How to do well on the NTC Checklist

This morning I was at the gym working out (for those of you who know me, don’t laugh to hard, this really is a true story) when I got a phone call from a longtime friend of mine who is currently working on the FORSCOM MCAT (Mission Command Assessment Team) team.  He was out visiting a unit and had a question, one that I hear pretty frequently…. “Will you gig the unit if they do/don’t do …..”  This is a question that I seriously get asked at least once every time I talk to a new unit.  My short answer is “No.”

There is a common misconception that units at NTC and JRTC are getting graded.  While I can’t speak for JRTC (however I am pretty sure this is true there too), I can say that currently there is no “report card” for a unit at the end of the rotation.  I can also say that there is no checklist or anything else that we evaluate a unit against during their rotation here.  Each unit comes here at a different level (both as a unit and as a S6 section) and we attempt to work with them at that level and bring them up.

The Role of the OC/T

When I came through NTC for my first rotation as a unit we had OCs (Observer/Controllers) who shadowed us.  They barely spoke to us, and when they did, it was often to question why I had or hadn’t done something.  They stood behind me, talked into their radio and didn’t do much else besides take notes.  At the end of the rotation, we would get our AAR and find out just how bad we were.  I don’t know for sure, but I have been told that during that time, there actually was some sort of report card but I was way to junior at the time to have to worry about that.

Sometime since then, the OC has gone away and we have been turned into OC/Ts (Observer, Coach, Trainer).  I have no idea when this change was made, although I do know it was sometime during the Iraq/Afghanistan years.  Units were coming here prior to deploying and because of timelines it didn’t matter how good/bad you did, you were going to deploy anyway so we might as well make you as good as possible.  With that change, the whole attitude of the people working here at NTC changed too.  While we still talk in our radios and take lots of notes (I honestly have a horrible memory, and after 21 rotations, things start to blur together frequently so I have to take notes just to keep things straight), but we are much more hands on with the unit.  I can honestly say that it is the goal of pretty much every OC/T out here to make sure that the unit is better when they leave then when they got here.

How exactly we do that changes a little from rotation to rotation based on personality and skill level of the unit.  For me personally, I like to sit down with the Net Tech for the unit and their Soldiers and find out what they are curious about, what have they already identified as needing work, and what can we do in our relatively short period of time working together to improve that.  I ask frequent questions about their plans and ask questions to hopefully, have them consider cost/benefit, and other possibilities.

Some units are very easy to work with and take suggestions/comments very well.  For these guys, I personally think that we have a very beneficial rotation.  For some others, they take the attitude that they know everything and won’t even consider the possibility of they don’t.  For a unit like that, I generally sit back, let them execute their plan and when it falls apart in the middle of a battle, try to get them to understand why, explain why something may have worked better, and look at what we can do to improve in the future.  After all of my rotations, I honestly can only think of one unit who remained more or less unchanged for the entire rotation.

Do we Need Checklists?

The NTC Checklist
The NTC Checklist

Do we need checklists?  Absolutely!  The MCAT team has a checklist that they use each time they visit a unit.  I would love to post a copy of it here but have been asked not to.  While I don’t think it is perfect, it is a pretty good checklist and can help show units critical areas where they need to improve.

Units should use checklists to evaluate themselves continually.  They should be used to ensure out teams know what they are supposed to do and are able to do it correctly.  They should be used to ensure that we have the procedures and policies in place to allow the unit to operate within regulation and as efficiently as possible.  Outside sources should also use checklists to verify what we think we already know about ourselves.  These outside sources should include the MCAT team as well as our Division G6.

The CTCs, on the other hand, should not be a checklist.  We look at an entire overall process of how the brigade interacts as a whole, not just within the brigade S6 but between all S6s and with the rest of the staff as a whole.  We want to see if the S6 can create a plan that supports the overall operation and how they handle things when it falls apart because as Helmuth von Moltke said “No plan of battle survives contact with the enemy”.

I would like to assume (although this is rarely true) that a unit has already done everything that you can put on a checklist.  They should have SOPs in place, trained operators, know how to use their systems, etc.  The Army shouldn’t have to spend $20 million dollars to move a brigade’s worth of Soldiers and equipment to the middle of the Mojave jus to tell you “You don’t have this in your SOP.”  The CTC should be the place to see how each of those individual checks that are or are not already on the checklist come together to make an operation work or fail.

I Spent a Month in the Desert and all I got was….

So what do you get at the end of a month in the desert (4 days of RSOI, 1 day moving into the box, 14 but soon to be 18+ training days in the box, plus the time on the front and back end for flying, receiving equipment, wash racks and everything else)?  For you signal folks you get a DVD with a bunch of “smart guy” stuff, a copy of your final signal AAR (50+ pages) and to spend 2 hours with me and my boss and the other signal trainers helping lead you through an AAR.

The AAR is what you as a unit make of it.  My boss can sit there and lecture for 2 hours while you nod off or ideally we are there to help guide the discussion, provide some ideas to talk about, and let you as a unit figure out for yourselves what did and didn’t work.  I will tell you our AAR slide deck has support slides for nearly any topic you could imagine relating to signal, but we will normally only touch on maybe half of them.  In a perfect world, you talk about what you want to, and we just provide the slide to support whatever particular topic you’re talking about at the time.

There is no report card or anything else along those lines.   If there is a significant problem with something we’ll talk to key people across the force to help address the problem but even then it’s not a “He sucked at this…” it is more “The unit had significant equipment shortages and needs help from FORSCOM to rectify….”

After that, the highlights and lowlights of your rotation get added to our continually evolving slide deck of trends that we talk to future units, future commanders, and future S6s among just a few in an effort to help improve the force.  You’ll notice on here (and the same is true with our official trends slides) I never call out a particular person or unit because 1.  It’s not fair to them and 2. Almost everything I write about here is a trend too which means that it’s not just one unit, but many units that do the same thing.

In closing, I ask a few things.  First, get a checklist (FORSCOM G6 MCAT has a very good one) and use it to give yourself an honest self-evaluation of where you stand as a unit.  Work with outside groups (Division and FORSCOM G6) to have them verify what you think you already know about yourself.  Fix everything that is possible and when the time does come for you to come here on a CTC rotation, come with an open mind.  Your unit will do something here that it likely hasn’t done before (at least not in a very long time) which is not easy to do.  Be ready to learn.  Be open minded.  Be ready to at least consider (I don’t care if you do what I say, but give me and my coworkers the respect of at least listening to and considering) what the OC/Ts have to say.  Be ready for a few weeks of suck but a lot of learning.

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