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Bringing special operations thinking to Army basic training

An exclusive interview with Brig. Gen. James H. Schwitters

by W. Thomas Smith Jr.

Viewed on Soldiers fof the Truth, Beyond the Drop Zone - 09.15.2005

 

Brigadier General James H. Schwitters is in many ways the face of leadership in the 21st-century American Army: Thoughtful, deliberate, battle-seasoned, all business, nothing like "the perfumed princes" the late Col. David H. Hackworth railed against for so many years. Schwitters is simply a bone-hard warrior with a calculating mind and far too many parachute jumps (operational and training) under his belt to continue counting. He knows how to fight, survive, achieve the given objective, and think outside of the box to accomplish all three. He's the kind of general-officer the Army – in fact the entire U.S. Defense Department – is increasingly turning to in the global war on terror.

 

Not surprising. The war on terror is a war best waged by men, like Schwitters, who have mastered the art of operating in an environment where nothing is as it may seem.

 

A 30-year infantry officer (including six years as an enlisted soldier), Schwitters (L.)has served with the famed 1st Special Operations Detachment-Delta – that's Army speak for DELTA FORCE. He also served a stint as security director for the U.S. Central Command before becoming commanding general of the Coalition Military Assistance Training Team, Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq. In the latter capacity he oversaw the standing-up of the new Iraqi armed forces.

 

In mid-July, Schwitters brought all of that experience with him to his new post as commanding general of the world's largest U.S. Army basic training facility, Fort Jackson, S.C. Here, he's responsible for the nine-week initial training of 35,000-42,000 Army recruits (passing through each year) many if not most of whom are going to war.

 

In an exclusive interview, Gen. Schwitters discusses – among other things - new basic training methods, gender-integrated training, contemporary approaches to combat leadership, and the importance of infusing the special operations mindset into the basically trained soldier.

 

SMITH: General, what do you bring to the table that you believe will enhance the indoctrination experience of young Army recruits.

 

GEN. SCHWITTERS: I would say that the military community in which I've spent most of my time special operations and special missions units has led the Army in its experimentation with realistic training and innovations in training. This experimentation also is unique in that it approaches problem solving from an unbounded perspective. It begins with where we look at specifically identifying the mission. For instance, we'll say, 'what is the best way to solve this mission without being bounded by doctrine, history, tradition, or a particular rote or prescribed method of thinking?'

 

SMITH: So basically, it is thinking outside of the box.

 

GEN. SCHWITTERS: That is a colloquial way of saying it.

 

SMITH: Is that what you hope to instill in these recruits here at Fort Jackson?

 

GEN. SCHWITTERS: Yes, and broadly, the Army has recognized that we need more of that kind of thinking across the institution.

 

In recent years, that kind of thinking has actually penetrated all the way down into the serving units.

 

An example of that is the way in which Operation Iraqi Freedom was executed. We could not have executed the offensive combat phase of OIF the way we did without the kind of thinking that has been instilled in leaders all the way down to the company, platoon, and squad levels: Taking advantage of opportunities. Being faced with a situation for which there is not a precedent. Saying, for instance, 'OK, the right thing to do here is... .'

 

In the current and foreseeable mission-setting that the Army – or the operational requirements that the Army – is going to be faced with, we don't believe that there is going to be specifically written tactical doctrine for every imaginable scenario. So we have to develop leaders who have not been taught what to think or what to do in a given situation, but to fundamentally build leaders who know how to think. These leaders must be able to recognize and assess a situation, then quickly and accurately develop a course of action that has a very high probability of success.

 

Here in basic training we are planting the seeds for that kind of thinking.

 

SMITH: I know that under former Fort Jackson commander General Abraham Turner's leadership, basic training changed dramatically, with all soldiers – including support personnel – today developing the skills of an infantry soldier. What do you plan to do, specifically?

 

GEN. SCHWITTERS: We'll continue to refine the programs that were implemented under General Turner's watch. We also are in the final prototype – or experimentation phase – of a program known as "Soldier as a Sensor." This teaches every soldier, not just leaders or those charged with an intelligence function, to be constantly aware of his or her surroundings. They will be taught specific skills at recognizing what is unique or out of place. Being conscious of one's duty to report that, which has been recognized, and how to report it. They will also be taught the processes that will take that information and get it to the right people who can do something with it.

 

Now, that may sound awfully intuitive. You'd think that every soldier ought to be taught to be astute and aware of his or her surroundings. But it's unique in that we are going to begin training soldiers in those kinds of skills this month.

 

SMITH: Two Marine Corps comparison questions: First, the Army has gender-integrated training in basic training, whereas the Marine Corps trains men and women separately in boot camp. If it's working so well for the Marine Corps, why doesn't the Army follow suit? Second, the Army has recently begun to introduce the recruit to the rifle within the first 48 hours of training (prior to Dec. 2004, Army recruits at Fort Jackson did not handle the weapon until week-three). Still, they do not keep their weapons with them at all times. They return them to a barracks arms locker at day's end, instead of locking them to their racks at night like the Marines. Why?

 

GEN. SCHWITTERS: First to your question about gender-integrated training in the Army: Fundamental to that question would have to be the assumption that gender-segregated training is working better for the Marine Corps than gender-integrated is working for the Army. But I will not concede that that system is better than this system.

 

The nation decided many years ago that we would have a gender-integrated Army. Not all, but most units are gender-integrated. Everything but the combat arms – infantry, artillery, and armor – will have females doing much if not exactly the same things males do. At some point in time we need to build a gender-integrated team, because the Army is a team of teams. That gender-integration into the team needs to occur. So the fundamental question is, when and where does that integration occur? Is it best to do it in the unit, or in day one of training?

 

We've decided to do it on day one, because the minute we start to build a soldier, we build a team. And we build that team in the same environment in which that soldier is going to serve.

 

That said, not all of our training is gender-integrated. If a soldier is going into a combat arms unit, he will go through a male-only environment.

 

SMITH: So that means if a soldier, slated for the infantry, attends his basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, he will go through an all-male indoctrination.

 

GEN. SCHWITTERS: Absolutely correct: He'll go through the exact same environment that he will serve in.

 

SMITH: And the question of rifles, General; why don't you have your soldiers begin handling weapons all the time.

 

GEN. SCHWITTERS: We may go to that soon. Very simply, we are trying to introduce them to the techniques and the principles of being able to live with and operate with the weapon all the time. That's kind of novel.

 

SMITH: Why is handling weapons all-the-time, novel? After all, this is the Army.

 

GEN. SCHWITTERS: Because until Operating Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, where a very large portion of the Army has participated in those deployments over extended periods of time, it wasn't typical that a soldier would take a weapon out of the arms room and just operate with it all the time. There just has not been a need for it.

 

We certainly recognize that we need for our soldiers to be familiar with the weapon and be able to handle it safely, because in a deployed environment it won't be blank ammunition they will be using: It will be live ammo. And a rifle without ammo is nothing but a club, and not a very good one at that.

 

SMITH: General, let's shift our focus for a moment to the issue of deployment and the Army's various responsibilities, worldwide. With the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the deployment of combat forces like Army paratroopers, Marines, even Navy SEALs to the Hurricane Katrina ravaged Gulf Coast, are our forces stretched too thin?

 

GEN. SCHWITTERS: I wouldn't characterize it that way. We are a nation – certainly an Army – at war. That's clear. We are operationally committed where we need to be. Certainly when something like this happens there's going to be a reallocation or re-prioritization of what we're doing, but I don't see us as being stretched too thin.

 

SMITH: So if there were a flashpoint in Asia, perhaps in the Taiwanese Straits or on the Korean peninsula, we would still have an Army capable of responding in great strength?

 

GEN. SCHWITTERS: What I have been amazed at is our Army's capacity to transform itself and its capacity to be operationally committed in many, many countries around the world – not all related to the global war on terrorism – as well as in two very significant operational areas. I would also argue that the Army, as part of a much more comprehensive military response to Katrina, has been impressive. Still, we are not over-committed or stretched too thin, and I believe that's one of our Army's strengths.

 

SMITH: General, let's take a look at your recent post: In Iraq, you were overseeing the training of Iraqi armed forces. In your opinion, will they soon be able to take over the security and defense of their own country from coalition forces?

 

GEN. SCHWITTERS: I won't comment on how soon, but certainly that is the strategy and the attempt. I would say that we have made significant progress, actually quite remarkable progress when you look at the fact that we dismantled their entire military force – Army, Navy, and Air Force. Then by November of 2004, we had the Iraqi Navy conducting independent security operations in their territorial waters. Now, they were not conducting all security operations. It was an overall coalition effort. But they were operating independently.

 

Our strategy has been to assist the Iraqis to develop their own forces. So we didn't come in there and start training their armed forces. We've been helping them develop those forces, because they had a very capable set of armed forces. It was a professional force that had been shackled by the regime of Saddam Hussein. They had been prevented from developing a modern doctrine for a host of reasons, most of which were related to regime survival. So they were desirous of getting out of the Stone Age, if you will, developing new doctrine, and having access to modern technologies to be used appropriately.

 

SMITH: So they were good soldiers, but not trained to think outside of the box.

 

GEN. SCHWITTERS: That was one of the challenges we had, because thinking creatively and using initiative, was not only not encouraged, but fatal in a career sense.

 

And those things – decentralization of authority and the rewarding of initiative, creativity, and good problem solving – are arguably another one of the strengths of the American armed forces.

 

I might add, our Army is actually moving away from just recognizing and rewarding initiative. The Army is now expecting it. Operating inside the commander's intent and guidance, our soldiers are learning to use initiative and creativity to accomplish the mission.

 

SMITH: As the largest U.S. Army basic training base in the nation – which also means the world – Fort Jackson is certainly a symbol of American military power. Being such a symbol also makes this facility a potential target of terrorism. What are you doing to ensure that the soldiers and civilians here are safe from terrorism?

 

GEN. SCHWITTERS: We, as I think most folks would agree, cannot protect against every single threat. Nothing is foolproof. We could spend a significant amount of the nation's treasury to attempt to protect against every conceivable threat. The first thing we do is try to know what the threat is. We do this through an extensive, credible, real-time liaison and partnership with the local law enforcement community; this broadly goes into the national law enforcement community, as well as, within DoD Department of Defense, through the Army.

 

Then prudently we make sure we can respond quickly, surely, and accurately to whatever that known threat might be. Knowing that there are some things we might not know, we have a strong force protection plan in place.

 

SMITH: Where do you see the Army in ten years?

 

GEN. SCHWITTERS: We will be continuing to transform and develop a force-generation construct [officially – A structured progression of increased unit readiness over time, resulting in recurring periods of availability of trained, ready, and cohesive units prepared for operational deployment in support of regional combatant commander requirements.]. The Army will continue its comprehensive basing and positioning effort, and it will continue to refine its operational doctrine for the future.

 

SMITH: What from your personal experience do you hope will carry over to your training unit commanders and drill sergeants here at Fort Jackson?

 

GEN. SCHWITTERS: Never to cut corners in training. Early in my career I participated in an operational event in which it was brought home to me that we do absolutely fight as we train. In other words, if we take short cuts in training, we are going to experience that in an operational environment.

 

SMITH: Would you elaborate on that experience?

 

GEN. SCHWITTERS: Only that there were some shortcuts that I had observed in training that fortunately did not impact the success of a particular mission, but did indeed convince me of the danger of cutting corners

 

It may be very tempting – even as realistically as we like to train – to take shortcuts. But when we do and then say to ourselves, 'I won't really do that, so I'm going to take the shortcut to save time, or do whatever,' that is a very slippery slope.

 

Attention to detail, taking training through to its absolute completion is nothing less than critical to mission success and surviving in combat.


W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a former U.S. Marine infantry leader and paratroope He writes about military issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans and on the West Bank. He is the author of four books, and his articles have appeared in USA Today, George, U.S. News & World Report, Business Week, and National Review Online. Smith can be reached at editor@reportingwar.com.


Special from FROM WORLD DEFENSE REVIEW

Published 13 September 05

(Originally published at NavySEALs.com, 10 Sep 05)

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