Building Better Soldiers: Significant Returns Expected With Expanded Initial-Entry Training
For the first time in over 43 years, the U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, has overhauled One-Station Unit Training for initial-entry infantry soldiers. The familiar 14-week training model dates to 1978 and remained relatively unchanged for over four decades.
Now 22 weeks in duration, this new and improved initial-entry training intends to achieve more than familiarization in core infantry tasks. Instead, the new and expanded program of instruction focuses on achieving expertise. Soldiers leaving Fort Benning will arrive at their first units of assignment ready to deploy, fight and win on today’s battlefield.
While initial results are anecdotal, the strong performance of the first cohort of 22-week One-Station Unit Training (OSUT) graduates in their gaining units validates the Army’s sizable investment in more extensive training. The addition of eight weeks to the program of instruction requires additional NCOs, officers and resources in order to produce the approximately 20,500 infantry soldiers required annually for the force.
Honing Drill Sergeants’ Skills
Considering this investment in people and money, the Infantry School emphasizes the importance of achieving a long-term return on the investment measured not solely in the new soldiers reporting for duty. Notably, this manifests in honing the skills of drill sergeants. This too will improve the readiness of the Army writ large when talented NCOs return to their formations following assignments “on the trail.”
Twenty-two weeks with a cohort of 200 trainees requires both focus and stamina. In the legacy OSUT course, drill sergeants exerted a degree of control over all aspects of trainees’ lives that is difficult to sustain over the extended program of instruction. Acknowledging the natural increase in maturity that occurs over time in OSUT, the leadership of the 198th Infantry Brigade approached the relationship between instructors and trainees in a different manner. Receiving additional training at Fort Benning following completion of the U.S. Army Drill Sergeant Academy at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, drill sergeants learned “how to think” and “how to teach.” This includes instruction in training doctrine within a gender-integrated infantry course. In addition, introducing peer evaluations provided opportunities for candid feedback and peer leadership among trainees.
As the new soldiers learned more about both followership and leadership, the cadre identified peer leadership opportunities for them, entrusting them with rudimentary responsibilities throughout the course. For the first time, initial infantry training allowed privates to practice formal and informal leadership in addition to training on their fundamental skills. Relieving drill sergeants of managing simple tasks allowed for increased training opportunities and allowed the NCOs to focus on mitigating risk.
Need for Change
The tenets of the National Defense Strategy outlining the urgency to regain overmatch against near-peer adversaries served as an impetus for change. In addition to modernizing equipment, the revision of Infantry One-Station Unit Training was an integral component of then-Army Secretary Mark T. Esper’s intent to prepare the Army for future large-scale ground combat operations in multidomain environments. Recognizing that infantry soldiers comprise 4% of the Army specifically intended to close with and destroy the enemy, 90% of casualties are from this same “close-combat force.”
During last October’s Association of the U.S. Army Annual Meeting and Exposition, Esper explained that the expansion of OSUT by two additional months makes it “the longest and hardest in the world.” While foundations of marksmanship, physical fitness and discipline remain, OSUT now certifies, rather than familiarizes, infantry soldiers in combat lifesaver skills, individual day and night land navigation, Army Basic Combatives (Level 1) and urban marksmanship. In addition, trainees march over 80 cumulative miles under heavy loads and learn how to operate various infantry vehicles.
Tactical units have long demanded better training from infantrymen trained at Fort Benning. Many officers and NCOs were dissatisfied with newly arrived infantrymen, some of whom struggled mentally and emotionally to cope with arduous training or pending deployments. This required gaining units to spend valuable time building basic proficiency in advance of collective training. This time spent on retraining individual tasks detracted from what limited time units had to achieve their own collective proficiency. The recent investment in expanded Initial Entry Training is intended to minimize the costs incurred by units in the field.
Demanding More From Trainers
Representing the top 10% of their peers, the Army specially selects qualified NCOs and trains them for 10 weeks at the Drill Sergeant Academy before they meet their first trainee. Drill sergeants bound for Infantry OSUT following graduation from the Drill Sergeant Academy will receive additional certification hosted by the 198th Infantry Brigade.
The additional skills include graduation from the Master Marksmanship Trainer Course, also at Fort Benning. This challenging course trains drill sergeants to become expert coaches of shooters, as well as to improve their own marksmanship skills. The credentials from the marksmanship course also allow them to subsequently implement the new Integrated Weapons Training Strategy when they report to their units following drill sergeant duty.
In addition to completing the marksmanship course, NCOs supporting Infantry OSUT will conduct Master Resilience Training, providing them with additional tools to influence, counsel and inspire infantry trainees who might have otherwise quit needlessly. The U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command’s Army Common Faculty Development Course is also a new requirement, improving drill sergeants’ abilities to teach, coach and mentor in a manner that facilitates quality learning in small groups.
New character development training and certifications in the tactical level of the U.S. Army Combatives Course round out their preparation to serve within an Infantry OSUT battalion.
With implementation of the new OSUT program of instruction, gone are the days of attrition-based training occurring over the course of 14 weeks. While attrition of some recruits not suited for military service continues, the 198th Infantry Brigade adopted an approach of developmental leadership, improving both confidence and technical proficiency. Where competence is the entry point for effective training, drill sergeants teach first, allowing more time for better instruction.
This approach does not mean the training is easy. To the contrary, this approach acknowledges that confidence, the goal of effective training, requires tough training to achieve high standards, and includes opportunities to fail. Failure and friction produce infantry soldiers who grow and succeed from the process. Through all aspects of training, infantry drill sergeants inspire this “fail forward” philosophy by demonstrating patience and persistence themselves. In leading by example, they become better NCOs who will ultimately serve as superb infantry platoon sergeants and Special Forces team sergeants.
Realizing Mission Command Early
Mission Command is the Army’s philosophy of leadership exercised through command and control of subordinates in a setting underpinned by trust and reinforced though intention-driven communication. While Mission Command was not a primary objective for the 22-week Infantry OSUT pilot course in 2018, it proved to be a valuable aspect of the approach to an expanded OSUT.
The U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences, known as ARI, studied trainees’ peer evaluations designed to measure assessments of others’ leadership behaviors and retention of training. As mentioned previously, leadership within the 198th Infantry Brigade used peer evaluations to identify peer leaders among the strongest performers. Cadre designated trainees to serve as team leaders, squad leaders and platoon sergeants and wear highly visible shoulder patches designating the rank appropriate to their new positions. Drill sergeants provided rudimentary leader training, coached the importance of approach to ensuring accountability, taught precombat inspections, and coached how to properly supervise others.
Armed with these insights, trainees assumed increased responsibilities in each of the progressive phases of the course. Both the cadre and ARI collected feedback at the end of each training phase. Drill sergeants counseled trainees, then promoted or demoted them based on their performance and other trainees’ feedback. The infantry trainees learned followership early, in addition to basic leader tasks. In short, they learned Mission Command. This phenomenon became one of the greatest mechanisms for both personal and professional growth.
In addition to teaching leadership skills, the new 22-week OSUT also addressed organizational changes that better facilitated effective Mission Command. This included a higher instructor-to-student ratio of one leader to 12 infantry trainees. The previous leader-to-led ratio was 1-to-20, straining the effective span of control for the cadre.
Increasing drill sergeant manning from 12 drill sergeants per company to 16 drill sergeants enables better small-group instruction and facilitates learning. With enough drill sergeants on hand, cadre can conduct crucial concurrent training that enables future training requirements. Combined with the Army’s authorization to assign lieutenants to the brigade as infantry training platoon leaders, the OSUT environment more closely mirrors formations that trainees will join and that instructors will return to.
Lastly, Infantry OSUT now has the resources and instructors necessary to effectively implement combat lifesaver certification, the Army Combat Fitness Test, and the Army’s new rifle, pistol and machine gun courses of fire into the curriculum. Infantry trainees also have access to simulations training, including both the Engagement Skills Trainer and the newly fielded Squad Advanced Marksmanship Trainer.
This new model of OSUT force structure and program of instruction will lead and inform other branches of service in the coming years.
The Infantry School, in conjunction with the Maneuver Center of Excellence, will continue to evaluate the transformation of OSUT through 2019 and into 2020. With a plan to execute 10 22-week courses through this year, the Infantry School will no longer conduct the final 14-week program in the next fiscal year.
Acknowledging the investment necessary to produce more skilled and lethal infantry soldiers, it is important that this revised OSUT similarly benefit leaders, both NCOs and officers, in a manner that returns them to the force better from the experience.
The reward for investing in our enlisted infantry soldiers and sergeants outweighs any risks. Everyone who enters the gates of Fort Benning is either a leader or a future leader. This investment will grow significant returns in the years and decades to come.