Leader Development Part III: Tactical Decision Exercises

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In the last post, I expanded on how I materialized my leader development program as a company commander. Now, I am outlining one of those program methods, the Tactical Decision Exercise (TDE). These exercises became a favorite among the officers and NCOs in my company.

Tactical-level units today face overwhelming demands, many of which distract them from their primary mission and training focus. It is not always feasible to achieve every organizational goal during robust field training exercises that require extensive resources and time. The TDE is a low-resource, low-threat event aimed to challenge your subordinate leaders in tactical scenarios; despite the exercise’s simple design, they can achieve significant results for your organization. You can conduct these exercises over a map or a terrain model and they take little effort to prepare. TDE success is based on a well-defined purpose and an effective implementation method, or exercise structure.

The Purpose. What do you want to achieve through these exercises? What skill or competency do you want to develop in your subordinate leaders through this? Defining this is important to make it effective. Before you begin creating tactical scenarios over a map, reflect on what you want your leaders to learn. Stick with one or two goals per exercise; don’t overcomplicate it. Several ideas for exercise developmental purposes can include:

  • Develop critical thinking. Test your subordinates’ abilities to operate and lead in a complex environment shrouded in uncertainty. Limit the information they have and force them to make a decision. Or require your leaders to react to an event and decide to stick to the initial plan or deviate from it. This exercise, followed by a deliberate AAR, will give your subordinates confidence in these environments for future, higher-stake events.
  • Tactical decisions, strategic impacts. Today’s complex operating environment can now lead tactical-level decisions to have strategic-level impacts. It’s too common to see national news headlines about a US Army Lieutenant’s unfortunate actions. Create scenarios of ambiguity to force your leaders to make hard decisions and show them why it is important; “do I react to the fire I’m receiving from this Mosque?”
  • MOS proficiency. In preparation for major training exercises, you can use TDEs to develop key tasks required for your organization’s mission or MOS. I tested my leaders’ abilities in planning an engineer reconnaissance, engagement area obstacle plan, and complex breach prior to supporting our Infantry battalions for their major collective training as a certification tool.
  • Specific task proficiency. Have you identified a knowledge and proficiency gap in your organization for a specific task? Develop it through TDEs. During my command, I discovered my subordinates were limited in direct fires planning and control proficiency. I educated them through a series of classes and then tested the leaders through a TDE series.

 The Method. Once you’ve established the vision and goals for your exercise, you need to determine how best to conduct it. There are a variety of methods, but choose one that works best with your available resources and time. I developed new exercise methods every TDE session to challenge my subordinate leaders through different platforms. Several TDE methods I leveraged include:

  • Terrain model. These are expected during any company, platoon, or squad iteration of Troop Leading Procedures. Why not get your leaders more familiar with your standard for terrain models?
  • Map. Leaders need to be able to plan and execute operations off of limited resources, to include nothing more than maps (uncertainty and ambiguity again…). Develop your leaders’ planning comfort with just maps.
  • Virtual Battlefield Simulator (VBS3). Most major installations have a VBS3 service. Though it requires extensive planning prior to execution, it takes almost no resources from you. The capabilities of the VBS3 are nearly endless. You can create complex scenarios and force leaders to react to events, showing them that the enemy has a say in the end state too.
  • Operations Order. Leverage OPORDs in your TDEs to get your subordinates comfortable with the orders process, its structure, and how you leverage it. This is a simple way to improve the Troop Leading Procedure proficiency in your formations.
  • Concept sketch & statement. Similar to the OPORD method, it is a simpler way to stress the commander’s intent, nesting their plan with yours, and conveying a concise plan. This can improve proficiency with graphic control measures also. Require them to complete a plan and produce a concept sketch / statement with graphic control measures, and a nested mission and concept.

Further Recommendations. Based on my six quarters of conducting TDEs as a company commander, I am closing the post with some final recommendations that I learned or that worked well for my company.

  • As a company commander, I executed TDEs once a quarter for my squad leaders and platoon leadership teams. I found that trying to conduct them more often than quarterly was infeasible for me to adequately prepare and find white space to schedule them.
  • These were calendar events, placed on the company long range and short range calendars. I briefed these events as part of my Quarterly Training Brief to my brigade commander and routine training plan briefs during my battalion training meetings.
  • I created four exercises per quarterly session; one for the platoon leader and platoon sergeant team, and one for each squad leader. I replicated these exercises across all three of my platoons.
  • Scenarios can be fabricated, based on your personal experiences, or based on historical events. Pick a scenario source that will best support your exercise goals.
  • I never published guidance to my subordinate leaders beforehand in order to test their ability to react and make decisions in situations of uncertainty, not necessarily to prepare for the situations (that is done during field training).
  • If using a terrain model, I finalized the scenarios two weeks prior and provided the information to my executive officer and operations sergeant. Since they were responsible for building company terrain models as part of my Troop Leading Procedure SOPs, this gave them additional practice at building the models to my expected standard.
  • Schedule one whole platoon at a time. Let all those leaders observe each scenario and the following AAR discussion. This allows everyone to learn from all scenarios, not just the one they are assigned.
  • Challenge leaders and force them into scenarios where they are acting one level above their current duty (squad leaders acting as a platoon leader or platoon sergeant) for a certain TDE series. This stretches their capacity as a leader to make decisions for a larger formation than they are used to in a low-threat environment with no lasting consequences.

If you led similar programs in your organization, I would love to hear the details and how well they worked. I’m always looking for ways to innovate this dynamic leader development tool.

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