Cognitive Training to Achieve Overmatch in the #FutureOfWar


Gary M. Klein is a U.S. Army Officer and member of the Military Writer’s Guild. The views and opinions expressed here do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


The future of war is hard to predict and we have rarely foreseen the next conflict before it has found us. As we transition out of large-scale counterinsurgency and security force assistance operations towards decisive action operations in our training focus, we must pay special attention to what and how we train in this environment. Some might wishfully think that the Army can return to a Cold War-like era where we have a laser focus on the fundamentals of shoot, move, and communicate within the construct of combined arms maneuver. However, the Army’s experiences over the last ten years, and current projections about the future implore us to seek other models to guide our preparation. The Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) recently published TRADOC Pam 525–3–1, The U.S. Army Operating Concept: Win in a Complex World to help define the future operating environment and challenges.

The Army Operating Concept lays out five characteristics and twenty warfighting challenges that can help guide the Army in its preparations for the future of war.[i] The five characteristics are the increased velocity and momentum of human interactions and events; potential for overmatch; proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; spread of advanced cyberspace and counter-space capabilities; and demographics and operations among populations, in cities, and in complex terrain. A common trend across these characteristics is the complex, massive volume of stimuli soldiers will face, and the decentralized decision making required to gain and maintain the initiative in the future.

In the future, the fog of war will be as much about too much information as it has been defined by the absence of information in the past.

Consider the following: urban terrain presents a plethora of stimuli and distractions to the future warfighter. Information collection assets and digital systems present the decision maker with an abundance of data that needs to be analyzed and synthesized into a shared understanding and future operations. All the while, a thinking and decentralized enemy will demand that the Army presents them with multiple dilemmas using innovative ideas, or else we risk ceding the initiative to our adversaries. An interesting aspect of the scenario above is that there is no mention of the basics as we traditionally view them, “shoot, move, and communicate.” Building adaptive and innovative leaders is the best way to win the next war and this can be accomplished by training the cognitive abilities of our soldiers and leaders.

What are the Critical Cognitive Abilities?

The Army Operating Concept mentions the requirement for advanced cognitive abilities within the context of the Human Domain and decision making, but it does not provide any specifics on what or how the Army should pursue these. Army doctrine does not currently address these issues either, so we should look to the fields of cognitive science and systems theory for specifics. The combined theories of these two fields provide us with a decision making model to help identify advanced cognitive abilities. Cognition begins with gathering information and proceeds to processing information, analyzing and synthesizing a conclusion and/or course of action, and finally executing the selected course of action. This model will form the basis for re-examining the scenarios presented previously.

The plethora of stimuli in urban terrain, and the abundance of data that can be gathered from modern information collection assets, challenge soldiers on the battlefield — all of whom must make life and death decisions. In fact, scientific studies support the fact that information overload often results in a decreased quality of decisions.[ii] To help overcome this challenge, we must seek to increase our soldiers’ ability to gather information through the filter of trained perceptiveness. Soldiers who are trained in perceptiveness can use these skills to sift through excessive stimulation and recognize significant cues. This advanced situational awareness can help us identify anomalies and indicators to find the proverbial needle in the haystack.

Perceptiveness will provide us with a heuristic technique to assist us in our decision making.[iii]

Once soldiers have collected the relevant information, they must then process and synthesize the information into concepts that can be executed as a course of action. Speed of mental processing and the ability to synthesize data into relevant concepts are desirable skills for anyone, but for a soldier this might mean the difference between life and death. So we must ensure our soldiers have these abilities. These skills are particularly advantageous in an age where the global media scrutinizes the decisions of leaders at every level.[iv] Speed of mental processing and synthesis are abilities traditionally associated with staff officers and NCOs, but all soldiers must seek to increase these abilities to gain and maintain the initiative in the future.

Finally, the future will inevitably present soldiers with an adaptive enemy, unique situations, and complex operating environments. These characteristics will require soldiers to apply trained tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) in foreseen circumstances, while having the ability to modify or invent new TTPs in real time for unforeseen situations. The key to adapting and overcoming these challenges in the future will be to foster a spirit of innovation in our soldiers.

How are we training these Cognitive Abilities Now?

Currently, the Army does not deliberately focus on advanced cognitive abilities in its leader development or collective training efforts, but in the future it must do so to achieve overmatch against our adversaries.

The discussion above highlighted four critical cognitive abilities that the Army must focus on: perceptiveness, speed of mental processing, synthesis, and innovativeness.

The Army has a handful of programs that seek to improve perceptiveness and adaptability, but they are not well known and it is challenging for commanders to get their soldiers into these programs. The biggest challenge the Army will face in seeking to develop these attributes will be to design and integrate training and educational efforts to scale across the entire force.

In the near term, the Army has a few niche programs that commanders can pursue to train and educate our soldiers on these advanced cognitive abilities. A non-exhaustive list of existing programs include Advanced Situational Awareness Training, the Asymmetric Warfare Adaptive Leader Program, Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness or resiliency training, the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies (UFMCS) or “Red Team” training, and Leader Reaction Courses. Each of these programs directly or indirectly addresses at least one of the four critical cognitive abilities.

Photo Credit: Aniesa Holmes. A role player dressed as an Afghan border security officer helps a student enrolled in the Advanced Situational Awareness Training program observe a village from a distance, Oct. 4, 2013, on Lee Field at Fort Benning, Ga.

The Army’s Advanced Situational Awareness Training program of instruction seeks to increase our soldiers’ ability to identify patterns and therefore anomalies in our environment. This advanced awareness will help soldiers identify pre-event indicators that are significant to mission accomplishment.[v] Contractors originally designed Advanced Situational Awareness Training, but the Army has since incorporated it into various professional military education courses, including the Armor and Infantry Basic Officer Leader Courses.[vi] Many aspects of Advanced Situational Awareness Training continue to focus on overcoming the threat of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), but its program of instruction should be able to be expanded to train perceptiveness more broadly.

The Asymmetric Warfare Group’s Asymmetric Warfare Adaptive Leader Program course promotes critical, creative problem solving to reach innovative solutions to ambiguous situations.[vii] This course is an evolution of the Outcomes-Based Training and Education methods that the Army Reconnaissance Course adopted in the mid- to late-2000s. The Asymmetric Warfare Adaptive Leader Program is focused on promoting adaptive leaders and decision making under the principles of mission command. This course guides students through a series of principles and exercises that educate and train soldiers on perceptiveness, synthesis, and innovativeness.

The Army’s Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness Program, known primarily for its resiliency training, is designed to help improve human performance across the Army. The Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness Program originated out of a desire to promote resiliency and mitigate against potential risks in our soldiers and military families, but the Army has expanded its goals to include all aspects of human performance. The Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness Program has established a unique and valuable relationship between soldiers and psychologists. The Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness’ cadre of psychologists have a unique insight into cognitive abilities and the broader science that can be harnessed to promote mental processing and other cognitive functions in our formations.

The University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies (UFMCS), better known throughout the Army as the “Red Team,” is another resource that promotes cognitive abilities. Leaders frequently think Red Team training is primarily for educating and training military intelligence leaders to think like the enemy — an almost natural assumption based on their common name — but the UFMCS offers much more. Anyone who has attended UFMCS training, or a discussion facilitated through their instructional methods, can attest to the power of the tools they use to train divergent and convergent thinking. These thinking tools and instructional methods include mind-mapping, storytelling, asking whys, dot voting, meta-questioning, and circles of voices. These discussion and cognitive tools are valuable for analyzing and synthesizing information to reach conclusions or courses of actions.

Photo Credit: LTC Sonise Lumbaca. Soldiers from the 197th Infantry Brigade participate in an adaptability practical exercise using an obstacle course during the Asymmetric Warfare Group’s Asymmetric Warfare Adaptive Leader Program hosted at Fort Benning, Ga. November 2012.

Finally, many Army installations have Leader Reaction Courses that challenge groups of Soldiers to collectively solve unique problems. These courses are frequently used during initial entry training and are thought of as team building exercises, but they should not be limited to these instances. A Leader Reaction Course trains problem solving techniques by encouraging creative and innovative thinking. Each obstacle forces participants to think out of the box and generate unique solutions. Encouraging our soldiers to think like this will help develop innovative minds for the battlefield.

How can we Train Cognitive Abilities in the Future?

The Army must develop a holistic and integrated approach to developing advanced cognitive abilities within our soldiers, leaders, and units. Currently, the Army has a number of niche programs and courses that provide near term cognitive development as described in the previous section. However, to adequately prepare for the future of war, the Army must develop a more holistic short and long term plan to address these abilities. The Army must develop a system to assess and provide continuous training and educational opportunities throughout a soldier’s career.

To assist commanders in monitoring and tailoring their cognitive training efforts, the Army must develop a method of assessing cognitive abilities in all soldiers and leaders. Cognitive abilities can be assessed and recorded similar to how the Army currently tests enlisted soldiers to determine their General Technical (GT) score.[viii] The Army must tailor these assessments to measure the aforementioned critical cognitive abilities. The Army’s Centers of Excellence could further shape these assessments to measure any additional cognitive abilities deemed relevant for soldiers in their respective Branch/MOSs. In addition to a mandatory assessment during a soldier’s accession into the Army, these assessments must recur throughout a soldiers career. This will enable individual soldiers to seek feedback and improve their cognitive abilities, while allowing commanders to assess their unit’s capabilities. The feedback provided by these assessments will help commanders develop comprehensive cognitive training plans that are nested with and enhance their leader development plans.

To improve cognitive abilities throughout the Army, the Army must expand current efforts into comprehensive short and long term training strategies. Two viable short term courses of action are to expand the current training capacity of these programs and/or rapidly spread these initiatives at the unit level through a train-the-trainer methodology. In addition to the initial benefits to the soldier, the train-the-trainer methodology is advantageous because it will provide a subject matter expert within each unit, similar to a master gunner or master fitness trainer. The master cognitive trainer can provide advice to the commander to incorporate cognitive training into existing training exercises and/or design stand-alone educational or training events as desired. These short term courses of action will generate additional resources for cognitive development until long range plans can be developed and employed.

In the long term, cognitive training and education should be developed based on the results of the aforementioned assessment tools and integrated into programs such as Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness. Integration with the Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness Program will enable harnessing the unique capabilities of psychologists and advanced cognitive sciences. Additionally, optional courses should be offered at installation education centers and on-line to allow soldiers to develop cognitive skills as another aspect of self-development. The integration of assessment tools, expanded classroom and on-line educational opportunities, inclusion of cognitive development within Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness, and cognitive training incorporated into unit training and leader development programs have tremendous potential towards achieving overmatch against future adversaries.

Conclusions

The Future of War is hard to predict. However, it is increasingly obvious that the basics of shoot, move, and communicate must be expanded to include cognitive abilities. Perception, speed of mental processing, synthesis, and innovation are the four most critical cognitive abilities. We must develop a system to assess, train, and educate soldiers in these abilities to develop our collective capabilities. As mentioned in the Army Operating Concept, the Army must address advanced cognitive abilities and the Human Dimension to provide overmatch against our potential adversaries. Advanced cognitive abilities must be developed to gain and maintain the initiative in future conflicts.


The author would like to thank Mr. Keith Beurskens and the eleven captains in his small group at Solarium 2015. The thoughts above are reflective of this group’s efforts during a week-long discussion and research endeavor where they studied the Army Operating Concept at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.


[i] Department of the Army, TRADOC Pam 535–3–1, The U.S. Army Operating Concept: Win in a Complex World, (Fort Eustis, VA: U.S. Government Printing Office, October 2014), p.11–12 and Appendix B. Pages 11–12 address the likely characteristics of future operating environments while Appendix B lays out the twenty warfighting challenges (aka questions) that will drive development of the future force.

[ii] Crystall C. Hall, Lynn Ariss, and Alexander Todorov. “The illusion of knowledge: When more information reduces accuracy and increases confidence,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 103 (2007): 277–290.

[iii] Heuristic techniques are mental shortcuts that help us make decisions in complex situations that would otherwise require a disadvantageous amount of time to use logic. Heuristics enable us with intuitive thinking as opposed to reflective thinking that encourage us to gather all information before coming to a conclusion.

[iv] Joe Byerly, “#Human Element of Leadership,” on The Bridge, https://medium.com/the-bridge/human-element-of-leadership-fc85ff9df13, November 15, 2014, retrieved March 2, 2015.

[v] Harry Evans was the original designer for the Army’s Advanced Situational Awareness Training, see http://www.tacticalintel.com/counter-terrorism.html, retrieved March 2, 2015.

[vi] Aniesa Holmes, “ASAT training helps develop critical thinking skills,” in U.S. Army News, http://www.army.mil/article/112916/ASAT_training_helps_develop_critical_thinking_skills/, October 9, 2013, retrieved March 2, 2015.

[vii] Susan G. Straus, et. al., Innovative Leader Development: Evaluation of the U.S. Army Asymmetric Warfare Adaptive Leader Program, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Research Paper, 2014).

[viii] The GT score currently assesses soldier’s word knowledge, paragraph comprehension, and arithmetic reasoning: http://www.goarmy.com/learn/understanding-the-asvab.html, retrieved March 2, 2015.


Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge

Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by hitting the green “Recommend” button below and sharing it on social media.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.