Our ground combat forces are not ready for the harsh realities of combat against a near-peer adversary. Our enjoyment of air supremacy and uncontested control of the electromagnetic spectrum—and the unlikelihood that either will continue in a major combat scenario—have been well documented. But arguably, the characteristic of our recent wars that represents the largest vulnerability is our unchallenged theater logistics—and the culture it has created among our soldiers and Marines, across all ranks, who have become conditioned to expect (and demand) uninterrupted access to civilian-like communications systems and infrastructure. Internet cafes, readily available WiFi, and freedom to use smartphones and tablets have become normal features of even the most remote patrol bases in Iraq or Afghanistan. What’s more, such access to instant personal communications in war zones has transferred to our pre-deployment training environments. Soldiers and Marines in the field use their personal devices to stay in touch with friends and family, play video games, or otherwise occupy idle time.
Commanders err, though, in believing this is somehow essential to troop welfare. This is not troop welfare; it actually causes immense damage to readiness. The fact that these seemingly innocent and routine parts of modern American culture have been adopted, accepted, and embraced by even our most Spartan-like units has not received the critical examination it deserves. As a military, we do not yet understand the consequences to our formations when these privileges disappear. What happens to morale, discipline, and unit cohesion when—not if—constant access to technology and connectivity comes into conflict with the harsh realities of future warfare envisioned by our leaders? More immediately, how does it affect discipline and readiness now? And what will happen to the unit that tolerates “business as usual” with respect to these privileges in the face of an enemy capable of detecting, targeting, and destroying concentrations of electromagnetic signals? It is essential leaders take seriously the implications of these questions—and their answers—and not turn a blind eye to the corrosive effect our laissez faire approach on this issue has on readiness and proper training.
Embracing Austerity Again
As a rifle company commander in 2015, I eagerly prepared my Marines for Exercise COBRA GOLD 2015 in Thailand. The training area was extremely austere: facilities were virtually absent, resources were limited, and conditions were rough. As a leader, COBRA GOLD was shaping up to be a dream come true. I relished the opportunity to condition the company to the deprivations and harsh conditions of the battlefield. Unfortunately, our battalion’s water purification system did not arrive on schedule. Our logistics officer immediately recognized the dilemma of trying to hydrate an infantry battalion without this critical piece of equipment. However, the desperation he felt was his burden alone. The concern of others, including many leaders was something entirely different: When is the WiFi being installed? When will our electronic command-and-control systems be operational? When can Marines call home? How are they going to Skype with their families? It dawned upon me then and still weighs on me today: we are divorced from the realities that await us. We were, quite literally, prioritizing WiFi over water.
We need aggressive action to change, now.
As with previous wars, quality of life for troops and other material concerns gained in importance as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan progressed and theater logistics established bases of operations. However, unlike previous wars, our static positioning and unconstrained logistical capacity in these conflicts reprogrammed our priority hierarchy. WiFi arrived the same time water did, and many leaders demanded it. Post exchanges delivered XBoxes, televisions, and other luxuries. As the theater matured, our wants became needs. What were formerly “nice to haves” were deemed “mission critical.” This upending of the hierarchy of needs is almost entirely out of sync with the realities of near-peer, heavy combat. We must relearn that heavy combat drives us all lower down this hierarchy, where fighting for water, ammunition, and critical medical supplies is a daily reality. Wants will quickly become wants again. “Nice to haves” will be quickly forgotten. War has a ruthless way of correctly ordering our priorities. We must not wait to learn that lesson.
“Train like you fight”—anyone in uniform has heard the maxim. But soldiers and Marines do not train like they fight; they fight like they train. If we train in environments where troops can retreat into their smartphones or order a burrito from a dining facility truck that will deliver it to the training area, then are they truly being prepared for combat? In Iraq and Afghanistan, given the material comforts that grew up over the years of war, this wasn’t all that inconsistent with what units would experience in real combat zones. But if the Joint Operational Environment (JOE) 2035, a document produced by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and released in 2016, is our guide for what we may face in the future, it raises important questions. What steps are we taking today to train for that environment? If future enemies can efficiently detect electromagnetic signals and then deliver destructive fires, why do we let our soldiers and Marines take phones to the field? Why do our headquarters insist on sophisticated, heavy, electronically saturated systems? What effect is there on units’ combat effectiveness when soldiers are deep in cyberspace and less psychologically present in the real world? Are they focused on the task at hand, or on the family dilemma at home?
And while war will quickly fix these problems, it will do so at a heavy cost. We must remember that in the crucible of war, troops do not rise to the occasion, they fall to the level of their training. Leaders bear the responsibility for their shortfalls and any initially bloody result of our poor psychological preparedness.
Fight Like you Train
Combat is the brutally unfair practice of killing. Our enemies are well aware of our weaknesses, and will exploit them. Enemy forces will press the soft underbelly of our logistics formations. Our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered logistical delays caused by threats like improvised explosive device. But future combat trains face the risk not of delay, but of annihilation. To overcome our logistics vulnerabilities, and the problems associated with them, we can take several important steps. First, for the sake of logisticians and our overall war effort, we should begin by reducing their burdens. We should harden their capacity to fight and deliver what units need to fight and win: water, ammunition, fuel, food, and medical supplies, among a few other basic necessities. The future promises a fight for those bare essentials. Next, we must condition our troops and their families to the reality of limited contact with those at home. For our force protection and servicemembers’ mental resilience, phones should be prohibited from field training environments. Our troops’ and their families’ first experience detached from web-enabled connectivity cannot be in a combat environment. And lastly, we should test units’ endurance in scenarios in which enemy forces deny their logistical priorities. If an enemy disrupts our water resupply, will the unit be able to adapt? During hard combat in history, American forces have had to fight for water. The JOE 2035 forecasts a battlefield when that fight may return in earnest.
Above all, we need to get our priorities straight: water over WiFi.
Maj. Travis Onischuk is currently assigned to the Department of Military Instruction at the United States Military Academy in West Point. He has done four operational deployments, including his most recent deployment as the Weapons Company Commander and Future Operations Officer, Marine Rotational Force – Darwin.
Image credit: Staff Sgt. Stacy L. Pearsall, US Air Force
The author hit the problem spot on. How ever, it isn't just spoiled troops and lack of combat readiness that will defeat us. Its our attitude that everything is given to us, and giving to us now. Our military and the culture within the military is one of instant gratifaction. And war is not easy, and it should not be treated this way.
Whats so sad is we were better trained in the days of the 1980's than we are now. Its not that we need the latest weapons, because we do. It is the mentality that our leadership has that high casualties are unacceptable and troops need to be treated with kid gloves to maintain troop levels and readiness. When in reality our troops need good, hard training.and good hard training is going to save lives.
This is a Volunteer force. if leadership wants to make training more austere then they should assume more retention issues. Retention and recruiting are already in the dumps, have been and will continue to be. So yes, high causalities are unacceptable, Soldiers and Marines should have high levels of welfare and recreation, because the only thing better than hard training to make sure you stay alive, is not re upping for an other contract.
let’s cancel internet but make trans gendered troops, female infantry Soliders, and worthless online training a priority…
This author is a field grade officer. Which means he will be on the built up base, with the WiFi, driving an NTV because he feels his rank determines he needs one, and sipping Starbucks. He’ll have a zain puck or sapphire so he can FaceTime his family. All these things he says the fighting force needs too lose, he will be using. Because he’s a major far removed from the fight.
Those privates, lances, sergeants, and LTs in those spartan remote outposts won’t have 90 percent of the luxury the writer will have. And they won’t complain, in fact they will embrace it as a badge of honor, because they weren’t a fobbit. Will they gripe, sure, what grunt doesn’t. But they will do the job, because that’s what grunts do. We embrace the suck, thrive in it, and if we get a small reprieve from it we relish in it. But you higher ranking officers that get to live the high life on built up bases. You are the soft ones.
This article is trash. Just another officer looking for validation and OER bullets, trying to make a mountain out of a molehill. Grunts know we make be way out there without the ability to call family and friends for days. But when we finally get rotated back in and get a little down time , I don’t want to hear your bitching sir, if we make your wait time at Starbucks a little longer or slow down the base WiFi with our calls, your the one that said we shouldn’t have those capabilities at our austere outposts.
A grunt thats been doing this a while
As a soon-to-be rifle company commander I would love to remove cell phones from all of my Soldiers…. until I need to reach one of them. At least in the National Guard we are often training at detached locations with the battalion HQ a hundred miles away or more. Unfortunately cell phones have become the primary means of communication at the company/battalion level. A group text pushing out the latest information is much easier than trying to raise a dozen people by radio.
However, during annual training in a real field environment the point is starting to filter down that a cell phone won't do you much good. At our last annual training there was virtually no cell service anyways unless you happened to stand on the right hilltop while the person you wanted to reach was on a similar hilltop.
It's hard not to be spoiled by a phone with GPS and Google Maps giving you almost instant satellite imagery when the alternative is a paper map of questionable integrity and a DAGR that seems to take forever just to give an imprecise grid.
you highest proirity will be investigating sexual assult claims
The author definitely wins the grumpy cat award for today. He didn't present any evidence that we are prioritizing wifi over water except one anecdotal experience in 2015. He seems to have sour grapes that he couldn't make things as tough on his soldiers as he wanted. And he relies on his perception that platoon leaders cared more about wifi than the logistics officer that cared about the water system. But pure water could be obtained a number of ways from boiling to adding purification tables. The same can't be said for wifi. Moreover, the company leaders were most likely responding to concerns in their immediate area of control, such as the morale of men under their command, compared to the logistics officer that just had to worry about logistics. The author doesn't provide any substantive evidence that prioritizing wifi hurts combat capabilities. This mostly seems like a typical ax grinding rant about the video game generation that I've heard for 20 years, and should have been dispelled by the military's performance during the war on terror.
I'm glad I'm not the only one who noticed this whole article is built on one experience. Also, soldiers do just fine without electronics. We've given them up many times in schools and trainings for weeks at a time and morale was fine. It's just a tool for communication with families and entertainment in down time. We can definitely thrive without cell phones. It's not an "addiction", soldiers won't just lie down and refuse to work if they don't have Wi-Fi or cell service. officers. Smh. Maybe we should get rid of water buffalos and just harvest water or use iodine and home made filtration during training in case we get cut off from supplies in a modern war with near peer enemy. Did you even have a PACE plan for when your water didn't show up? See, I can say silly things too.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, we weren't fighting an enemy with sophisticated EM-detection and locating networks, working hand-in-hand with field artillery units that can deliver screaming death to withing 10m of the source of said EM within 30 seconds.
EVERY electronics device gives off detectable EM, and it's not even difficult to detect the a laptop or cell-phone just being turned on, WITHOUT any power going to wifi or cell network antennas. The mere circuitry acts like radiating antennas putting out pulses just due to the internal "clock" signal that runs these digital devices. They consume on the order of 0.1W to 1.0W, and broadcast approximately 1/10th of that (so 0.01W to 0.1W). Now, I'm sure you think that doesn't sounds like a lot. But make no mistake, that is a HUGE signal, and is more easily detected than you might think. How easy?
Let me put it to you this way… we're talking about distances less than 100 km. Since the rule for decline in electromagnetic signals is Power/distance^2 that equals, worse case scenarion, about 0.1/(100km)^2 = 0.00001 W/km^2. Sounds pretty weak, doesn't it?
Now, let me give you an example of a VERY easily detected signal — one which those who track if have no problem picking up except when large bodies are in the way.
What I'm referring to is the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which broadcasts at 19 Watts. It has a moderately directional antenna, so, for sake of argument, lets say that it's the equivalent of a 60 transmitter without a directional antenna. So our P = 60
Now for distance. Voyager 1 is now 12 BILLION miles away = 19.32 BILLION km, or 19.32*10^9km
So the signal strength 60 W / (19.32*10^9 km)^2 = 60/373,000,000,000,000,000,000 km^2 = 0.000000000000000000016 W/km^2.
This is no different than the habit you should have of NEVER keying a radio microphone for more than about 2-3 seconds… anything that takes longer than that to say, should be interrupted by unkeying the hand-mike, so as to make it more difficult for RDF (Radio Direction Finder) equipment to locate your radio….and saturate that location out to 500m in to the left and right and long and short.
If we ever get into a land war with China, turning on a cell phone, or a hand-held video console, will be just as deadly as walking around with a SINCGARS with a hot mike.
Our Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, and Airmen are more mature than we give them credit for. Once the environment changes and it will change very quickly, they will rise to the task. I saw it happen in Desert Storm, OIF II, OIF IV. They do need to train hard but the connection with the family aids in retention. I’ve been fighting and training for our nation’s war for a long time and have yet to meet a young service member rise to the challenge when properly trained and led.
MAJ James Coffey
I’m only a squid, but from what I’ve seen you’re pretty much spot on, Major Coffey. They will adapt because they’re forced to, but how well and how quickly they adapt is all a matter of training. I’ve seen it every time I’ve ever deployed…a week of total morale failure, a week of adjustment and throwing ourselves into our work, then we get fully adapted.
To be fair, our situations during deployment are significantly different, but today’s kids are more resilient than people give them credit for.
<b>I agree, the troops are getting too soft.</b>
I might say Live like you fight. Not only may combat readiness be hurt by the tyranny of internet connection but cultura and society in general. We all need to learn how to tame connectivity and use it for the powerful tool it is.
I'll give up my Wi-Fi and Amazon and all the rest…when I'm actually fighting actual enemies in a well defined conflict with clearly defined goals.
But as long as you have me going for the fifth time in 15 years to "work with our valued partners" (IE sit around and wait to be Green On Blued) then I want my internet.
* The above represents my personal opinion as a private citizen and in no way reflects the official position or implies the endorsement of my employer.
Troops getting Soft? Command is even softer, more risk adverse than ever. BN level and higher cannot operate unless they have 37 flat screens up, and make CPTs and below submit 47 page power points just to take a crap outside the wire. A unit outside the wire is monitored by at least 4 levels of command in Afghanistan that all want a say in how they do things. All this Command oversight adds nothing to the fight on the Ground…I agree that guy sounds grumpy he could not get away with making things suck for the men. The military has bigger issues than the a average Joe always wanting wifi.
It is somewhat ironic that the phrase “improved explosive device” indicates that the editor of this piece is more reliant on computer spellchecking than pen-&-paper proofreading.
Thanks, David. Fixed.
We will not learn until a lot of people die. Huge organizations usually have changed force on them from the outside.
Thank you for an enlightening article
It seems to be a bit dramatic about our ability to fight a “near peer adversary” to emphasize a point. However, it does bring up several legitimate concerns and serves as a timely reminder for the importance of small unit leadership.
I recall the Camp Pendleton in the mid-60’s where the old chow wagons crisscrossed the base and Marines would sneak out of their units in the field to partake of the geedunk. Or, try to sneak a smoke at night. Or bring pornography to pass away the night under the beam of a red flashlight lens. Or put alcohol in their canteen. Or skimp on their deuce gear and pack. And on and on. Distractions in training are nothing new. The remedy is small unit leadership and discipline.
I’m quite a few years removed from field training, but there are certain immutable facts about leadership. The primary goal is to accomplish the mission. The secondary goal is the welfare of your Marines. I am pleased to see that over the past couple decades, comfort items for our Marines have become more available than when I fought and trained. I have to believe it’s defiantly a morale boost. However, the availability of WIFI and cell phones, while a great convenience and morale boost, they are in the same category as the lunch wagons of the 60’s. Commanders and small unit leaders need to stay focused on the priority: accomplish the mission.
The author insinuates that small unit leaders have lost focus and there is not much that can be done, and he offers no solutions. Hats off to him for being honest and reporting on his failure to eliminate a serious distraction as company commander in Thailand. But there is a solution, and every small unit leader and commander has the authority and resources to resolve the problem. Leave it to the ingenious leadership of the corporals, sergeants and company gunnies.
I recall many instances during my career when my NCOs resolved such problems. With a smile, I recall how some of my Marines on guard duty in Hawaii would like to sneak a smoke late at night while on duty. The solution was direct. During guard mount the corporal of the guard would collect all fire producing items. So, some of my Marines figured out they could bridge the battery terminals on their hand-held radios with a paper clip that would heat up to the point it cold light a cigarette. Such bridging would mark the terminals and make melt marks on the plastic. Solution, inspect radio batteries upon relief. So, my question to today’s small unit leader is “Why can’t you collect up cell phones and return them at a time and place of your choosing and for a period of time appropriate tom your situation? I’m sure the squad leaders or guides could easily keep track of them.
The author does not provide any examples of how electronic distractions have interfered with contemporary combat operations, and I have not observed the operations of combat units in Afghanistan, Iraq or anywhere, but I’m inclined to believe that squad leaders and platoon commanders have exercised their leadership to ensure electronic distractions are eliminated. In the author’s example, it’s incredible to me that such an easily resolved distraction is raised to the level of being detrimental to the mission, i.e. put on higher priority than water. That is a battalion leadership failure that If I were the regimental commander would consider as grounds for relief. Welfare of the troops, “yes,” but not at the expense of the mission.