Training Soldiers for #Operating: The Army #Operating Concept & Basic Training

The Army’s new operating concept frames the dialog as we restructure forces to “Win in a Complex World.” As Daniel Sukman pointed out previously in the Bridge’s #Operating discussion, “the AOC places the onus on my generation of officers to develop the next generation of leaders.” Since hearing GEN Perkins lay out the concepts of the AOC in his brief at the Maneuver Warfighter Conference, I’ve been contemplating what can be done within my institution to develop leaders that will operate within the paradigm of this concept.

My current mission in Infantry One Station Unit Training (OSUT) is seemingly simple: “Build Infantrymen.” These young riflemen are the foundational elements of the Army (and its future leaders). What capabilities do they need to be successful within this operating concept? The AOC calls for “adaptive leaders” that “think critically,” “assess the situation continuously,” “develop innovative solutions,” and “thrive in chaotic environments.”[1] But how does that translate to the most basic level of a rifleman (or any other young Soldier)?

The operational tempo of the past decade has created a necessity in Initial Entry Training (IET) to prepare Soldiers ready to ship directly from IET to a unit preparing to deploy (or already deployed) to conduct counterinsurgency operations in Iraq or Afghanistan. This has prompted the addition of numerous blocks of instruction designed to familiarize Soldiers with complex tasks associated with counterinsurgency. The result has been a buffet-style approach that trains Soldiers to be familiar with a broad array of tasks, but skilled experts in none.

I fear there will be a tendency within the new AOC to train Soldiers a similar litany of potential tasks, versus training them to be experts in a few key skills, and testing their capacity to adapt those skills to any environment. Experts in the fundamentals, capable of adaptive and critical thinking, will be more successful in uncertainty and chaos. Success in developing Soldiers to “win in a complex world” requires going back to the basics, with modification to how we teach and assess these skills.

Back to the Basics: Lethality with Precision and Discrimination

As the AOC notes, lethality is “essential to fighting and winning battles.”[2]In a complex environment where enemy forces blend into the population, discrimination becomes critical to minimize civilian casualties. At the Soldier level, this translates into expertise in effectively engaging targets with the standard battle rifle. Marksmanship itself is a complicated skill, requiring focus, control, threat identification, and adept manipulation of a rifle. A Soldier who is an expert at this fundamental skill will have the confidence and ability to precisely apply combat power in a lethal manner, regardless of how chaotic the environment.

IET provides the unique confluence of resources necessary to ensure every Soldier has the opportunity to become an expert marksman. Currently, the methodology of IET marksmanship training is being re-evaluated. The changes under consideration provide hope that we, as an institution, recognize the value of this skill. Properly training marksmanship requires an immense amount of time, but yields secondary effects beyond its implicit value.

How We Teach: Learning How to Learn

In order to achieve “advanced cognitive abilities,”[3] as the AOC requires, an early focus on how to learn complex skills, such as marksmanship, may be of greater value than learning the skills themselves. We cannot assume recruits understand self-study or optimization of human performance based on their civilian education prior to joining the Army. Therefore, focusing on the learning process and performance optimization may be equally as important as the outcome of expert marksmanship.

Training with the right methodology of learning can provide Soldiers a cognitive skill that will translate to self-learning higher level skills. The methods of regurgitation learning and mindless repetition under threat of physical exertion do not provide this translatable skill. Methods such as visualization, deliberate practice, and experiential or even adaptive learningcan accomplish higher scores while teaching Soldiers how to become an expert of any skill.

How We Teach: Historical Perspective

Some of these changes are simple. Similarly to Matthew Cavanaugh’s argument on teaching strategy to junior officers, I would argue that teaching history to Privates has intrinsic value beyond their basic knowledge of specific battles or pride in heritage. Having not experienced war themselves, selected historical readings provide young Soldiers the best opportunity to contemplate realities of close combat, decisions made in the fog of war, and their personal role in human conflict. These vicarious experiences provide perspective that enables them to be reflective and make coherent connections even during their first dance with chaos.

It is surprising how many young Soldiers embrace this concept. In implementing a voluntary reading initiative, I have found that Soldiers, when deprived of their smart phones, are eager to pick up a book and initiate themselves into the profession of arms. Even without being “voluntold,” Soldiers created ad hoc reading groups to discuss books in their personal time during Infantry OSUT (stereotypes destroyed). This reflective learning can establish cognitive habits that will help them become the leaders the AOC envisions.

How We Teach: Performance Optimization

The AOC calls for both the “optimization of human performance” and “resilience.”[4] Within the Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness (CSF2) program, much of the emphasis has been, justifiably, on resilience. Coping with suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder, and losses of over a decade at war has required the Army to invest heavily in this research and outreach. The gem within this program, in terms of training young Soldiers to operate in a complex world, is the performance psychology skills such as growth mindsetattention control, and energy management, that can achieve the optimized human performance, providing Soldiers an edge in the conflict of wills.

How We Assess: Thrive in Chaotic Environments

Despite the “softer” teaching methods considered above, training assessment is where the challenge of training returns to the picture. Rather than creating chaos during the acquisition of skill, the focus should be on expertise with chaos applied progressively during assessment. Once a level of expertise is achieved, assessment exercises should challenge Soldiers through physical exhaustion, complex urban terrain, discrimination of targets, and presentation of moral dilemmas. This escalation of assessment has the potential to develop young leaders capable of knowing both how to pull the trigger and, more importantly in a complex world, whether and when to pull the trigger. Training should be progressive, and standards should be challenging enough to serve as a proper evaluation of potential. Between the initial shock and awe of the first phase of training, the focus on how to learn throughout, and the realistic assessment of a culminating field training exercise, Soldiers should graduate and transition to operational units proud of their achievement, confident in their skills, and ready to take their place within the Army.

The Complex World of Institutional Inertia

GEN Perkins points out, accurately, in the preface of the AOC that the next conflict’s operating environment is “not only unknown, but unknowable and constantly changing.” This recognition precludes training the exhaustive list of required tasks in a buffet of familiarization training events. The difference in learning how to accomplish each of these tasks and the development of expertise in a few fundamental skills is that expertise in a fundamental skill can be applied creatively to overcome a plethora of challenges. One of the first questions posed to GEN Perkins at the Maneuver War Conference was by an Armor OSUT Battalion Commander who asked what steps were being taken to adjust the IET program of instruction to meet this vision. Leaders are getting on board rapidly, but it will be those institutional changes that will take the most time. Making these changes will take coordinated and persistent effort focused on every aspect of what we train, how we train, and what standards of assessment we require. As leaders, we have a responsibility to build the momentum that overcomes bureaucratic stagnation. Our institutions are, perhaps, the most complex environments we will need to operate within.

Christopher G. Ingram is a U.S. Army Infantry Officer currently serving as a Company Commander for Infantry One Station Unit Training at Ft. Benning, GA. The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not reflect the U.S. Army, The Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.


[1] 2014 Army Operating Concept, Paragraph 3–3, 3–4.

[2] 2014 Army Operating Concept, Paragraph 3–4(6).

[3] 2014 Army Operating Concept, Paragraph 3–3(3-j).

[4] 2014 Army Operating Concept, Paragraph 3–3(3), 3–4(5).