs to better prepare its officers to become policy generals. The education of officers currently centers on the war colleges and defense universities. Officers typically spend about one year at these institutions, which generally do a very good job of providing quality education. There is a limit, however, to how much scholarly knowledge can be absorbed in a single year that is divided between study and practical military training. That’s why the military’s existing educational institutions should remove training from their curriculums. Doing that would free up time for academic study in subjects including international relations, strategic theory, geopolitics, and conflict analysis and resolution. Refocusing military curriculums in this way would have the added benefit of steeping officers in the values of scholarship and liberal education. Having previously been trained to obey a strict chain of command, they would have a greater opportunity to learn how to respectfully disagree, balance multiple viewpoints and opinions, and present complex arguments—critical skills for any policy general.

The military’s schools will also have to change their methods for evaluating students. Today, officers’ performances at war colleges do not bear on their future careers; the officer who do just enough work to get by comes out on the other side with the same official report as the officer who works diligently to learn the material. As a result, most officers think of time at a professional military education institute as time off or a break from the normal frenetic pace of operations. If officers’ grades at the war colleges were taken seriously by their superiors, those officers would have greater incentive to put as much effort into their academic education as they do their practical training. Such a shift would also allow the military’s top leaders to better decide which officers are truly qualified to serve as generals.

Generals, and aspiring generals, will resist this. Many prospective officers in today’s military want to fight, not to scheme over policy. They have often held leadership positions prior to joining the military, whether on sports teams, in student government, or other group activities, and the military has only further encouraged them to associate leadership above all with a can-do attitude, bravery in battle, and professionalism in the tactical execution of missions. Those values should not be discounted. As officers rise in rank, however, the nature of generalship itself demands a different form of leadership, one that privileges persuasion, deliberation, and reflection.

Congress should modernize both officer promotions and officer education by replacing both of the existing acts with one piece of new legislation designed to help educate and promote the kinds of officers that civilian policymakers actually need.

Congress should modernize both officer promotions and officer education by replacing both of the existing acts with one piece of new legislation designed to help educate and promote the kinds of officers that civilian policymakers actually need.”

B.A. Friedman is a military analyst and associate editor at the Strategy Bridge. He is the author of On Tactics: A Theory of Victory in Battle and the editor of 21st Century Ellis: Operational Art and Strategic Prophecy for the Modern Era.

Source: Article “The End of the Fighting General” published by the Foreign Policy Magazine 

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