Most Army Squads Falling Short on Infantry Skills, Reports Find

Infantrymen prepare to enter a building during a squad training exercise, at Fort Stewart, Ga., Jan. 16, 2019. (U.S. Army Photo/Spc. Jordyn Worshek)
FILE -- Infantrymen prepare to enter a building during a squad training exercise, at Fort Stewart, Ga., Jan. 16, 2019. (U.S. Army Photo/Spc. Jordyn Worshek)

The U.S. Army says it will meet its readiness goals by 2022, but young sergeants in most infantry and close-combat units don't know how to maneuver their squads or do basic land navigation, has learned.

For example, sergeants in the majority of the Army's active brigade combat teams (BCTs) don't know the importance of gaining a foothold when leading squads on room-clearing operations, according to a series of report cards from the service's Asymmetric Warfare Group, known as the AWG.

The findings come at a time when the Army is racing to transition from the counter-insurgency mindset that existed in Iraq and Afghanistan to one focused on preparing combat units to fight in large-scale, conventional battles against a foe of equal strength.

Since March 2018, the AWG -- a special, operational advisory unit involved in training brigade combat teams in subterranean (Sub-T) warfare operations -- has submitted reports to Army leaders on several occasions identifying trends that show small-unit leaders lack proficiency in key skills required for any type of combat, a Defense Department official with knowledge of the reports told on the condition of anonymity.

Additionally, the Army's Noncommissioned Officer Academy is seeing sergeants routinely show up for courses unable to pass a basic land navigation course using a map and compass.

The Army maintains it is readier than ever before, but continues to make combat readiness its top priority by funneling money into current training exercises and future modernization efforts that will emphasize synthetic, or virtual, training.

"The United States Army is a highly capable, globally deployable force -- today," Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told lawmakers at an April 9 congressional hearing. "We can go on short notice; we can go anywhere in the world. We have the training, equipment, people and leaders to prevail in extended ground combat against anyone, anywhere, any time, and there should be no one who doubts that."

But according to military training experts such as retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, a key adviser to the Defense Department's Close Combat Lethality Task Force (CCLTF), the Army's shortcomings in small-unit readiness are a symptom of long-standing problems that affect U.S. ground forces during peacetime.

"This is a perennial problem that we in the task force have been dealing with," Scales told "Small-unit training opportunities, often even in the best of units, are fairly limited for many reasons."

Over the past decade, the U.S. has ended back-to-back combat rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan. In that time, small-unit readiness has atrophied, partly because of the lack of resources and tools available for infantry squads and platoons to get the repetitive, intense training needed to develop finely honed fighting skills. The Army also needs better oversight to ensure training standards are properly met, and more flexibility in the training schedule to compensate for "hey-you" details that take combat soldiers away from training, experts say.

"An infantry battalion, at the molecular level, is made up of 27 [separate] fighting entities," Scales said, referring to the average number of infantry squads in a battalion. "Each one -- in order to win in combat -- has to be able to perform at an exceptional level. In order to do that, the training system has to have the means to get small units the resources and the oversight and accountability they need to achieve that level of excellence."

New Focus Highlights Tactical Weaknesses

In late 2017, the Army launched an effort costing more than $500 million to train up and equip most of its 31 active BCTs to fight in large, subterranean facilities that exist beneath dense urban areas around the world.

The AWG sent mobile training teams out to the BCTs to train Army small-unit combat leaders on how to ensure that squads and platoons are ready to clear and secure underground complexes. These conditions force units to operate in spaces ranging from tight corridors to tunnels as wide as suburban streets.

Over the past year, AWG trainers have observed that small-unit leaders did not have well-developed standard operating procedures, or SOPs, for basic room-clearing operations, the DoD official said.

They didn't understand the importance of gaining a foothold -- a process of securing an area in a structure "large enough that can allow adjacent units to pass through and continue with systematic operations," the official said.

In BCTs across the active force, leaders display weakness in tactical maneuver, or moving units from one objective to the next, according to the source. In addition, leaders at the platoon and, in some cases, company, level struggled to assess a tactical situation and independently take decisive steps to accomplish unplanned objectives. The ability to make these kind of decisions when necessary without having to wait for higher approval is a key part of Army Mission Command, the DoD source said.

Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of Training and Doctrine Command, made a similar point in early January when he told an audience at an Association of the United States Army event that there is an "alarming number of folks in uniform who don't believe that we, as an Army, are ... practicing the principles of Mission Command."

The DoD official added, "The unit is only as good as its leadership ... so if the leadership doesn't know how to do something, the soldiers will figure it out. But they are not ready."

Service officials did not deny the Asymmetric Warfare Group's findings when reached out to the service for comment. Nor did they offer direct comment on AWG's readiness concerns.

In an April 18 statement, Army spokesman Matthew Leonard said that the service has increased lethality in BCTs and key enabling units by having them conduct "[Combined] Live Fire Exercises (CALFEXs), Field Artillery Battalion Live Fires and Aviation Live Fires at home station, complemented by BCT Live Fires" at the Army's combat training centers.

"The Army has seen significant improvements in the readiness of all formations in FY19," Leonard said. "We achieved these readiness gains despite sustained operational demand for Army units. Our FY20 budget request sustains this momentum, so the Army can achieve our readiness objectives by 2022."

Setting Readiness Goals

The Army's goal is to have "two-thirds of the regular active-duty Army, the brigade combat teams, and [one-third] of the National Guard and the U.S. Army Reserve to be at the highest levels of readiness" by 2022, Milley told lawmakers at the April 9 hearing. Milley has been nominated to succeed Gen. Joseph Dunford as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

Currently, the service is "around the range of the 40% mark," Milley said, according to an April 1 news release on

To achieve this level of readiness, the Army earmarked funding in its fiscal 2020 budget request to send more BCTs to decisive-action training exercises at combat training centers such as the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California.

But these exercises, and the work-up required to prepare for these rotations, do not emphasize small-unit training, Scales said.

"The National Training Center really captures and trains and reinforces larger formations than, say, squads -- not that the squads don't get a workout, but they don't get the intensive, repetitive, accountable training that makes for small-unit excellence," Scales said. "What's happened over the years is, increasingly, the art and science of training in the small-unit level has atrophied when compared with the training at the grand tactical level with battalion and brigade, and at the operational level with brigade and division."

Increased service funding "will enable Army units to conduct more training exercises at the small-unit level, increase use of ranges to improve weapons proficiency, and increase live-fire exercises at the home station," Leonard said.

Showing Up Unprepared

The tactical deficiencies identified by the AWG are not the only indicators that small-unit effectiveness has slipped.

Sergeants and staff sergeants are routinely showing up at the Army's Noncommissioned Officer Academy unprepared for courses such as the Maneuver Senior Leader Course (MSLC); Infantry Advanced Leader Course (IN ALC); and Armor Advanced Leader Course (AR ALC), according to an item in the Maneuver Center of Excellence's first E-Newsletter, published March 1.

One shortcoming among young sergeants is the "inability to successfully complete dismounted land navigation (Skill Level 1 task) in In ALC and AR ALC students," wrote Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Reel, the S3 non-commissioned officer in charge at the Henry Caro NCO Academy.

"Students are expected to pass a Dismounted Land Navigation assessment with a score of 4 out of 5 points. On average, we see approximately 30 percent of students fail this initial assessment across our courses," Reel said. "When surveyed, the feedback from these NCOs was they have not conducted Dismounted Land Navigation, with a map, protractor and lensatic compass in several years."

The article also said that students show up to the academy with "poor physical fitness and body composition, and in the case of In ALC, not able to qualify as Marksman using backup iron sights."

The Army has to spend more time ensuring that sergeants at the E-5 and E-6 level -- team leaders and squad leaders -- have the tactical proficiency to train the soldiers who depend on them, according to a former career special operations soldier who has provided tactical training to combat units.

"Team leaders and squad leaders should be tactical geniuses; I should be able to take an [Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight] or an Aimpoint and put it out in front of him and he should know everything about how to zero those weapons with those systems," said the soldier, who spoke with on condition of anonymity.

Units such as the 82nd Airborne Division, that have to be in a high state of readiness to rapidly deploy on a contingency operation, are hampered by inflexible training schedules and "hey-you" details that take soldiers away from training, the source said.

"If you've got a guy who either had a family emergency or he was on a hey-you detail, if he misses that M203 [grenade launcher] range, he might not get an opportunity to shoot his grenade launcher again for six months ... so you have a grenadier who is un-zeroed," the source said.

Members of the Close Combat Lethality Task Force, a DoD effort launched early last year by former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, are trying to solve these challenges, Scales said.

"As we begin to move away from Iraq and Afghanistan -- this is rough data that we have begun to get from the services -- [what we find] is that the level of borrowed military manpower on posts and stations, as it always does in peacetime, is starting to shoot up again," Scales said.

Brigade commanders are far more likely to assign infantrymen to take care of base support details than they are to assign those tasks to generator or truck mechanics, he said.

"When it comes to infantry, they are not fixing trucks or cooking in the mess hall or fixing radios. Sadly, the long-standing tradition is to emphasize [borrowed military manpower] missions more for maneuver soldiers than support soldiers," Scales said. "What does that mean? It means you take a soldier away from his primary mission."

Treating Grunts Like Rangers

The CCLTF has proposed in the past that close-combat formations, such as infantry units in the conventional Army, should be managed and trained on a template that resembles the service's elite 75th Ranger Regiment.

"Compare selection, training, leader development and time in the box doing real-world, live-fire repetitive training of the Ranger Regiment to, say, a conventional infantry unit, and you will see an enormous difference," Scales said.

"I am not saying every infantry unit in the Army needs to be equal to ... the Ranger Regiment, but the Ranger Regiment is a wonderful template to use in terms of time and leadership and resources and training devices to put up on the wall to see how close a conventional unit is to that standard," he said.

Small units need repetition, "to be immersed in an environment where they do something over and over," Scales said.

"The other thing is variation," he said. "If you just repeat something, you are doing drills. If you add variation, you are forcing the small-unit leader to think on his feet, to be imaginative and agile and intellectually prepared."

And, he added, for the training to be effective, it needs to be followed by an after-action review.

Currently, small units in the Army, as well as in the Marine Corps, do not have the tools needed to achieve that level of intensity in training. The regime Scales described would require soldiers to conduct as many as 20 training repetitions a day.

Looking to Technology

Technology may offer a way to get those repetitions.

Army leaders hope that the service's decision to award a $480 million contract to Microsoft in November to develop the Integrated Visual Augmentation System, or IVAS, will give small units the tool they to take training to the next level.

IVAS replaces the service's Heads-Up Display 3.0 effort. The end goal is a high-tech digital system designed to let soldiers view their weapon-sight reticle and other key tactical information through a pair of tactical glasses.

Soldiers will wear the IVAS into combat, but they can also use the synthetic training technology it offers to hone their skills, Undersecretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy, a former member of the 75th Ranger Regiment, told in late February at an AUSA event.

"If you think about putting a synthetic-training capability into what would be the same pair of night-vision goggles and day sights that you deploy with, that synthetic-training capability will bring thousands of repetitions before you ever put a live round into a rifle to do simulated room-clearing techniques," McCarthy said.

Leaders can then view the data on IVAS records during the training to see where soldiers need to improve in marksmanship and other skills, he said.

"That is part of the point of, how do we get more repetitions into an hour for a soldier before we ever have to put them into an environment where you are increasing the threat and the danger," McCarthy said.

The CCLTF leadership is also very enthused about what the IVAS benefits could mean for small units, Scales said.

The challenge will be to figure out a new level of accountability to ensure that all of these IVAS training repetitions are being properly evaluated, he said.

"If you are a battalion commander at the National Training Center or at 29 Palms, then accountability is on you ... but what is the accountability standard for the proficiency of maneuver and close-combat small units? Where is the accountability standard for that?" Scales asked. "Right now, I believe that there is no higher standard. I think probably to elevate up to that level, there needs to be something greater than just relying on the chain of command; it needs to go to a higher authority."

All of this needs to be addressed by the Army, Scales said.

"When you get to something like your subterranean maneuver school ... and you are seeing people coming up with deficiencies, that's because the blocking and tackling of small-unit training for close-combat units is just not done to the intensity and the repetitive nature that it needs to be," he said.

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at

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