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Transitions, Collaboration and Risk: Do We Fully Comprehend the Implications?

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Transitions, Collaboration and Risk: Do We Fully Comprehend the Implications?

Michelle Garcia and Steven Boylan

After the death of LTG Walton H. Walker on December 23 1950, LTG Matthew B. Ridgway assumed command of the 350,000 man Eighth Army, a dispirited, defeated army in the midst of what became the longest retreat in the history of the US Army.[i]  In an incredibly short period, in what General of the Army Omar Bradley characterized as “The greatest feat of personal leadership in the history of the US Army,”[ii] LTG Ridgway transformed Eighth Army from a dispirited, retreating embarrassment, into an Army capable of resuming the offensive against superior numbers.  Facing complete destruction in December, by the middle of March, Eighth Army had counterattacked and reestablished the 38th parallel. 

To accomplish this exceptional feat Eighth Army underwent a series of anticipated and unanticipated transitions.  On November 25, 1950, before Ridgway assumed command, the Chinese Communist Forces (CCF) surprised the UN forces along the Yalu River, crushing major elements and sending the army streaming back south.  By December 5, 1950, Eighth Army had abandoned Pyongyang, and lost contact with the CCF.  By December 15, Eighth Army had retreated to the 38th Parallel, just north of Seoul, with its left flank just sought of the Parallel.  Believing this position untenable LTG Walker ordered the establishment of successive defensive positions south with the final line to the established defenses on a line from Pyontek to Samchok well south of Seoul.[iii]

When LTG Ridgway assumed command Eighth Army was postured along the 38th Parallel, with its left just south of the 38th Parallel near the Yellow Sea with the right flank pushed forward to Samchok.  Physically and mentally, Eighth Army was defeated and preparing to withdraw to positions further south.  LTG Ridgway changed this mindset and in an exhausting five days prepared his organization for the anticipated CCF attack on December 31 1950.[iv]

On January 1, 1951 over 500,000 Chinese Communist and North Korean Army forces hit Eighth Army with its main effort against I and IX Corps in the center and left of the UN line.  Anticipating the attack, LTG Ridgway traded space for time and continued a fighting withdrawal down the Korean Peninsula conducting local counterattacks as the opportunities presented themselves.  However, this withdrawal was not like the others.  LTG Ridgway fought a war of maneuver featuring coordinated combined arms attacks with limited objectives.  By the third week of January the CCF offensive stalled and enemy forces withdrew to consolidate.  By January 24, LTG Ridgway prepared his Army to assume the offensive.  Understanding he had a relative advantage against the CCF he launched Operation Thunderbolt.  First and IX Corps led the attack meeting minimal resistance until February 9, when enemy forces began to fight delaying actions just south of Seoul.  Operation Thunderbolt transitioned into Operation Thunderbolt-Roundup, a sustained offensive.  By February 10, UN forces captured Inchon and by the end of February, Eighth Army transitioned to Operation Killer intent on destroying enemy forces in the upper reaches of the Han River.  Finally, on March 7, Eighth Army transitioned to Operation Ripper that resulted in recapturing Seoul chasing the CCF back across the 38th Parallel.[v]

Transitions are inherently risky whether anticipated or unanticipated.  LTG Ridgway demonstrated incredible flexibility, adaptability and energy executing multiple transitions as 8th Army commander.  Organizational and strategic leaders today face the same challenges.  However, today’s doctrine is inadequate to guide and prepare leaders to replicate LTG Ridgway’s success. 

The term “transition” within the military encompasses a wide variety of uses and meanings, or at least intended meanings.  For example, the military conducted anticipated or planned transitions between units going into and out of Iraq and Afghanistan, better known as a Relief in Place/Transfer of Authority (RIP/TOA).  These are intended transitions at the tactical and operational level.  There are multiple examples of transitions within the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan where forces transitioned from major combat operations to stability and support operations.  Other specific examples of transitions include when American forces supported the Iraqi self-governance in 2004-2005 and NATO's takeover in 2006 of military operations in Afghanistan.  Transitions continue to occur in Afghanistan as US and Coalition forces continue to withdraw forces and transition more and more to the Afghan security forces as more in line with a strategic transition.  There are transitions between phases of operations, passage of lines, daytime versus night operations, and the list goes on.  Transitions mean change, and the more unpredictable the change the more variables you have to account for in the plan.  Even with detailed planning, events occur that derail those plans and commanders have to react to unanticipated transitions.  Current Army doctrine does not adequately address the relationship between transition, collaboration, and risk.  Perhaps a task even more daunting than planning for and executing transitions is early recognition of an unanticipated transition and accurately assessing the risk associated with that transition.

In October 2011, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued a task to “make sure we actually learn the lessons from the last decade of war.” In response, the Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis (JCOA) division reviewed 46 lessons learned studies conducted from 2003 to the present, and synthesized the studies’ 400+ findings, observations, and best practices into the 11 strategic themes described in this report.[vi]

These themes included understanding the environment, battling for the narrative, adaptation, interagency operations, coalition operations and host nation partnering.  Transition was the fourth theme from the study, “failure to adequately plan and resource strategic and operational transitions endangered accomplishment of the overall mission.”[vii]

Transitions occur between phases of operations at all levels of command.  Transitions allow us to seize the initiative and advance our operational and strategic interests, if planned and managed well.  Conversely, if we fail to plan for transitions, our adversaries have the opportunity to take advantage of our failure.  The analysis directed by GEN Dempsey found that operational transitions from 2003-2007 were best characterized by poor preparation, faulty assumptions, and inadequate branches and sequels.  There were significant disconnects between military and civilian planning efforts; insufficient resourcing of key transitions; lack of guidance and unity of effort from strategic leadership; and an eventual improvement in our ability to conduct successful transitions later in the decade.[viii] Despite this relative improvement, the military still struggles to accurately assess and understand the risks associated with transitions, and therefore fails to capitalize on the opportunity transitions present to seize the initiative.   

There are numerous examples in history of the risks associated with transitions; many are documented as a result of the failure to accurately assess the risk and a catastrophic event occurred.  Developing situational understanding is vital for the commander and staff to understand and assess the level of risk associated with a decision.  Therein lays the challenge -- recognizing what is changing during a transition, ideally before the transition happens, but at least before negative consequences of miscalculating the risk impacts the unit.  This is the challenge commanders and units face during transitions.

The term transition is used and defined in different ways in army and joint doctrine. Joint Pub (JP) 1-02 which is the dictionary of military and associated terms, does not specifically define transition, however, it lists it as part of various other terms or events.  JP 1-02 uses the term as a phase in two constructs; shape, clear, hold, build and transition (SCHBT) and stability, security, transition and reconstruction (SSTR). JP 1-02 also uses the term to describe a phase in a campaign plan or COIN operation.[ix]  JP 5-0 uses the term in the context of staff planning.  For example it uses transition to describe the process of the J5 turning over a plan or order to the J3 for execution.  Transition may be internal or external in the form of briefs or drills.  Internally, transition occurs between future plans and future/current operations.  Externally, transition occurs between the commander and subordinate commands.[x]

The U.S. Army’s doctrinal publication ADRP 3-0, Unified land Operations, uses the term transition throughout the document and distinguishes between anticipated or unanticipated transitions.[xi]  Most significantly, ADRP 3.0 describes the importance of transitioning between the four tasks of decisive action.  The various paragraphs and chapters discuss transitions, but not until chapter four do we see doctrine come close to defining or setting some type of parameters.  To come to your own conclusion, the following paragraphs are offered for consideration.

In chapter two of ADRP 3.0 Unified land Operations, the Army’s Operational Concept we find:

2-25. Conducting decisive action involves more than simultaneous execution of all its tasks. It requires commanders and staffs to consider their units’ capabilities and capacities relative to each task. Commanders consider their missions, decide which tactics to use, and balance the tasks of decisive action while preparing their commander’s intent and concept of operations. They determine which tasks the force can accomplish simultaneously, if phasing is required, what additional resources it may need, and how to transition from one task to another.[xii]

2-26. The transitions between tasks of decisive action require careful assessment, prior planning, and unit preparation as commanders shift their combinations of offensive, defensive, stability, or defense support of civil authorities tasks. Commanders first assess the situation to determine applicable tasks and the priority for each. When conditions change, commanders adjust the combination of tasks of decisive action in the concept of operations. When an operation is phased, the plan includes these changes. The relative weight given to each element varies with the actual or anticipated conditions. It is reflected in tasks assigned to subordinates, resource allocation, and task organization.[xiii]

2-66. Effective units adapt. Adaptability is essential to seizing, retaining, and exploiting the initiative based on relevant understanding of the specific situation. For example, leaders demonstrate adaptability while adjusting the balance of lethal and nonlethal actions necessary to achieve a position of relative advantage and set conditions for conflict resolution within their areas of operations. Transitions between operations, whether anticipated or unanticipated, also demonstrate adaptability as leaders cope with changes in an operational environment. These leaders enable adaptive forces through flexible, collaborative planning and decentralized execution. Adaptability results in teams that—

  • Anticipate transitions.
  • Accept risks to create opportunities.
  • Influence all partners.[xiv]

In chapter four Operational Art we find:

4-45. Transitions mark a change of focus between phases or between the ongoing operation and execution of a branch or sequel. Shifting priorities between the core competencies or among offensive, defensive, stability, and defense support of civil authorities tasks also involve a transition. Transitions require planning and preparation well before their execution to maintain the momentum and tempo of operations. The force is vulnerable during transitions, and commanders establish clear conditions for their execution.[xv]

4-46. A transition occurs for several reasons. It may occur from an operation dominated by combined arms maneuver to one dominated by wide area security. Transitions also occur with the delivery of essential services or retention of infrastructure needed for reconstruction. An unexpected change in conditions may require commanders to direct an abrupt transition between phases. In such cases, the overall composition of the force remains unchanged despite sudden changes in mission, task organization, and rules of engagement. Typically, task organization evolves to meet changing conditions; however, transition planning must also account for changes in mission. Commanders continuously assess the situation and task organize and cycle their forces to retain the initiative. They strive to achieve changes in emphasis without incurring an operational pause.[xvi]

4-47. Commanders identify potential transitions during planning and account for them throughout execution. Considerations for identifying potential transitions should include—

  •  Forecasting in advance when and how to transition.
  • Arranging tasks to facilitate transitions.
  • Creating a task organization that anticipates transitions.
  • Rehearsing certain transitions such as from defense to counterattack or offense to defense
  • Support of civil authorities and restoration of essential services.
  • Ensuring the force understands different rules of engagement during transitions.[xvii]

4-48. Commanders should appreciate the time required to both plan for and execute transitions. Assessment ensures that commanders measure progress toward such transitions and take appropriate actions to prepare for and execute them.[xviii]

While anticipated transitions are a challenge, the unanticipated transitions can be even more problematic.  Transitions are risky by nature and require focus and planning.  The enemy gets a vote and the anticipated transition may not go as anticipated.  It is clear that there is a lot of room for interpretation over the use of the term transition.  Has the Joint Staff and the U.S. Army doctrinal writers assumed that all who read the various publications and then have to implement the concepts fully understand transitions?  This complicates the issues if the doctrinal writes make these assumptions. The staff must translate the commander’s guidance and intent into operational plans for future operations.   Since we have left the terms wide open for interpretation, has the commander provided the context for the staff to fully comprehend the correct terms.  While considering the issues of transitions, should we not fully understand the meaning and implications of transitions along with the required planning leading to the execution of the operations that include transitions, what risk is associated with transitions and how are they mitigated?

ADP 6-0 states that accepting prudent risk is one of the principles of Mission Command[xix] and ADP 5-0 outlines that both transitions and risk are elements of operational art.[xx] ADP 5-0 clarifies that “prudent risk is a deliberate exposure to potential injury or loss when the commander judges the outcome in terms of mission accomplishment as worth the cost.”[xxi]

Operational risk as related to operational planning is described in ADRP 3-0:

4-51. Risk, uncertainty, and chance are inherent in all military operations. When commanders accept risk, they create opportunities to seize, retain, and exploit the initiative and achieve decisive results. The willingness to incur risk is often the key to exposing enemy weaknesses that the enemy considers beyond friendly reach. Understanding risk requires assessments coupled with boldness and imagination. Successful commanders assess and mitigate risk continuously throughout the operations process.[xxii]

4-52. Inadequate planning and preparation recklessly risks forces. It is equally rash to delay action while waiting for perfect intelligence and synchronization. Reasonably estimating and intentionally accepting risk is fundamental to conducting operations and essential to mission command. Experienced commanders balance audacity and imagination with risk and uncertainty to strike at a time and place and in a manner wholly unexpected by enemy forces. This is the essence of surprise. It results from carefully considering and accepting risk.[xxiii]

4-53. Commanders accept risk and seek opportunity to create and maintain the conditions necessary to seize, retain, and exploit the initiative and achieve decisive results. During execution, opportunity is fleeting. The surest means to create opportunity is to accept risk while minimizing hazards to friendly forces. A good operational approach considers risk and uncertainty equally with friction and chance. The final plans and orders then provide the flexibility commanders need to take advantage of opportunity in a highly competitive and dynamic environment.[xxiv]

The challenge facing leaders, commanders and their staffs is how to accurately assess risk in a changing situation.  Add to that, unless it is a planned transition, commanders and staffs may not even recognize the transition until a catastrophic event occurs.

For this discussion, it is accepted that leaders identify and assess risk in a competent manner.  The methods used vary based on Army regulations, organizational and unit standards informed by education, training and experiences.  The overall process can be summed up by first identifying the risks, mitigate them to an acceptable level (within authorities at the respective level), then present the risks to the commander at the appropriate level for that commander to take further actions to mitigate risk if possible and decide to accept the risk or not.  The challenge for the leaders, commanders and staffs at all levels is to first recognize the transition, understand the impacts, question if the environment has changed and if so, how and what actions and decisions are required.   

Identifying the risk requires a shared situational understanding that is difficult to achieve during a period of change.  The better the collaboration between individuals in a unit, and between units, the closer the leaders in the organization come to a shared understanding of the situation.  The ability to share new information as well as validate the accuracy of new information is more difficult during a period of transition because of the speed at which the information changes and the many unknowns during a period of change.  This can obscure the staff and commander’s situational understanding of changes in the level or type of risk a unit now faces.  All of this comes with the assumption that the staff has been able to recognize the new environment, the potential changes, the impacts of those changes, and then present the commander with a complete risk assessment, including an accurate depiction of the gaps in information.  If the theme song from Mission Impossible comes to mind, you understand the difficulty of accepting prudent risk during a transition.  In many cases, as we have seen in the more recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, based on the tempo of operations the commander has to make a decision with an incomplete staff assessment and quickly decide if the mission continues based on higher commander’s intent while considering if it meets the criteria of prudent risk.

According to the principles of mission command, mission command is based on mutual trust, shared [situational] understanding, and purpose.  Commanders are entrusted with communicating their intent, purpose of the operation, key tasks, the desired end state, to their subordinates.  In turn subordinates, using mission command along with the guidance and resources provided, use disciplined initiative to respond to unexpected problems.  Mission command comes back to having each Soldier prepared to accomplish the mission within the commander’s intent.[xxv]  The assumption is that leaders at all levels have a shared understanding – and having a true shared understanding requires close collaboration.

Commanders also encourage subordinates to take bold action to accomplish tasks, objectives and overall mission while the commander must accept prudent risks to create opportunity and to seize the initiative.  This concept of prudent risk is the last of six principles of mission command.

The six principles of mission command are—

  • Build cohesive teams through mutual trust.
  • Create shared understanding.
  • Provide a clear commander’s intent.
  • Exercise disciplined initiative.
  • Use mission orders.
  • Accept prudent risk.[xxvi]

Prudent risk as explained in Army doctrine is “a deliberate exposure to potential injury or loss when the commander judges the outcome in terms of mission accomplishment as worth the cost.”[xxvii]  According to the philosophy and principles of mission command, commanders must make reasonable estimates and intentionally accept prudent risk.  To make these decisions, the staff must support the commander with timely and accurate information and assessments.[xxviii]

Reasonably estimating and intentionally accepting risk are not gambling. Gambling, in contrast to prudent risk taking, is staking success on a single event without considering the hazard to the force should the event not unfold as envisioned. Therefore, commanders avoid taking gambles. Commanders carefully determine risks, analyze and minimize as many hazards as possible, and then take prudent risks to exploit opportunities.[xxix]

Judgment is a key factor in determining prudent risk.  What one leader or commander determines as prudent risk, another more senior or even a peer may judge as not prudent risk.  Here in lies the conundrum.  Is doctrinal explanation of prudent risk enough for commanders, leaders and staffs to understand and operate in an ambiguous environment exercising mission command and know they are taking only prudent risks?  What needs to be accomplished before the decision is made on what is prudent risk? 

The tension of transition and risk lies in the desire to act quickly enough to gain or maintain the advantage during a transition and knowingly accepting the increased risk that comes from gaps in information.  In the end, commanders must ensure that they understand what prudent risk is -- the benefits outweigh the risks.  While commanders cannot always wait for more information before making a decision there are actions they can take to improve the information and decision-making in their organization.  The commanders have great influence on the climate of their organization, specifically the trust and communication within their organization.  Commanders can decide to shape their organization to be a learning organization, focus on leader development in a way that fosters trust while giving subordinate leaders the education, training, and experiences they need to foster good judgment calls in the future.  Commander must be cognizant of decision-making errors and along with the staff, prepare ahead of time to reduce their impact on key decisions that require quick decisions.  Understanding the challenges of assessing risk during a transition is an important step in reducing risk.  Commanders and staffs can take these steps to better identify, assess and continually update the prudent risks required to accomplish the mission.

Army doctrine does not adequately address the relationship between transition, collaboration and risk.  Just as with the principles of mission command, trust vertically and horizontally within and outside the chain of command must be established.  The amount of information and check on potential judgment calls cannot be diminished by discussing (if time permits) with peers and others in like situations.  Creating the shared understanding beforehand is critical, but must ask yourself when situations change, is that shared understanding still valid?  The commander’s intent was clear on the onset, but is it still valid and is it still clear now?  Was your commander’s intent clear?  Does disciplined initiative have the same meaning to you as it does your commander and as the commander, to your subordinates?  Where the mission orders clear, concise and understood?  Lastly, accept prudent risk.  What is prudent risk to one individual [leader] does not automatically become prudent risk for others or the commander at levels above your position.

End Notes

[i] Robert Dvorchak, Battle for Korea: The Associated Press History of the Korean Conflict, (Philadelphia: Combined Books, 1996), 113.

[ii] George C. Mitchell, Matthew B. Ridgeway: Soldier, Statesman, Scholar, Citizen. (Stackpole Books, 2002), 206.

[iii] James F. Schnabel, “Ridgway in Korea” Military Review, March 1964, 1964),6.

[iv] Vincent J. Esposito, The West Point Atlas of American Wars, 1900-1953 Volume II ( New York: Frederick A. Praeger 1967) Section three.  Pages opposite maps 10 and 11.

[v] Omar Bradley and Clay Blair, General's Life; An Autobiography by General of the Army Omar N. Bradley, ( New York: Simon and Schuster), 624-625 and Vincent J. Esposito, The West Point Atlas of American Wars, 1900-1953 Volume II ( New York: Frederick A. Praeger 1967) Section three.  Pages opposite maps 10 and 11.

[vi] Decade of War, Vol 1, Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis (JCOA), 15 June 2012, v.

[vii] Decade of War, Vol 1, Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis (JCOA), 15 June 2012, 2.

[viii] Decade of War, Vol 1, Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis (JCOA), 15 June 2012, 15.

[ix] Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Joint Publication 1-02, 8 November 2010 as amended through 15 June 2014.

[x] Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Joint Publication 1-02, 8 November 2010 as amended through 15 June 2014.

[xi] ADRP 3-0, Unified Land Operations, Headquarters Department of the Army, Washington DC., May 2012, 2-13.

[xii] ADRP 3-0, Unified Land Operations, Headquarters Department of the Army, Washington DC., May 2012, 2-7.

[xiii] ADRP 3-0, Unified Land Operations, Headquarters Department of the Army, Washington DC., May 2012, 2-7.

[xiv] ADRP 3-0, Unified Land Operations, Headquarters Department of the Army, Washington DC., May 2012, 2-13.

[xv] ADRP 3-0, Unified Land Operations, Headquarters Department of the Army, Washington DC., May 2012, 4-8.

[xvi] ADRP 3-0, Unified Land Operations, Headquarters Department of the Army, Washington DC., May 2012, 4-8.

[xvii] ADRP 3-0, Unified Land Operations, Headquarters Department of the Army, Washington DC., May 2012, 4-8.

[xviii] ADRP 3-0, Unified Land Operations, Headquarters Department of the Army, Washington DC., May 2012, 4-8.

[xix] ADP 6-0, Mission Command, Headquarters Department of the Army, Washington DC., May 2012, 2.

[xx] ADP 5-0, The Operations Process, Headquarters Department of the Army, Washington DC., May 17, 2012, 13-14.

[xxi] ADP 5-0, The Operations Process, Headquarters Department of the Army, Washington DC., May 17, 2012, 13

[xxii] ADRP 3-0, Unified Land Operations, Headquarters Department of the Army, Washington DC., May 2012, 4-9.

[xxiii] ADRP 3-0, Unified Land Operations, Headquarters Department of the Army, Washington DC., May 2012, 4-9.

[xxiv] ADRP 3-0, Unified Land Operations, Headquarters Department of the Army, Washington DC., May 2012, 4-9.

[xxv] ADP 6-0, Mission Command, Headquarters Department of the Army, Washington DC., May 2012, 12.

[xxvi] ADP 6-0, Mission Command, Headquarters Department of the Army, Washington DC., May 2012, 12

[xxvii] ADP 6-0, Mission Command, Headquarters Department of the Army, Washington DC., May 2012, 15

[xxviii] ADP 6-0, Mission Command, Headquarters Department of the Army, Washington DC., May 2012, 15

[xxix] ADP 6-0, Mission Command, Headquarters Department of the Army, Washington DC., May 2012, 15

 

About the Author(s)

Lieutenant Colonel Michelle Garcia is an instructor in the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College’s Department of Command and Leadership, Fort Leavenworth, KS. She is an engineer officer who has served in combat, construction and USACE organizations. She was s a planner in Iraq with 1st Armored Division and MNC-I from 2007-2008 and deputy district commander for the Gulf Region District in Iraq from 2010-2011.  She holds a B.S. from Rider University, an MSA from Central Michigan University and an MA from the Command and General Staff College.

Colonel Steven Boylan (Retired) is an assistant professor in the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Department of Command and Leadership, Fort Leavenworth, KS.  Served in numerous Aviation positions and as the principal public affairs officer for senior commanders in U.S., Japan, Korea and Iraq.  He worked for General David Petraeus as his Public Affairs Officer and Chief of Strategic Communication for three years, including during the ‘Surge” in Iraq.  He holds a B.A. from Mercer University, an M.A. from Webster University and a doctoral student within University of Phoenix’s D.M. program in Organizational Leadership.