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The Network vs the BCT: Organizational Overmatch in Hybrid Strategies
James K. Greer
The Brigade Combat Team
Before Gustavus Adolphus revolutionized warfare, most armies were composed of groups of uncoordinated mercenaries, with little overall organization or chain of command. The Lion of the North instituted permanent units, assigned a fixed chain of command, and established a philosophy of cooperation among all combatants. Instead of independent action by many different parts, the entire Swedish Army now united to fight as a single team. Gustavus’ use of supply lines and bases and his integration of infantry, cavalry, and artillery enabled him to form the first truly professional army in military history.[i]
The fixed organization that Gustavus Adolphus designed in the early 1600s had as its smallest tactical formation the company of about 140 men. The Swedish infantry company was a combined arms formation that consisted of musketeers and pikemen. As in virtually all of today’s conventional armies, Swedish companies made up battalions of approximately 600-700 men; while Brigades combined units of infantry, cavalry and artillery. Gustavus’ reorganization of the Swedish Army was designed to overcome the two major tactical problems of his day:
- The shock effects of massed infantry attacks, swirling cavalry charges, and killing artillery barrages.
- The chaos and complexity of the battlefield that result from what Clausewitz would later term fog and friction.
400 years later, today’s US Army Brigade Combat Teams that fought in Iraq and Afghanistan are equipped with far more modern equipment, but organizationally are essentially unchanged from those of the Lion of the North.
In the centuries that have followed Gustavus Adolphus’ design of the modern army, brigade-level formations exists in nearly every army from European, to American, to Russian, Chinese and Japanese and matured in the campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War, World Wars I and II and in many smaller wars and campaigns through Desert Storm and the end of the 20th Century. To be sure the brigade organization has adapted and matured, but the three central organizing principles have remained unchanged. Those three principles are:
- The ability to mass offensive combat power at a decisive time and place;
- The ability to defend and survive a similar effort from the enemy force;
- The ability to move the formation in a way that enables a rapid transition to either attack or defense.[ii]
In that respect, the Brigade Combat Teams that attacked north into Iraq in March 2003 were no different than the Swedish Brigades that charged forward at the Battle of Lutzen in 1632; the French brigades under Davout as they attacked from the march of Napoleon’s battalion carre to defeat the Prussians at Jena-Auerstadt; the Confederate brigades of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg; the US Army’s Combat Commands of the 4th Armored Division as they swept victoriously through France in the fall of 1944; and the “Left Hook” brigades that routed the Iraqi Army in 100 hours and drove them out of Kuwait in 1991.
Conventional Brigade vs Irregular Forces
Unfortunately, those same brigades and regiments that throughout the last five centuries have emerged victorious in battle against similarly organized brigades and regiments have routinely been unsuccessful in low intensity conflicts against irregularly organized forces. The British regiments were victorious across Europe in the 1700s and 1800s, and even against the French regiments at Quebec, yet were severely challenged fighting irregular forces on the American Continent, whether American Indian tribes or Francis Marion and his militiamen in the swamps of the Carolinas. Similarly, the French regiments so victorious over the Prussian, Austrian, Italian and even Spanish Line Regiments were unable to defeat the Spanish irregulars; the German Wehrmacht Regiments of World War II who consistently defeated far larger conventional forces were unable to solve the problems presented by Yugoslav and Russian partisans; the brigades of the Israeli Defense Forces, consistently victorious over Arab conventional forces for 40 years as recently as 2006 foundered against the irregular organization and operations of Hezbollah in Lebanon; and of course the brigades of the US Army were severely challenged by the insurgent and irregular forces of the Viet Cong, Taliban and Iraqi opposition. Why is that? While each campaign and environment is entirely different, if conventional brigades and regiments are consistently being overmatched by irregular forces there must be some common factors at work. I would suggest that part of the answer lies in an organizational mismatch. Specifically, today’s conventional brigades are organized for an environment of combat that no longer exists using a scientific basis that is no longer relevant and are opposed by cellular networks that are organized for today’s environment of combat using scientific basis that is relevant for the conflicts of the 21st Century.
The Brigade as a Newtonian System
Throughout almost five centuries of maturation the brigade’s application of force as the decisive element of combat has been as simple as mass x acceleration (F=Ma) and as complicated as thousands of soldiers, horses/vehicles, artillery pieces all being synchronized at the same time. The steady improvement throughout the centuries in the application of force and the synchronization of thousands of elements has come about through the systemic application of Newtonian science. F=Ma has been the science driving the application of force in battle; whether the mass being applied against the enemy is a charging infantry regiment or a tank shell; and whether the acceleration is to three miles per hour of a foot soldier or a mile a second of a tank shell. And those brigades have overcome the challenges of synchronizing thousands of men and machines through the application of linear mathematics, efficiency engineering, reductionism, and standardization. The same science that enabled Samuel Colt to manufacture thousands of identical revolvers has enabled the conventional armies of the world to manufacture hundreds of virtually identical brigades. In fact, in the design and evaluation of today’s brigades such as the Army’s STRYKER Brigade the models and simulations used in testing and evaluation were based on Lancaster Square Equations that relate the application of force against organizational resilience.
The Army’s Brigade Combat Team of 2013 that conducted counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan has the following characteristics:
- The BCT’s organization is the result of a combination of institutional and operational decisions that are top-down driven and made almost entirely before deployment into the theater. The institutional organizational decisions were made over several decades; starting with the Army’s Force XXI initiative in the mid-1990s, transitioning through the Army Transformation Unit of Action design efforts of the late-1990s through 2002 and culminating in the fixed BCT organizational design that resulted from the Army’s transition from a Division-based to a Brigade-based organization. That effort led to a fixed Brigade Combat Team organization that compliments the Army Force Generation or ARFORGEN process.
- The institutional decisions also include those decisions designed to promote unit cohesion and retention of quality personnel over the long-term. The BCT has become the locus for unit cohesion and its Post/Garrison location the locus for retention. As much as possible the Army goal is to have Soldiers, Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) and officers “grow-up” in the same BCT and on the same post. This has the positive affect of enhanced cohesion, training, readiness and standard operating procedures (SOPs), and providing significantly improved stability for families that in turn promotes retention. Those who served in the National Guard, 82d Airborne Division, Ranger Regiment, Special Forces Groups and border Cavalry Regiments already experienced the positive effects of repeated tours together in the same unit. The Army is simply expanding the concept to the entire Force.
- The operational decisions that affect BCT organization are made through the planning process once a BCT is alerted for deployment to a theater. Based on the anticipated mission, threat, operational area and experience of BCTs recently deployed to that region the Army, Corps and Division staffs provide enablers that reinforce the BCT basic organization. In order to build unit cohesion, train effectively and promote Army-wide efficiencies the organization of the BCT is fixed as much as possible approximately eight to twelve months before deployment.
- Once deployed the organization of the BCT is relatively fixed during its year or so of deployment. In theater, BCT organizations are modified through task organization for specific missions and when attached elements are replaced due to differing rotation schedules, but those modifications are relatively infrequent and have a disruptive influence due to the Army’s efforts to institutionalize cohesion within the BCT, while achieving efficiencies of operation from fixed locations such as Forward Operating Bases, Company Outposts and Joint Security Stations.
- The BCT is a multi-purpose organization capable of the full range of lethal and non-lethal operations across the spectrum of operations from counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency through mid-to-high intensity combat against other conventional forces. That said, even after a dozen years of counter-insurgency operations deploying US Army BCTs are still organizationally optimized for conventional, kinetic operations.
- With roughly four thousand personnel, hundreds of vehicles and fixed forward operating bases the BCT is a highly observable organization. It is highly observable in the visible, electronic and aural spectrum. The smallest maneuver units of the BCT are mounted patrols of at least four vehicles grouped together or dismounted patrols of at least ten personnel walking together; both of which are easy to observe, track and target.
- Based on almost five centuries of experience the BCT applies force and non-lethal enablers primarily through co-location. Within the BCT capabilities are task organized down through successive echelons until companies have roughly the same organizational scheme as the BCT, just with smaller elements. BCTs have artillery battalions; company/teams have mortar squads. BCTs have Civil Affairs detachments; company/teams have Civil Affairs teams. Within the BCT certain low-density or one-of-a-kind capabilities are kept in general support at BCT level or attached to specific subordinate elements for specific missions.
- Because of the way our Army operates, the BCT has an extremely large logistical footprint. Deployed into the austere theaters of Iraq and Afghanistan the BCT is in need of constant, virtually daily, resupply. A significant percentage of the BCT’s organization and efforts are devoted to sustainment.
- Once deployed a BCT basically operates with the equipment it brings. Under current research, development and acquisition processes it is rarely possible to identify a requirement, develop a materiel solution to that requirement and field that solution to a unit within a year or fifteen months. There are a few isolated exceptions. Through extraordinary resourcing and process shortcuts the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) has been able to field materiel solutions to the increasingly sophisticated IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan within the time window of a single BCT deployment.
Impact of BCT organization that inhibit adaptation:
- One of Gustavus Adolphus’ points of emphasis was to create very tight couplings within his organization and operational approach. He emphasized fixed chain of command, with strong discipline, and regulations and doctrine that were uniform across the Swedish Army. These initiatives were necessary for his formations to remain cohesive fighting elements amid the death, destruction, fog and friction of conventional combat. Those approaches remain largely in effect today, although the strength of individual, chain of command and unit couplings was lessened somewhat by the dispersion on the battlefield brought about by technological advances and the general adoption in the West of mission orders/mission tactics. That said, today’s BCTs have strong couplings that originate in the fixed nature of its organization, reinforced by the chain of command, discipline, and doctrine.
- Within the Institutional Army large portions of the overall organization have a vested interest in a BCT organization and operational methodologies that are relatively fixed. Personnel organizations want fixed organizations to ease manning and assignment challenges; logisticians desire predictability in resource requirements and expenditures; and acquisition elements need organizational changes to be minimized in order to gain the years required to navigate the Department of Defense material research, development and acquisition process and field new capabilities to the BCT.
- The maturation of Brigades and Regiments over the centuries was effective in part by the standardization of organization and equipment. Initiated by Gustavus Adolphus, in today’s Army the Table of Organization and Equipment (TO&E) identifies in extreme detail exactly what personnel and equipment are organized where within the BCT formation. While TO&Es have become somewhat flexible on the margins, when coupled with the Army’s manning and acquisition cycles TO&Es are not adaptable within a year-long rotation in Iraq or Afghanistan, and only rarely during the period between successive BCT deployments.
The Cellular Network as a Complex Adaptive System
In contrast, the enemies we faced in the Iraqi and Afghan insurgencies are cellular networks whose organization is not burdened with five centuries of experience nor Newtonian science. These cellular networks are not in any way fixed organizations and their central organizing principles are entirely different from that of BCTs. There is no central doctrine that drives insurgent organizations; there is only what works and what doesn’t work. What works is adapted and reinforced; what doesn’t work is discarded immediately. The four central organizing principles of the insurgent cellular networks today are the same organizing principles used by partisans and guerilla forces for centuries. They are: Ensure security; Accomplish the task; Maintain adaptability; and Remain connected to the people.
- Rather than the BCT’s top-down design, insurgent cellular networks emerge from the bottom-up based on their purpose and the conditions on the ground at the time. Rather than seeking fixed organizations to enhance cohesion, cellular networks operate as complex adaptive systems, constantly changing organizations based on their interactions with their opponents and their environment. No two networks have the same organization and each network’s organization is constantly changing. There is no one in the insurgent organization with a vested interest in any specific organizational structure.
- Cellular insurgent networks are rapidly formed, transformed, adapted and abolished based on requirements, environment and opponents. If a requirement emerges in a new location such as ambush local police then a cell is added to perform that task. If the local police overcome the ambushes and the task changes to attack police using vehicle born IEDs then the cell changes organization and personnel; or it is abolished and a new cell formed within the network.
- The cellular insurgent network is a single purpose organization. It exists for a specific purpose such as to defeat the existing government, drive out supporting forces (such as the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan), and seize power. The cellular insurgent networks that exist in Iraq and Afghanistan have no intention to defend South Korea against invasion; conduct peacekeeping operations in the Balkans; or invade another country (all missions that are factored into the organization of today’s Army BCTs). And that variety of missions is not a consideration in the organizational and operational approaches of the insurgents.
- With security as its key organizing principle, the cellular insurgent network’s organizational and operational construct is to remain nearly invisible on the visible, aural and electronic spectrum. Thus, it is a low observable organization. The network lives and operates dispersed among the people; with virtually no infrastructure other than weapons caches hidden throughout an operational area. The network moves as individual vehicles and personnel, grouping together only when absolutely necessary for a specific task or attack.
- The cellular insurgent network operates through collective action vice co-location. Each cell has a unique purpose and operational method, and hence a markedly different organization than the other cells. Overall effects are achieved through the accumulation of small accomplishments, rather than the massing of combat power at a decisive time and place.[iii] Operations of the various cells are synchronized by purpose, rather than physically in time and space.
- The cellular network has no acquisition corps. It obtains what it needs to perform the task. If they can they buy what they need; if they can’t they steal what they need. No two cells are equipped alike and rarely does a cell have equipment on hand it doesn’t need to perform its task. Yet, in the IED/Counter-IED fight the cellular networks have stayed a step ahead for ten years now.
So, How Do We Overcome the Organizational Overmatch?
Obviously the intent of this paper is to suggest that we need to change our organizational and operational approach. In simple terms I would suggest that we must become a cellular network. Experience over centuries has demonstrated that cellular networks succeed in uncertain, complex and chaotic environments such as that of 21st Century warfare. Our new sciences demonstrate the strength, adaptability and resiliency of cellular networks in both the biological and cybernetic worlds. So, we must adopt the cellular network organizing approach and simply do it better than our opponents. This is not as dramatic a change as it would seem. The major changes are in mindset, processes and training. Of those three, the mindset is the most important. We must move away from the notion that strength and security lies in the concentration of numbers. We must instead start thinking of our organizations as adaptive systems, where strength and security lies in the ability to rapidly and repeatedly morph into the organization that best overcomes the challenges of the environment.
In order to change the mindset we must first start with two concepts near and dear to the hearts of commanders, “ownership” of units and “habitual association.” Commanders are proud of the units they “own” and have responsibility for, but such sentiment is counter to adaptability. Commanders must see themselves as combat power generators in garrison and on the FOB, responsible for preparing modules to be provided to other commanders for employment and able to accept differing modules to accomplish their own missions.
First, we must organize and operate in order to take advantage of our strengths, those areas where in fact we overmatch virtually any opponent we would face. Those areas of strength center on our people,[iv] and include:
- We have great small unit leaders; intelligent, caring, innovative, honorable, proven in battle our sergeants, lieutenants and captains have mastered the violence, uncertainty, complexity and chaos of 21st century warfare.
- Our Soldiers are talented, self-disciplined, brave, physically fit, motivated and have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to adapt and overcome the challenges of lethal and non-lethal operations in unfamiliar environments.
- Our individual and collective training methods, resources and capabilities are unmatched and we have the best trained servicemen and women in existence.
- We are far and away the most digitally connected and information operations capable force in history, at every echelon from the Company Commander to the Commander-in-Chief.
- With all the limitations of our acquisition system we are the best equipped force in the world, both in terms of quality and quantity; particularly in individual equipment, weapons, night operations, and communications.
- The health and fitness of our force is unmatched. We have the lowest rates of disease and non-battle related casualties in our history.
Second, move to a truly modular force. We were on the right track, we just made the modules too big. The selection of the BCT as the basic module of the force is a good strategic answer because it reduces to a few hundred the number and types of modules strategic planners and decision makers must deal with; but as discussed above is not the right answer at the operational and tactical levels (where strategies in fact succeed or fail). Efficient deployment and sustainment is of no value without effective employment in theater. A truly modular approach to organizing and operating has three components:
What Size and Type Module
Our modules are the cells that will make up our networks. These modules need to be at the smallest size that can perform a specific task and maintain the cohesion necessary to survive in combat. For our Army that probably means platoon/section/squad-sized modules.
Clearly the moral dimension of having soldiers in the midst of an engagement who know and trust each other is extremely important to winning and surviving. But, our experience and analysis has demonstrated that it’s at the smallest unit level, not the BCT, where cohesion is manifested. The 12-man Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) is the classic example. Does every module have to be the same size…no. Modules need to be the smallest size that can effectively execute the specific function.
What Organizing Methodology
The goal of our organizing methodology must be to be more cellular and more able to leverage our networks. Therefore, our organizing methodology must be a bottoms-up emergent one with a core organizing principle of adaptability. We must be able to mix and match modules whenever the need arises to adapt to changes in mission, opponent or environment. The actual organization must never be “fixed.” Instead, we start with a pool of platoons, sections and squads that can be combined in any way based on the METT-TC.
Pooling of course is critical. At what echelon do we pool forces and why. We have pooled at various echelons in our history: Army, Corps, Division and Brigade. Here again the answer should be to pool at the echelon most appropriate for the particular function, but also accounts for flexibility, adaptability and the open system requirements outlined above. From a strategic resourcing and ARFORGEN perspective it would seem that the current forces assigned to the BCT should remain the basic pool of forces. The key is that in garrison, training and all other operations the BCT is seen as a flexible, adaptive, cellular force and not a fixed organization. This is not as radical an approach as it would seem. Our pre-ARFORGEN practices had units at all echelons “assigned” to specific headquarters, but with the expectation that task organization for long or short periods could occur at any time.
The twin concept to pooling is the task organizational approach. As outlined above we must be able to task organize twice. First we task organize to get the right mix of forces into the AOR for the mission, scenario, and opponent; and second, to create our own cellular structure for specific tasks, engagements and operations also as outlined above. The key is to move away from the rigidity implied by fixed BCTs and toward an open system taking advantage of our strengths in leadership, Soldiers and connectivity.
What then is the role of the company, battalion and brigade? In a truly modular force the commanders and staffs at company, battalion, and brigade become command elements that are increasingly capable at successive echelons of rapidly combining modules, planning, coordinating, directing, managing and leading operations under successively more complex and challenging conditions. The more complex and challenging the environment and opponent, the wider the variety of missions and tasks to be performed, the longer the duration of the mission or campaign, the more modules being applied to the effort; the more that the experience and capabilities of more senior commanders, more experienced staff officers and larger staffs are required.
What Operational Processes
Clearly if we change the way we organize we are going to have to change the way we operate. First, we are going to have to loosen up our doctrine. Our current doctrinal approaches are built around the premise that units will generally live and work together habitually. With a truly modular approach that is no longer the case. Modules will have to be rapidly combined to execute specific tasks in specific environments against an array of opponents and then rapidly recombined as tasks, opponents, and environment change. This suggests operating from well-understood rule-sets that:
- As a first principle maximize adaptability through rapid combination and recombination for each new engagement or task, even in the midst of a battle.
- As a second principle prioritize the sharing of information and intelligence from the bottom-up, so that the most relevant and timely information is available to the team clearing a room or sitting down to a street shura. This is generally the inverse of today’s information sharing approaches.
- Adapt air concentration processes to kinetic/non-kinetic net centric warfare. Through procedures, communications and training aircraft from all over a theater routinely concentrate for multi-functional engagements. The key is to avoid the rigidity of the Air Tasking process.
- Optimize the ability of modules to flow through the battlespace at the speed and along the path of our choosing; with minimum visual, audio and electronic signature.
- At the tactical levels where we win or lose campaigns we have traditionally operated using relatively set SOPs and TTPs. But, increasingly SOPs and TTP are modified during deployments through sharing of best practices; often through networked communities of practice that were developed by our lower level tactical leaders (companycommander.com and CavNet being two early examples and Battle Command Knowledge System (BCKS) being the maturation of the capability).
- Similarly, through CPOF and TIGR we have extended connectivity and access to information down to the company level. For a truly modular system to work we must extend that connectivity down to the individual Soldier. That capability is available from a technology standpoint.
- Move from the current relatively fixed company identity to a “cellular company” that operates off of rule sets (follow-on to mission tactics). The company should be able to gain or lose modules many times in a day, or even in an engagement without losing the coherence of operations as tasks and engagements are conducted simultaneously and sequentially. In the example shown in the figure below the company has a platoon clearing a route of IEDs, a platoon providing security, a platoon in a village conducting a street shura, a recon team providing overwatch supported by indirect/aerial fires, all enabled by the company Intel and IO cells (a step beyond a COIST). In this case this is not the organization the company had at daybreak, but it accepted additional functional modules as it picked up the street shura task oriented on an incident in the village the night before. Those modules will detach from the company when the street shura is complete.
Leading with Mission Command
Mission command, as codified in the Army’s ADP 6.0, is disciplined initiative within a commander’s intent in order to empower agile and adaptive leaders to conduct distributed operations and accomplish tasks and missions. Mission command includes providing a clear commander’s intent, creating shared understanding, using mission orders, accepting risk and building cohesive teams through mutual trust. When you read those characteristics of mission command they sound like they apply perfectly to a modular, cellular approach to organization and operations. In fact, unlike fixed hierarchical approaches, the modular, cellular approach seems to be the framework that can actually enable mission command to occur on the battlefield or in other military operations.
Further, the mission command system consists of five components: personnel, networks, information systems, processes and procedures, and facilities and equipment. We’ve already addressed the importance of personnel above and how the Army can leverage our great Soldiers and civilians in moving to a modular, cellular approach. The second characteristic, networks, simply reinforces the theme of this entire paper. The third characteristic, information systems is critical. As described above, if we are to exercise mission command for a modular, cellular force, we must extend the information systems down to the individual Soldier, entirely doable and long overdue. Processes and procedures require a restatement of mission command as necessary for a modular, cellular organization. This is not challenging, as the principles are already stated in ADP 6.0 and ADRP 6.0 and merely need to be adapted from a hierarchical methodology to a cellular one. And, while we haven’t discussed facilities and equipment, the digitization the Army has accomplished over the last two decades has largely put in place the infrastructure within our organizations to practice mission command in a cellular organization.
Lastly, this approach does not mean that chains of command, hierarchies, and rank are bad. What it does mean is that we must reshape our organizations, and more importantly culture, to adapt our existing organizational and operational approach to one that is more relevant to the 21st Century and that enables of Brigades to be more effective in defeating the intentions of cellular, networked opponents we can expect to fight in the in the complex environments and hybrid strategies of the future.
[ii] These three principles or functions are captured most effectively in JFC Fuller’s “Lectures on FSR III,” published by Sifton Praed and Company: London, 1932.
[iii] The exception that proves the rule is the February 2006 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra. While a significant achievement by itself; it was the exploitation by the insurgents through hundreds of small attacks over the following weeks and months that fanned the flames of sectarian conflict that achieved the goal Al Qa’Ida in Iraq (AQI) had publicly stated in September 2005 of inciting a civil war between Sunni and Shi’a.
[iv] Here I refer not only to our Army’s Soldiers, but to the American Marines, Airmen, Sailors, and Coasties.