Forging the Thunderbolt: The Armor BOLC Experience

And so when man and horse go down beneath a saber keen,
 or in a roaring charge fierce melee you stop a bullet clean,
 and the hostiles come to get your scalp,
 just empty your canteen and put your pistol to your head
 and go to Fiddlers’ Green. — 
Fiddlers’ Green

The Basic Officer Leader Course (BOLC) is where newly minted second lieutenants are transformed into tactically proficient junior officers ready to lead platoons and serve in staff sections. Unlike commissioning source programs (Officer Candidate School, ROTC, West Point) that involve varying amounts of seemingly pointless requirements designed to weed out the committed from the uncommitted, BOLC is generally a gentleman’s course where knowledge and hands-on-learning drive the overall feel of the program. BOLC experiences vary because each school draws on the culture and traditions of its branch, making what happens in Quartermaster BOLC very different from what happens in Armor BOLC or Infantry BOLC.

After nearly 6 months of drilling with my Cavalry Squadron, I arrived at Ft. Benning, Georgia early in 2017 to fall in with newly commissioned active duty officers, fellow National Guard lieutenants, Marine officers and a handful of foreign armor officers for the Armor BOLC experience.

Armor officers (19A) are required to understand mounted warfare from both a tank perspective and a scout perspective since the Army assigns them to Cavalry (reconnaissance and security focused) and Armor (decisive action focused) units. Learning the general tactics involved in these specific mission sets and the varying platforms that mounted units employ makes the 19-week ABOLC course one of the longer BOLCs in the Army.

Second lieutenants must understand the orders process, tactics and platforms and so ABOLC is split into 3 different phases, each of which focuses on honing various aspects of this triad. The order of the program changed after my class graduated, but the subject areas of each phase remain generally the same.

Prepare to arrive at ABOLC ready to immediately pass the height/weight standard and pass the Army Physical Fitness Test. At least one second lieutenant in my class failed the entry APFT, and I’ve heard of other Armor lieutenants getting sent home to wait for the next class because they failed some aspect of the PT test. Arriving at Ft. Benning a day or two ahead of time can ensure you are settled into your quarters (Abrams Hall for TDY, PCS moves are on their own to find on- or off-post housing, generally with a few roommates to reduce costs) and sufficiently hydrated to perform in the humid Georgia heat.

What follows is a brief overview of each phase of the course, along with a few recommendations for getting the most you can from the experience.

OPORD Phase

This was my first phase, but is currently the second phase of the program. Classes are led by a Black 7 (Sergeant First Class) and Black 6 (Captain) who move through the program with the class ensuring administrative and academic continuity. In the OPORD (Operations Order) phase the class is split into small groups led by a senior Staff Sergeant or Sergeant First Class who augment large group instruction with small group study halls and individual classes. Overall class sizes for ABOLC are supposed to be around 70 officers and small groups can be between 10–18 from what I can tell. My class was abnormally small so the instructor-to-student ratio each phase was about 1:5, which was a nice benefit.

ABOLC is known for how seriously it takes the orders process. In order to pass this phase, second lieutenants must (among other things) prepare and brief the “gate” Operations Order at the end of the phase. Students spend the majority of their time in this phase in the classroom, plowing through powerpoints led by Captains who have platoon and often troop/company command experience.

Topics range from how to employ enablers (such as Engineers, Field Artillery, Logistics, etc.) to the fundamentals of offense, defense, reconnaissance and security. ATP 3–20.15 Tank Platoon, and ATP 3–20.98 Reconnaissance Platoon, are your two bibles during this phase. They are the answer key to every exam and problem you will be faced with during this phase.

“Doctrine is the last refuge of the unimaginative” may be a quip attributed to then-Marine Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis, but for a second lieutenant in ABOLC it is the first refuge of the scholar. Intelligent deviations from doctrine cannot occur unless there is a foundation of knowledge, and doctrine is the baseline foundation that junior maneuver officers need. Doctrine is the twin of experience, and second lieutenants can make up for their lack of experience by mastering doctrine and history.

Over a period of several weeks classes on doctrine will be woven together in a step-by-step approach to developing thorough, executable operations order for a mounted platoon. This is the crawl phase of OPORD development and smart lieutenants ask questions, stay after class to clarify concepts, and volunteer to brief portions of their order to their small group instructors if the chance is offered. There is no such thing as a dumb question at this time. The vast majority of class recycles come from the OPORD phase. Recycling any phase more than once may mean separation from the Army for non-performance.

Most lieutenants fail their first OPORD, which is briefed to a cadre member in front of peers. A good brief will last from 45 minutes to an hour, exceeding an hour will get points deducted from your score. An officer or NCO may grade your order, which is briefed with the help of notes and large posters that feature a summary of the terrain and your graphic control measures. Additionally, acetate overlays of the graphic control measures, enemy SITEMP, GTAO (Graphic Terrain Analysis Overlay), and fires plan are also submitted for the grader to review.

Using an OPORD template and preparing your products ahead of time are key to getting the most out of your first OPORD brief. This is the only OPORD that you will have ample time to complete. For the next 3 OPORDs (the final of which is the must-pass “gate” OPORD) the timeline will get shorter and shorter. The way it fell out for my class, most of us stayed up for about 60 hours straight briefing an order, preparing another order, briefing it, and then turning around and preparing and briefing the “gate” order in about 14 hours (most of it overnight).

I’ve uploaded a good OPORD template below, and the UPS store at the so-called “Airborne PX” (named for its proximity to jump school) on post also sells a good laminated template for $30. It is pricey for what you get, but I found it very useful. In the weeks leading up to OPORD week (which may or may not be broken up by a weekend) accumulate enough poster paper and fine or medium Sharpie markers (and scissors and a straight edge) to last for 5 orders (in case you need to make a second — and final — attempt at the gate order). Walking into Patton Hall on the morning of a brief felt like showing up for a science fair.

The official grading rubric for an OPORD is a guarded secret, but the publicly-available OPORD rubric on the Army Reconnaissance Course website appears to roughly correspond with what I can remember being graded on in ABOLC. Students who attempt to brief to the rubric will fail — graders are using the rubric as a tool but they want to know that a lieutenant knows what he or she is briefing and isn’t just regurgitating information to get points on a scorecard. It makes no difference whether your grader is an officer or NCO, they are both tough but generally fair, but they will see through any attempt to brief for a score instead of demonstrate an overall understanding of concepts and a command presence for briefing.

Gunnery Phase

After the classroom grind of OPORD phase, gunnery was like eating dessert nonstop. This phase is why you choose to join the Armor Branch. Students are introduced to the M1A2 Abrams main battle tank and the M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle which is used by Cavalry and Mechanized Infantry units. Days are split between hours in the motor pool learning vehicle components and basic maintenance and learning how to pass the Gunnery Skills Test for the M240B/C 7.62mm machine gun, the M2 .50 caliber machine gun, the M242 Bushmaster 25mm chain gun, and M256 120mm smoothbore main gun. Additionally, sophisticated simulators are used to train each student crew for the actual live-fire ranges for the tank and Bradley.

The days in Gunnery Phase are fairly long but extremely rewarding. Like the rest of the ABOLC experience, you get out of it what you put into it. Spending spare moments studying vehicle identification for the AFVID test and ammunition types for the ammunition test will help boost your scores in this phase. Scores matter because they contribute to the course Order of Merit List. Additionally, while scores for individual weapons qualification (M4 and M9) are very much the product of an individual, the gunnery score is calculated as the average of your crew. Our class had two students per crew, which meant that a mistake or low score by either student automatically brought down the score of both crew members. It may seem harsh, but armored warfare is a team sport, not an individual event, and this phase hammers that point home.

Contrary to the long-held Army-wide cynical advice to not volunteer for anything, volunteering for details in this phase helps long days on the range pass quickly. Your crew will only make one live gun run in a tank and a Bradley, so other hours spent waiting for that time are well spent preparing other crew’s vehicles (loading ammunition, cleaning the main gun and machine guns, checking radios, clearing spent casings). Working alongside seasoned NCOs to learn more about the vehicles and their capabilities pays off in the final phase of the program.

ABOLC’s major shortcoming is glaringly evident in this phase. Armor officers must know how to lead both light (Cavalry) and heavy (Armor) units, but ABOLC is at least 90% focused on tanks (and a little bit to Bradleys) in the first two phases. All of the gunnery focuses on Abrams and Bradleys, but for officers headed to Stryker or Humvee-equipped units, there is nothing in this phase that explores what a gunnery table for that unit looks like. Additionally, at no point are Mk19 grenade launchers or TOW missiles explored as system mounted on a truck or Stryker platform.

Unless a major safety violation occurs, it is very difficult to fail the gunnery phase. There is not a lot of analytic thinking required, just the ability to follow simple safety protocols, understand and give crew commands and memorize a few basic processes.

Field Phase

This is the final and most challenging phase of ABOLC. It is also the most rewarding because it combines the theories of the classroom and the sterile production of operations orders with the cranky noise and dirt of the field and the frustrations of terrain and weather. It also helps that you are going up against your classmates who make up the opposing tank and scout platoon.

The amount of time spent in the field varies slightly from class to class, but generally the first week is spent on a platform that you are not going to immediately use at your assigned unit, and the next 3 weeks will consist of time spent on a platform similar to what you will use. For example, officers assigned to cavalry units may spend their first 5 days in the field on tanks, and their next 3 weeks on Humvees. Conversely, officers headed to a tank unit will spend the first week executing reconnaissance missions from a Humvee platoon, and then switch to tanks.

Done with the final phase.

Headed into this phase I felt confident in my ability to lead a tank platoon, but as a platoon leader in a scout platoon I felt that much of the ABOLC experience was irrelevant. The standard explanation for this shortcoming in the course is that the Chief of Armor wants ABOLC to be primarily about tanks, and lieutenants headed to reconnaissance units attend the Army Reconnaissance Course after BOLC.

The challenge of Field Phase is producing an OPORD in no more than 3 hours in field conditions. What took overnight to produce in the comfort of your own room in OPORD Phase must be replicated in less than 3 hours and then executed in an acceptable fashion. You must pass both the OPORD brief and the execution of your mission in order to pass this phase. Winning or losing the engagement does not necessarily impact your grade — you could win the execution but do so poorly and still get a failing grade. Additionally, your entire platoon could be wiped out but you could still pass if you did not violate any of the troop leading procedures and relevant doctrinal fundamentals.

Hacks for passing this phase include bringing a Garmin GPS to the field to assist in battle tracking (plotting the location of your units, adjacent units, and enemy units on a plexiglass map board), preparing GTAO’s of each AO you will be operating in ahead of time (you can’t produce a SITEMP or graphic control measures without a mission, but the terrain won’t change). Also bring multiple copies of laminated maps of the training area (use Hawg View or some other service to generate a satellite image map — many trafficable trails don’t show up on the schoolhouse map) and have plenty of overlays and markers — tanks and Humvees have a way of eating up map pens and markers. Work with your platoon to develop a comprehensive terrain model kit — it will save time and frustration.

When you are in a leadership role, be decisive but do not overstep the bounds of your responsibility. If you are the platoon sergeant, be a good platoon sergeant but don’t run the platoon. If you are a truck or tank commander, own that crew and vehicle, but don’t try to tell the platoon leader what to do. In general, a great way to avoid running roughshod over the platoon leader is to pass “recommendations” up the chain of command. Tank commanders and truck commanders can always say “sir, I recommend we do this. . .” and it is up to the platoon leader to decide if he or she wants to act on that recommendation. Acting against orders or acting without first clearing it with the platoon leader is a great way to destroy their score.

Finally, if you are going to a reconnaissance unit spend time asking the reconnaissance cadre a lot of questions while in this final phase. Even though I had read Scout Platoon a couple of times before starting the course, and asked questions during the few briefs we had about reconnaissance operations, it all didn’t “gel” until I spent time with the scout instructors in the field. They spend their time teaching a mix of fieldcraft and tactics, and they know the school is pretty light on the reconnaissance focus overall.

Another great resource during this phase are the lower enlisted Soldiers who will end up being the drivers in the Humvees. Students man the driver, gunner and tank commander slots on a tank crew (loaders are NCOs who are crew evaluators from the school house). Students exclusively man the gun trucks but due to safety concerns enlisted Soldiers are the drivers. The majority of them are willing to give you tips and suggestions about terrain, trails and field craft if you take the time to ask them. Interacting with these enlisted Soldiers is great practice for how you will interact with the lower enlisted Soldiers in your eventual platoon.

Final Thoughts

ABOLC is not an easy school, you have to work at it, but it is a very possible school to pass. The most rewarding moments for me were leading a tank platoon on a defensive mission in limited visibility conditions, and leading a scout platoon during the final exercises that brings Infantry BOLC, ABOLC and the Maneuver Captains Career Course together at the very end of the final phase. Spending a portion of the last field week working with Infantry officers on missions that involve scouts, tanks and infantry units brings the big picture into focus. Mounted and dismounted combat units have their own strengths and weaknesses, and the successful synchronization of their various assets is what gives our Army a decisive edge on the modern battlefield.

While you are going through the course, don’t go it alone. Develop friendships that span the range of the groups represented in the course. The Armor community is relatively small compared to some of the other branches in the Army, and chances are you will encounter your classmates repeatedly throughout your career. If nothing else, simply staying in touch after school allows you to tap into the wisdom your peers glean through a variety of experiences you yourself may never have.

Hit me up on Twitter.com/BrianSikma with any questions you have!

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