Predicting the Next Army Transformation: From the BCT to the Small Unit of Action

The Army’s transformation to Brigade Combat Teams was the formal recognition of changes in tactics and task organization that had been in practice in the field for almost twenty years. The predictable next step is a near-term transformation to battalion-based Battle Groups, similar to how many of our allies fight. Our current practice of task organization already treats the brigade headquarters as a generic interchangeable headquarters for Battalion Task Forces and specialty companies. While self-contained Battalion Task Forces planning and directing operations are the new normal, the emerging trend is Company Command Posts rapidly expanding in capability and carving out a new role. From observing current practice in the field and task organization of Special Operations Forces, the future of this trend leads toward an Objective Force structure based on a small platoon-sized Unit of Action and company-level First C2 Node, with additional echelons providing geographic or mission-based grouping under higher headquarters. This article is not intended to propose a new concept, but recognize and predict the eventual outcome of a trend that is already happening in the field.

A Lesson from History

A few years ago I was at an Army conference, and a four-star general was giving a briefing on Brigade Combat Team (BCT) Transformation. A slide that caught my attention showed a trend line through history of the Army’s key “unit of action” going from Army Groups and Armies to Corps, to Divisions, and then to Brigades, with points about the reasons for these historical trends. The slide created the feeling that the continuing trend towards being smaller and more empowered at the lower units inevitably resulted in the move from division-based formations to brigade-based formation.

I heard my own version of the history of this BCT Transformation from veterans of the Army in the 1980’s. From their description, units in Germany had determined that a Division composed of Infantry Brigades with separate battalions for supporting warfighting functions (Intelligence, Engineers, etc.) was unwieldy, and they had created an innovative idea of breaking up the old structure into ‘teams’ of habitually grouped functional units that deployed in support of each brigade. This grew in popularity until habitual relationships were codified into having “direct support” companies within the separate battalions, that were aligned with specific brigades, and “general support” companies still supporting the division as a whole. It was already common practice to refer to a brigade and its habitual enablers deploying as a force package, whether to Kosovo or the National Training Center, as a “brigade combat team.” As they told it, after twenty years of operating in this fashion, when the Army went through a “transformation” of re-organizing units into Brigade Combat Teams, it just acknowledged the de facto structure and made it official.

During the question and answer period, I asked the general, based on this trend line through history, how long did he think it would be until we made the next transformation to “Battalion Combat Teams?” He replied that we would not have another transformation because the Brigade Combat Team was as low an echelon as we could effectively organize around.

I was shocked by the lack of vision and awareness in his answer, because I had deployed on what was essentially a stand-alone “Battalion Combat Team” several years before in 2003, and it should be evident to those currently fighting in the field that we are already beyond a Brigade Combat Team-centric paradigm in current practice. The focus of our formations today is already on battalions and is shifting to companies. The U.S. Marine Corps operates primarily in a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) framework, with a formation built around a Battalion Landing Team. Many of our allies already operate in battalion-centric formations called Battle Groups (or Battlegroups in the UK) along with Company Task Groups, and a paradigm that allows multinational interoperability within NATO and the EU militaries. Few of our allies deploy brigade-sized forces for expeditionary operations, and it’s much more common to see battalion or company-sized contingents provided by allies. In fact, our Special Operations Forces are normally task organized around even smaller formations in detachments, platoons, sections, or “action arms” that are similar in size across forces, and work directly for a more capable “First C2 Node” that is frequently controlled by a headquarters acting as a hybrid of battalion and company.

Battle Groups and Battalion Task Forces

Around the same time that our Army was implementing the first Brigade Combat Teams, the Australian Army announced a reorganization into Battle Groups. This formation is also used by the British Army and many European allies. The European Union militaries are even organizing into multinational Battle Groups.

The Battle Group concept is very similar to our currently used Battalion Task Forces, which are essentially focused on creating self-contained force packages built around a maneuver battalion headquarters. Battalion Task Forces are the major echelon we focus on today in Afghanistan for owning and understanding their assigned battlespace. Enabling warfighting functions including Intelligence, Fire Support, and Sustainment, to focus on operating within Battalion Task Force frameworks and providing support to companies and their patrols. Within the Intelligence warfighting function, battalion S2s are considered the experts on the ground for their battlespace.

The Battalion Task Force is likely to be on the “Patch Chart” of the future, with more flexibility to deploy Battalion-sized elements from different specialties (light infantry, armor, Stryker) under generic Brigade headquarters. I had my own experience with this in 2003, deploying to Iraq as a separate Infantry Battalion from 10th Mountain Division, and spending time attached to different parent headquarters in the Army and Marines through our deployment. We integrated enablers including engineer companies, an artillery battery, a partial Military Intelligence Company, Marine Corps Intelligence and Communications teams, and occasional attachment of armor and mechanized teams.

While brigade headquarters continue to play a key role in Afghanistan as Battlespace Owners (BSOs), fewer of their operations are focused on being a tactical headquarters and more are focused on acting as sub-regional commands. The BSOs may be a BCT headquarters or may be formed from another O6 (Colonel) level command, such as a Fire Brigade or Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, and frequently have joint and coalition forces in their task organization. In Afghanistan, they may be organized to control the forces in a particular province, such as Combined Task Force - Zabul. The BSOs, like the Regional Commands (RCs) based around Division headquarters, focus on resourcing and coordinating the efforts of Battalion Task Forces, developing campaign plans for long term effects nested into the RC’s campaign plan, and using key leaders to engage host nation political and security force leadership. Day-to-day warfighting, while tracked in the Brigade’s Tactical Operations Center, is frequently planned, decided, and executed at the Battalion Task Force. The brigade will normally be at a large regional base, such as the provincial capital, while Battalion Task Forces are deployed to Forward Operating Bases (FOBs).

While this Battalion Task Force framework is already the ‘new normal’ and has been emerging for over a decade, a new trend is beginning to emerge in the field now. The company level is becoming the focus of new capabilities intended to more directly the support the soldier on the ground. Increasingly, the most common missions are being conducted by patrols of platoon or smaller size, and the command and control (C2) of these missions is being done by a company Command Post (CP) that is rapidly growing in size and complexity. In Afghanistan, the Company is often deployed further forward from the Battalion FOB, to its own Combat Outpost (COP), and often has its platoons pushed even further forward to patrol bases, which may be more temporary locations.

Predicting the Trend: The Objective Small Unit of Action and First C2 Node

Is the Battalion Task Force the next Army Transformation? Or will we leap ahead to Company Teams? With the Army’s new focus on bottom-up capability improvement of the Squad, what is the ultimate “Unit of Action” where our historical trend line will approach its limit? The answer lies in the framework of the Small Unit of Action and the First C2 Node.

There are some good indicators available from the current fight, and from how our Special Operations Forces (SOF) are operating. Patrols, whether mounted or dismounted, have frequently found that the nine-man Army Squad is too small. Patrols are frequently undertaken at a Section, half-platoon level. This equates to about twenty soldiers, and fits well into four or five small tactical vehicles, two personnel carriers, or two medium helicopters. This unit size of twelve to twenty is extremely common, including Special Forces Operational Detachment – Alphas, Navy SEAL platoons, and other SOF teams.

In the SOF world, these units frequently conduct missions with consistent support of a highly capable C2 node that is their immediate higher echelon. The unit in the field can provide intelligence, receive mission approvals, receive fire support and MEDEVAC, and request additional resources through this first C2 node. While there is the desire to do this in the conventional Army, a lack of resources and flexible doctrine frequently requires coordination to be done at Company, Battalion, Brigade, and possibly higher to provide immediate situational awareness information or to coordinate for needed additional resources. A number of common tactics, techniques, and procedures have sprung up to address this, such as company quick-fire nets for artillery support, use of ROVER devices for receiving Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) feeds direct to the team on the ground, and the creation of the Company Intelligence Support Team (COIST) for providing fused, all-source intelligence directly to the patrol from the company CP.

Based on how these small units have been operating in the field in the Global War on Terror era (and going back to books from Vietnam and World War II, such as Platoon Leader by James R. McDonough, Company Commander by Charles B. Macdonald, or S2 in Action by Shipley Thomas), there are some key lessons to be extracted about the level of warfare where combat actually takes place, which are predictive of where the limit of decentralized operations will be reached. The key assumptions for this framework are that a fighting unit (patrol / section / detachment) is ideally sized around fifteen to twenty, and that the unit itself needs to be able to reach back to a Command Post that is out of direct fire and able to filter, fuse, and prioritize information flow to the unit. This suggests that our Small Unit of Action and First C2 Node are the limit for decentralization.

Institutionally, a company-centric force should not be hard for the Army to implement around Company Teams with their subordinate platoons. The Army is already organized around the company administratively: all soldiers are assigned to a company with its Unit Identification Code (UIC) on their documents, units are tracked and statused by UIC, property is accounted for by company under the UIC, and the company commander is the primary authority for administrative actions.

The greater challenge lies in increasing the capability of the company, especially in the Command Post, to be able to train, deploy, plan and conduct operations, and coordinate and integrate additional resources (Intelligence, Aviation, Fire Support, Sustainment) at their level. The number of personnel in a company CP cannot be expanded without limitation, so these skill sets will have to come from a small number of personnel with sufficient seniority, experience, and training to provide them. These personnel will require more unified and streamlined Mission Command Network Systems to bring all of that information together rapidly and intuitively, using tools that are accessible to cross-trained and multi-functional operators in a small command post.

Implications for Capabilities Developers and Mission Command Network Systems

One of the driving factors for this continued empowerment and focus on lower echelons in Afghanistan is a persistent problem getting timely, relevant information below brigade level to the patrol leaving the wire and the Soldier on the ground. Part of this is because of the mantra at echelons about brigade that they are “supporting the BCT” and once they get information to the BCT, their mission is accomplished. In fact, there are huge problems with the communications, classification, knowledge management, and horizontal and vertical sharing of information at echelons below the BCT. Too often the focus is on trying to solve this as a BCT problem, instead of on recognizing the need to focus on and address echelons below brigade.

While there is a growing amount of “stuff” being pumped into company-level formations today, from weapons systems to vehicle platforms to ISR data, the manning of the company does not include personnel with the experience, training, or authority to effectively integrate and employ all of these as capabilities. This will require significant changes to personnel design at the company level and battalion level, as well as some changes in thinking about career paths for some supporting warfighting functions.

An early place this needs to be addressed is in a unified Mission Command system at the company level that will allow the small, senior team to integrate multifunctional and multi-disciplinary information quickly. Instead of having single stand-alone boxes from each warfighting function silo co-located but not able to collaborate directly, the Mission Command Network System needs to be designed to function like the bridge of a ship… all functions integrated seamlessly at the local level, able to reach over the horizon to the network for more resources but not dependent on disadvantaged, intermittent, limited bandwidth communications to go back to a functional center and return before information can be shared across the room. An operator in the CP needs to be able to switch between Operations, Intelligence, Fire Support, Communications, and Sustainment views in a single view and without hundreds of hours learning function-specific software. There are a number of initiatives designed to provide the soldier in the field direct access to theater-level data through handheld devices. Without the intervention of the First C2 Node, this is likely to be overwhelming to some and underused by others, as the soldier on the ground needs concise, relevant information tailored to their immediate situation, not to be walking around on patrol searching for information.

Another institutional change will be required to share this framework across the joint services and the larger Defense community and Intelligence community, in order to get out of the “my work is done when I get information to the BCT” mindset, and focus on measuring effectiveness as delivery to the small unit filtered and prioritized through the First C2 Node.

A good secondary outcome of this framework is that it can be shared with allies. Countries that cannot afford to field Brigade-sized formations can instead focus on much more capable small units, with interoperability focused between their Company CP and other coalition forces. These interoperable companies will be able in the future to form Coalition Battle Groups.

A shift to Company-centric formations will not eliminate the need for higher echelons. However, their roles will take on a higher-level focus on campaign-level planning, resourcing and coordinating the efforts of Companies on the ground especially in large operations, and achieving higher-level effects in the battlespace.

Conclusion

As an intelligence officer, my job was to predict and model what was actually happening, rather than imagine new futuristic scenarios. In that spirit, this essay should not be seen as proposing a new idea, but rather predicting the outcome of ongoing momentum and where it leads. By recognizing the eventual outcome of this continuing trend, and looking to design tactics, doctrine, and organizations for that objective force, today’s Capability Developers can get ahead of the curve and maximize their relevance and value to the warfighter.

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Comments

This is entirely in line with the Marine Corps' integration of Enhanced Company Operations (ECO) into doctrine with the publication of the new infantry company manual.

The Marine Corps has formalized the CLIC into the company HQ platoon with an official change to the T/O of the company - in this case the addition of not only an intelligence Marine, but repurposing existing Marines within the company to serve the CLIC - thus creating capability without adding personnel infrastructure.

The new publication is hefty, weighing in at over 400 pages. The reason for this is simple - the Marine Corps now expects its companies to task organize and fight across the ROMO. There are specific plans and scenarios that would indicate that the Marine Corps infantry company would participate in the classic "two up one back" paradigm. We are not at a place where we can unilaterally discount there requirements. Company commanders could easily be their own staffs huddled under a poncho with a red lens flashlight.

Simultaneously, the Marine Corps has provided its company commanders with the information, concepts, and guidance required to operate semi-independently, with their own battlespace, in distributed operations. This entails everything from creating a staff, to executing formal MCPP (vice the troop leading steps) at the company level if necessary, to clearing and denying fires - and the kind of resources and enablers the company must receive to do this.

Truly the basic tactical unit is trending downwards from the battalion to the company - most especially in the Marine Corps which is reconstituting in its "sweet spot" as the forward deployed, crisis response force. Task organization, and the ability to disaggregate combat power forward remain key.

LOL... A very good article! What needs to be looked at is how we expect to employ our forces in the future. Every unit form the highest to the a buddy team (yeah, a buddy team) needs to be able to operate independently. What determines this is, the mission. We used to do this alot. It was called: Task Organization. You tailor the force to the requirements of the mission. At lower levels, do you need a platoon to do a squad sized mission? It seems lately that any problem we have requires a company, operating at platoon level to do anything.

What are we currrently doing? Well we are trying to task org ahead of time, based on unknown threats. Instead we should keep the Division, Bde etc and focus on training. When the commander recieves a mission, he does his analysis of the mission and decides on forces and capabilities he needs to accomplish it. Size wise, modularity sounds good as a concept, but you need unit specialization as well. You cannot make "plug and play" units. SF is based around the ODA, the infantry needs to be based around the Squad. And an increase in the size of the squad is called for.

Items we should consider:
1. Increasing the size of the squad.
2. Giving the platoon a intel guy or two. (Recommend a "Fox" type guy, like the A-Teams have.
3. Pushing staff down to the company. Give them whatever admin guys they need to do what needs to be done. This would reduce the sizes of staffs at higher levels because the company could handle a lot of the stuff they currently do and at BN all that would have to do is combine what the companies are doing. This applies to all higher levels. Yes you will have BN and BDE etc level assests that need to be manned at those levels. However the commanders at higher, would be better able to support the subordinate units. With a larger company staff they would not overwhelm the company, platoon etc with requirements.
3.

Having served as well on a Battalion Combat Team in Iraq I suspect that this is another case of "the machine" not fully comprehending what innovations and responses to environment stress have occurred to achieve the mission. Too much time watching blue force tracker and not enough time spent actually walking the field and seeing where success arises.

The posturing of the US mIlitary is at once cumbersome and imbalanced with regard to emerging, as well as historic, mission sets. There is much resistance to the notion that heavy divisions may (and should not) not play much of a role in the world of the future. Similarly, such organizations institutionally fight desperately to maintain their relevance. Simpkin wrote about this 30 years ago.

The historic footprint of US land forces was meant to be around small units, disseminated across the land, capable of moving and fighting independently. Curiously, such formations are also less vulnerable to willy nilly applications globally as part of leveraged operations deemed critical "for national security".

Our NAVY was meant to be the robust service and events in the Western Pacific do not detract from the wisdom of this approach. America is not an empire. It is a nation determined to trade and create (well 1/2 of it anyway) and it needs a strong NAVY. As a land warrior I am in total agreement that we ought to probably explore the deconstruction of the Division and consider the idea of the Brigade "Group" with our premier units organized formally at no higher than Battalion level (with separate specialty companies for support) and the "best and brightest" (I shudder to use that term) retained as separate staffs and service support in those higher groups and headquarters.

The size of such units facilitates training, partnership deployments with foreign countries and greatly focuses the organization on mission without the extraneous crap that becomes mandated whenever large concentrations of colonels and above show up. All deployed soldiers understand the concept of waging a war and a garrison shows up...

I have always said that there is no functional organization above the Battalion in the US Army. Because at levels above that, effective understanding of the battle becomes lost in the noise.

Your well written article validates this...

Now we wait for the stars to howl over loss of force structure...

"While there is a growing amount of “stuff” being pumped into company-level formations today, from weapons systems to vehicle platforms to ISR data, the manning of the company does not include personnel with the experience, training, or authority to effectively integrate and employ all of these as capabilities. This will require significant changes to personnel design at the company level and battalion level..."

Based on the idea that a company team will take on more responsibility as it is pushed out further from BN HQ and control more stuff and more area, are you suggesting that higheer ranking people run a company team? I believe in both the British and Canadian armies, a major commands a company, captains lead/ command platoons....should the US Army do the same?

Definitely an interesting thought.

Many of your comments seemed like they are primarily informed by recent COIN experiences. I'm curious what your thoughts are regarding the application of your concept to traditional combined arms maneuver warfare. I think that the current structure has excessively decentralized the Fires warfighting function, as an example. In their white paper titled "The King and I", three former BCT Commanders highlighted a variety of problems with the Fires WFF within the BCT. The key aspect of this issue is insufficient subject matter expertise to ensure the quality of fire supporters within the BCT. Fire supporters know best how to train fire supporters. But, with 13Fs all assigned to the maneuver BNs (and many maneuver BNs then attaching these 13Fs down to the companies they will deploy with), the result is inconsistant but generally insufficient training for these combat multipliers. It is difficult to expect a Company Commander with 4-5 years of experience to know how to train 13Fs to the same standard you would expect him to train his IN or tank platoons. The three BCT CDRs pretty clearly lay out the repurcussions of overly decentralizing a unique skill set in their white paper. Some of the issues they mentioned have been addressed and improved but the general trend of diminished fires in support of maneuver remains true today.

I think for this concept to work, the officer and potentially NCO career paths would have to change significantly. Specifically within the Fires WFF, assets have already been overly decentralized resulting in a degradation of the quality of fire support. To mitigate this risk, I think it would require more senior, more experienced, higher ranking specialty personnel pushed down at the lower level to ensure the supported BN and/or CO has sufficient knowledge to train and employ additional enablers.