Up front I will say that I agree with Barney in his post that I would like to see increased PME opportunities across all ranks, and especially for non-commissioned soldiers; but the devil is in the detail and in the spirit of Scharnhorst’s Militarische Gesellschaft I would like to challenge some of his assumptions and provide some fuel to the debate on Twitter.
It seems to me that the basic argument being made in the post is:
- The character of war has changed fundamentally, with increased precision and lethality.
- Increased precision and lethality demand greater dispersion and therefore use of initiative across all ranks.
- Initiative is not latent, but taught through education and training.
- SNCOs therefore need to be as educated as their officer counterparts at every level of command.
It is undeniable that the character of war has changed, but arguably not yet the nature. The character of conflict has changed because the character directly reflects the character of the societies engaged in conflict and their commitment to the fight. I agree that precision and lethality are indicative of a changing character of warfare as applied by the West, but would simply caution that to my mind, the primary drivers of a changing character of war are human factors and not technological.
Has the character has changed to such an extent that the role of soldiers has changed fundamentally. I would disagree with this. From my particular foxhole I would note that the job of my SNCOs commanding multiples and patrol bases in N Ireland in the early 1990s was not radically dissimilar to the role they played in Helmand in 2011/12. They controlled a broader range of assets, the fight was more intense, but a multiple commander in 1993 would have grasped immediately the fundamentals of commanding a small PB in 2011 and the range of assets employed was broadly similar (although to be fair, we used fewer RAF fast jets in Northern Ireland then some might have wanted). Indeed when I think of increased dispersion and lethality, I think of the lessons of the Boer War, and the demands placed on combat arm SNCOs in the Edwardian Army (see Spencer Jones’ excellent book ‘From Boer War To World War: Tactical Reform Of The British Army, 1902-1914‘), and despite the changes and reforms here, the roles of SNCOs did not change fundamentally.
Herein lies the nub of the problem. I think we are conflating two separate issues in the debates we are having. The first I see is: what is the correct form of professional education needed to equip the soldiers of today for the fight of today and tomorrow? This is the debate we are having. The debate we are not having however, is what is the role of the soldier (Other Ranks) in today’s fight and tomorrow’s wars and then how best should they be educated to enable this? The form of soldiers’ PME should follow on naturally from the function that the fulfill.
So what is the role of SNCOs on today’s and, more importantly, tomorrow’s battlefield? Barney’s post cites both Matthew Reed’s excellent WOTR contribution on SNCO PME and the experience of the German Reichswehr in the inter-war period as pointers for the requirement. Reed’s article focuses on the role and education of US SNCOs, and in particular looks at how to prepare Other Ranks for Command Sergeant Major appointments. Currently a command sergeant major, at any level and whether British or American, is an advisor and doesn’t not have any direct command authority vested in the appointment. It seems intuitive to me, that the quality of any advice given will reflect both on the capability and experience of the individual, and on the education and training they have received. So there is definitely an argument to be had that SNCOs should be educated to the same level as their corresponding commissioned command cohort. If we expect our SNCOs to act as advisors at increasingly senior levels of command, then we should educate them effectively to carry out that role. My experience of US command sergeant majors is that they ‘stay in lane’ with the advice they give, limiting themselves largely to training and battlefield discipline and acting as the Commanding General’s additional eyes and ears for battlefield circulation and allowing him to gain a better Fingerspitzengefühl for the battlefield. The question to ask is, if as Matthew Reed suggests, SNCO education was changed, would SNCOs be used more as a senior General Staff advisor capable of giving operational and strategic advice?
Here I note that the role of the US SNCO corps differs from that of the British military’s in that’s they have very clearly defined training responsibilities. We have introduced command sergeant majors in the British Army, but we have not fundamentally changed the role of our SNCO corps, we have adopted the form but not the function of the US system; this is worthy of debate in itself. Have we missed an opportunity?
The other example cited in Barney’s post was that of the interwar German Reichswehr. This is an interesting example in a number of regards. The German Reichswehr did not possess Command Sergeant Majors as we recognise them, but SNCOs were common as platoon/troop commanders and trained to do that role. German training was geared towards enabling the tactical commander to operate one up (unlike British training which is geared towards understanding the tactical context one up, but not operating a technique that level) for sound strategic and tactical reasons. Strategically, the Reichswehr anticipated to expand in wartime and this investment in Human Resources gave them this ability to do so rapidly. Tactically this meant that not only were tactical commanders cognisant of their tactically environment one up, they were competent in it too, and could step up as the situation (and casualties) demanded. It was a necessary precondition for the German practice of Mission Command.
Strategically, I do not see the same imperative or capability for expansion in the British Army as there’s existed in the Reichswehr, not least because of our lack of a defence industrial base or war maintenance reserve. No one has yet managed to satisfactorily explain to me how a British Army could rapidly expand and equip… Tactically the imperative remains, and I have been singularly disappointed throughout my career, by our unwillingness to resource training to allow our people to operate competently one up. A recent article on Nexus has opened my eyes to a further consideration when training one up; the future.
Much debate on Nexus has focused recently on the impact of Artifical Intelligence (AI) and Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS). It does not seem to me inconceivable, that the combination of AI and RAS will blur the current distinction between commissioned and non-commissioned commanders in terms of capability under command and mission sets expected. All this in a operating environment that is expected to grow in physical, informational and quite possibly moral complexity. If this is not inconceivable, and if the only sure thing we do know about the next conflict is that it will not be like the last conflict, then surely investing early in educating and training our personnel will give them the agile edge to help enable us to prevail in the future?
PME: The Form
My views on PME are straight forward. PME encompasses training and education. In terms of function we train for technical competency and educate for agility and those things which are difficult to train effectively for.
- Training encompasses the ‘what‘ and ‘how‘;
- Education encompasses the ‘why‘ and the ‘high‘.
I say ‘the high‘ because I note that training is generally focused on tactical skills whereas education (in my experience) is better suited to imparting the the operational and strategic level skill sets.
A necessary skill set for all ranks, and one that in my experience needs to be instilled early and encouraged throughout, is critical thinking; it is not something I think we do very well as an organisation but I see encouraging signs that we are movingly in the right direction. In the modern and future operating environment I think critical thinking will become an essential skill set for all ranks and with the narrow focus of PME for other ranks almost exclusively focused on what to do and how to do it, the why, of which critical thinking is such an essential component , is noticeably lacking. Maj Gen Mick Ryan (@WarintheFuture) stated it well in his talk on ‘Future Joint Officer 2040‘ (see Nexus) when he noted that as we lose our technical advantages and no longer operate at mass, that we must out-think in order to out manoeuvre and out fight. To me, this demands an investment into our intellectual capital, and we would be remiss not to invest broadly across the spectrum of our personnel, recognising the the force and rank structures of today may be increasingly anachronistic for the fights of tomorrow.
Lastly I would also recognise that it is a valid argument that PME plays a role in meeting the expectations, professional and personal, of those who join today. When I joined the British Army was seen as a way of gaining a trade and getting ahead. Joining the military was seen as a good thing. While operational effectiveness underpins all that we do, it is ostensibly the primary, but not exclusive, driver for what we do. We would do well to remember this and not discount options because they are not of immediate and tangible operational worth; investing in the long game means investing in our people.
In conclusion I will quote von Scharnhorst, but proffer the thought that where he says ‘officers‘ we should substitute ‘leaders‘, for is this not what we should aspire to for our future generations of soldiers?
“If a young man, who is destined for a military career, does not learn to use his mind right, to judge correctly and conclusively, the mathematics and theory of war, then no experience will help him. One has to give young people, destined to become officers, the early opportunity to think about their profession, to use other’s insights and experiences; to do that they need to have the right basic notions.”
Keep up the good work Barney!
For further reading on the subject of PME and training the books that have influenced my thoughts the most are:
‘The Enlightened Soldier: Scharnhorst and the Militarische Gesellschaft in Berlin, 1801-1805‘ by Charles Edward White.
‘To Reason Why‘ by Denis Foreman
‘Command Culture‘by Jörg Muth