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The Problem with America's Force Protection Bias

    People First, Mission Always.
        -The Cadet Creed

    I will always place the mission first,
    I will never accept defeat,
    I will never quit,
    I will never leave a fallen comrade.
        -The Soldier’s Creed

Two competing values confront an Army at war. On one hand, an Army and its leaders concentrate on completing the mission, on winning. In the past, this meant taking a hill or breaking the opponent’s lines. The Generals of World War I, who sent men to die by the hundreds of thousands to maintain static battle fronts, exemplify the dedication to accomplishing the mission despite the costs.

On the opposite side, an army protects its troops by either preventing their casualties or improving their quality of life. In ideal circumstances, they lose no lives and bring everyone home like in Operation Just Cause in Panama. The Army has a word for its efforts to keep soldiers safe from harm: Force Protection.

Since Vietnam the American military has struggled to find the balance between these two values. The US Army stresses mission accomplishment, but supports soldier’s interests first. The soldiers in the U.S. Army, from top to bottom, care more about their own personal survival then the missions in Iraq or Afghanistan. I do not fault them for this, I merely ask that we recognize the fact. Our Force Protection bias will prevent the U.S. from long term success in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The only way I can prove this is with hypotheticals. Specifically, would a U.S. soldier trade the entire U.S. Army staying in Iraq or Afghanistan for one week longer if he knew his whole platoon could come home safe? No one in the Army could say they wouldn’t accept that. Every officer, NCO and soldier would do whatever it took to bring his unit home safe at the expense of a longer mission for the country.
In public, no one would admit to this. In reality, we choose a thousand times a day to protect ourselves at the expense of civilians in our area of operations. When we use overwhelming firepower, we protect ourselves at the expense of the population. When our vehicles run civilians off the road, we stay safe but anger the population. When we wear body armor and kevlar helmets, we shield ourselves but further separate ourselves from the population. Hundreds of these techniques keep Americans safe but lose Iraqi and Afghani support. In this war, survival, force protection, is always the highest priority.
Whether rifleman, cavalry scout or military policemen, when a soldier deploys his occupation is staying alive for one more week. All I ask is that we admit this fact and adjust our strategies to win these two counter-insurgencies.

nine comments

I understand the overwhelming need for protection at the risk of alienating our forces. The wearing of kevlar becoming a separation from the people we are meant to protect by demonstrating how we take less risk than they do when facing the same incident.

However, working in the emergency medical services, the one thing they teach you first, is that the emergency responder’s safety is paramount. Consider, if I responded to a crash on the freeway, it does little to help the wounded if I attempt running across three lanes of open traffic to save the injured. And that person may be imminently dying. The truth is if I die attempting to save the injured, that person will remain in peril and now someone must save me.

Along the same vain, I believe force protection ensures that our forces are protected so that they are available to respond when and where they are needed. And I look at our forces in the aforementioned countries as a peace keeping force, not as a tyrannical group of murderers. I doubt there are very many intelligent people who believe our military is there to punish the existing populations. In actuality, it remains to ensure their safety from militants who wish unrelenting harm on… well anyone because they’re militant.

I would hope, and as I am not a soldier who has been deployed I cannot say, that our soldiers see their deployment as more than “staying alive for one more week.” But that’s only a hope.

I have some other thoughts on this, but let me begin with simply asking what you would rather see? What would the alternative strategy (or strategies) be?

Will and Matt, Thanks for the excellent points and I apologize in the delay in responding on here. Matt, I love the analogy on an emergency responder. I am huge fan of analogies and other ways of thinking being applied to counter-insurgency. This falls in that category and is an excellent point. As to the future solutions, Will I feel I could probably write a book on the subject. But, to write solutions I must first lay out the problems. This, and my post on overwhelming fire power, are efforts to lay out the problems. Solutions come in several layers, in some ways waging more effective counter-insurgents, and I mean adopting the tactics that experts recommend not traditional army approaches are a start. For instance, the Key Leader Engagement is the most fundamental tactic of the US soldier, and we barely train our soldiers for them.

The new approach of LTG McChrystal— with apparently an overhaul to our ROE in Afghanistan— is a cultural shift I support. Changing culture is the next solution. These are two small pieces, but I promise there will eventually be posted on the site.

Michael, you know I’m with you on this topic. What you didn’t mention, or what I completely missed, is that force protection is 100% counterproductive in protecting the force in any time frame but the immediate. I would bet our aggresive postures have doubled the cost of life and time we will contribute to both countries. I’ve also felt the backlash from not purely shooting people, but assuming risk the risk and apprehending them- which works, minus the glory. Commanders like glory.

I think what you are getting at is more of a police-style mission and manner of operating. Police officers are faced with extremely dangerous situations everyday but they don’t shoot everyone who gets to close. That maybe an over-simplification but I think it is more or less in line.

Hello boys
All of these are very interesting and thoughtful blogs, and as you can well imagine I do not see eye to eye with all of your points but I do enjoy reading them. However, this “Force Protection Bias” commentary as I see it has a couple holes or at the least, it begs some questions so I’ll ask a couple. For one, your quote…

“ When we wear body armor and kevlar helmets, we shield ourselves but further separate ourselves from the population.”

You imply here if I am not mistaken that this is an example of force protection bias because these “images” of soldiers with kevlar etc. upset the local population I am assuming? To me and as far as this point would go isn’t this (wearing kevlar etc.) in reality just pure common sense?

Since you like anaologies…If you were a policemen and had a graveyard shift street patrol in Compton or South Side Chicago and you carried a sidearm and wore a vest would that also be a form of “force protection bias” on behalf of the police department because it may upset some local citizens? Wouldn’t you just call that common sense as well? I think it (protection bias) as a definition should and would be related more to your individual actions as soldiers and not wrapped up in the kevlar you wear.

Back to my anaology, if that same policemen on patrol in Chicago arrives during a crime armed and waving his weapon and in the process stops a rape and arrests the suspect in front of curious locals, are these locals going to be “upset” as a population because a policeman had a gun and had a body vest when he stopped this crime or are they going to accuse the police department of “force protection bias” just because the officer arrived armed?

It seems to me that you are taking something that is essential for the protection of any soldier in the field (body armor, kevlar etc.) and making it a negative, (completely undeserved) just to make your point. If the image of soldiers in kevlar and body armor upset the local citizens in Afghanistan and “reek” of force protection bias then perhaps we should place the blame on the U.S. Government’s inability to justify or to explain to the Afghan people the reasons for us being there in the first place. Perhaps if the Afghan citizens don’t like what they see in American soldiers armed and well protected then blame government policy but don’t blame the army and it’s force protection policy! Your quote… “In this war, survival, force protection, is always the highest priority.” I would simpley ask you if that is indeed an accurate statement what exactly is wrong with that???? I also would say that a great many marines I know who have served in both places would question whether or not that statement has any validity whatsoever as it applies to their experiences in the wars…so be glad you are in the army!

I don’t think the problem asserted in the article is that soldier are being protected from harm via Kevlar and by carrying weapons, rather that force protection has been taken to the point of intentional separation. The soldiers live on military bases under guard and when they go off base, it is not a casual affair, but a military action. This means serveral vehicles, all with armor and heavy weapons and helicopters on stand by. The problem with the police officer analogy is in the magnatude. I’d have no problem with an officer responding to a break in, but a severe problem living under marshal law. I think what Mike was trying to point out is that the Kevlar and tact gear is just a symbol of the already evident separation between our soldiers and those they protect.

You have some excellent points, but I think with clarification I can bring us closer together.

First, I absolutely love the police analogy. We have several posts we are working on using the Ceasefire theory and Broken Windows theory in a warzone. Policemen do an absolutely fabulous job of waging essentially counter-insurgency in their districts and the military as a whole could learn plenty from them.

Second, when it comes to police and force protection, its interesting that they where they armor underneath their shirts. In fact, community affairs officers usually show up in polo shirts to seem less imposing.

Now, my most important point is that the bias has one key part. The problem is the bias overwhelms the other War Fighting Functions. (“War Fighting Functions” is doctrinal term to define how Army’s fight wars. They are Maneuver, Fire Power, Intelligence, Logistics, Command and COntrol and finally Force Protection.) Force Protection is a vital function. Obviously we have to have walls on our bases and armor on our tanks. The primary point is that we lean too heavy towards Force Protection and this lowers our effectiveness as a fighting force. Now this does mean that our forces will take on risk, but our job is inherently risky.

Matty P and Michael C
I UNDERSTAND what both of you are saying but again the separation that no doubt exists between our soldiers and those they protect in Afghanistan is not in how the soldiers present themselves in vehicles and armor and weapons and any show of force and it isn’t in any faulty army doctrine of protection as you assert. The point I’ll tackle here is directly from your last response (Michael), your quote from your last sentence….

Now this (less reliance on force protection) does mean that our forces will take on risk, but our job is inherently risky.

I believe YOU CANNOT LEAN HEAVILY ENOUGH on your own force protection! If you are in CHARGE of any branch of military anywhere, or a government anywhere, or a platoon, or a unit, or you are a commander or any leader of any kind saddled with the responsibility of taking and leading your people into any dangerous action anywhere in the world, how can you possibly justify allowing your soldiers jobs to be more risky than they already are for any reason whatsoever even if it is to appease the local occupied population? The argument that you sacrifice or take extra risks to put a population “more at ease” at the risk of those whom you are responsible for is not rational and has never been rational and rarely if ever has been done in warfare to my knowledge. Alexander the Great? Napolean? Lee? Patton? Eisenhower? Did any of these military giants ever risk their own soldiers to appease or calm the occupied population? I know your argument will be that the occupied people in these examples were typically people whom those leaders I mentioned were attempting to destroy and/or control and the civilian population you are talking about in Afghanistan is that which we are protecting but as far as looking at military doctrine in history anywhere and at any time in history, where is there ever an example of any country or military or leader anywhere that has been willing to sacrifice their own for the happiness of the occupied territory? It is irrational regardless of any reason you could give to do so.

Now if you say we as soldiers need to treat people better in occupied territories that’s one thing and obviously this goes back to my original argument that it is all about the actions of soldiers and not their appearances or “show” of force in hostile territory that separate the population from the occupying forces. If your soldiers are running people off the road as you mentioned with their vehicles for no real reason or pushing around or intimidating the population through actions that are unnecessary then as bad as this stuff is, again it ISN’T the doctrine of protection that is unsound, it is the actions of localized military leaders who allow these things to go on that can be blamed for the separation. Don’t blame the doctrine as my point was before, blame the failed policy of a government to convince the occupied people of the justification for the use of such force. You can never protect your own enough! Does this always make the locals happy? Of course not. Does it always make things easier on the soldier in war torn territories? Of course not. I understand your point about needing to get the population to think and see things differently about the occupying U.S. soldiers to have success in Afghanistan but it will never be acceptable, sound or reasonable in any situation including Afghanistan to attempt to win over a population at the expense or added risk of or to your own soldiers period.