CNN Mission: Peace

Are U.S. forces adequately trained for Bosnia?

January 3, 1996

From Military Analyst Lt. Gen. Marvin Covault (U.S. Army ret.)

Are U.S. forces adequately trained for ground operations in Bosnia?

The short answer is yes, absolutely yes. But the average American would not come to this conclusion from watching mindless movies about Army basic training.

A high state of training has not always been the case, but the Army, in particular, has made a dramatic transition over the past 15 years in how it trains soldiers and units. It started with an all-encompassing training doctrine that every unit must adhere to. Without getting into the whole doctrinal piece, there are two specifics that impact the state of training of the soldiers in Bosnia.

First, every soldier must be continuously proficient in a couple hundred skills. Because skills are perishable and the proficiency of each skill deteriorates at different rates, there is a continuous program in every unit to keep individual skill levels high, whether it is driving a tank, fixing a helicopter, or passing a physical training test. All soldiers graduating from basic training have met minimum individual skill standards. The soldiers in Bosnia have honed these individual skills to a high level.

But, as in most organizations, teamwork is the key to success. This is especially true in the Army. So, Army training doctrine also specifies collective tasks; that is, tasks which must be accomplished as a two- or three-person team, or in a squad (8-10 soldiers), platoon (30), company (120), etc., on up to a Corps Command Group with 60,000 to 100,000 troops.

There are literally thousands of collective tasks in the Army's many disciplines, Infantry, armor, field artillery, special forces, air Defense, transportation ordnance, signal, military police, chemical engineer, legal, logistics, personnel and aviation. Every unit at every level in every discipline is tested and must be capable of operating to "standard." The engineers, for example, who have been building the pontoon bridge over the Sava River the past couple weeks have trained to this collective task in Germany by bridging the Rhine River.

So, how does the Army know when an individual or a unit is capable of performing? The answer is in the word "standard." For each of the thousands of individual and collective tasks there is a specified standard to be met. All units operate a continuous, elaborate long-range training program to achieve these standards under varying conditions. The formula for success is to constantly work tasks, conditions and standards.

Here is our example of how it all works: The task is for an infantry platoon (three squads of 10 men each, commanded by a second lieutenant) to breach a mined concertina wire barrier and clear a maze of booby trapped trench line. This is to be done with live ammunition. Some of the many individual skills would be weapon proficiency, use of radios, detonating a wire-clearing torpedo, and disarming a mine. Collectively the platoon must set up, then lift covering fire from mortars and machine guns, advance or multiple axes, and methodically clear the trenches without friendly casualties. Conditions will vary from clear, dry daylight to a cold rain at night.

The training to clear the trenches would never begin with live-fire nighttime conditions because the platoon leader's boss, the company commander, would have judged the training safety factor to be "high risk". First, they would have done a daylight walk through, followed by daylight operations with blank ammunition, then daylight live fire, etc., on various pieces of terrain. Having met the standard under the most demanding conditions, the platoon could become "untrained" in this task a couple months later because of an infusion of new soldiers or new untested leaders. Thus, the training process never ends.

One of the most positive aspects of this training doctrine is dealing with the Army's constant rotation of personnel. A sergeant reassigned from an infantry unit at Fort Lewis Washington to a like unit in Germany or Korea will find an identical training scenario in his new organization.

We all hope our soldiers in Bosnia will do well. But, the Army long ago decided that hope is not a process. These great young Americans succeed in Bosnia or anywhere else because they are products of a sophisticated training process that has been institutionalized. Clearly, they are the best in the world.