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The Capstone Concept and Situational Awareness

The Army has released a draft version of its capstone concept, as most of you know from reading Small Wars Journal.  The biggest change for my money has to do with the approach to "situational awareness" (SA) -- that is, how do you know what is really going on? 

Clausewitz's concept of friction engages every area of war, but no area more clearly than this.  One of the reasons that "rear-echelon" commanders enjoy such a stable level of respect from front-line forces, year after year and war after war, is that friction means they are always writing orders based on incomplete information that is old by the time the orders come down. 

Front-line forces suffer from an incomplete awareness, too, though:  consider the soldier who notices a guy in his town that he's not seen before.  He stops him, questions him, and now has to decide what to do with him -- without benefit of knowing exactly who may have dealt with him before, or what they knew.  He can get that information if he detains the guy and takes him back for processing, but (a) if the guy is innocent, he's freaking out the guy's family and friends about 'evil occupiers arresting people for no reason'; and (b) as a COIN campaign becomes more successful, as in Iraq, warrants have to be issued before detentions can be an option.  

The Future Combat System (FCS) intended to address this set of problems via its integral computer network.  There are already a large number of battlefield networks in operation, though a quick Googling indicates that little is known in public about them.  Google "Combined Information Network Data Exchange", or CIDNE, and you'll find that the internet knows it's a DOD acronym, but not much more; another of the major systems, when Googled, only turns up a reference to a popular college website.  Since our OPSEC is being so effective, I won't describe these systems -- good or bad -- but to say that there is not a single, fully-integrated platform, and that there may be room for improvement in certain areas.  I had hoped the the FCS might bring a lot more of the weight of real-time information to every solider in theater:  to the platoon sergeant or lieutenant making the detention-call on the street, and to the Division Commander in his headquarters pondering how to deploy his forces.

Inside Defense (subscribers only) notes that the new capstone concept moves away from the network idea as a model.  It's not that the new doctrine fails to appreciate SA:

The new draft document takes aim at many of the assumptions behind the
thinking in the 2005 version.

"These assumptions were based on a belief that technology would change the
conduct of war from uncertainty toward a high degree of certainty," reads
the document. "This, in turn, would allow future forces to achieve
information superiority, which would lead to decision superiority. A key
benefit of decision superiority would be that the force could economize on
manpower, and trade off protection and firepower for speed and precision."...

This evolving attitude toward situational awareness and its power on the
battlefield was discussed last week at a counterinsurgency conference in

Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who is leading the revision of the capstone
concept, spoke about the importance of situational understanding and listed
it as one of five key aspects to effective operations.

"What we have to do is strive for situational understanding, fight for it,
literally and figuratively," he said.

However, situational awareness must go beyond what soldiers learn from
sensors and advanced information technology, he said. The wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan have made clear that cultural and political understanding can be
just as, if not more, important, he said.

That's absolutely correct, and it's not something a battlefield network is well placed to address.  A network would not be useless, mind you:  if you could put your soldiers on the ground in touch with the Human Terrain Team (HTT) social scientist, so they could ping him with a real-time question about a cultural issue, that would be a force-multiplier for HTT and the soldier both.  If you could also level the echelon issue somewhat, so a platoon sergeant would actually feel the freedom to contact directly-on-the-instant a brigade asset like the HTT scientist (or the battalion S2, or any other staff officer or enabler with expertise), that would be a great step forward:  but it's a leap that will encounter more, ah, friction from some quarters.  Nevertheless, if I were making suggestions on the capstone concept, grinding down that barrier and encouraging that direct communication across echelons would be on my list.

The idea of networking expertise to the warfighter on the ground remains something with a lot of potential, but general McMaster is also right to stress investment in building cultural and political expertise across the force.  But which culture, and whose politics?  The FCS -- or a similar, smaller-scale network -- is portable, so if we're in Africa next year instead of Afghanistan, we can take it with us; if we end up in Thailand, it'll work there too.  Cultural expertise is less portable, and political expertise even less than that:  our expertise in the governing system of Iraq will shortly, with any luck, be of interest only to the State Department.  It won't do much for us in Afghanistan, Africa, or Thailand.

Currently the Army addresses the issue by use of civilian experts in culture and politics, as with the HTT program and the various cultural advisors (CULADs) and other advisors usually attached to division-level commands in Iraq.  These are usually contractors, who can be replaced with other experts at any time, providing great flexibility. 

It also acts in cooperation with the State Department (who provides political advisors, POLADs, also at the division level; but more more useful is their integrated ePRT program at brigade level).  These programs can draw on the larger civilian community, pulling in experts on whatever the individual culture or system happens to be.  They can also create training programs for soldiers once we get to the on-the-ground situation, like the Counterinsurgency Centers for Excellence in Iraq and Afghanistan.  These can be stood up or down fairly quickly by comparison to an internal program designed to build expertise across the force. 

The Army's long-term planning may be better spent on the things it can take with it, rather than the things it has to leave behind.  Building better communications across levels of command, whether with better networks or through cultural changes to reduce the barrier to cross-talk, may go farther in the long term than trying to train the force as cultural and political experts in advance of the game.  The reality for the force, subject as it is to civilian political authority, is that it can't know where it will be sent, or why, or for how long.  It has to remain flexible enough to go wherever it is sent, for any lawful cause, for as long as the Congress and the President care to continue the effort.