Leadership (VIII) 7 Irrelevant Reasons Why COHORT Failed …or
Why the Army Hates Unit Cohesion

November 10, 1998

Comment: #214

Discussion Threads:  #s 206, 207, 208, 209, 210 ,211 and 212


[1] Email from Karl Lowe, a retired Army officer, who describes seven reasons why COHORT failed, November 9, 1998. Attached.

In his history of Army leadership doctrine (Reference 1 to #206), Dr. Faris Kirkland described the importance of the Army's Cohesion, Operational Readiness and Training (COHORT) experiments of the mid to late 1980s.

The idea of COHORT was to develop vertical and horizontal cohesion in units by permitting soldiers and leaders to do their training with the same company or battalion for three years.

Most veterans of intense combat will tell you that unit cohesion (based on mutual trust, empathy, common experiences, and spirit of self sacrifice) is the single most important determinant of a unit's performance in the stress of combat. The designers of the COHORT experiments were particularly concerned about strengthening the resistance of leaders and soldier to the psychological pressures of combat.

Although unit cohesion is perhaps the most important issue facing any military force, you will not find senior officials in the Pentagon or Congress or poohbahs in the think tanks discussing it nearly as much as much as hair-brained technological fantasies, like the Revolution in Military Affairs. Abstract considerations of unit cohesion do not create the jobs, profits, or political power. Moreover, understanding the effects of unit cohesion takes effort. One must immerse oneself in the study of military history, tactics, and the operational art, and these activities are often viewed as irrelevant in a budget-driven Pentagon where bureaucrats and milcrats believe technological revolutions render the lessons of history doubtful. The lure of high-paying post-retirement jobs with the contractors producing the revolution make the fantasy all the more tenable.

COHORT was really about understanding and promoting leadership excellence in combat.

Kirkland noted that these experiments placed very heavy stress on leaders. He said, "Soldiers in COHORT units were intelligent, learned fast and were continually demanding more information, more ideas and more challenges from their leaders. Many officers and NCOs were unable to keep ahead of their troops. Further, leaders lived in a goldfish bowl. Any mistake (or success) was instantly known throughout the unit. Privates considered themselves to be their leaders' junior colleagues; they expected access, they expected to be heard and they expected to participate in decisions and be given responsibility as their proficiency grew."

Kirkland argued that COHORT produced superb units when the leaders at platoon, company, and battalion levels had the strength of character and confidence to trust and empower their troops. Those who did not or were unable to trust or empower their troops became confused and depressed and often regressed to authoritarian behavior. They failed as commanders and had marginally effective units.

Not surprisingly, the COHORT experiments were controversial and failed to take hold institutionally. Some observers argue that failure was inevitable because COHORT was incompatible with other organizational requirements. Others believe that it was sabotaged by the indifference and outright hostility of the parochial bureaucratic branches of the Army which felt threatened by the changes implied by COHORT. References 1 & 2 to Comment #210 introduced you these opposing views.

The reference to this message is another thoughtful analysis of why Cohort failed. The author, Karl Lowe, is a retired Army officer who commanded one of the COHORT battalions after the experiments.

Lowe describes seven bureaucratic reasons why COHORT failed to be accepted by the Army. He specifically focuses on the argument that COHORT was incompatible with the institutional structure of the Army. Read Lowe's reason's carefully, and you will see that none of them had to do with the central question being tested Namely should we maintain the INDIVIDUAL REPLACEMENT system which is convenient for the personnel managers and the milcrats in the competing bureaucratic branches of the Army but will doom future generations of soldiers to a needless expenditure of blood on the battlefield OR should we move to a UNIT REPLACEMENT system built around the battle-proven concept unit cohesion, based on empowerment, mutual trust, empathy, a common outlook based on shared experience, and the soldierly spirit of individual sacrifice for the welfare of the unit?

The question of unit cohesion is even more important as we enter the 21st Century. The nature of warfare is changing as combatants learn how to use the irregular tactics of fourth generation warfare to neutralize the stereotyped attrition tactics and operations of the United States. We will soon learn that drive-by shootings with cruise missiles will not achieve strategic objectives and run a high risk of being counter-productive in a grand-strategic perspective. Our nation will be eventually forced to use an all-volunteer, professional force in the "come-as-you-are," skill-intensive, irregular close-quarters combat among small units operating independently in accordance with the ideals of maneuver warfare (concepts like commander's intent, mission orders, and multiple thrusts) that are now spreading rapidly throughout the developing chaos of the post-Cold War world. Mogadishu may have more to do with our future than the Gulf War. Political skills, peacekeeping skills, fighting skills, and a greater empowerment of lower level officers and NCOs will become more important to the successful prosecution of these emerging fourth generation conflicts.

Bribing people to stay in the military by giving them higher salaries and bigger bonuses or sacrificing our brains on the altar of techno-miracles, like the Revolution in Military Affairs, will not solve the deeper systemic readiness problems revealed by the successes and failures of the COHORT experiments.

To those of you who do not believe abstract psychological issues like unit cohesion and small unit leadership are not important long-standing systemic issues, I urge you to read about or talk to the veterans of Task Force Smith in the opening days of the Korean War or the soldiers who passed through the "reppo depot" on their way to front line in WWII.

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, the following material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

Reference #1

Email from Karl Lowe, a retired Army officer, "Seven Reasons Why COHORT Failed,"
November 9, 1998

I commanded the battalion (2-16th Inf) described in George Wilson's "Mud Soldiers", but two generations removed when it first became part of the COHORT experiment in November 1981.

Wilson paints an all too familiar and accurate picture of a well-intentioned system's failure. I believe in COHORT's, aims because I also experienced the impact of both systems as an enlisted member of the 2d Infantry Division at Ft Benning in the early 1960s. A soldier who serves his entire first term with a unit undergoing the same training and adjustment from civilian life is on the whole better motivated and the unit is better trained and more capable.

Several things caused COHORT to fall short of that mark, primary among them was expectations that failed to materialize because the Army personnel management system rebelled or shunned its responsibilities.

First, the chain of command that takes a soldier through BCT should remain together for the unit's entire life cycle. They are the source of the soldier's first impressions of the Army and the key link in the transition between civilian and military experience. Soldiers identify their standards of discipline and professionalism with that cadre and when it changes, they change, too often for the worse. Unfortunately, the trainers belonged to TRADOC and the troop units to FORSCOM, two commands that lacked a common perspective on COHORT's value and their mutual role in making it succeed.

Next, FORSCOM did not deviate from the annual training cycle then imposed on its units by FORSCOM regulation and the 1st Infantry Division refused to ask for changes, causing COHORT soldiers to go through a pointless and mind-numbing repetition of what they had just experienced in AIT. [AIT = Advanced Infantry Training]

Third, these young soldiers were on the whole brighter than the NCOs assigned to lead them, many of whom were a legacy of Project 100,000 days and others of whom were involuntarily reclassified from other specialties to fill a critical shortage of combat arms NCOs at the time. Rather than leaving "head room" for promising young soldiers to fill all of their companies' E5 positions as "acting jacks" to be trained on the job, E5s were
assigned from other units to "flesh out" the cadre, removing a key motivation to excel.

Fourth, cadre members were moved by brigade, division, or the Army assignment process without regard to the impact on unit cohesion. When units went to Germany after 18 months in the US, the problem was compounded by 1st PERSCOM and the receiving commands.

Fifth, in most cases, there was no time for cadre development before the troops arrived, because there was no common "as of" arrival date, causing commanders, platoon leaders, first sergeants, platoon sergeants, and squad leaders to arrive at odd intervals, some after the troops were in place, causing further psychological adjustments.

Sixth, drill sergeants are omnipresent in the lives of recruits, but that is unsustainable over long periods in troop units. Consequently when soldiers reach their troop unit, NCOs go home and forget about them until the evening or weekend passes, a transition that is too abrupt without any psychological preparation for the resulting freedom in a strange town with an abundance of skimmers trying to pick their pockets for "fun".

Seventh, IG compliance inspections of the era defined "success" of commanders at company and battalion level while absolving brigade and division from any form of responsibility. When a supply clerk or TAMMS clerk, reenlistment NCO, or mechanic dropped the ball on an aspect of company administration, company and battalion "failed",
forcing undue attention to administrative matters at the expense of motivation and useful training.

No matter how good you are, you can't juggle all those balls to the satisfaction of eager young soldiers who genuinely want and expect to be the world's best infantrymen. That
really matters, but not to the 1st Infantry Division and FORSCOM at the time. I could spill this list out for quite a while, but I think you get the idea.

Fix the system and COHORT will work, try keeping a dual assignment system in the combat arms and it will fail, dooming future generations of soldiers to the weakness of an individual replacement system that needlessly costs lives.