Small Wars Journal

28 Articles - Practical Application 102: The Battle Captains

This is the second installment of "posts of note" from the Small Wars Journal's discussion board - the Small Wars Council. Poster JCustis, a long-time Council member, is a Marine infantry officer with two tours in Iraq under his belt. Where a military acronym is used I have inserted an explanation. For starters, the 'battle captains': the S-3 is the Operations Officer and the 'A' or Alpha is his assistant, the AirO is the Air Officer, the FSC is the Fire Support Coordination Officer, the FAC is the Forward Air Controller, the TF IO is the Task Force Information Operations Officer, and the SJA is the Staff Judge Advocate (legal).


RTK has written on his experiences using the framework of Dave Kilcullen's Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-level Counterinsurgency and I felt that same framework could be used to offer some lessons learned on the battle captain system that my unit applied during its 2004-2005 rotation.

I can't lay claim to any degree of enlightenment, but I'd like to think that towards the end of our deployment, our "council of captains" (S-3A, AirO, FSC, FAC, and SJA) had gotten into a sustainable groove.

Article 1: Know your turf -- LtCol Kilcullen makes reference to developing a mental model of your area of operations. Try as we might to study imagery, review the maps and gain situational awareness, it took us in excess of three months to realize that battle captains need to physically see the battlespace with the naked eye. We eventually caught helos which flew over the turf, or went out when the battalion commander went forward to check on the companies.

Article 2: Diagnose the problem -- A battle captain's problem is not the same tactical problem a company or platoon faces. He needs to move information (reporting) as quickly as possible, have a clear understanding of what needs to happen when a CCIR (Commanders Critical Intelligence Requirement) is tripped, when he must roust the QRF (Quick Reaction Force) out of the ready room, and which means of communication to use in order to expedite a CASEVAC (Casualty Evacuation) request. Battle captains have to share lessons learned and offer ideas, and get the rest of the COC (Combat Operations Center) staff in synch so that they do not add to the friction when troops are in contact.

Article 3: Organize for intelligence -- The critical detail here is that COC staff needs to be organized to maximize the capture of information for analysis. Do not let the S-2 (Intelligence) staff stray out of reach of your daily battle rhythm. Because current operations and intelligence sections often report what should be the same information, up two separate paths, patrol, raid, and contact debriefs must be conducted with S-3 and S-2 representation. The patrol leader may conduct a more detailed debrief later with the intelligence rep, but ops has to reserve the right to final review of follow-on reporting offered up by the S-2. I've been queried by the night Regimental-level battle captain on significant events tidbits that the Regt S-2 briefed, but Regt Ops did not know. It is an unnecessarily painful experience.

Article 4: Organize for interagency operations -- Even if the battle captain doesn't organize anything regarding interagency ops, he should know where these folks live, and stop by for a chat when they are on the FOB (Forward Operating Base). A fellow battle captain and TF IO officer introduced me to the civil affairs HQ responsible for our AO. A couple of visits helped us explain matters to the company commander who was justifiably frustrated that his recommended pump house project hadn't seen movement for several weeks.

Article 5: Travel light and harden CSS (Combat Service Support) -- All I can speak to is the travel light piece, and you've got to maintain the ability to revert to pens, maps, and acetate to fight the fight. For hardening, don't let digital communications rest on a single point of failure. Test back-up systems regularly.

Article 6: Find a political / cultural advisor -- I found that the contract linguists are a remarkable source of ground-truth information, if you only listen to them. A lot of what they say has to be taken with a grain of salt, because they love rumors, but after you're done with the shaker, they still provide a lot of context. You'd be surprised what you can pick up over a cigarette and cup of tea.

Article 7: Train the squad leaders, then trust them -- Get your COC people to as much formal and informal training as possible, even if it means foregoing multiple COC exercises. The Battle NCOs may think that steady state ops are mind-numbing, but when you have rockets impacting around the COC, troops in contact, and a developing CASEVAC situation, a properly trained NCO truly shines. My battalion had an ops idiot savant who amazed me daily with his ability to pull in COP feeds, re-wire the COC after displacement, and sense when things needed to happen. He was a graduate of an operations specialist course, and it paid off during both deployments.

Article 8: Rank is nothing, talent is everything -- See article 7. If the square peg won't fit into the round hole, keep searching until you find a fit.

Article 9: Have a game plan -- Treat the deployment as a marathon, not a sprint. Rehearse your actions in garrison and develop a rough plan to support ops in the AO (Area of Operations), but don't become enamored with that plan. Don't be afraid to employ tricks you pick up during the RIP/TOA (Relief in Place / Transfer of Authority). It wasn't until we'd been in country for over four months and had fought Fallujah v.2.0 that our battle captain system really started to click and run smoothly. During a RIP in Ramadi, we even stole some TTPs (Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures) from the Army.

Article 10: Be there -- As a battle captain, you can't be there if you are exhausted. Those days will come for sure, but the companies outside the wire deserve better, and if you are starting a 12 hour watch after only fours hours of sleep because you were playing Xbox, then you are simply negligent. Build a duty rotation like Marine Security Guard duty. Try to give the battle staff time off, if possible. At one point when we were in Ramadi for a few months, our rotation had it where the battle captain and his NCO could have 36 hours off, after a 3-day duty period. It keeps everyone rested and maintains their sanity. You will need it when the worst days come. Another component to "being there" is to have a semblance of depth. My TF had to split to support the Fallujah fight, and we learned the hard lesson that we did not have enough well-trained battle captains to do so without incurring more risk than we needed to. The senior personnel went forward and the junior guys did a stellar job, but they had to violate the first point in this paragraph.

Article 11: Avoid knee jerk responses to first impressions -- I'll trump RTK a bit and say that initial reports are wrong 99% of the time. Every time you press an RTO for more details, the urge to embellish creeps in and reporting morphs into speculation. Give the unit 30 minutes to submit a follow-up report, and preferably after the senior man on the scene has made his assessment of just what the hell happened. In a running gunfight, remember that silence on the net probably means the commander has a helmet fire going on. He is busy...give him some space.

Article 12: Prepare for handover from day 1 -- Not much to add here.

Article 13: Build trusted networks -- This goes back to Article 4. You are nothing more than a one-trick pony if you don't know what the current IO theme is, where CAG (Civil Affairs Group) elements are operating, or don't go down to the company areas every now and then to break bread. When you get the chance to go forward to "see" the battlespace, try to discuss current ops with a squad leader. It's a little thing, but it goes toward building trust that you can get the dust-off bird in because you are not just another Fobbit.

Articles 14 and 15: Start easy and seek early victories -- The RIP/TOA will be the first challenge, but if you can hit a homerun there, you should be okay. There are really no easy and early victories, but rehearse your staff's actions so they flow like water when a casualty requires evacuation to a higher echelon of care. Be the smooth operator when you pick up the handset, and if you can handle the stress of a troops-in-contact situation like a radio DJ, you will instill confidence in the guys on the ground.

Article 16: Practice deterrent patrolling -- Deterrent patrolling is high-level math, in terms of the battle tracking and coordination required. Check and double-check to make sure that adjacent units know what is going on. Sit down with the patrol leaders whenever possible, and don't just know what the route looks like, but ask him where he expects to make contact. Know what his SOP (Standing Operating Procedure) is for breaking contact or going firm, and how he would prefer to make link-up with the QRF. You owe him that much, so don't be the distant voice in a box that has to develop situation awareness through multiple radio calls.

Article 17: Be prepared for setbacks -- Bad things do happen, but the battle captain needs to internalize his emotions until he is off watch. It doesn't matter if you have a KIA who was your number one NCO when you were a company commander. You've got to help the company clear the contact. Take a deep breath, throw in a dip or light up a Marlboro... Do anything to stay focused until the patrol is back inside the wire.

Article 18: Engage the women; beware the children -- When it's 2 am and you get a call from a company, reporting that their attached HET (HUMINT [Human Intelligence] Exploitation Team) has an informer who is ready to give the 411 on a local and active IED cell, but she wants to be relocated or placed into protective custody with her four children, you need to have a script/plan or the moment will slip away.

Article 19: Take stock regularly -- Regardless of what the battle captains and NCOs are doing, pull them in for a daily update brief. Too much gets lost between multiple change-over briefs. Ask the S-3 to attend and give his take on the current and future ops picture. Even better, invite the CO. You may be surprised how much information he can confirm or deny based on his rounds outside the wire

Article 20: Remember the global audience -- Nothing to add here, other than that this should be common sense. If you have greater access to the NIPRNET (Internet) in the COC, keep your peers informed.

Article 21: Exploit single narrative -- Although you won't have a narrative to worry about, you will be expected to be in the know, based on your proximity to the unit's planners. Provide context on ops to your peers when appropriate, but if you simply don't know anything more that what you heard in the OPORD (Operations Order), don't embellish.

Article 22: Local forces should mirror enemy, not ourselves -- If you don't know what coalition partners are doing within your AO or in adjacent battlespace, you've violated Article 16. Fire yourself and seek a position monitoring the clearing barrel at the entry control point.

Article 23: Practice armed civil affairs -- Even if your unit doesn't have a supporting CA (Civil Affairs) element, or the one you do have is over-tasked, work the interagency theme and appreciate what the CA folks like to know. Try to glean relevant information during the debriefs, and make sure it gets to the people who can act on it. If you aren't sure if that's within your lane, clear it with the S-3, but don't sit on your thumbs and expect it to occur by magic.

Article 24: Small is beautiful -- For the battle captain, small details are beautiful. Be the duty expert at conducting a good debrief.

Article 25: Fight the enemy's strategy, not his forces -- The enemy's strategy is to wear you down. If you can implement elements of the points listed above, you will help the companies to get inside of his loop.

Article 26: Build your own solution, attack only when he gets in the way --

"Combat operations do not win COIN. For a company, since combat operations are what we've trained for, they're our comfort zone. CMO (Civil-Military Operations), IO, economic development, and the sustainment of security forces are all bigger moneymakers in COIN than combat operations. It's tough to get to work, but more productive once you do." -- RTK.

If you don't understand some of the finer points of non-kinetic ops, you may actually be a hindrance to the guys outside the wire. This should be part of your continuous PME (Professsional Military Education), and actually long before you stepped in country.

Article 27: Keep extraction plan secret -- Self-explanatory and nothing to add here.

Article 28: Keep the initiative -- Collaborate with your counterparts, battle NCOs, and the Ops Chief to get better every day. If you think you've developed the smoothest COC going, remember that the day may come where all previous watch rotations pale in comparison to the hell that breaks loose. Do your best to be prepared for it.


jcustis1 (not verified)

Mon, 02/26/2007 - 11:39am

That's an interesting disticntion you made Kat, concerning all members of that shift having input.

We had to learn the hard way that it wasn't enough for the battle captains to conduct a turnover between themselves, and to have the other staff conduct individual turnover. Too much became lost in the strength (or weakness) of the turnover amongst, say, the radio operators.

We shifted to an all-hand brief, where everyone had a speaking part. It was moderated by the battle captain in order to remain concise, but the endstate was to ensure that everyone manning the operations center had a clear understanding of the "big and small picture."

"The patrol leader may conduct a more detailed debrief later with the intelligence rep, but ops has to reserve the right to final review of follow-on reporting offered up by the S-2. Ive been queried by the night Regimental-level battle captain on significant events tidbits that the Regt S-2 briefed, but Regt Ops did not know. It is an unnecessarily painful experience."

Not having direct experience, I don't know exactly how the daily briefings are organized and what staff is usually present, but I do know what we do in civilian medical facilities.

One of the most important changes in many hospitals has been in regards to change of shift briefings. A few years ago, it was common for the shift briefings to only include the shift and unit managers for each shift. Recent changes have almost all the outgoing shift staff in the same room with the oncoming shift where information is exchanged on the condition of the patients. This is particularly insisted upon in critical/intensive care units where the patients' conditions can change hourly and even a slight increase in temperature could result in a full blown, life altering infection within hours of the next shift.

So, I suppose I am reiterating what was said: don't just rely on "upper management" to relay information. Figure out who your critical people are and have them in these meetings. The real information or its urgency is not always in the reports or relayed by the "middle managers". The critical information is often held at a much lower level and some folks don't even know they have it.

Ryan T. Kranc (not verified)

Wed, 02/07/2007 - 1:14pm

The over/under on first reports was 4. I'll give you that one. :)