Traditional, hard combat skills are not proving decisive in Iraq. So Army and industry innovators are responding by focusing on cognitive training scenarios to resolve the complex array of challenges facing troops there.
In recent years, the ground force has recognized the growing importance of teaching troops, at increasingly lower echelons, how to take on leadership roles and how to make better decisions under fire — decisions that often have a crucial impact on operations, say defense officials and analysts.
Such an acknowledgment marks a change in the Army’s approach to training. In the 1980s and 1990s, the thinking was that if soldiers “could do the top-end skills, we could do all the others,” Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz, deputy commander and chief of staff of the Army Training and Doctrine Command, told reporters at the Association of the U.S. Army annual convention, in Washington, D.C.
Iraq, however, has proved that concept wrong. “We learned that full spectrum is very challenging, particularly the cultural piece,” he said.
To get at the “full spectrum,” the service is developing training programs and revamping large-scale pre-deployment exercises to increase the soldiers’ abilities to make decisions, essentially creating “pentathlete officers” who can adapt to multiple missions, said Metz.
The mission rehearsals at the National Training Center’s simulated Iraqi villages in Fort Irwin, Calif., for example, are intended to build cognitive skills through realism, so that when troops go into actual combat, they feel they already have been exposed to the environment, said Metz.
But the initiative to improve combat leadership skills earlier in solders’ careers, by better understanding the cognitive processes involved in decision-making, has gained momentum inside military academies and other academic institutions.
“Right now, there’s an incredible premium placed on combat leadership, because soldiers and leaders are dying. So we feel very compelled, almost a moral imperative, to make sure that the graduates of the military academy and other people understand how to lead during in extremis situations,” said Col. Tom Kolditz, head of the behavioral sciences and leadership department at West Point, N.Y.
He and a team of psychologists are researching the concept of in extremis leadership, or how leadership changes when lives are at stake.
Based upon observations of small units operating in Iraq in 2003 and two other West Point studies, Kolditz and his team concluded that in extremis leadership differs from business or academic leadership in non-dangerous settings in several ways.
Under dangerous situations, followers look for competence in their leaders to a degree that is unprecedented in non-dangerous environments, said Kolditz.
“In dangerous contexts, they don’t need motivation from a leader … Everyone’s scared and fired up. So what they’re looking for is less motivation and more direction, more competence,” explained Kolditz.
The best leaders in combat tend to be low motivators who can give instruction under perilous conditions.
“Unless they are out there sharing the risk, the danger, they have no credibility,” said Kolditz, who has transferred those lessons into his classrooms at West Point.
“It’s been useful to be able to tell cadets, ‘here’s how leadership in combat is unique.’ This resonates very well with cadets. They eat it up,” he said.
Kolditz also is working with other behavioral scientists and the defense industry to transpose these ideas and findings into simulations that train commanders to lead more effectively in combat.
One of those simulators, called “combat leader environment,” was developed by Lockheed Martin Corp. in response to TRADOC commander Gen. William S. Wallace’s interest in training Army commanders to make decisions under stress, said Lisa Callahan, project manager.
The team designed a video game-like simulation that would immerse commanders in several scenarios based upon actual events that took place in Iraq during reconstruction phase operations.
“What we’re trying to do is help people understand how they think,” said Callahan. “There might be some blind spots in their thinking, things they have a tendency to not pay attention to, that they should be paying attention to.”
During a demonstration of the simulation, Bryan Hall, a former Army infantryman, sat in front of two large computer screens that displayed an out-the-humvee-window view of Tikrit, Iraq. Nearby, another screen showed a blue-force tracking system that was intended to help him monitor his units’ locations during the simulation.
As he traveled to the opening ceremony of a new water treatment facility, Hall, playing a battalion commander, listened to radio chatter that came over the speakers. Soldiers continually updated him about large crowds gathering in several areas of the city — one at the opening of a security school, another at a kerosene distribution point, and a third at a vaccination clinic.
After meeting with an informant who told him about a safe house harboring men with guns, Hall received the safe house’s coordinates from Greg Lindsey, a former Special Forces officer, who participated in the simulation as the role player or coach. Lindsey was responsible for depicting entities with whom a real-life battalion commander would interact — brigade and battalion headquarters, company leaders, air controllers and the like. He and Hall communicated and exchanged information over simulated radio airwaves, which resulted in Hall’s decision to move a few air assets to monitor the safe house.
As the demonstration progressed, Hall encountered additional events, such as an explosion at a police station and a roadside bomb, that was intended to escalate stress levels and sap available troop assets. At one point, a sheik even called up to demand that doctors administer more vaccines to pacify an unruly crowd. All these situations accreted rapidly to stress the decision-making skills of the commander-in-training.
“The way this is built, there’s no right or wrong answer,” said Lindsey, who consults for Colgen, one of Lockheed Martin’s partners on the simulation. “At the end, [the student] would go through an after action review with a coach, talk about why he made decisions, what’s going to happen next, what info he didn’t have and who he’d get it from, to improve the experience.”
The simulation was taken to Fort Leavenworth as a proof of concept. Colonels and lieutenant colonels training to take command of brigades and battalions tested out the system.
“What’s particularly important in this simulation is that it’s contextually rich,” said Lt. Col. James Merlo, who served in central Iraq as deputy brigade commander for the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, in 2004 and 2005. Leaders are cognitively immersed in the scenarios and can pick up on the cultural awareness cues and the sensitivity of certain events, he said. For example, the sheik calling up the commander on a cell phone “is a very realistic scenario,” he pointed out, and requires diplomacy to thwart potential violence.
To generate the scenarios, the Lockheed Martin team and a group of cognitive psychologists interviewed Iraq war veterans to get at the thinking behind their decisions in combat, said Wally White, director of business development at Lockheed Martin Simulation, Training & Support group. He said the method resulted in realistic training experiences for the simulation.
“It’s really trying to get at the science, and expose the mental process,” said White. “That’s really the power of it, which makes it different from any simulation or simulator that we’ve ever done before.”
The decision-making aspects of the combat leader environment are sophisticated, said Kolditz. It focuses on naturalistic decision-making processes, intuition and judgment versus rote decision-making.
“That’s an important first step, because that’s an acknowledgement that it’s about these cognitive abilities. It’s not just experience,” he said.
Cognitive science-based simulations are “the direction we’re going to have to go, and it’s exciting,” said Merlo, who will teach engineering psychology at West Point upon finishing his doctorate degree.
Robert Scales, a retired Army major general and former commander of the Army War College, said, “What we’re hoping with modern simulations is to be able to replicate the fear of battle — the intensity, the uncertainty, the chaos, the ambiguity of combat — and put it into a simulation and repeat it over and over and over again … We’ve never gone there before, and the only way you’re able to do that is with a simulation that is free play.”
Much as professional baseball players need to practice hitting balls in a batting cage, leaders require a “batting cage for the mind” to maintain and improve intuitive decision-making skills, said Merlo.
“It’s not a lot of muscle memory — it’s cognitive short cuts that allow ourselves to stretch our mind,” he said.
In simulations such as the combat leader environment, “we can take the most important parts of combat leadership and iterate them over and over and over again. The idea is to develop experience that is comparable to, and in some respects, better than real world experience, to a degree that we haven’t really done before,” said Kolditz.
Lockheed Martin, meanwhile, is trying to find ways to quantify that someone is getting better at decision-making, said Callahan.
Lindsey, who has seen a number of students go through the simulation, said he noticed a “marked improvement” in their decision-making by the time they reached the final scenario. “They really made decisions a lot better, as far as recognizing who their assets are, how they can move,” he said.
Lockheed program managers are also looking at how they can evolve scenarios and improve the simulation itself to address leadership skills at lower levels of command.
“Because of what’s happening in Iraq, the object is to pull [leadership training] down the command ladder, down to much lower levels because that’s where the key decisions have to be made — or are not being made — at that squad, platoon and company level,” said Scales.
The combat leadership environment can help fill that gap and accelerate the learning experience, said Callahan.
“I say that, because traditionally, strategic decisions were made by brigade and division commanders who had 15 to 25 years of experience under their belts. Now, in the types of battles we’re facing, it’s much a one-on-one combat environment. Squad leaders, platoon leaders, company leaders are making these types of decisions that have much more far-reaching impact, and their experience level is on the order of a few years, five or 10 years,” said Callahan. “So what we’re trying to do with the simulation is give them the lived experience without actually having to live through years of experience,” she said.
Simulators such as these could potentially lead to better training technologies based upon cognitive science principles and theories, said Martin Seligman, Fox leadership professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
“It’s important that psychology take the basic science that it’s uncovered and show it really works in life-saving situations,” he said.
Theories such as the Kahana-Seligman Conjecture, which states that facial recognition, categorization and intuitive decision-making involve the same cognitive process, can be applied to military simulations so that troops receive faster and better training.
“I think the military is the place to do it. That’s where it really matters in this nation,” said Seligman.
“I think that it is time for the Pentagon to do for the human science what it did for chemistry in World War I, for physics in World War II, and for computers” in the post-Cold War era, said Seligman. “I’m convinced that we’re fighting human wars now and that another stealth bomber, another battleship is not how to win these wars. It’s rather to get the command decisions that troops make on the ground to be much better.”
But convincing the Defense Department to invest in human, or “soft,” sciences may prove to be a difficult challenge.
“They want to focus on the kinetic side of war,” said Scales. “They need to wake up and they need to understand that all of our mistakes and shortcomings in this war are human and not technological … The bias is always to go build a better box and I think that’s wrong. It’s a waste of money.”
But there has been some progress toward giving the human sciences recognition, said White of Lockheed Martin. The Defense Science Board for the first time ever took on a “soft” science, he said, and the Sandia National Laboratory recently designated cognitive sciences as one of its top five focus areas.
“Cognition and cognitive science is going to grow,” he said.
To continue the progress, those involved in cognitive sciences must collaborate and educate the non-psychologists who are involved with the defense and modeling and simulation industries.
“I think it’s incumbent upon the scientists to do the translating for those people, and to make sure that people understand it in a common sense way, even though there might be some fairly sophisticated research and development that goes behind these ideas,” said Kolditz.
The Army’s increasing emphasis on training leadership at lower levels and to focus upon small units moves the service a little bit away from the National Training Center format of exercising brigade-level commanders, said Kolditz. Special Forces units have long understood the value of training in small units. “The value of that is now being understood by the conventional force as well,” he said.
The Army’s Stryker brigades are viewed as models for the future force, not only because of their advanced technology, but also because they are providing a valuable model for leader development, said Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, during a “Warrior’s Corner” series presentation.
“The leader development, the emphasis on soldier training, is what will be most important as we inform the development of the future force,” said Ham, who served with two Stryker brigades, both at Fort Lewis, Wash., in 2003, and in Iraq during 2004.
In Iraq, “we found that it was the leaders, more than anything else, that made the difference in how you could take a relatively small force, about a third the strength of a division, and replace an entire division and be able to continue essentially the same levels of operation. Very, very difficult challenge, but it was largely the imagination, the adaptive and agile nature of the leaders that allowed them to do that,” said Ham.
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