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The Army Level AAR- Fixing the Army from the Top

After every mission, Army units conduct an After-Action Review (AAR). Basically the unit gathers around and discusses what they did well, what they did wrong, and what to improve on the future.

The AAR is one of the few Army tools that lives up to its hype. The civilian world uses them; they just changed the name. Some call them “hot washes,” some call them evaluations, some still call them AARs. The point is, they are used all the time.

From divisions down to squads, from training to combat to office work, units throughout the Army use AARs to assess their performance. There are squad AARs, platoon AARs, battalion AARs and mission AARs. I propose a new AAR.

The Army level AAR.

The Army needs an AAR at the highest level. General Flynn, the head intelligence officer in Afghanistan, recently published an article at CNAS titled “Fixing Intel.” It reads like an AAR summary. But why did he have to publish a paper in CNAS? Why didn't he have an Army level AAR to go to?

If our leadership wants to do this well it has to do it the way units conduct AARs. Units don’t commission contractors to provide input. Units don’t bring in outside consultants. Units don't study issues for months or years. No, good units sit down and hash out their issues. They:

1. Get everyone who was involved.

2. They put everything on the table.

3. The leaders analyze the answers.

4. Then the leaders make a plan.

5. As a unit, they hold themselves accountable for progress.

General Casey should bring in all the Army generals, or as many as it can reasonably fit in one room (I know there are hundreds of Generals, more now than in WWII, but bear with me.). For one day they should brainstorm everything the Army has done well and done poorly since 9/11. When they are finished, they will publish the results on the Army blog. General Casey, as a leader, will implement the changes the AAR recommends. It sounds unrealistic, but that doesn't mean its not the right way to do things.

We are slow to change. We are slow to identify our problems. We are slow to admit that we are failing. The US Army has been the primary operator in Afghanistan and Iraq, two conflicts we have not won. The US Army does not need outside advice to win those wars, it only needs leadership. And the Army level AAR.

five comments

The problem with this is like the problem with reforming health care, there are politics involved. At some point, officers become politicians, and that corrupts the whole process. (Ex: Tommy Franks)

I think that one thing that needs to be aknowledged is the fact that most Generals especially are career oriented. A mistake discussed in something as informal as an AAR won´t normally go into a counseling report which will be read when it comes time for promotion. Generals admitting to mistakes, miscalculations, errors in judgement, operational obstacles, or doing anything but saying whatever they are in charge of is operating superbly and at very high standards could throw a monkey wrench in their career, so honesty can be counterproductive to career advancement. Generals can point fingers at one another without a problem though, and when they do things should definitely be looked into deeper.

They become politicians the moment they make major. The high speed officers become politicians when they commission.

And Chris C is exactly right on why it doesn’t happen.

As the article states, the AAR is effective when it’s done correctly. However, most times people hide their true feelings, don’t put what needs to be said on the table, and the timeline for the AAR is most often last minute. This creates a finger drill response where the AAR-er simply puts the most basic, generic comments which in the end don’t resolve any issues.

A bigger problem, however, is the plan of what to do the AAR once it’s completed. Units go through elaborate processes for AARs. Published SOPs for AARs, microsoft word documents that back up power point presentations, and even AARs over adobe breeze. Yet with all this data, no one stops to think “what will I do with this once it’s completed.” In my experience, the word documents, power points, and so forth are simply filed away in some large shared drive, never to be found again. Training rotations that units do prior to deployments are planned and executed by leaders who PCS before the next training rotation. And that AAR isn’t passed on and the unit makes the same mistakes the next time around.

An AAR is an effective tool when done right, but it needs to have a holistic plan behind it to both address current issues and resolve a way not to repeat those issues down the road. Not get filed away and forgotten.

I agree one hundred percent John about units forgetting AARs. The AAR is not just the meeting hashing out the issues, but the process of reflecting, deciding on change, then holding the whole unit accountable for change. So if something was messed up on one training rotation, before the next one starts whip out the last AAR and review what went well and what went right. Its a good point.