Culture & Deteriorating Performance at NTC - a Mud Soldier Sounds Off

March 17, 2000

Comment: #349 

Discussion Thread:  #s 348, 347

Comment #348 focused on how the negative confluence of doctrine and culture was a major cause of the deteriorating performance of combat units during their rotations through the Army's National Training Center.  Recall my point of departure was a statement about the growing concern, being expressed by many observers, that large-scale training exercises are becoming less realistic, more stereotyped, rehearsed, and dominated by the destructive effects of a zero-defects mentality.

I said this conclusion was based on a growing mound of evidence taking the form of emails from the field, as well as news reports.   These emails say, among other things, that units arriving at NTC [as well as Nellis and Fallon, see comment #347] are less prepared in basic skills, with shortages in manpower and equipment being reduced by robbing non-deploying units of people and materiel.  Moreover, the expedient practice of cannibalizing non-deploying units to buildup deploying units destroys unit cohesion, increases workloads, and depresses morale.  Also, once units arrive at NTC (and other exercises), they must climb steeper learning curves.  This leaves less time for actual training which, in turn, implies that the units are not reaching the levels of proficiency reached in earlier years.

Courtiers in Versailles on the Potomac and defense intellectuals dismiss these emails with the sneering label of "anecdotal," preferring instead to rely on quantitative readiness measures provided by the formal hierarchy -- i.e., the numbers and power point slides concocted by zero-defects oriented careerists who do not want to anger their zero-defects oriented bosses with bad news. 

I just received the following "anecdotal" response to Comment #348 (a turn around time of about 24 hours). It is an email from an active-duty Staff Sergeant  based in the United States - one the unwashed masses toiling in anonymity at the pointy end of spear. 

Read it carefully - it is a chance to see the kind of anecdote that has no place in the hall of mirrors.

-----[Email from SSGT XXX]-------


If you use this, use the normal rules of anonymity. Thanks.

Between 1992 and 1996, I did three NTC rotations. During each of those rotations, I noticed a gradual decline in the training for those rotations.

In 1992, we were full of Gulf War Veterans. We trained up for NTC by going to the field and staying in the field for 3 weeks at a time. And everyone in the unit went to the field and all the vehicles rolled. This was the last rotation before the start of the personnel draw downs, and all of the budget cuts we took in training and maintenance.

At that time, the area for the rotating troops (known as the Dust Bowl), was a very Spartan place. There were a few pay phones, showers, latrines, sleeping areas and mess areas. That was it.

When we rolled out into the maneuver area (the Box). We were hit hard and fast. We usually lost, but we LEARNED. All in all, it was considered to be a good experience. We also drew very little equipment from NTC. We took everything we needed. Tanks, Trucks, the works.

I missed NTC in 1993 and 1994.

In 1995, I went back to NTC, and much had changed. Despite the cuts in the maintenance and training budget, the dustbowl now had full fledged snack bars, and phone centers. We drew most of our equipment from NTC. But what was most different was the train up. We were only in the field for about 10 days (instead of 21), and our parts warehouse did not deploy to the field. They operated out of their warehouse. Yes, they worked 24/7, but they didn't have to load up and move out.  This deprived the soldiers of valuable training.

When we out to the box, we had very little OPFOR contact, other than a mass casualty NBC [nuc-chem-bio] exercise. I was in a Forward Support Battalion for all of these rotations. Our brigade commander basically ignored us until the time came for us to turn in our drawn equipment, and then we were not good enough.

In 1996, we had very limited field exercises prior to the rotation again. And again our parts warehouse stayed in the rear. But this time, we had a new computer with which to order parts. Now this system was supposed to help us attain logistical nirvana, if we were to believe the hype.

Well, after we hit the box, after the obligatory 6 days in the dust bowl, it was immediately brought to our attention that our movement of spare parts was totally inadequate, with several officers being threatened with relief because of the parts situation. Now our parts movers could process parts reasonably well, except they didn't know how to interface their modems with the field commo, so all computer disks had to be driven to the rear for processing. Because of their lack of training, our parts movers had not idea how to operate in a tactical environment. They did not know how to camouflage vehicles, dig fighting positions, or defend a perimeter. Some of them could not even drive their own trucks. So the other maintainers had to help them.

[Note how the sergeant's preceding comments on the supply & maintenance system are a concrete examples of the cryptic information of Slide #6 of the NTC briefing in Comment #348 which discussed performance of tactical maintenance.]

The FSB's had another problem to contend with. Pregnancy. Some female soldiers would rather have an 18 year obligation on their hands than live in the desert for 30 days. It was amazing how many rabbits died 3 months prior to the rotation. So we were left short handed in many sections.

My unit did not go to NTC in 1997. In 1998, my company lost about 60 experienced soldiers within 3 months of an upcoming rotation to NTC. Our brigade did poorly enough to rate the cover of the Army Times. The train up for that NTC rotation, was equally inadequate.

Take care, XXX

-------[End email]---------

The sergeant's response raises a question no one wants to hear.  Should the common man should have voice in the palace of mirrors—or should we just say 'let him eat MREs' (field rations "Meals Ready to Eat" but also known as "Meals Rejected by Ethiopia") because the bloviating courtiers and defense intellectuals must continue the ravenous fight for their fair share of the mountainous feast of VPEs (Versailles Pork Emperial) now loading down the banquet tables in the Halls of Mirrors on both sides of the Potomac.

Chuck Spinney

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