The closure of the Red Team School and the impending loss of red teams from the Army division organization represent a larger shift away from intellectual humility in the Army’s way of war.
Just as in the post-Vietnam era, when the Army was able to tell itself it could finally get out of the counterinsurgency business and get back to training for the type of conflict it was more suited to fighting, the slow, spiraling end of the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan gave the service an excuse to end another period of introspection in favor of a renewed focus on large-scale combat operations.
It seemed, as always, that the goal was not to improve how the Army conducted protracted operations in far-flung corners of the globe, but to simply move past those failures so the Army could concentrate on the more important, unfought notional wars of tomorrow, when the service has a better chance of prevailing within its institutional mindset: Don’t change how the Army does business, just pick the right war.
At the tactical level, Army divisions during the long wars were imbued with two capabilities to mitigate institutional shortcomings in transforming tactical actions on the ground into the commander’s desired end state: red teaming and assessment. Both are mechanisms designed to audit the existing tactical plan while it is being constructed and executed in order to identify aspects that may be ineffective in bringing about the desired result. The two disciplines are related but distinct.
Red teaming audits the “facts” and assumptions underlying the plan, determining if the premises upon which the plan was built remain sound. Assessment audits the plan’s operational design—the tasks (and the purposes underlying those tasks) that make up the intermediate steps in the plan, determining both if the plan is proceeding as envisaged and—more importantly—whether the plan’s logic remains sound (is the plan still a viable blueprint for delivering the unit from the present to the end state sought by the commander?).
Both these capabilities involve mechanisms for challenging the hard-won consensus that is the current plan or, during planning, creating useful friction in getting to consensus. Criticism as a discipline has never been a recipe for making friends and influencing people. In the context of a hierarchical and process-driven enterprise that is an Army division, establishing institutional “devil’s advocates” to probe and discover mismatches between the organization’s current efforts and the organization’s goals is intentionally disruptive.
And unpopular. The decision to close the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas—the Army’s temple for critical thinking and the home of Army red teaming—was made last year and will be fully implemented later this year. The Army will “repurpose” the modest budget, even though the $2.5 million annual budget of the entire school would be insufficient to fund the purchase of a single Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
The closure of the Red Team School will occur more or less simultaneously with the removal of the red teams from the Army division Table of Organization and Equipment. At a stroke, this removes institutional support for red teaming at the tactical level of Army operations, the division being the service’s highest-level tactical headquarters.
The other discipline—assessment—is one the Army never did well and never really was able to explain or implement. It has become the refuge of fake metrics and number-crunchers and, as such, is sidelined in an institution built around the monoculture of the combat arms warfighter.
What these disciplines could and did deliver to division commanders may be less important than what they represented: a willingness to institutionalize introspection and divergent thought. By funding a “loyal opposition” within the division staff, the Army usefully attempted to create space for different perspectives and out-of-the-box thinking. This was especially useful as the Army’s effort to get division commands to see the bigger picture—the so-called Army design methodology—also largely failed and has been withdrawn to the corps level and above.
This risks leaving tactical commands stuck at the execution level, effectively condemning them to do as they are told and beholden to the logic and assumptions embedded in the orders they are given. As the Army moves from a brigade to a division-centric model of organization, this manufactured shortcoming could prove ill-timed.
Of course, thoughtful commanders and their staffs at all levels will not be blind to the efficacy—or lack thereof—of their actions on the battlefield and will not shrink from re-examining their assumptions or their operational logic if necessary to achieve victory. That having been said, removing the institutional support for such measures makes their habitual adoption less likely.
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Maj. Garri Benjamin Hendell, Pennsylvania Army National Guard, is a cavalryman and a graduate of the Red Team Members Course. In addition to various command and staff assignments at the platoon, company, battalion and division levels, he has served at a state joint force headquarters and as a civilian branch chief in the Army National Guard’s Personnel Policy Division.