Sergeant’s Time? Yeah, let’s start there.

When you look for what makes great armies great, the existence of a strong, professional NCO Corps is one of the difference-makers to look for.  The campaigns of the past decade-plus have not made the U.S. Army’s NCO Corps stronger, which would be what you would expect to find after protracted conflict.  You would expect a hardening effect; the ability to cut through the bullshit and get right to what is important, the ability to put together effective small teams as if it were second nature, and to focus on the standards that matter.  The role of the NCO… and the responsibilities traditionally handled by NCO’s… have diminished.   These unplanned, undesired changes in the role and functions of NCO’s have been partially the responsibility of those who led the NCO Corps… the failure to adapt the NCO Education System to the realities of the war being fought, for instance.  Risk aversion and the ability to micromanage via technology have drawn officers to over-control; dis-empowering junior leaders, commissioned as well as enlisted.  Training cycles were centrally planned to a great extent, with brigades or above dictating schedules and tasks.  Many battalion staffs yearned for a DMETL (Deployment Mission Essential Task List) which would guide the training decisions that would go into planning Sergeant’s Time as much as they yearned for Sergeant’s Time as a meaningful part of the training schedule.

Some theater-focused training improved greatly during the progress of the campaigns.  Much time, however, was wasted on tasks that everyone knew were useless.   The dis-empowerment of the NCO Corps took place as time was wasted on training that was either inadequate, inappropriate or inconsequential.

Apparently, there is a push out there towards re-implementing some fundamental practices that we’ve gotten away from.   An NCO forum has made the recommendation to mandate Sergeant’s Time.  The linked article provides an adequate description of Sergeant’s Time, so for those of us who have never had this be a part of our training lives, we can consider the playing field level.  The article also makes a strong case for why Sergeant’s Time is beneficial… perhaps even critical… to training successful units.  I agree with all of the reasoning.

It’s a start, but only a start.

As was mentioned above, there are things that help guide what those sergeants choose to spend that precious Sergeant’s Time on.   Centralized control of training has damaged these processes over more than a generation of young NCO’s, and that’s going to make it harder to get back to where we were.  Sergeants used to drive training.  They drove training by being an integral part of defining what tasks needed to be trained.  Sergeants helped break down the commander’s METL (Mission Essential Task List) into the sub-tasks that supported the unit tasks.  Each headquarters would tell its subordinate units what the METL was for the large unit, and each subordinate unit would then propose a supporting METL to that headquarters.   So, if the brigade commander foresees a need to be able to move towards an enemy and attack it, then he would expect his subordinate units to select tasks as part of their METL that would support his intention to be skilled at attack, including the movement required to conduct an attack and the things required before an attack is initiated, such as reconnaissance.   When the higher headquarters approved the METL, then the role of the NCO was initiated.

NCO’s took apart the METL and broke it down into supporting collective and individual tasks.  They cross-referenced these to identify “high-payoff” training; training that developed skills that would support multiple collective tasks or even multiple METL tasks.  By being honest with themselves, NCO’s could choose where to spend that valuable time to develop or improve their unit’s proficiency, and its ability to support what the commander saw as being essential for mission success.  We have moved away from this model over the course of the past decade-plus.  Sergeant’s Time is a great idea… an essential idea… but what powered Sergeant’s Time is what needs to be reestablished and strengthened; the NCO’s role in defining the very training schedule which would provide that time.

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