Army Brains: Kill PowerPoint, ‘Counterinsurgency’
Get us off Internet Explorer. Give us back our reconnaissance squads. Stop saying “Counterinsurgency.” And enough with the PowerPoint. Hear that, America? That’s the sound of your Army as it scrubs its systems, practices and institutions for lameness.
On Tuesday, the Army started the first in a series of monthly bull sessions about what it doesn’t do well or could do better. The process, known as Unified Quest, will culminate in April with a series of recommendations to General George Casey, the chief of staff, for internal reform on everything from combat maneuvering to homeland defense to cyberwar. I wrote on Wednesday about an internal Unified Quest debate over increasing soldiers’ skills at negotiation. But there are some others that I witnessed Tuesday that might end up becoming new Army policy.
(Alas, I am unable to quote anyone by name, in keeping with Unified Quest ground rules. Apologies.)
No More “Counterinsurgency.” As a concept within the Army, counterinsurgency is here to stay. Whatever critiques can be made of the COINdinistas, the portion of the Army participating in Unified Quest this week had little appetite to purge the service’s institutional knowledge of drinking tea and protecting foreign populations. But that’s not to say the term is written in stone.
General Martin Dempsey, who heads the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command — the command that runs Unified Quest — is sick of the word, according to one of his subordinates. His beef is that the term is reactive, defining an Army task in terms of a type of enemy, rather than describing something that the Army does affirmatively. While it’s not clear what term might replace “counterinsurgency,” one of Dempsey’s subordinates told Unified Quest participants that junking it would help “avoid the false choice between COIN and major combat operations, since focusing on one point or another is going to fail, because we’re not going to get the war we expect.”
Want Smart Leadership? Get Better Web Platforms And More Bandwidth. This week’s Unified Quest session is about figuring out how best to cultivate the Army’s next generation of leaders. Naturally, professional military education came up. One participant observed that the Army just doesn’t have the technological infrastructure to meet the information needs of the current crop of 18-year olds, who grew up with high-speed connections and think in terms of 140 characters at a time. Just imagine the generation after that.
One question that the opening session debated: how to get a young lieutenant to sacrifice an hour of sleep to learn how to speak Arabic through a correspondence course. No one had a good answer, but one brave soul offered a basic principle. “When it takes ten minutes to download one page” on an Army computer, she said, “it’s boring, and you don’t like it” and it sours you on the entire activity. As anyone who struggled to load Internet Explorer 6 on a terminal in a forward-deployed recreation center can attest, the military needs an IT upgrade.
Want Smart Leadership? No More PowerPoint. If this year’s Unified Quest is any indication, PowerPoint hater H.R. McMaster, a one-star general serving in Afghanistan, is going to go from slideshow dissident to prophet in a few short years. Several participants derided the Army’s over-reliance on PowerPoint openly. One recounted stories of briefings in tactical-operations centers where otherwise intelligent officers simply read PowerPoint slides out loud — even as the slides were visible on an overhead projector.
Another observed: “That’s not the way our school system is oriented” in civilian life, making it difficult for young soldiers and officers, who are used to learning in a collaborative or social environment, to ingest information through rote absorption of slides.
No one quite articulated a vision of what comes after PowerPoint. (Keynote, maybe?) And some bemoaned “Death by PowerPoint” even as they projected their own PowerPoint slides. But it only takes a few well-placed cracks in a wall to send it crashing down. There may not be many more Lawrence Sellins — the officer who became an internet celebrity for his anti-PowerPoint rant — in the Army’s future.
Modularity May Have Gone Too Far. In 2004, the Rumsfeld Pentagon instituted a massive structural change: the Army was going to center around its brigades, rather than its traditional divisions. The basic idea behind what came to be called “Modularity” is that a brigade combat team — 3500 to 5000 soldiers rather than 10-to-20,000 of them — is easier to deploy into crisis zones, easier to extract and more narrowly tailored to a specific mission. Not a bad idea in theory. But one leading participant in Unified Quest pointed out that the past five years of modularity in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that it’s not so great in practice, as tailoring the resources necessary to accomplish open-ended missions turned into a fiasco.
The participant, a field-grade officer, observed that modularity cost brigades lots of things that a unit at war needs to succeed. Reconnaissance squads, for one thing, and engineers, for another. “Our ability to enforce security over wide areas has been one of our biggest challenges here,” he said, “and to do it without adequate reconnaissance forces?” That creates another problem. When brigades become the basis for wartime task forces, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, some of those additional needed elements — cavalrymen and engineers — get tacked on to the brigades from other units. And that creates morale and unit-cohesion problems as the brigades learn to get along with the newbies.
“We made some presumptions with modularity,” the officer elaborated to Danger Room after his presentation, and part of the task of Unified Quest is “going back and questioning some of the logic” that led up to it. Overhauling modularity would be a huge task. And abandoning it at this point is nearly unthinkable. But the purpose of the exercise is to ask big questions.
Credit: Atlantic Council
- U.S. Officer In Afghanistan Mows Down PowerPoint Rangers
- Colonel Kicked Out of Afghanistan for Anti-PowerPoint Rant …
- Wired 11.09: PowerPoint Is Evil
- Pentagon's Craziest PowerPoint Slide Revealed
- $190 Billion for “Modular Army”
- Army Asks Itself: Shouldn't We Be Diplomats?
- HP Holds Navy Network 'Hostage' for $3.3 Billion
Saturday, May 28, 2011
Army Brains: Kill PowerPoint, ‘Counterinsurgency’ | Danger Room | Wired.com