Putting the Fight Back in the Staff

Lt. Col. Matthew T. Archambault, U.S. Army

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Brigades come to the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) to fight and win. Everyone knows that. A brigade combat team’s (BCT) purpose, its raison d’etre, is to fight and win. And in training to fight and win, much learning occurs as brigades compete against the world-class opposing force at JRTC as well as in exercises at the Army’s other combat training centers (CTCs). This article will focus on ten common shortcomings derived from lessons learned at JRTC (depicted in figure 1) that span not only warfighting functions but also component parts of a brigade’s ability to conduct mission command. These are provided to help units prepare for their experience at a CTC.


Among those observations, failure to integrate external units or conduct rehearsals of critical capabilities in reception, staging, onward movement, and integration undermines the technical means brigades have for mission command and misses an opportunity for team building with those external units. Additionally, the failure to move from conceptual planning to detailed planning as well as failing to synchronize the full effects of BCT combat power due to ineffective time management precludes accomplishment of mission orders. However, though these individual shortcomings adversely affect a BCT’s ability to fight and win, they are largely symptomatic of a larger problem that this article attempts to address: brigade staffs are not arriving trained and ready to fight.

Fighting as a Team

Before arriving at a CTC, brigade staffs must know how to fight as teams rather than as collections of individuals doing stove piped staff work. Successful brigades organize their staffs to enable disciplined initiative by

  • placing the most seasoned members at “points of friction,” where it is most likely that key decisions will be required at critical times and expected events,
  • ensuring individual and collective staff training has been methodically and iteratively conducted prior to arrival to facilitate the development of a level of trust that will ensure a cohesive team during the CTC experience, and
  • developing among staff members in all capacities the required attitude—the tenacity to deal flexibly and effectively with an ever-changing scenario against an oftentimes unpredictable and frustrating peer enemy.

Success at JRTC, as in war, can only result by seeing things as they are, not as one might wish them to be. This is the primary mission of the staff. The BCT staff exists to provide this clarity of perception to the commander and to ensure that the commander can focus on the most important decisions without getting bogged down in those that are more mundane that can be handled by others.

When to Take Action

Knowing is not enough; a response is often required. Many tactical operation centers (TOCs) display signs that read, “Who else needs to know?” Implicit in those signs is action must follow. However, observations at JRTC suggest that staffs often do not understand what actions are necessary when faced with new information or changing circumstances. A common scene in a brigade TOC is as follows:




RTO: Unmanned aerial surveillance (UAS) spots two T-80 tanks at grid Alpha Lima one-four-seven-five, nine-eight-six-five.

COLLECTIVE PERSONNEL IN THE TOC: Alpha Lima one-four-seven-five, nine-eight-six-five.


And that’s it, the TOC battle drill completes.

However, there are a myriad of actions that such information should necessitate. Compare the above to a more successful TOC scene:


RTO: Attention in the TOC!


RTO: UAS spots two T-80 tanks at grid Alpha Lima one-four-seven-five, nine-eight-six-five.

CHIEF OF OPERATIONS (CHOPS): Roger, are they stationary?

RTO: Sir, I don’t know.

CHOPS: Call him back. Battle captain, plot that grid on the analog map. S2, why haven’t you dropped an icon on the Joint Battle Command-Platform? Where are those tanks? Fires, what do we have available right now to shoot those tanks? Aren’t they on our high priority target list?

FIRES NONCOMMISSIONED OFFICER: Roger, sir. They are on the high priority target list. Recommend Joint Task Force 21’s 155 mm guns and save our own. We’ve only four guns left in Charlie battery.


Unfortunately, the sense of staff urgency that the second scenario depicts above is not commonly observed at JRTC. And if we are being honest, the first scene sounds remarkably like the staff reaction in Afghanistan or Iraq when a patrol found an improvised explosive device (IED) along a highway. Sure, there was risk, but the threat was not dynamic and a response was not time sensitive. Additionally, there were likely a myriad of other competing events demanding the attention of staff primaries off the TOC floor that were deemed a higher risk than discovery of a stationary IED because the relatively routine discovery of an IED or the report of a single-rocket attack does not ordinarily threaten in a significant way the existence of the brigade. After hundreds of such events, commonly experienced over the course of the last decade and a half, TOCs changed to where they were no longer hubs of integrating information. As a consequence, seasoned primary officers capable of acting on information in a high threat and extremely dynamic operational environment migrated off the TOC floor; they have yet to return.

Essential Role of Primary Staff Officers

In the highly dynamic environments proffered at the CTCs, the role of primary staff officers is to act decisively and with initiative on the TOC floor in response to emerging developments. To do the staff primaries, those on the TOC floor, must have the technical and tactical acumen to anticipate where and when they must be in order to help make the key decisions required when information arrives revealing emerging issues.

Referring again to the second scene provided above, most would agree that the staff response was far better than the first. The primary difference is attributable to the difference in staff member experience. Field grade officers on staff have a minimum of eleven years of experience. In contrast, their assistants, regardless of how talented they are, have far less. Such staff experience is essential for successful decision-making by primaries; they understand the ramifications of a particular event or piece of information and know the appropriate actions to take in response. As a result, a major is more likely to hear another field grade officer communicate an observation and reflexively act or respond with the impact to his or her functional area than officers of more junior rank and experience.

Additionally, NCOs-in-charge may have even more experience than the primary staff officers. However, those individuals are also often not found on the TOC floor where they could provide the benefit of their experience to the decision-making process. Instead, they are distracted by having to manage their respective cells or warfighting functions.

Brigades need a commonly understood system for managing where primary staff officers go throughout the battle. The staff needs to be a team, not just a collection of warfighting function cells. Basketball provides a useful metaphor for fluidity of action by a staff when compared to its set piece counterparts of football and baseball. While a basketball coach or point guard may occasionally call a time out to direct offensive or defensive plays for specific situations, the team members usually run the team system and call plays while actually playing the game. They seamlessly adjust to each other and react cohesively and in unison to the actions of their equally dynamic opponents. Experience with each other enables them to move the ball adroitly past their opponents, perhaps with a no-look pass or an alley-oop from one teammate to another that has anticipated the pass due to experience playing together.

In such fluid environments, individual talent is useful, but only experience practicing as a team allows teammates to play fluidly and cohesively together in a game. Having experienced primary staff officers in the current operations section and on the TOC floor makes it possible to have the Army equivalent of the no-look pass. Confidence in a high level of staff member competence decreases the burden on the CHOPS, who can then focus on priority concerns in recognition that other important details are being competently handled by other staff members. An aspirational scene follows:


RTO: Attention in the TOC!


RTO: UAS spots two T-80 tanks at grid Alpha Lima one-four-seven-five, nine-eight-six-five.

S2: What?

CHOPS: Is that important? Battle captain, plot it on the map.

BATTLE CAPTAIN: Already done, sir.

S2: It is important because it might indicate the 1711 is further forward than we anticipated. Assistant S2, check the latest reports from the division.

CHOPS: Do we want to shoot them?

FIRE SUPPORT OFFICER: Not with our organic guns. We currently don’t have anything flying that can kill them.

CHOPS: Call the joint task force. See if we can get any immediate support.

BATTLE CAPTAIN: Sir, that grid is less than a click from Assassin Battalion.

CHOPS: Roger. Notify them of what we’ve observed so they can take necessary precautions. Also, call the cavalry squadron and let them know some enemy got through the screen line.

S2: We might need to develop a branch plan and develop some courses of action for the boss to consider.

CHOPS: Agreed. I’ll pull the executive officer out of the logistics synchronization meeting. Battle captain, send the S3 a message on the Joint Battle Command-Platform so he and the commander are aware of what we’re doing and what he can expect when he gets back.


Incorporating Risk into Decision-Making

The third scenario describes primary staff officers working on the TOC floor, hearing information enter the TOC, reacting to that information based on their understanding of the plan, and having a conversation with other staff primaries about contemplated actions that implicitly incorporate prudent consideration of risk. In comparison, the first scene depicted the only field grade officer, the CHOPS, recording information and not adequately acting on it. The result in the first scene was a brigade that did not accurately or adequately evaluate, or even perceive, risk related to the new information, and so missed an opportunity to synchronize operations in a timely fashion to neutralize the threat and mitigate the risk.

The ability to perceive risk is critical to modifying behavior. If someone standing in front of you indicates he or she is going to strike you from the motion of his or her arms, you will likely defend yourself or move, or a combination of both. Similarly, brigades know when they are in a decisive-action environment, and no one has to tell them that an opposing brigade tactical group represents a higher risk than a single static IED. Responding to a static IED requires limited synchronization of actions or requirements for higher-level approval. Moreover, battle drills and well-developed checklists for the staff for relatively routine events alleviate adopting a crisis mindset for every emerging event and the necessity for field grades to remain on the TOC floor to make every decision. Conversely, they highlight when, where, and under what conditions the presence of an experienced primary staff officer is necessary in the TOC to make critical decisions. For example, in reacting to something like the appearance of maneuvering enemy armor, a battle captain or the CHOPS cannot ordinarily authorize an F-16 to drop a bomb.

Other Risk Factors

Experienced staffs will have acquired sensitivity to the fact that risk does not arise only from external threats. For example, look at the brigade itself and the friendly force information requirements. Failure to anticipate the significance of a loss of key engineer assets or of units becoming critically short on Class I (food, rations, and water) or Class III (petroleum, oils, and lubricants) is just as much risk to winning the fight as successful actions by the enemy. As such issues emerge, the staff must make adjustments expeditiously.

To illustrate, the reader is invited to replay the scenarios above with information arriving in the TOC depicting the brigade’s combat power as deficient or not compatible with the plan. To effectively deal with emerging factors, a rise of perceived risk demands a parallel rise in synchronization, not only in lethal actions but also in actions to manage resources and internal adjustments. Figure 2 illustrates the linear relationship between increasing perceived risk and a unit’s increasing attempts at synchronization.


Since the resources available to deal with all situations that arise are finite, a loss of combat power in one battalion will adversely affect not only its own ability to accomplish its mission but also the brigade’s main effort. The ability to perceive and anticipate risk starts with the staff’s ability to understand the plan at the level of detail that facilitates initiative.

Successful brigades place their experienced leaders at points of friction—places and times where critical decisions must be made and staff actions must be synchronized. Two critical friction points that potentially impede the staff and decision-making process exist for the brigade command post: the TOC floor and the plans tent. Just as the point guard of a basketball team does not remain static at the top of the court, primary staff officers cannot always remain in one place or another. However, the answer does not have to be either-or. The individuals most capable of discussing and developing a plan are the same people who are capable of managing the fight on the TOC floor. The solution is to organize the staff in order to allow the movement of primary staff officers to where they are most needed. This implies assistants, NCOs-in-charge, and soldiers must know what to do and how to do it when they are required to stand in the gap left by the primary staff officer’s absence.

Dynamics of the TOC

Heretofore, we have discussed the TOC broadly. At this point, we will examine in more detail the functioning of the TOC. As noted, leaders operating as primary staff on the TOC floor are generally assigned there because they have the ability to clearly see the reality facing the brigade and the experience to react appropriately to that reality. In situations of dire and less-than-dire straits, the primary staff officer’s focus is on the action or crisis of the moment.

The 1997 version of Field Manual 101-5, Staff Organization and Operations, called this “monitoring”: “measuring, analyzing, and reporting performance to compute or otherwise identify variance from the plan or its assumptions, and to forecast change.”1 The idea is not completely synonymous with battle tracking but it is close enough. The primary staff officer then funnels that into his or her running estimate. The aggregate of the primary staff officer’s running estimates comprises the much spoken of, and the much misunderstood, common operational picture (COP), which is not, despite mythology, a Joint Battle Command-Platform screen or map board.2 Rather, the COP is the aggregate of running estimates from the staff. The map board with the disposition of friendly forces is only part of the running estimate belonging to the S-3 (movement and maneuver).

Doctrine is clear about the importance of the COP and its role in maintaining shared understanding. An assistant staff officer will not maintain the running estimate to the same level of fidelity as the primary staff officer. If the assistant is delegated primary responsibility for running estimate, shared understanding will suffer. However, primary staff officers cannot remain on the TOC floor indefinitely, and they must leave for fighter management reasons and to plan. Consequently, managing talent—deliberately organizing the staff in a manner that takes into consideration individual talent and relative experience—becomes paramount.


The Plans Tent

The common observation from the plans tent closely resembles deficiencies observed on the TOC floor. Where assistants or staff officers with limited or insufficient experience show up for planning to represent a warfighting function, their contributions to detailed planning will inevitably be unsatisfactory and insufficient. The result will be that the lead planner will be compelled to be highly directive in the process and overconsumed in closely reviewing and synchronizing minute details of the plan.

Recall the basketball analogy. The brigade staff needs to be a team that arrives at JRTC already capable of self-synchronizing. The frequently observed JRTC shortcoming noted in unit evaluations that reads, “struggles to move from conceptual to detailed planning” occurs most often because the individuals planning do not get to the proper level of detail during planning time frames allowed. Often, that is not their fault. They are simply unprepared in terms of staff organization and experience to use the limited time optimally. This does not imply the captains or assistants should endure more classes or training. Rather, it is meant to suggest putting the most-qualified individual available in one of the two friction points (the plans tent) and assuming (prudent) risk on the TOC floor for the eight hours it should take to conduct the military decision-making process (MDMP). That is, the primary staff officer goes to the plans tent with a copy of the latest running estimate to participate in planning. The assistants in the TOC mind the gaps with instructions to (a) continue to update the running estimate and (b) immediately inform the primary of updates. The arrangement of primary staff officers in such a manner affords the brigade the greatest chance to identify risk and synchronize efforts in a timely manner.

Staff Officer Relationships

One additional step is necessary: raising the awareness and understanding of the junior leaders. Leaders with twenty years or more in the Army may recall information flow prior to the proliferation of laptops and network access. Information arrived at the TOC either by field manual, radio, or courier; control was simple.

In contrast, today, every soldier on staff has a laptop and multiple means of receiving information. Information may not arrive directly to the TOC but may be funneled into a warfighting function cell instead. The challenge is then raising each soldier’s understanding of the plan briefed at the operation order in order to sensitize him or her on what is vital information that needs to be conveyed to the TOC. For example, the intelligence analysts must understand the obstacle plan the brigade intends to use for their defense. The logisticians need to understand what is on the critical asset list and the defended asset list.

Two things occur as leaders share this information with their subordinates. First, they are provided an opportunity of contributing to the team should they come across information that puts the plan at risk. And second, it prepares them for assuming positions of greater responsibility. Leaders must note that there is a difference between being told what to do and understanding what to do.

Talent Management

Sharing information and actively integrating the staff into a team should not just happen during mission execution. Brigades must deliberately organize their staffs to manage the talent available. Talent is finite even apart from the delineation between primary staff officers and their assistants. Using a football term, brigades need to adopt a depth chart analysis approach for managing their leaders.

Once properly organized with primary staff officers leading on the TOC floor and in the plans tent, staffs need repetitive opportunities sharing information to refine the staff’s standard operating procedures. This staff training glide path is just as important as training plans for companies, troops, and batteries. To this end, the brigade’s leaders must place their home-station training into proper context and manage their expectation with the experiences awaiting them at any CTC.

There is a reason CTCs exist. Nowhere else can a brigade find a training environment as realistic and challenging as combat. Regardless of the resources a division commits to a home-station culminating training event (CTE), they cannot stress a brigade and create enough risk that demands synchronization and a decentralized reliance upon subordinate leaders. That is not to say brigade leaders cannot take the opportunity to emphasize issues discussed above. But without a free-thinking, peer threat; a dedicated set of observer-controller/trainers (OC/Ts); and an operations group focused on managing conditions in the environment, the brigade will not feel the effects necessary to maximize training objectives.

Training objectives are paramount at JRTC. The OC/Ts focus on safety and the brigade’s training objectives. The entire apparatus of OC/Ts and an operations group focus on collecting data against metrics relative to the training objectives. JRTC’s intent is to create an unbiased understanding of how the brigade is doing and to help the brigade see itself.

Based on conditions and empirical evidence, rotational design, and the day-by-day corporate understanding of those training objectives, an operations group decides when to stop the brigade and conduct an after action review. Unlike situational training exercise lanes or former rotational designs, brigades are not told, “OK, defend.” Instead, brigades conduct reception, staging, onward movement, and integration into a designated area of operations. They then receive an order to “attack” or “defend” by Joint Task Force 21 and identify when they need to transition. If they are attacking, they need to know where they would like to defend because the unwritten law of combat is that if one is not attacking then one is defending.

As a matter of standard operating procedure, the operations group will not place the brigade on key terrain. Moreover, the opposing force will not allow, if they can help it, the brigade to take that key terrain. If the brigade’s attack fails, the brigade must identify this in time to make adjustments to their defensive planning. If the brigade’s defense is not completely successful (i.e., the opposing force seizes key terrain uncomfortably close to or within the brigade lines), the brigade must manage the transition to the offense.

In dealing with the dynamic unfolding events described above, commanders assume great risk with inexperienced or inadequately organized staffs. It is not an uncommon observation that commanders, as a result of frustrations with their staff, try to manage and fight through their subordinate commanders. However, the problems and speed in which events unfold are usually more complicated than a commander can handle on his or her own. In the absence of a well-trained and well-rehearsed staff, commanders assume unnecessary risk (see figure 3) by undercutting their own ability to create shared understanding with the consequent ability to react to problems.3


As brigades face the friction of deploying to JRTC, responding to a new higher headquarters, fighting on new terrain, dealing with unrelenting timelines, and confronting the continuous onslaught of a determined and capable enemy, they can easily succumb to the boiling frog syndrome if they do not have a staff fully integrated into the fight.4 Inured in a system they validated in their division-enabled brigade CTE, they respond with surprise. Brigades often remark, “I’m surprised at how long it took to do things (like planning, movements, CP [command post] transitions).” The brigade does not do MDMP any slower at JRTC than it did at home station, but it may be conducting the MDMP while in mission-oriented protective posture level two, which means implementing protective measures when the likelihood of a chemical and/or biological attack is possible. Or it may have to relocate CPs in the middle of MDMP due to opposition force air assets locating their TOCs and firing rockets at them. Or they may have more uncertainty in their running estimates because the enemy compromised communications within the brigade and not all units made the communications security jump.

Surprise is common, but what is important is the brigade’s reaction to surprise. According to Tzvi Lanir from Tel Aviv University’s Center for Strategic Studies, there are two choices, situational and fundamental.5 The first option results essentially in trying harder. Do what we have been doing but do it better. The second option, fundamental learning, is to change “how” and “what” we have been doing, which is very hard. The system and understanding you arrive at JRTC with comes with investment, and perhaps ego.

The “try harder” response often leads to frustration within the brigade because it does not solve the problem. Brigades do not come to JRTC with an apathetic attitude, and when their ideas and what they validated at their CTE are not working, they get frustrated. They vent some frustration at the OC/Ts. Defensive routines and blaming external stimuli is normal.6 Training objectives remain paramount though, and OC/Ts strive, based on their observations, to help the brigade see itself so it might make necessary changes.

JRTC manages the conditions of chaos circling the brigade so that it does not come apart at the seams but stays at that tenuous point; then, it coaches as necessary. One of the most significant aspects of managing the chaos is not providing the brigade everything it needs. Constraints and resource shortfalls are critical aspects of risk. To do otherwise would suppress disorder and deprive an opportunity for fundamental learning because having all the resources they want would mean they could manage within their current system and understanding of combat.7

If frustration consumes the brigade, they will not focus on fundamental learning.8 Senior mentors—division commanders or assistant division commanders—play a significant role in helping guide OC/Ts and operations group, and in ensuring frustration does not consume the brigade. They know the chain of command better. Listening to OC/T observations, providing guidance for coaching brigade leadership, and providing reinforcing fires through engagements with the brigade during the training exercise, the senior mentor helps focus the brigade on fundamental learning.

The most crucial lesson being learned at JRTC is that the staff needs to be fully actualized in the brigade fight and demonstrate a savage tenacity, no different from their companies, troops, and batteries, even in the face of adversity. As noted previously, this adversity is more than simple weather conditions; it includes threats to their very existence in the form of chemical attacks, indirect fire, enemy air attacks, and direct assaults upon the TOC. Jumping (relocating) a CP is exhausting and a risk to maintaining shared understanding, but it is an essential survival function staffs must master to be effective. Managing the staff’s organization (and effectiveness) through the process of jumping CPs requires deliberate planning.

Recommendations and Conclusion

William James in The Moral Equivalent of War wrote, “It may even reasonably be said that the intensely sharp competitive preparation for war … is the real war, permanent, unceasing; and that the battles are only a sort of public verification of the mastery gained during the ‘peace’ interval.”9 The biggest resource shortfall threatening a brigade’s training glide path for the war at JRTC is time. The staff must have just as an important place in the training calendar as the live-fire schedule. Recommendations for brigades coming to JRTC are as follow:

  1. Organize the staff and develop a standard operating procedure that moves the primary staff officers back and forth in a deliberate effort between the TOC and plans tent, the two most significant areas of friction a brigade staff faces.
  2. Provide adequate individual training for staff members. Individual training is the foundation for collective training; the tenet is as true for the staff as it is for squads, platoons, and companies.
  3. Develop a training glide path just as sacrosanct as the live-fire glide path that ensures not only soldier proficiency with their equipment and in their military operational specialty but also collectively as a staff: current operations, plans, and administrative logistics operation centers.
  4. Provide repetitive training opportunities for staffs to practice MDMP; this is essential. It is not enough to do MDMP at the Leader Training Program and during the CTE.
  5. Place the brigade CTE into its proper perspective. Divisions provide brigades the best opportunity to be ready for JRTC by enabling a tough and realistic CTE. Leverage the CTE to validate concepts of CP transitions, ensure mission command systems are ready, and exploit another repetition at visualization through full MDMP.

The staff is the last entity within brigades still suffering from a counterterrorism mindset or a counterinsurgency hangover.10 Successful brigades organize their staff to enable disciplined initiative by placing the most seasoned members at points of friction, ensure individual and collective staff training to facilitate trust (and by extension a cohesive team), and develop a savage tenacity in the face of an ever-changing environment and peer enemy. Those are the brigades that come closest to getting 100 percent of the brigade staff to do 100 percent of the work.


  1. Field Manual 101-5, Staff Organization and Operations (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 31 May 1997), 6-3.
  2. Matthew T. Archambault, “Good COP, Bad COP,” JRTC Newsletter (2nd Quarter, 2019), accessed 25 April 2019, https://www.milsuite.mil/book/groups/jrtc-operations-group/content?filterID=contentstatus%5Bpublished%5D~category%5Bnewsletters%5D (login required).
  3. Matthew T. Archambault, “The Three Generation Dilemma,” Military Review Online Exclusive (June 2018), last updated 29 June 2018, accessed 10 April 2019, https://www.armyupress.army.mil/Journals/Military-Review/Online-Exclusive/2018-OLE/Jun/Three-Generation-Dilemma/. We adapted the graphic to better highlight the area of risk assumed by the commander for bypassing his or her staff.
  4. Wikipedia, s.v. “boiling frog,” last modified 28 March 2019, 16:33, accessed 27 March 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boiling_frog. “The premise is that if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out, but if the frog is put in tepid water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death.”
  5. Tzvi Lanir, Fundamental Surprise: The National Intelligence Crisis (Tel Aviv, Israel: Center for Strategic Studies, 1983), 24.
  6. Ibid., 25.
  7. Ibid., 120 and 281.
  8. Antoine Bousquet, The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 176.
  9. William James, “The Moral Equivalent of War,” accessed 27 March 2019, http://www.uky.edu/~eushe2/Pajares/moral.html.
  10. Gail A. Curley and Paul E. Golden Jr., “Back to the Basics: The Law of Armed Conflict and the Corrupting Influence of the Counterterrorism Experience,” Army Lawyer (September/October 2018): 23, accessed 27 March 2019, https://tjaglcspublic.army.mil/back-to-basics.


Lt. Col. Matthew Archambault, U.S. Army, is a senior observer-controller/trainer at the Joint Readiness Training Center. He holds a BS from the United States Military Academy and an MS from the School for Advanced Military Studies. His battalion command was in Germany. He previously served at Joint Base Lewis-McChord and has deployed to Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan.


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July-August 2019