In the spring of 1986, Task Force 4-68 under Lt. Col. Alfred L. Dibella Jr. won every battle against the highly vaunted opposing forces at the National Training Center, a feat never repeated. The achievement was so far beyond what seemed possible that top leaders in the Army took notice, and officers at all levels studied the task force’s success.
Several concepts developed within 4-68 weaved their way through the mindset of the officer corps and into the Army’s warfighting methodology. A number of researchers have focused on the innovative “playbook” Dibella pioneered for battalion-level maneuver operations. But the playbook was only a component of a whole that was much greater than the sum of its parts. Many additional ingredients combined to create 4-68’s “secret sauce” and were also crucial in successful development and integration of the playbook concept.
Clarity of Purpose
A few months after he assumed command, Dibella planned a galvanizing event. He brought every soldier of the task force and closely related support units into the main auditorium at Fort Carson, Colo., where the task force was based. On stage, he discussed the many challenges units faced against the opposing forces (OPFOR). Then he exclaimed: “Ain’t nobody ever been nine and oh! That is what we are going to do!”
Thus, 9 and 0 became the rally cry and the goal: nine wins for the task force and zero wins for the OPFOR in one month-long rotation. It was simple, measurable and meaningful, and every soldier would make a difference in achieving it. It was bold and inspired, but it was also beyond what seemed possible. I was one of 4-68’s tank platoon leaders, and during Dibella’s presentation, two hardened and skeptical master sergeants from the brigade maintenance support unit sat behind me. They had heard similar rallying cries from other battalion commanders whose units went out to Fort Irwin, Calif., home of the National Training Center (NTC), and were summarily humiliated.
“Here we go again,” they lamented. “Everybody thinks rah-rah will beat the OPFOR, then they go out there and get their butts kicked.”
What made 4-68 different? Why did that task force prove the master sergeants wrong?
The difference was that Dibella made the goal all-encompassing. It defined what was important, what was most important and what was unimportant. Every training exercise, every professional development session, every physical training run, essentially every significant activity was tied to the goal of gaining the combat proficiency necessary to win at the NTC. Distractions were eliminated or deliberately de-emphasized.
Support From the Top
Dibella also had every measure of support for what he was doing from his direct superiors. Col. Richard Davis, the 2nd Brigade commander, task-organized the tank and infantry battalions a year before our training center rotation. He did this over objections of his staff because he knew that personnel stability was crucial to building cohesive combat teams within the maneuver units. He realized that if Dibella was to have any chance of 9 and 0, 4-68 would need a constant task organization.
The division commanding general’s support was also steadfast. Dibella recalled his introductory meeting: “Maj. Gen. [G.T.] Bartlett wanted to ensure that I understood his priorities for battalion commanders. He gave me a three-word mission statement. It was very simple. ‘Win at NTC!’ To emphasize the point, he said, ‘If that is not clear, let me state it another way: Beat the OPFOR! Any questions?’ ”
Many leaders say one thing about priorities, but their actions speak differently. Bartlett was not one of these leaders. He meant what he said, and he proved it several times in the lead-up to the training center rotation. His support was instrumental in gaining that same essential stability with the support units including engineers; nuclear, biological and chemical support; field artillery fire support; air defense artillery; smoke; Army aviation and Air Force liaisons; maintenance support; and others.
All through the exhaustive training and preparation process leading up to the NTC, the after-action reviews (AARs) were honest and open conversations about what happened in the just-finished simulated battle. No one wanted to be the leader of a platoon or company that made mistakes, but making mistakes was part of the process. The errors were never covered up, and there was little holding back for fear of offending someone. At the task force level, communication was direct and, if necessary, brutally honest, but it was also safe to discuss problems and admit errors. Never was anyone condemned for an error. This approach trickled down to the companies and platoons.
The atmosphere at AARs illustrates the personal nature of Dibella’s involvement with the creative process. He was in the middle of it all, soliciting ideas, bringing key people together, inciting discussion, contributing his own ideas and getting excited about new ideas every day. Within the confines of the military system of rank and seniority, Dibella created an experimental, imaginative, results-focused environment. We dissected everything we could get our hands on about the NTC, objectively looking for evidence of what worked and what did not. Dibella was a battalion commander with 16 years of Army experience, yet he constantly and enthusiastically solicited and listened to ideas from soldiers with only months on the job. It did not matter from where or whom it came; the best idea won.
Playbook as Catalyst
The playbook itself deserves credit as a crucial catalyst in bringing together all the positive elements of 4-68’s combat proficiency-obsessed environment. Like the simple wishbone offense for a football team, it focused our field training and optimized the process of developing operational orders. Instead of devising a new maneuver plan for each mission, the playbook systemized our concept of the operation with straightforward methodologies for moving, attacking and defending. It also served as a quintessential instrument of clarity down to the individual soldier level.
By grasping the basic ideas in the playbook, the clear purpose—9 and 0—became ever more meaningful. Every soldier understood their role and concentrated training on their assignment. We practiced and practiced until each company, platoon and tank crew could execute with precision. In the background, soldiers also gained a heightened awareness that their actions made a difference. What they were doing fit into the simple concept of a well-designed battle plan that was easily understood.
The playbook also made acting and reacting swifter and more decisive. It integrated combat support and combat service support systems. The fire-support unit could grasp the general flow of each battle and could develop a sense of which missions should take priority. The air defense artillery unit could understand where they should expect the friendly maneuver units to be during various types of operations and could develop their own “plays” for effective air defense artillery deployment. Helicopter and fixed-wing air support could anticipate where the friendly and enemy units would be on the battlefield. We refined it and worked tirelessly until each unit could execute its part flawlessly.
Collaboration Matters Most
Following our rotation, many commanders attempted to take the plays as a cookie-cutter technique for fighting battles, but the essence of what made the playbook work was lost in this approach. It was the collaborative process of developing the plays that mattered most—the continuous re-evaluation, tweaking and re-tweaking—and the team’s engagement in developing this innovative methodology that made the playbook so powerful. The document codified the collective ideas of the task force’s soldiers, but the collection of ideas was more than we could put onto paper. The playbook itself was, in a sense, an extension of our collective mind.
The NTC devises scenarios that are more stacked against units than what they will likely experience in combat, with the expectation that your unit will learn through its defeats. It was unthinkable that an M60A3 tank unit could go to Fort Irwin and win every battle. Nonetheless, that is exactly what the task force achieved in the spring of 1986. Dibella established an absolute clarity of purpose around winning in simulated combat. His higher-level leaders wholeheartedly supported his goal and took deliberate actions to facilitate the unit’s success. Open, brutally honest communication empowered a creative crucible out of which 4-68 developed an innovative playbook concept that greatly simplified a multitude of operational tasks in preparation and execution of combat operations. These timeless principles from the task force’s unprecedented accomplishment still apply to the battles we fight today.