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Monday, April 04, 2016

There are plenty of things I’ll miss when I eventually leave the Army: the camaraderie, the sense of duty, and the feeling of being part of something bigger than myself. But there is one thing—other than the reflective belt—that I won’t miss when that day comes, and that is mandatory training.

It can be sheer agony to sit through one mandatory training class after another, be it the Cyber Awareness Challenge or the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure approach to countering human trafficking, no matter how hard the developers try to make it interesting.

Leaders have long understood that there are far too many mandatory training requirements. In fact, the recent National Commission on the Future of the Army recommended Army leaders “reduce mandatory training prescribed in Army Regulation 350-1, Army Training and Leader Development.” And a 2011 study designed to aid Gen. Martin Dempsey’s transition to Army chief of staff featured findings from the field such as the suggestion to “take a red pen to,” or eliminate, most of the requirements in AR 350-1.

Indeed, recommendations such as these date back to official studies commissioned even before 9/11. But while the problem is well-known, there’s often little Army leaders can do to hack away at the ever-growing problem of mandatory training requirements.

How much is too much mandatory training? For over a decade, it’s been painfully obvious that it is impossible for Army units to accomplish all their mandatory annual training requirements in a calendar year.

A 2002 study commissioned by the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute found that company commanders had a total of 256 days available for training annually, accounting for weekends, holidays and block leave. Yet given the deluge of mandatory training requirements in 2002—over 100 separate requirements—it would have taken 297 days, a deficit of 41 days, to accomplish all assigned training.

Fast-forward to 2015, wherein a study at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., revealed a training deficit of 258 days—so nearly 20 months of annual mandatory training crammed into a 12-month calendar year.

Army senior leaders have long realized the stress this places on junior leaders. Unfortunately, there are many training requirements that Army leadership simply can’t eliminate. The National Defense Authorization Act, passed every year, often mandates or recommends mandatory training in various areas; for example, the 2009 NDAA called for DoD to establish suicide prevention programs, so mandatory annual training.

Other requirements are a byproduct of bureaucracy. The Pentagon is home to dozens of special interest groups, many of whom fight for relevance by instituting some mandatory training requirement or another—all of which will undoubtedly increase as agencies within the Beltway vie for defense dollars.

Mandatory training requirements have a deleterious effect on small-unit leadership, as company commanders have fewer opportunities to plan and execute their own training—an essential part of learning to become an effective Army leader. With hundreds of training requirements culled from over 1,000 Army regulations and other policy directives, the Army has gradually eroded the autonomy and decisionmaking authority of junior leaders. This is a trend stretching back nearly 40 years.

Many senior leaders believe that company commanders “lost the art of training management” as a result of the last decade and a half of war, as junior leaders were told precisely what to train for to prepare them for war. However, the historical record paints a very different picture: Junior leaders had lost most of their autonomy in planning their own training well before 9/11.

Nearly 40 years ago, the average commander had over 150 days to plan, prepare and execute his or her own training. By 2002, that number had been whittled down to just 36 days. Today, that number has likely dwindled even further—absolving junior leaders of the responsibility to think critically and determine organizational training requirements.

The proliferation of training requirements also places junior leaders on the horns of a dilemma. Should they try to accomplish the ever-mounting cascade of training requirements, or should they neglect them and claim they completed them anyway? A landmark study by the U.S. Army War College, “Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession,” highlights the ethical dilemma many junior leaders face.

Some officers reported a slipshod approach to accomplishing mandatory training. For example, one officer said he called his subordinates on the radio with the simple message “Don’t touch women” and thus, Sexual Harassment/Assault Response & Prevention training was accomplished that quarter—at least on paper.

Other organizations reported outright fraud, which is worrying for an institution that prides itself on integrity. One Army captain explained how a sergeant picked the smartest soldier in the squad to take mandatory online training for his buddies. Others reported printing out dozens of fraudulent training certificates to satisfy a mandatory training requirement.

Today, the temptation to “pencil whip” training, or document it as if it’s complete, is even more powerful thanks to information technology. Twenty years ago, mandatory training may have easily gone unchecked. Today, technologies such as the Digital Training Management System allow senior leaders to examine every imaginable training requirement under the sun—with junior leaders frantically trying to complete it all.

But there’s a false dichotomy between outright lying and slipshod training. Junior leaders can simply break the rules—smartly, of course. In the late 1970s, then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Edward C. “Shy” Meyer advocated “selective disobedience.” Army leaders of the era actually encouraged junior leaders to selectively ignore stifling bureaucratic regulations. One officer of the era, Gen. Robert Shoemaker, remarked, “You will impress me if I come to your training site and you tell me what parts of my guidance you have chosen not to follow. You will really impress me if you have already told my staff and explained why.”

It takes maturity and moral courage to know how and when to break the rules. And while we must never violate ethical standards or safety provisions, leaders at all levels have an obligation to prioritize requirements and let nonessential tasks fall by the wayside, when necessary.

At the same time, senior leaders must establish clear priorities—what mandatory training requirements can subordinates write off? As retired Lt. Gen. David Barno said in a 2014 op-ed in The Washington Post, senior Army leaders “must empower their young leaders to say no to the bureaucracy, or they risk creating a generation of compliant officers unprepared for the ‘think on your feet’ nature of modern war.”