TRADOC relooking its NCO education with eye to adaptation

The Army is conducting a complete re-assessment of its noncommissioned officer education system for the first time since 1976, said the general who just took the helm of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command.

U.S. Army Gen. David G. Perkins, who assumed command of TRADOC March 14, spoke at the Army’s Brain Health Consortium April 10 at the Defense Health Headquarters in Falls Church, Va.

The ultimate weapon of the U.S. Army in the future must be the brains of its Soldiers, Perkins said.

“We’re banking on our cognitive capability,” Perkins said, describing that as the Army’s “ace in the hole” against potential enemies.

“We think kinetically, they can probably buy the same weapons we have,” he said, at least in small numbers. He added there are also armies out there larger than the U.S. Army.

In the past, the U.S. Army has relied upon superior technology, he said, but that “technology gap” is closing fast.

Being able to adapt quickly will be the key in the future, he said. One reason is the uncertainty of today’s operational environment.

The Army found out early in Iraq and Afghanistan that it could not adapt quickly enough, Perkins said. He was commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division during the “Thunder Run” of armored columns into Baghdad, in 2003. Later he returned to Iraq as commander of the 4th Infantry Division conducting stabilization operations.

“What we’re also finding with this very distributed nature of war is that we have to have a level of adaptation down to the individual Soldier,” Perkins said. “You just can’t have adaptive generals.”

The good news is that young NCOs who have been in Iraq and Afghanistan understand that intuitively, he said. They want to know why the NCO education system hasn’t changed to accommodate it.

So the TRADOC command sergeant major is re-assessing NCO education system from “soup to nuts,” Perkins said.

TRADOC has been spending tremendous resources on modeling and war games to try and determine what the future will look like in “2025 and beyond,” Perkins said. He tells audiences he knows exactly what the future will be: “unknown.” Historically, when experts think they know exactly what the future will look like, it changes dramatically.

In the Cold War, the Army was ready for Soviet armored columns to roll across the central plains of Europe. That never happened, Perkins said.

When he was a lieutenant, though, everyone was certain what the enemy would look like, how they would fight and what equipment they would use.

He said commanders calculated tactics and responses “down to the minute.”

“We saw war as a calculus problem,” Perkins said.

This is the first time the Army is writing doctrine to deal with the unknown, he said.

Now, it’s important for a commander to first define the problem and then determine what key decisions need to be made, he said. Judgment is seen as the most important attribute of a leader.

Adaptability needs to be part of the Army’s culture, Perkins said.

“We don’t know how to build this cognitive capability to deal with this very ill-defined world,” Perkins said, explaining that in the past the Army has dealt with “a very linear world.”

The question now, he said, is: “How do we make our Soldiers adapt quicker than our enemy?”

He asked the medical experts, behavioral health practitioners and neurologists in the room:

“How much data should a Soldier be able to take in?” Cognitive capacity needs to be assessed, he said.

TRADOC is now involved in an assessment to determine physical demands for combat tasks. Soldiers at Fort Stewart, Ga., are involved in the study. Perkins said it is looking at measurable physical demands for infantrymen and artillery crews, for instance. Such measurements might include the average weight of a rucksack, or the average distance an infantryman might need to walk.

A more difficult measurement, Perkins said, is determining the “mental load” a Soldier can bear.

“How long can they go without sleep? How many decisions can they make? How big is the ‘mental rucksack’ of a Soldier,” he asked.

Answering those questions was the challenge he gave to the Medical Command officials at the consortium.

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