An Army brigade has deployed for training to a maneuver training center to conduct its capstone exercise and practice the skills learned in individual and small team training. They have issued gear, secured simulations hardware to personnel and vehicles, and the leadership is looking forward to meeting the training objectives to demonstrate proficiency at essential unit and individual skills. As the platoons receive their briefings and move out, they are wary for the enemy lurking in the maneuver area. Reconnaissance identifies what looks like an enemy position. Just as the platoon maneuvers to conduct an attack, a plastic pop-up target on a timer is triggered. There is no live opposing force. There is no guileful reaction to the actual “blue force” movement and plan. It is all just a simple pre-scripted scenario that provides no feedback on the skill of the unit planning, processes, or training level. Now extend this absurd analogy described for a platoon to what is reality for an operational headquarters in an average command post exercise.
While the U.S. military has dedicated acres of terrain and entire units of opposing forces to ensure a realistic experience for training units for combat, such emphasis on realism is not provided for operational command post exercises. For a headquarters that may need to conduct humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, forced entry, or any other crisis response, the prospect of a command post exercise is usually accompanied with complaints of weak scenarios, shallow exercises, and an environment which fails to adapt to the training audience or account for blue force decisions. The military has essentially sent its highest levels of command out to the field to fight pop-up targets on timers when they need to be challenged and tested by a living, thinking opponent within an adaptive environment.
Creating an adaptive simulation environment with a responsive opponent for operational-level commands is not impossible or even extremely difficult. It does require an investment in time and people, but this investment will pay off significantly in training a staff that is otherwise inexperienced and continually turning over manpower and skill. Even without abandoning the current construct, which uses a master scenario events list to maintain the story arc, creating an adaptive exercise environment can be accomplished. Here are a few key requirements to incorporate when designing an operational command post exercise to ensure adaptive and meaningful training:
1) Define the Training Audience: For most command post exercises there are a few standard elements (see Figure 1). The training audience is simply the group whom the exercise is being conducted on behalf of. This group should be the driving factor in developing the training requirements and exercise parameters. A secondary training audience is often included for sympathetic training but they are typically given less priority for accomplishing training objectives and a smaller part in exercise development. The next element is the higher and lower control elements. These operate as the units or agencies above, below, and adjacent to the training audience and create the realism of a dynamic environment. It is key that these elements understand and support the training objectives. Finally, the “white cell” is the overarching element which includes observers and ensures that the training is conducted properly. The white cell should have complete visibility and incorporates observer feedback on training audience performance, guide the exercise storyline to test key objectives, and ensure the high/low control elements follow the story.
A clear understanding of who the training audience is, the units or agencies they’ll report to, and who will report to them allows for focused injects, a better staffed white cell, and greater realism by truly replicating the communication that occurs between staff elements and their headquarters. Additionally, by defining these roles up front, the exercise design team can achieve buy-in from key participants and avoid the creep of additional training objectives from non-training audience organizations.
Additionally, the exercise design team’s purpose is to facilitate the achievement of training objectives, not to provide lessons on staff and intra-headquarters communication. Directorates, commands, and agencies sometimes go into a command post exercise with the expectation that the exercise designers will "train" them and then subsequently deride the control group when their own objectives are not met. Participants need to ensure proper training objectives (achievable, measurable, and related to essential tasks, etc.) are identified early in the exercise planning and that the proper training audience senior leaders are engaged throughout the planning process as well as execution to ensure training will meet their needs and exercise their staff appropriately.
2) Pick the Right People: The right people for exercise development and white cell participation should be those you can least afford, but perhaps also are the best trained. Further, those members will receive “advanced” training by virtue of being on the white cell and thinking beyond the exercise to the branches and sequels that might be implemented in a flexible exercise construct. Providing a portion of the best and brightest of the staff to exercise development and control will improve their skills, which they bring back to the command post, and enable the sharing of advanced skills to the staff and have the maturity to keep the exercise scenario reasonably instructive. A few weeks a year away to develop command training is a small investment that any unit can afford. Finally, allowing these people to self-identify, and thus demonstrating motivation to improve the unit, is an additional benefit to the commander and will further identify internal competencies that might otherwise be hidden.
3) Build a Good Story: Solid storylines and well-defined key events are important as they allow for less highly-scripted events and functions like a commander’s intent by allowing flexibility and free-play while meeting the exercise’s stated objectives. Story lines drive the narrative from start to finish and provide the framework within which various staff elements nest their key training events. Said differently, the white cell should run like an opposing command post where everyone understands the story, key events, and training objectives. From there, operating under commander’s intent allows an appropriately manned white cell to react to the training audience and dial up or down the difficulty as appropriate, as well as ensure a useful training event with input from observers and controllers embedded within the training audience. If the training audience is doing well, the white cell can increase the tempo or challenge of events, which is impossible when relying on previously-written highly-detailed scripts. If the training audience is having significant problems, the white cell can appropriately dial down the tempo or insert some constructive information to instructively guide participants toward their training objectives. This flexibility improves the quality of the event for the training audience regardless of their expertise and allows the subject matter experts in the white cell to exercise initiative in working with the training audience.
4) Socialize the Training Objectives: Often, training objectives for some sub-elements of the training audience (primary or secondary) can be poorly circulated leading to a disappointing training rotation for some despite overall success. Knowing the training objectives ensures the white cell can adjust, create, or delete events as needed to meet the training requirements of the training audience and keep the scenario on track rather than blindly following a script that may have missed something or follows an illogical storyline that distracts from the training event. For example, if the story needs a certain bit of intelligence to drive an operation by exercising the inter-staff process, then the information becomes more important than the format. Rather than worrying about imagery intelligence products with pictures and such, a text-based report that provides the same information will further the exercise. Unless there is a specified or implied training objective for imagery analysis, this would be an acceptable enabler for a training audience request for information. Without understanding this, a white cell may try to provide a photograph that isn’t needed after the time the training audience required the information or leave the request for information unanswered all together.
5) Make the Training Meaningful: Devotion to the idea that hard training is valuable might be one of the most significant elements that command post exercises lack. It does not matter if an exercise is three days or two weeks, it is rare, if not unheard of, for a training audience to “lose” an exercise. More than one staff has suffered through an inflexible and unrealistic command post exercise by repeating the mantra, “We always win in the end.” Yet, while any training should provide some value, losing should be an option if the training audience cannot demonstrate proficiency at essential skills. Exercises are not about winning or losing but providing a challenging construct to achieve training objectives. Command post training events and exercises are vitally important, especially for ad hoc commands (such as joint task forces) that are stood up to execute in dynamic and dangerous environments where lives are at risk. This becomes easier by having a thinking adversary and fluid scenario, meeting the training objectives while truly pushing the staff to perform at their best and get maximum training value from an event.
Command posts deserve as realistic training as can be replicated and that is impossible to do within a construct of rigid scenarios, pre-scripted events, and underwhelming white cells. By manning the white cell with skilled staff members empowered to act as a thinking opposition for the command post, it is possible to achieve the same level of training that combat units receive when they conduct a Combat Training Center rotation or large force exercises. Furthermore, there is an air of friendly competition and less focus on the reality of the scenario when the training audience knows it is their staff buddy in the other room and that there is no guaranteed winner.
Krisjand Rothweiler is a U.S. Army officer with experience at the strategic and tactical levels as well as in conducting joint-combined operations and exercises. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: The 1st Cavalry Division Tactical Command Post is a hub of activity as more than 100 soldiers battle-track ongoing operations Feb. 10 at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Jeremy D. Crisp)