The Learning Process of #Humans

The Human Dimension White Paper has continued a much needed discussion about how the military should respond to its experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. While our military has learned a great deal in more than a decade of fighting, we must understand that “lessons learned” take us only so far, unless we are willing to improve the learning process itself. Politically and militarily we have learned many lessons that should improve our political decision-making (e.g. pre-war planning and reconstruction efforts) and our military effectiveness (e.g. conducting COIN operations). But the military cannot subsist on learning its lessons piece-meal, from one conflict and strategy to the next — this is a fool’s way of preparing to win at war. This may sound counterintuitive given the criticism leveled at the military for not integrating its COIN experience from Vietnam, but this White Paper addresses — with which I agree –the idea that learning can no longer focus on the specifics of countering a weapon system, fighting a given enemy or ideology, or operating in a known environment. Learning must instead focus on deriving understanding of how the military can effectively adapt itself to new threats and battlefields on the spot.

The Army frames this problem in the White Paper by saying that “It is increasingly difficult to anticipate the multiple emerging threats to US security interests and adjust the Army’s organization, material resources, and facilities to cope with them. Because the Army cannot quickly optimize these components of the DOTMLPF-P to meet the wide-range of threats, the Army must focus its doctrinal, training, leadership and education, and policy components to optimize its most agile resource, its people. By doing this, the Army will design a force capable of meeting adaptive threats and maintaining dominance over those threats.”

It is easy to say that we must improve adaptability, but what does that actually mean and how do we do it?

The authors lay out many different ways to accomplish this human optimization task across three lines of effort (LOEs). These efforts include Establishing Cognitive Dominance, Executing Realistic Training, and Driving Institutional Agility. It is the third effort of institutional agility that I think requires the most focus in this discussion. In quoting Major General Fastabend in his article “Adapt or Die,” the authors accept the notion that in our future operating environment “‘if we were to choose one advantage over our adversaries it would certainly be this: to be superior in the art of learning and adaptation. This is the imperative for a culture of innovation in the United States Army.’”

Ultimately, what the Army is talking about is its ability to learn more efficiently and effectively, so that new situations may be handled with little to no training in a specific environment or against a specific threat. Thus, better adaptability. But, we cannot settle for a shapeless understanding of adaptability, as if it will gradually manifest itself in our teams and troops the more we wish it and think about it. We must understand that we are talking about an improvement in the learning process — how we learn from specifics, generalize lessons from that learning process, and execute those lessons on a cognitive level to improve adaptability to unique environments and threats in the future. Doing this will truly integrate the human domain into warfighting.

To better examine the learning process we should explore a specific example that the military knows well. Our troublesome experience with IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan can, I hope, place a more recognizable face on the learning process, what it looks like, and how we may improve upon it.

IEDs and the Learning Process

Our adventure in attempting to counter IEDs reveals many different precepts that the military can retain and integrate into its learning process. I have outlined the following precepts, divided between those that apply to “Military Agility” and “Political / Military Agility.” This is certainly not a complete or undebatable list, but is merely my observations about C-IED efforts for the sake of generating discussion on the more important topic of improving the learning process and adaptability, which I see as the central objective of the White Paper. These precepts, viewed through the lens of our IED experience, include the necessity for our military and political leadership to perform the following:

Military Agility

(1) Recognize persistent and successful weapon systems against your forces. This may be obvious, but the quicker we can recognize that an idea (i.e. the utility of the IED against coalition forces) has been practiced and replicated across cities and theaters, we must respond in a manner that either negates its effectiveness, and or, reinforces our strength in achieving our strategic aims. Sometimes the military must advance, enduring casualties, even with knowledge of a particular threat. See item 5 before changing tactics.

Agility in recognizing a potentially troubling weapon can be significantly improved if we learn from past experiences, even those that are not our own. We keep saying that we must not forget COIN again after these wars, but what about learning from other people’s battles, long before we step foot in their arena, or one similar to it? In researching American C-IED strategies, I came across not only the influence of Iran inside Iraq (militarily and politically, which is apparent to everyone now), but also how Iran was able to successfully engage in asymmetric warfare, using IEDs, or its more devastating variant, the EFP. This ability came from decades of experience in conventional and unconventional warfare, and learning from the asymmetrically-fighting proxy forces that it supports. Hezbollah, most notably, has given Iran plenty from which it can learn. As I wrote previously for my dissertation, summarizing the narrative of author Nicholas Blanford in his book Warriors of God,

Iran’s proficiency with IEDs can largely be understood through the support of its proxy force, Hezbollah, in its ongoing conflict with Israel. This history is also strikingly similar to the United States’ back-and-forth (IED versus counter-measure, versus counter-counter-measure) engagement with insurgents over IEDs.
In 1991 most IEDs used by Hezbollah were command detonated. Israel learned to detect the wires and use bomb-sniffing dogs to discover many of these devices. Hezbollah fighters began to hide IEDs in fake, fiberglass rocks alongside roads. At a similar time they started to use radio-controlled detonators in their bombs. The IDF countered this by sweeping areas with radio frequencies from outposts and aircraft in an attempt to detonate the devices prematurely. Hezbollah engineers adapted their designs by using pressure mats for detonation, adding scramblers to prevent IDF electronic countermeasures, and eventually using mobile phones to trigger IEDs. These advances forced the IDF to use mobile phone jammers — initially on vehicles and later carried by soldiers on foot patrols. This back and forth effort convinced Hezbollah to adopt better tactics, beyond simply evolving the bomb technology. They started to set multiple bombs in a single area, including their “seven minute” bomb which was a pair of IEDs in which the second bomb exploded seven minutes after the first, targeting the responding military personnel. [1] In the late 1990s, Hezbollah introduced EFPs, targeting Israeli armoured vehicles. [2]

Two decades before OIF, but the narrative is uncanny. Wouldn’t this information have been useful to every tactical unit in theater?

The fact that Iran’s Quds Force and Shiite militias would utilize similar devices and tactics in Iraq should not surprise us now. The difficulty is mitigating that surprise in the future, or at least, decreasing the time in which we are able to effectively response to the surprise. Learning from foreign armies, especially those whose soldiers or tactics we may encounter, opens one door that can optimize the performance of our troops. Note: I am not saying we need to simply read history or the writings of renowned strategists. We already do this. Instead we must learn to develop instructive profiles of certain cycles in warfare like the Israel-Hezbollah experience with IEDs.

There are equally important lessons to be gleaned from the Soviet-Afghan war, including mujahedeen tactics, Soviet vulnerabilities and responses (specifically changes in Mi-24 Hind operations after the Stinger’s introduction), and the political and security degradation that ensued upon Soviet withdrawal, and later, the end of Soviet funding.

(2) Allow ground troops the freedom and authority to drive responses to uncertainty in the field. In Bagram, Afghanistan, the Army used its FAST (Field Assistance in Science and Technology) unit to quickly field products that troops directly requested. In one example, FAST developed an appendage for a C-IED robot after troops desired greater capabilities for digging into the ground. The finished product was fielded in less than two weeks from the initial request. While FAST increases the swiftness in getting products to the field, it also allows for direct and immediate contact between ground troops and the product developers. [3] This is an excellent example of an institutional effort that increased the speed and accuracy of troop requirements in field. It also creates a good precedent for connecting tactical units with military research and development efforts. In the future this precedent can drive considerations about tactical product acquisition.

This freedom should also be discussed with regard to our military commanders’ ability to interpret the strategic environment and respond militarily. There is precedent in Iraq for commanders executing COIN strategies at the local level prior to the adoption of a theater-wide COIN strategy.

Political / Military Agility

(3) Understand and accept the strategic environment in which you’re engaged. This means that our civilian and military leaders accept the reality — as well as it can be discerned — on the ground. After major combat operations in Iraq, there appeared to both political and cognitive difficulties in accepting the violence that was arising. George Packer described this as a type of “willful blindness.” Colonel T.X. Hammes said that the military leadership in Iraq failed to “‘make that leap’” from viewing the war in conventional terms to seeing it as an insurgency. [4] This is not to suggest that the production of FM 3–24 years sooner would have staved off the insurgency entirely. But, with respect to the Army’s intent for human performance optimization, COIN could have been introduced and practiced by individual units more broadly, as it was by a few commanders, without the direction and authenticity of a Field Manual. Teaching and allowing our units and leaders to develop innovative forms of warfighting in theater is risky, but may be necessary if we wish to produce an agile and adaptable military.

In Afghanistan the U.S. did not have the same ability to plan or consider its post-war operations. Regardless of the futility of the plans that were made for Iraq, planning or at least learning from history could have better identified the realistic and unrealistic objectives in Afghanistan. In Robert Gates’s memoirs he describes advising President Obama in 2009 that we should have “‘no grandiose aspirations’ in Afghanistan.” He then told the Senate that “‘If we set out to create [in Afghanistan] a central Asian Valhalla, we will lose. We need to keep our objectives realistic and limited, or we will set ourselves up for failure.’” [5]

(4) Explain the connection between the threat and the environment. Understanding the strategic environment means that you can place threats and enemies in context with your ability to conduct military operations. This means that you recognize what the enemy is trying to achieve by adopting a particular tactic or weapon system. The use of IEDs made sense in the complex environments of Iraq and Afghanistan, especially in the presence of an insurgency. There are also strategic aims, beyond simply the ease and accessible of the IEDs, that can be learned from tactics and weapons in understanding their place on a given battlefield. Former director of JIEDDO, Lt. Gen. Barbero, stated in the organization’s strategic plan that “The IED is a weapon used strategically to cause casualties, create the perception of insecurity, and influence national will.” [6]

Even looking at hard figures can be misleading if you do not understand the environment. The number of IED fatalities is one example. reports that coalition deaths in Afghanistan peaked in 2009/2010 with around sixty-percent resulting from IEDs (275 service members in 2009 and 368 in 2010). [7] Fortunately, overall ISAF fatalities decreased after 2011, but much of that decrease is likely attributed to troop drawdowns. As a result, the Afghan National Security Forces would take the brunt of the attacks. This is what we expected and desired, given that it is their country, but the toll has been considerable. In June 2013 Gen. Dunsford said that ANSF was losing over 100 soldiers a week due to IEDs. [8] If COIN and C-IED efforts are “inexorably linked,” as Lt. Gen. Barbero has said, [9] then the fact that anyone is being targeted and killed by IEDs makes us question the progress of any strategy, especially one that rests on the ability of host nation forces to provide some manageable level of security.

Explaining the connection between enemy weapons and the threat environment is equally important at the political level. The White House was likely aware of Iranian influence in Iraq for years before it allowed the military to take action against Shiite militias and Iranian “special groups.” This hesitation is not entirely unjustified, given the political and military uncertainty involved with targeting Iranians and their proxy forces. President Bush eventually allowed JSOC, under McChrystal, to target Iranian networks in November 2006. These efforts were successful in driving the Quds force out of Iraq until they reappeared in 2009. [10]

The U.S. experience with Iran in both wars reveals the complicated nature of international politics and warfare. Quite simply, there is no easy answer to stunting covert operations by enemies you wish not to fight overtly, at large. While JSOC operations may seem like a simple answer to Shiite militias and EFPs in Iraq, that decision likely evolved over months of intense debate over the merits and dangers of targeting Iranian nationals and publicly addressing the Iranian participation in the war.

(5) Determine what aspects of the war effort are faulty. Can the tactics be improved to suit the strategy; is the strategy faulty; or must we simply continue operations, enduring casualties in light of a specific threat, assuming that the strategy will eventually prevail if we persist and remain committed?

As we realized in both theaters of war, there is no “technological silver bullet” to countering IEDs. Even JIEDDO came to admit the problem required an “unceasing effort” on our part as insurgents simply innovated and improved devices and counter-measures. Additionally, we cannot assume that the U.S. can financially absorb the costs involved with another massive institutional effort to counter a specific tactical threat with no obvious solution. The more than 15,000 MRAPs that made it Iraq by 2010 came at a cost of more than $22 billion. [11] While the MRAP saved many lives and prevented many casualties, it was a defensive measure to ensure that military operations could continue; it was never made to directly achieve our strategic aims.

This problem with technological solutions is addressed in the White Paper. Not only does technology have limits, but it also requires time and a belief that future products will be quickly applicable to troops on the ground. As the authors explain, “better equipment without developing better people is an insufficient strategy to retain overmatch in the face of highly adaptive adversaries… [while] few technological solutions exist in the near-term to provide leaders with a significantly enhanced physical or cognitive edge on the battlefield.”

(6) Assess and question the institutional beliefs that hinder all previous items on this list, including beliefs that drive public opinion and political action in Washington. We arrived in Iraq and Afghanistan with the belief that American military and political strength and technological superiority would undeniably achieve success. Poor planning going into Iraq and shifting strategies and resources in Afghanistan probably limited the potential for success in those campaigns, but some of these problems may have come more easily given the institutional beliefs that reinforced our confidence in overmatch capabilities.

Leading up to the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam Hussein told the U.S. Ambassador that “‘Yours is a society which cannot accept 10,000 dead in one battle.’” [12] This insight was, and still is, probably quite accurate. Ten thousand in a single campaign, even for a decade, would not be tolerable right now. The last 13 years have started to prove this assumption. Growing fatalities, in large part to IEDs, began to test the political and public resolve. We must realize that our adversaries are just as keenly aware of this fact as was Saddam twenty years ago. Unfortunately, the performance of Saddam’s conventional army was a poor lesson from which to extract confidence in our return to the Middle East a decade later.

As important as understanding our own institutional beliefs, it is advantageous that we understand our adversaries’ beliefs as well. The mujahedeen were able to claim success in the Soviet-Afghan War on religious grounds. Iran was able to fight the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan through decades of practice and adherence to asymmetric fighting. These insights may not produce concrete, unwavering beliefs about adversaries, but they are valuable in the process of preparing our military to be more adaptable.

The focus of America’s future military will not be on countering IEDs. While we will certainly retain these skills and counter-measures, the focus should be on improving the unit, the team, and the individual’s process for learning, whereby each component becomes more agile and adaptable. By looking at our experiences with IEDs, I think we can better understand what it means to improve the learning process in war. This study should help us more clearly examine other experiences now and in the future. If nothing else — as with the purpose of the White Paper — this can hopefully be a source of pushing the discussion forward about how our military needs to adapt after two wars and an uncertain environment ahead. As General H.R. McMaster said in a New York Times opinion piece last year, “Although the defense budget is under pressure, clear thinking about war costs nothing. What we can afford least is to define the problem of future war as we would like it to be, and by doing so introduce into our defense vulnerabilities based on self-delusion.” [13]

There have been some excellent pieces so far on the #human dimension. It’s good that we all keep thinking, writing, and talking. It will benefit us all.

Trevor Strandh is a strategist and author for The Strategy Bridge.. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

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[1] Blanford, Nicholas (2011), “Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel,” pp. 128–31, (New York: Random House).

[2] Crist, David (2012), “The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran,” p. 520, (New York: The Penguin Press).

[3] Military Times, “‘Batwing’ attachment adds new wrinkle to iRobot IED hunters,” 25 May 2013,, accessed 18 November 2014.

[4] Packer, George (2005), “The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq,” p. 300, (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux).

[5] Gates, Robert M. (2014) “Duty: Memiors of a Secretary at War,” p. 337, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf).

[6] Joint IED Defeat Organization (2012), “C-IED Strategic Plan 2012–2016,” p. iii, (Washington, D.C.: Joint IED Defeat Organization).

[7] iCasualties, Operation Enduring Freedom,, accessed 18 November 2014.

[8] USA Today, “Afghan bomb makers shifting to new explosives for IEDS,” 25 June 2013,, accessed 18 November 2014.

[9] Committee on Defeating Improvised Explosive Devices (2007), “Countering the Threat of Improvised Explosive Devices: Basic Research Opportunities, Abbreviated Version,” p. 2, (Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press).

[10] [ii] Crist, David (2012), “The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran,” p. 558, (New York: The Penguin Press).

[11] Smith, Andrew (2011), “Improvised Explosive Devices in Iraq, 2003–09: A Case of Operational Surprise and Institutional Response Letort Papers,” pp. 18–9, (Carlisle: Strategic Studies Institute).

[12] Freedman, Lawrence and Efraim Karsh (1991), “How Kuwait Was Won: Strategy in the Gulf War,” pp. 15–8, International Security.

[13] H.R. McMaster, “The Pipe Dream of Easy War,” The New York Times Opinion, 20 July 2013,, accessed 19 November 2014.