First 100 Days of Deployment Critical to Soldier Survivability

By Tristan Plank and Angelia Sebok
There is a popular belief that soldiers have a significantly longer life expectancy in a combat zone after they have survived their first few firefights. But little research has been conducted to evaluate what soldiers learn early in their deployments that would make the difference between improved effectiveness and becoming a combat fatality.

Can learned factors or perhaps inherent traits be replicated and conveyed in training so that a soldier’s chance of surviving initial firefights is similar to that of a seasoned combat veteran?

Past anecdotal discussions have indicated that military units tend to suffer higher casualty rates in their first engagements with the enemy. Recent research demonstrates that the first 100 days of combat is a more reliable critical period for improving the likelihood of survival than the widely held “first five firefights” theory.

These results hold implications for several aspects of modern training, as well as tactics, techniques and procedures used by today’s military.

The findings are the result of a study commissioned by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The study sought to determine the most likely times within a tour of duty that a soldier might become a combat-related fatality. The research also aimed to identify methods for reducing fatalities associated with these vulnerable times during a soldier’s deployment.

Statistics are not kept on the number of firefights in which a soldier experiences. In addition, a commonly accepted definition of firefight was difficult to ascertain, further complicating an investigation of the “first five” concept.

Based on analyses of databases covering all publicly available U.S. and U.K. fatalities over the past three years, nearly 40 percent of fatalities occur in the first three months of deployment.

One potential factor is troop transitions, such as old units rotating out and new units learning the ropes as they rotate in. Loss of local intelligence when an old unit leaves can be a crucial factor affecting fatalities during these initial months. When the old unit departs, relationships with locals are frequently lost. Lack of familiarity with the environment and enemy tactics, as well as a general lack of experience, are also important factors.

Analysis revealed another increase in Army fatalities, though not as dramatic, at approximately the six-month mark of a tour. The six-month spike was less pronounced for Marines, Navy and Air Force personnel. In addition, a minor spike in fatalities occurred again for soldiers at the 10-month mark. Likely factors for the increase in fatalities in these later months are fatigue, complacency and stale tactics. Frequent missions and patrols, overly consistent day-to-day procedures, and lack of in-theater training to maintain soldier focus may exacerbate these factors as well. Enemy adaptability is also a likely factor leading to the increase in fatalities in the latter half of deployment, as insurgents learn and adapt to predictable U.S. procedures such as routine patrols and convoys.

The study team developed two fatality databases (one of U.S. and another of U.K. data) of nearly 2,000 casualties from both Iraq and Afghanistan. The researchers created these databases by first identifying websites that list all combat-related fatalities, and then searching for additional information from online obituaries or press releases, in addition to the bases from which the soldiers were deployed.  

The team also developed a questionnaire to investigate current soldier beliefs regarding vulnerable periods in their tours of duty. Either one-on-one interviews or questionnaires were administered to 18 soldiers and marines for the study. A focus group discussion included seven additional combat veterans.

Soldiers who were interviewed expressed concern that training is not sufficiently current or realistic, and there is a strong need for just-in-time training and more up-to-date information on enemy tactics. Altering these aspects of training and intelligence dissemination could have an enormous impact on current soldier survival. Interviews also revealed that providing outlets for discussing personal experiences amidst combat situations may yield less complacent soldiers. This is a critical finding, as complacency appears to be an important factor contributing to fatalities in the latter half of deployment.

Still, the discovery of particularly vulnerable periods during a tour of duty remains the most critical finding of this DARPA study.

The discovery that soldiers have the highest likelihood of becoming a combat fatality during their second and third month of a tour is the most critical — nearly 40 percent of fatalities occur in the first three months of deployment.

Focusing on the factors that create vulnerable periods in a deployment, such as the improvement of troop transition periods, could reduce future fatalities. In-deployment training could help to reduce complacency and help maintain focus — two factors that play an important role in the latter-half of a tour. Faster and more frequent changes in tactics and an increase in realistic immersion training were also recommendations made by the research team.

The results of the study have powerful implications for current training, as well as the tactics, techniques, and procedures. Altering aspects of training and intelligence dissemination would likely have an enormous impact on soldier survival.

Tristan Plank is a researcher and Scott Scheff is a principal human factors engineer at HF Designworks Inc. in Boulder, Colo. Angelia Sebok is a principal human factors engineer at Alion Science and Technology in Boulder. Both companies supported the DARPA study.

Topics: Combat Survivability

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