Saturday, May 12, 2012

Getting the Right People to Listen: An Army JO With Solutions Wonders How

Sparked by the discussions on this blog and at Small Wars Journal, 1LT Kyle Atwell emailed me with a question about implementing innovation in the military.  Boiled down to it's most basic elements, it is one this blog has been trying to figure out for the past few months:  How does a Junior Leader influence change in an organization that is resistant to change and highly hierarchical in nature?  

If you are a senior leader with recommendations, or a Junior Leader who has influenced change, please weigh in and help the 1LT with an effective method to implement the tactical solution he outlines below.


I am an Army 1LT Heavy Weapons Platoon Leader. I served in Wardak Province, Afghanistan as a Rifle Platoon Leader with my current unit in Tangi Valley and then on Highway 1 from October 2010 to October 2011. I love serving in the Army Infantry, but have grown frustrated with what I perceive as a high level of risk aversion that impedes company and platoon level leaders from utilizing the full potential of their forces -- the very leaders who are actually on the ground in villages fighting the fight.

My question is best understood if I provide a little background:

In my twelve months in combat I came to believe that the use of ATVs [All Terrain Vehicle] in combat operations in the mountainous parts of Afghanistan will provide a decisive tactical advantage for coalition forces. The MATVs [MRAP All Terrain Vehicle] and MRAPs [Mine Resistant, Ambush Protected] currently used by the majority of ground forces are heavily armored and withstand IED blasts well, but have limited mobility in the mountainous terrain that dominates much of Afghanistan. Infantry units like the one I served in would greatly benefit from adding light weight, high mobility vehicles like ATVs to their fleet.

The Freedom of Mobility
The Special Forces unit that shared my outpost used them, and proved their value on every mission we conducted with them.  They were able to quickly move into dominant positions that my conventional infantry unit could not touch without giving ourselves away to the enemy or moving dismounted. The Special Forces team would use the ATVs to set up the isolation of a village before the enemy could flee, while my unit used our heavier vehicles to enter the village along roads and conduct our mission. As a Heavy Weapons Platoon Leader, one of my key doctrinal tasks is to set up isolation of objectives for Rifle Platoons; the use of ATVs in rough terrain like Afghanistan would provide the capability to do this in a way that MATVs and MRAPs can not.

There is a possibility my unit will return to Afghanistan in the future, and so I have begun to think of how we could improve our performance if we were to face similar terrain. I have presented my idea of using ATVs as the Special Forces unit did to my superiors and peers, only to hear that many have thought the same thing in the past, and while agreeing that it would provide an advantage, no approving authority will be willing to accept the tactical risk inherent in using minimally armored vehicles. "Nobody will want to have to explain why a Soldier was killed in a vehicle that had no armor" explained one superior.

My supervisor told me directly that he agreed the use of ATVs could be useful and he had brought up the use of ATVs in the past, but had been dismissed given their inherent risk. Battalion level leadership from my deployment to Afghanistan had pushed for the use of Toyota trucks as our Afghan partners were using, only to be turned down for over a year based on similar premises.

To be clear, the use of ATVs does add additional risk. However, myself and the men who would be taking the risk agree that the potential benefits are worth it. We as leaders are trained to develop risk mitigating measures, and could implement training and tactics to use the equipment appropriately and effectively.

The first thing my current Platoon Sergeant said when I asked him if he thought ATVs were smart to use in Afghanistan, was that they absolutely would have provided an advantage for certain missions, but only if we provided the appropriate safety and operational training to the Soldiers using them. His response is a testament to the capability and professionalism of Company level leaders, and an indication they can be trusted to make appropriate risk assessments in the use of ATVs if they are only given the opportunity to add them to their toolkit.

In this instance the Commanders and leaders on the ground (including the NCO and Junior Officer war-fighters I worked with) all agree the use of ATVs, with appropriate safety measures, would provide a significant tactical advantage, yet nobody who can make it happen wants to take the leap to do so given the added risk. Either that or the idea has never reached the people who can make it happen in the first place. I see this as a problem of battling a risk averse and set bureaucracy with an innovative and potentially game changing idea. I feel particularly frustrated because as a Junior Officer, I have very little ability to impact the decision making process on this particular issue, even though I have first hand experience with the dilemma.

Do you have any advice on how a Junior Officer in my position could go about influencing an issue such as this one that would affect the realms of doctrine, training and procurement... all realms that in this instance are well above my pay-grade?

I don't want to just be told that using a piece of equipment that could change the game for us (not just my unit, but all Infantry units in the mountainous parts of Afghanistan) in the next couple years is not going to happen, and because I am a young officer I should not pursue this idea. I have considered publishing articles (though I do not know the most effective way to go about doing that) and going straight to superior officers (though I do not want to break my chain of command).  How does a Junior Officer influence change in an Army that is resistant to change and highly hierarchical in nature?


  1. I see two issues in this post. The first is that we operate with too much risk aversion to be effective. The second is that Special Forces get the good gear and the ability to use it, but everyone else in the military is second class.

    But you asked what to do about it. If anyone had that answer this blog wouldn't exist. Everyone knows we operate with too much caution to be effective, but it never changes. Everyone knows that GPF forces are just as important as SF, yet SF gets showered with money and operational freedom while GPF gets old weapons and less trust than a Boy Scout troop. There are a lot of things we do poorly or incorrectly and none of it is secret. Yet we continue to do it. Over and over and over again.

    I have some thoughts on how things get fixed, but none of them are good. It may be that we will only adapt when an enemy arises that can stress the system enough to force it to adapt.

  2. Brett (and Doctrine Man on Twitter) make some great points. Fused together, I think they both come down to perspective based on experience/knowledge. One of these can be seen in risk, whether you call it mitigation or aversion. Just because those at the company level acknowledge and accept them, based on what they know/see, does not mean there are not more factors at play as seen by those at a higher level. At company level the factors are inherently tactical and localized. Higher up they have to take into account larger areas and the intent provided from their higher headquarters - which could override the employment of one type of platform to better achieve company-level objectives.

    That said, there is an acknowledged risk aversion in conventional formations that special operations forces do not have to contend. If Johnny from IBCT X is killed riding around on an ATV, you can be sure there will be blowback. If Johnny from ODA X is killed, most will feel he was killed doing "hooah" stuff that was necessary and simply recognize the sacrifice. Double-standard, but present nonetheless. The only way for a platoon leader, or even a company or battalion commander, to get around this is through creating a solid course of action (this is what the use of ATVs provide us, etc.), brief it to the chain of command cogently, and lobby within the chain of command as appropriate. Once your chain has made a decision, however, accept the short term.

    Once, operationally, an idea has been killed the best action is to use the forums available for professional discussion to make your argument. In this case, journals like Infantry Magazine, Army Magazine, and possible Military Review would be a good outlet. It could socialize the core ideas and build a lobby for action - not a disrespectful lobby or one that subverts the chain of command, but one that helps inform the Army and possibly provides the discussion needed to get around the inherently risk averse culture. In the end, for junior officers, organizational culture can only be changed through dialogue. Unless you are a commander that can force change, influence is your only option.

    A note on publishing after being shot down, however: discuss your intentions with your command and let them know you understand their decision and concerns, but that you'd like to put your thoughts up for discussion. Most commanders will highly encourage the dialogue.

    If you need support on shaping the article or on the right place for placement, I would be more than happy to support. Gents like Brett and Doctrine Man are also quite connected to publication outlets.

    1. I'm an old soldier now but I was once anxious to challenge the system over multiple malfunctions, as I saw them. Young officers must be concerned about facing the enemy eye-ball to eye-ball, and they have a right to demand support and understanding. Support is the easier commodity to acquire. Some fights are more worthy than others. My recommendation is to save your ammunition for the issues that are non-negotiable. If you wish to pursue this I am Many years (about 20) after my big fight, I was able to describe command failures that cost many lives of soldiers better than those who commanded them (The Lost Battalion of Tet). But not all commanders were villians, not by a long shot. Charles Krohn

  3. Great questions with some complex answers on the enterprise scale. The ATVs could be procured quickly with the support of the Army's Rapid Equipping Force program, if approved. That's the short answer. He needs to write an ONS (operational needs statement), and get his chain of command to approve it. We did ONSs for numerous things in the Afghanistan tour I just returned from - 60mm mortars, extra light machine guns, thermal sights, sniper rifles, and other such gear not issued to a Cavalry squadron from MTOE. All were approved (though not all fielded in time for training). The ONS process needs a lot of work, but does work.

    I don't doubt that they would have tactical utility for the infantry platoon in the area the good LT is struggling in. There will be issues of operator training and maintenance, but these could be overcome. The safety guys may throw up some roadblocks, but again if it is underwritten it could be achieved.

    I guess I am curious, from a campaign/enterprise level, what this LT's mission is. Is it to hunt and kill Taliban or train and support ANSF? If the former, I doubt his next tour in A-Stan will be within current intent (ANSF in lead). If he has ATVs and his ANSF doesn't, how does that affect the mission? Will he leave them behind? Will he provide ANSF the capability knowing they can't sustain them logistically? Taken from the tactical idea (makes sense) to the operational implication (could be dubious) does it change the logic? If he has a specific direct action mission set (which I highly doubt as a conventional unit in 2012) it may make sense.

    One thing I had to learn between my first and second tours in Iraq is that theaters and mission sets evolve - quickly. Just because ATVs would have been nice last tour doesn't mean they're appropriate for his next one. For example, I rode all of my first deployment to Iraq (May 03-Jul 04) in a doorless HMMWV. I firmly believed at the end of that tour that doing so allowed an aggressive force protection posture the enemy could see and deterred attacks. When training my company to deploy in 2005, I asked the companycommand forum if I should angle for doing the same. Every commander who responded said absolutely not - IEDs would tear us up in such a posture. When I left my first Iraq tour the Iraqi security forces were useless. When I returned they were much more capable than I anticipated. The battlespace had evolved. I submit the Afghanistan he will return to will be very different than the one he left.

    The second thing I would say is that this LT has no idea where in AFG he would go - even if he thinks he does I almost guarantee he will go somehwhere different. ATVs would have been useful in RC(E), not so much where I just returned from in RC(S).

    Just some broader considerations the LT may or may not have considered in his request.

  4. Great discussion. The ATV can also be "sold" to higher decision makers of how it can save lives. To illustrate, get small arms ammo, food, and medic supplies to a point of interest in a time frame where it can't be done on foot or any other kind of vehicle. Also the tactical imperative already shown above where time is the enemy when deploying for a mission. I think when you sit write down on a piece of paper and show a column with the plus side and a column with the minus side you would have more on the plus side. "Look Sir, we can save more lives than we kill. And that Sir, gives more victories to the great (fill in the name of your unit here)." Sounds to me like this thing helps the Battalion CO do assignments better/quicker. Be nice to see a big MRAP or two in a convoy with a trailer (with extended tongue so as not to block MRAP exit) each holding one of these ATVs. H/T to CDR Salamander for leading me to this post.

  5. It would seem that you have only two approaches in the military (publishing and pitching), both have been stated by others, but I thought I would add my own two cents.

    The first route to take is publishing. You write, they read and you hope that someone who cares does something that matters. This, while essential and an approach I have taken personally, is passive and at best is a secondary line of attack that must be accompanied by a pitch which is your primary effort. Publishing is marketing, it is additional material that lends credence to your work, it very rarely is the hard work that actually makes something happen though.

    I am a civilian, who worked in Private Equity before transitioning to national security issues, and when ever I had a an idea I would pitch it to my boss, the response was usually the same as you experienced, nice idea can't do it, that was until I brought him a pitch, a detailed analysis with a thoughtful (innovative yet still conservative) course of action. The pitch generally consists (in the business world) of no more than twenty pages with appendicies. The first page is your elevator pitch, it explains the idea, why it is important and why it must be done, it is no more that one full page and is the most important part of the document. The remainder is a fuller explanation of each major point made on the first page.

    Once completed (which usually meant many hours often times 100+ working alone late into the night) I would ask my boss to review the pitch, give me feedback, and finally put his name on it (ahead of mine). The goal was always to make my idea as much his idea as possible, even better if I could convince him that my idea was his idea. He can than bring it to his boss and if he is smart he will do the same thing, that is pursue buy-in, rather than a conclusion. You as a 1LT (or I when i worked in PE as an analyst) are very unlikely to ever actually get anything accomplished, rarely does achieving the end state, and the accolades of that achievement, accrue to the guy at the bottom, but sometimes the goal can be accomplished if the man with the idea lets some one else run with it. You of course suffer from having many more layers of bureaucracy between you and the man who can make the final decision, and must achieve much more buy in, but there is never a quick fix.

    For any pitch to work it must also answer the questions posited Niel, before you write the pitch you want to talk to as many people a possible who think your idea will not work, they are much more useful to you than people who think it will. Speaking with people who think the idea is a good one only reconfirms your own thinking, speaking with those who don't agree with you challenges your thoughts. These discussions can serve as an important part of your pitch, they end up being several tightly written pages of arguments against your idea that your refute. These are important because that let everyone cover his or her ass and demonstrates mature thinking. The best approach with this section is simple question and answer style.

    If this is something you really care about and are really interested in trying to make happen it will require a lot of legwork. I leave for a year in Afghanistan (as a strategic consultant at NATO/ISAF HQ) in two weeks so I am unsure how much help I can be, or even if this rambling commentary was helpful (in rereading it, it seems somewhat obvious), but I have pitches you could use as samples and would be happy to help. My e-mail is

  6. I'll address the specific situation on using ATVs to frame for the broader question about the ability of junior leaders to have a broader impact. One of the battalion commander's in my BCT tried to do precisely what this LT wanted to do. Neil is correct about the Operational Needs Statement (ONS) process, a document that identifies an emerging need and recommends potential commercial or government off-the-shelf solutions, or identifies the need for further research effort. This battalion commander filled out an ONS for ATVs for his area due to the vast amount of terrain in his area of operations that was too rugged for MRAP or HMMWV travel. This ONS had the enthusiastic support of the brigade commander and the division commander. It passed all the way up to the highest level (being intentionally vague here) but was eventually rejected for failing to meet CENTCOM armor requirements (the alternative was a dismounted patrol or nothing).

    My point here is that it's not just junior officers who struggle with this question, and many senior leaders recognize the need to innovate. Try to find people like that and network with them.

    Aside from the obvious need to reform our broken requirements process (see this article on "MRAPs, Irregular Warfare, and Pentagon Reform" It's a must read on this topic), and the need for perseverance and persistence in getting an innovation implemented, here some other methods:

    1) Scope: Is this something you want to implement service wide, or within your unit? Doing something at the unit level obviates a lot of bureaucratic resistance and can lead to broader change if the innovation demonstrably and measurably contributed to success commensurate with costs, risk, etc.

    2) Experiment: Showing your boss or whatever decision maker demonstrable advantages will carry a lot more weight than speculation or an information paper describing it. Try a small scale experiment to test the concept if you can (in this case, I'd say the SF guys do that for you every day). Compare and contrast. In this case, show the alternatives (or lack thereof) to your idea. Show how this will reduce overall, net risk and improve your ability to accomplish the mission.

    3) Network: Sometimes someone you know or they know can provide context to what you are trying to achieve and help shepherd your innovation to adoption. In this case, if people in your higher headquarters are sold on your idea, they will fight for it. If they are insistent enough, it will pass. There was a lot of resistance to allowing plate carriers in lieu of full body armor in Afghanistan, but eventually the people on the ground prevailed over the aversion to perceived reduction in protection.

    The main thing I want to get across is that your idea has to get socialized and the enthusiasm for it must become contagious. This can't remain one person's idea; it must become a collective demand to succeed.

  7. I was having a sit down with an O-5 today who shared a pearl of wisdom that he learned over his 20 years on duty.

    He dubbed it Rob's Law...if any item or solutions meets the following criteria:
    1. Is Simple
    2. Cost-Effective
    3. Makes Sense

    Then it has no place in the U.S. Army

  8. Mr Thompson's comments on the pitch are bang-on. I'd add that preparing an information brief that includes a BLUF, summarised issue analysis, pros/cons and implimentation options would also go a long way. The more that you can demonstrate that you've thought through the potential issues (like maintenance and training), the harder it is for your audience to raise objections (at least rational ones).
    Beside the obvious tactical advantage provided by faster movement to positions of observation and fire cited by 1LT Atwell, it is possible to argue that ATVs might actually improve force protection when compared to dismounted movement or armored vehicles.
    1. Enhanced cross-country mobility allows travel off-road, helping to avoid IEDs emplaced to target armored vehicles moving on roads.
    2. Enhanced cross-country mobility allows the varying of formation, eliminating the need for vehicles to move in line and reducing the time on the "X" (in the event that the enemy gets lucky and puts an IED in the right place off-road).
    3. Faster off-road movement (compared to dismounted movement) reduces the time available for insurgents to spot troops and emplace or activate IEDs before the troops are on the "X".
    4. Faster off-road movement (compared to dismounted movement) makes it more difficult to accurately time the triggering of CWIEDs/RCIEDs as troops pass.
    5. The closer spacing of the wheels (left to right) may help to avoid pressure plates emplaced to target traditional military vehicles with wider wheel spacing.
    I would also add that light fast-moving vehicles not restricted to roads can also have an operational impact. This has been demonstrated repeatedly (especially by the Brits) by the disruption of enemy "rear areas"/safe havens, normally inaccessible to armored vehicles or dismounts, using light forces driving unarmoured vehicles.
    Tactically, a platoon on ATVs could access remote enemy staging or logistics areas that lack the roads needed for armored vehicles (or whose roads are too canalizing) and too far for dismounted patrols to reach.

  9. This article is a bit old but I study disruptive technology so I thought I would add my two cents.
    I also have thought for some time that ATVs could make a real contribution to our militarys mobility.
    So the question is, what is the best way to sell this concept and be given a chance to prove it. Outside of special forces.
    Here are my sugestions:
    1. Drape the argument for it in accepted termanology and framework. It is not your idea, it is an adaption of Boyds manuver warfare. Or Clauswitz. Ideas are more apt to be embraced if they go with the grain of current thought.....
    2. Technology is also more likely to be embraced if it looks like established technology. So in this regard you say that ATVs are the new Jeeps. They have a recognized history and accomplishments to build on. They were very portable, allowed for infantry to carry much heavier weapons, made transport of supplies easy and went just about everywhere. The same can be said of ATVs accept they do better in almost all catagories.
    3. Come up with a new term for this method of war. I am thinking "Heavy Infantry ". Quickly deployable by all existing aircraft, including helicopters. (How many would fit on a Chjnook? How many could be slung under a Blackhawk?). They would have the ability to support heavy equipment systems or act alone like the Long Range Desert Group did in Africa in WW2 (which used heavier weapon systems than infantry could not carry and mobility to make Rommel have grudging respect for them).
    After reviewing all the ATVs out there I think two seat models would work out well. One guy to steer and another to hold the SAW. It would also double the amount of boots on the ground. This would cut onto their supply carrying capability. To rectify that a few of them would be single person six wheel versions. They can carry 800 pounds. That's a lot of AT4s and ammo....
    Of course it would be easier just to use what the Army already has.
    But you may be able to get the manufacturer to "loan" you a few to test the systems in hope of future sales. Would your command say no to free?
    I would enjoy a corespondance with Lt Atwell to see how he is faring in this fight. I am prior service Navy but recently joined the Ct National Guard. Just went through boot, I am currently attending AIT to be a 15N (Avionics) and it looks like I will be going to OCS in January. I have a degree in the History of Technology.
    My email can be found on my disruptive technology website:

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