Train Like a Fighter Pilot

By Darren Ruch, 1st Lt. MA ANG, USAF
Dr. Douglas Orton, Editor

The deficit reduction deal signed by President Obama on August 2, 2011, calls for a quantum leap forward in the effectiveness, efficiency, and reliability of the U.S. National Security System – by November 2011.  In the same way that the Hart-Rudman Report was sitting on a shelf in the Eisenhower Building ready for rapid deployment after September 11, 2001, the Project on National Security Reform’s 2008 Report “Forging a New Shield” is now sitting on a shelf in the Eisenhower Building ready for rapid deployment in the next three months.  Fortunately – as Darren Ruch’s essay below demonstrates – the main message of the report has moved into the intellectual capillaries of the U.S. National Security System in the last three years:  our expensive, outdated bureaucratic stovepipes should be replaced with less expensive, more agile interagency national security teams.  Ruch explains the need to shift away from a 20th Century “national defense” mindset dominated by a “joint” Department of Defense stovepipe toward a 21st Century “national security” mindset facilitated by much less expensive national security interagency teams.  Ruch is especially convincing about the need for interagency training to help create these interagency teams.  (Dr. J. Douglas Orton, Adjunct Research Fellow, Center for Strategic Research.)   

Thousands of pages of lessons learned about successful methods of interagency collaboration are available in reports by the various US Government departments, academic and research institutions (such as the National Defense University and the US Institute of Peace), non-governmental organizations (such as Doctors without Borders and Human Rights Watch), and other agencies – compiled from years of experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.  But US agencies in Afghanistan today are not taking advantage of this knowledge.  Instead, our military officers and civil servants are spending their first months in the field learning lessons that were already documented and available to them.  Prior to leaving for Afghanistan, US agencies should include these lessons learned about unity of effort in joint training settings.

Over the last week of July 2011, up to 95 US Air Force combat flights flew daily in support of Coalition troops in Afghanistan.  These sorties were only successful because of cooperation between the Air Force and other military branches before the fighter squadrons deployed to Afghanistan.  This unity of effort can only exist when multiple branches participate in joint training.  Pilots invest countless hours of joint training in the US with their Army counterparts to ensure safe and successful integration of air and ground tactics.  Training in the US before arriving in Afghanistan allows these Airmen and Soldiers to prepare for unexpected scenarios, seamlessly adapt their plans at a moment’s notice, and therefore successfully achieve their goal.

Given that the US military has demonstrated over the past 30 years that the effectiveness of unity of effort is proportional to the quality of joint training, the Obama Administration should heed this lesson.  There must be an increase in joint training operations across government agencies before they send teams to Afghanistan.

Counterinsurgency experts continue to advocate an increase in unity of effort in Afghanistan.  The first of many recommendations in the 2009 US White Paper Policy towards Afghanistan is “executing and resourcing an integrated civilian military counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan” (emphasis added).  Integrating civilian and military counterinsurgency efforts is necessary because success is only achieved through a multidimensional strategy.

Fighting an insurgency is accomplished by completing three principal concepts: clear, hold, build.  General Petraeus, Commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, outlines these principles in his 2006 counterinsurgency field manual: “create a secure physical and psychological environment; establish firm government control of the populace and area; gain the populace’s support.”  The military is not manned or trained to complete all three alone.

Creating a stable Afghanistan requires not only providing security, but also building effective local government and developing the economy.  The central mission of the Department of Defense is providing and maintaining security.  Other agencies, such as the Departments of State and Commerce, focus on building Afghanistan’s governmental institutions and developing the economic infrastructure.  Leaders at all levels from these US government agencies need to work together in the US to increase their communication and situational awareness before continuing operations and programs in Afghanistan.  By improving their common operational picture at home, agencies will understand idiosyncratic terminology; prevent a duplication of effort; establish communication channels to better share information on changing environments; reduce unwanted interference; and benefit from other agencies’ comparative advantages.

General Petraeus is one leader who understands this requirement for interagency dialogue. While serving as Multi-National Forces Commander in Iraq, he developed a close working relationship with Ambassador Crocker, US Ambassador to Iraq.  Common communication between top military and Department of State leaders in this way is unusual.  General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker worked together almost as a unified command, complementing each other’s efforts.  Ultimately, this turned the tide from a failing attempt in Iraq to allow a drawdown of US troops.

For a vastly different and more complicated theater of operations in Afghanistan, much more interagency dialogue needs to occur at home.  This dialogue must start in an interagency training environment in the US.  Although interagency training exists, it is not a priority.  As one Foreign Service Officer explained, although he was assigned to attend a week of interagency training before leaving for a one-year post in Iraq, his leadership viewed other tasks as a more valuable use of his time; he only attended for three days.  Training should be a much higher priority for these interagency teams.  Requiring soldiers and civil servants to get up to speed about other agencies in Afghanistan during the first few months after arriving, instead of providing interagency training in the US before they leave, does not set them up for success from day one.  Without this training, these actors arrive in Afghanistan without a common operational picture.

The Department of Defense should take the countless best practices from military joint operations and apply them to interagency efforts in Afghanistan.  Military commanders of all ranks should work with their civilian counterparts to establish a stable and transparent government, strong economy, and secure environment in Afghanistan.  Successful interagency collaboration begins with joint training in the US.  We are approaching the tenth anniversary of Coalition engagement in Afghanistan.  Reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan will continue well into the next decade regardless of the caliber of predeployment training; however, with the current US and Coalition military campaign, the quality of joint preparedness today could have an even greater impact on the reconstruction effort after the inevitable draw-down of combat forces.

Darren Ruch works at the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) and is a reservist in the US Air Force.  As a homemade explosive specialist at JIEDDO, he primarily assists military units deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.  As a traditional reservist in the Massachusetts Air National Guard, Ruch is two-tour veteran and currently serves as a Lieutenant in their Air Operations Group.


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