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Wednesday, Mar. 07, 2012

Maneuver Center of Excellence continues to ‘sharpen’ squad

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Sharpening the tip of the spear — the nine-man dismounted squad — was discussed during a forum hosted by the Maneuver Center of Excellence and combat-experienced squad leaders from the floor of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command exhibit at the Association of the U.S. Army Symposium held Feb. 24 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Col. Walter Piatt, Infantry School commandant, and Command Sgt. Maj. Steven McClaflin, Infantry School command sergeant major, along with squad leaders from across the Army and current Infantry School instructors, provided updates and opinions on the latest actions under way at the MCoE to improve the squad’s network access, mobility, protection, lethality, power generation and leader development in order to ultimately reach overmatch for the squad as a formation. This overall initiative is called “Squad: Foundation of the Decisive Force.”

Piatt began the discussion on the squad by comparing the current squads operating in Afghanistan with the squads of past wars.

“Once the squad dismounts, they are very much the same as they were in the 1940s, using analog maps, compasses and FM radios,” Piatt said. “Not much has changed once you leave your vehicle or outpost — you are off the network, and you lose situational awareness on your friendlies, and enemies.”

Improving the network can give the squad access to real-time intelligence, strategic assets like air power, and improve internal communication allowing for more effective navigation and rapid threat identification, Piatt said.

Staff Sgt. Ismel Sanchez, an instructor with the 197th Infantry Brigade at Fort Benning, gave the audience an example by describing what happened during one of his deployments. He explained how improved situational awareness provided by a network to his squad would have improved his mission success.

“We were going after a high-value target that was jumping from roof to roof, and we couldn’t get his location down to our squad,” Sanchez said. “We were getting information from higher and from our vehicle, but by the time we would get our squad to the location, he would be on another roof. Instead of taking just 20 minutes to capture, it took an hour. Having (real-time) information on some sort of display would have helped out a lot.”

Piatt said he believes the standard for the network needs to be providing squad leaders with video feeds from sources like unmanned aerial vehicles straight to their mobile devices.

Lightening the load on Soldiers is also something the MCoE is trying to improve through the acquisition of lighter equipment and load-carrying systems.

“We need to free up the Soldiers’ hands,” Piatt said. “Once you are dismounted, it’s tough to carry everything you need in Afghanistan. We’re talking about things that can be able to come along with the squad and carry the Soldier load — the ammunition, the batteries, water — up steep terrain, so they are not limited.”

Reducing the size and weight of batteries needed to power Squad capabilities is something that will support both improved mobility and power of the systems used by Soldiers, said Piatt.

Making the squad more lethal is also part of the “bottom-up” approach toward achieving “overmatch.” Piatt said the weapons systems need to be light, with multiple munitions and multiple uses for those munitions. “We need to penetrate thick walls in Afghanistan, and then be able to kill what’s behind that wall,” said Piatt. Besides materiel solutions and changing the equipment the squad will use, Piatt discussed the importance of the human dimension, which includes leader development and training, including such things as Comprehensive Soldier Fitness, resiliency, improved critical thinking and cultural awareness techniques in order to improve effectiveness.

It’s also important to making sure squad members know how to use new technologies when them are introduced into the inventory.

McClaflin said he believes the Army needs to get ahead of technology and incorporate it into the noncommissioned officer education system before it is fielded rather than reacting after the fact.

“We’re changing the equipment of a squad and how they are going to be utilized,” Piatt said. “Obviously, there has to be training and leader development that has to go with it.”

Piatt believes the human dimension — which the MCoE has subdivided into training and leader development — is the most important part of ensuring the squad can overmatch adversaries on the battlefield.

“We are convinced that training prepares us for the expected and that is something we do very well at Fort Benning, but education prepares us for the unexpected. Unfortunately, when we deploy, we get the unexpected,” Piatt said.

Another challenge to education is that as the fight increased in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army had to reduce the length of training in the noncommissioned officer educational system in order to meet the requirements in the operational environment, Piatt explained. The result was that some sergeants didn’t even go to NCOES courses.

“We don’t think that is a good thing, but the answer is not to simply extend (the course lengths) back to what they used to be,” Piatt said.

He said that this is an ongoing debate and dialogue, and although he doesn’t have the right answer yet, it is something TRADOC is working on.

Piatt said he believes there is a need for a greater leveraging of simulations and gaming technologies to augment traditional live training into courses like the Warrior Leader Courses and other noncommissioned officer courses.

“Nobody in TRADOC is talking about getting rid of live training,” Piatt said. “Everyone understands how valuable live training is. (However), what we want is more simulations…so we can blend them to get the most out of live events.”

Sgt. 1st Class Robert Garvey, a former squad leader with deployment experience who is currently a drill sergeant with the 198th Infantry Brigade, said there is nothing more frustrating than wasting live training events. He gets “pretty fired up” about using virtual training and simulations.

“A big misconception is that these are video games that somehow replace live training events,” Garvey said. However, it is actually realistic blended training. “You can get the repetitions you need without using the live rounds or fuel. You can improve communication with each other…anticipation of your movements and how Soldiers work together.”

He talked about how the Engagement Skills Trainer 2000 system has already helped his Soldiers improve their marksmanship training, while requiring less munitions and hours on the range.

Perhaps one of the best aspects of the “Squad: Foundation of the Decisive Force” initiative is the ripple effect it will have on the rest of the Army.

If it works for the Infantry squads, it will also work for other dismounted squads across the Army. For example, injecting each member of a squad into the network on the battlefield will also greatly increase the intelligence reports going back up the chain.

This initiative isn’t only about the Infantry. It’s designed to help all dismounted Soldiers — from the bottom-up, Piatt said.

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