Exaptation of the Division Exercise Training and Readiness System (DXTRS)

Students at the Aviation Captain's Career Course analyzing terrain
Students at the Aviation Captain’s Career Course analyzing terrain


Current war gaming techniques at units are much like playing Risk! Even though we currently have the technology to challenge commanders, their assumptions, and how they fight their units. In a time when the Army needs to better capture and develop readiness in a shrinking force, the underutilization of these resources results in lost opportunities to develop the current Army. The original intent with the Division Exercise Training and Readiness System (DXTRS) was to provide these opportunities but solely within the confine of the schoolhouse setting. Instead, commander’s should take a broader look at this capability and understand that exaptation of this system can create other opportunities for growth. Exaptation describes the evolution of a specific trait that is supposed to serve a certain function but it may come to serve another function during the evolution process. Therefore, by understanding the original intent of DXTRS, the limitations of the system, and the possibility to gain experience in a budget-constrained environment, commanders may find that DXTRS can serve other functions within their organizations.
The design of DXTRS focused on schoolhouse use only and specifically for just familiarizing the students with tactical and operational decisions. For example, captains going through the Aviation Captains Career Course receive a mission to conduct a counter attack against a near-peer enemy. Near-peer means that the enemy has capabilities that are very similar to those of the United States Army. The captains then proceed into the Military Decision Making Process and develop their plan. As they develop their plan, the captains take the knowledge developed and convert it into the DXTRS program such that they gain an opportunity to see if their plan could succeed. Another example is that staffs receive a pre-developed scenario and quickly develop a plan, put that plan into DXTRS, and receive feedback on how successful their plan was in regards to the pre-developed scenario. The justification for this use of DXTRS in the schoolhouse is to provide the student a wide variety of scenarios and allow them to make decisions, which have limit impacts.
Simulations, such as DXTRS, developed as a cheaper alternative to live training. Hence, DXTRS seeks to immerse staff officers into a situation such as those faced by staffs at a Combat Training Center in order to gain a similar level of experience without the expense associated with actually going to the Combat Training Center. DXTRS is part of a two-tier system of training in regards to simulations. DXTRS falls into the first tier which focuses on a crawl and walk approach to training staff officers. This model of training is the Army standard of training, the crawl-walk-run methodology, in which an individual receives instruction in the basics by an instructor during the crawl phase, allowed to move at a quicker pace with some oversight during the walk phase, and then allowed to “run” in the last phase with minimal oversight. The run phase of this two-tiered system involves large simulations that do not exist at home station-training centers. Regional training centers, such as those at Fort Leavenworth, facilitate this run phase and allow the staffs to receive more training and experience.
For this task, DXTRS is well suited with some limitations. The current system prevents basic tactical and operational factors that affect decisions within a typical wargame such as terrain, air defense capabilities, and defensive positions. Currently, terrain does not factor into the execution of missions with the system. Individuals using DXTRS must understand the impacts of terrain on their mission but the system does not force this reality upon the decision-maker. Instead, those using DXTRS must possess an understanding of the effects of the terrain on the mission and ensure that their mission executes within those limitations. For example, a commander could have a unit of tanks drive over Mount Everest within DXTRS and the system would allow for the execution of that decision. The same types of limitations continue with air defense systems and defensive positions. The threat of air defense is lacking within DXTRS and aviation systems can fly through airspace relatively unhindered. Defensive positions do not factor into the attrition models and limit the application of DXTRS to force on force, offensive operations. Regardless, the potential for future use in order to enable mission command exists. With the proper training at mission command training centers or at local hubs, such as Fort Leavenworth, commanders could leverage DXTRS to accomplish war-gaming. Without the application of DXTRS, commanders will continue to execute war-gaming within the doctrine established and limit the possibilities of refinement, experience, and adaptability.
The advantages of DXTRS over the antiquated Army war gaming model is that DXTRS allows for collaborative planning, a quick upload of the approved course of action into the command post of the future (CPOF), and the ability for mid-mission pauses in order to correct immediate issues or proceed with a branch plan. In addition, the cumbersome math, associated with attrition models, occurs within the program allowing the staff to focus on the overall operation instead of debating whether a rocket-propelled grenade can cause a catastrophic kill on an Abrams tank. This new use of DXTRS is already occurring at two locations: the School of Advanced Military Studies and the Aviation Captains Career Course. Both institutions, without communicating with each other, came upon the same conclusion: DXTRS makes the war-gaming experience in the Military Decision Making Process more efficient for the commander about overall time and energy of the staff. Additionally, the advantage of conducting a mission multiple times without an impact on resources allows for a greater understanding of decisions such that, if faced with a similar situation in the future, the commander or staff may make an intuitive decision based upon these experiences.

A plan developed by students at the Aviation Captains Career Course in DXTRS
A plan developed by students at the Aviation Captains Career Course in DXTRS

To improve war gaming outcomes in a field environment or for a staff exercise, the injection of DXTRS into a TOC could go as follows. With step one, receipt of mission, the S3 is able to quickly generate the common operating picture (COP) for all staff sections to utilize within DXTRS through collaborative planning. Instead of working power point magic, all staff sections log into DXTRS and upload the COP as developed by the S3 on the approved map. As the staff moves into mission analysis, the shared understanding created through the COP and the ability to work independently but quickly tie everything together through collaborative planning makes the process efficient. Further, PowerPoint briefs of mission analysis may be minimized due to DXTRS’ ability to upload directly into CPOF.
Moving into course of action development, the course of action groups can maximize the collaborative planning function to create multiple courses of action quickly. These courses of action may then be “played” against the enemy’s most likely and most dangerous courses of action repeatedly for further refinement. Additionally in the process of playing the scenarios, the commander may pause the iteration at any point, make changes, or replay a key point. Throughout the process, the staff focuses on gauging the courses of action against the evaluation criteria. Upon conclusion of the war-gaming, the staff is able to effortlessly move into comparison such that approval process may occur on the spot. Upon approval of the courses of action and further refinement of the mission, the graphics in DXTRS upload into the command post of the future system instantly facilitating shared understanding.
At the Aviation Captains Career Course, two iterations of DXTRS as a war-gaming tool have occurred. DXTRS allowed the students to war-game two friendly courses of action against the enemy most likely and most dangerous courses of action in half the time it had previously taken. In addition, the conclusions concerning comparison of courses of action were apparent at the end of war-gaming. Immediately upon the conclusion of war-gaming in DXTRS, the students effortlessly arrived at a conclusion and recommendation, which the commander approved. This whole process took less than two hours, which once again, reduced the time by half in comparison to the process before DXTRS use. After the first class used DXTRS and the time gain became apparent, the next class was encouraged to use that increased time available in mission analysis to engage in a more thorough analysis. Based upon this redistribution of time, the overall product at the end of the constructive simulation was more complete and executable with violent simplicity.
The realization for many of the students at the conclusion of the exercise was that the gains made during the military decision making process in the schoolhouse should also extend to the operational force. The two barriers to implementation are exposure and education. To date, only students in two schoolhouses receive exposure and, due to time constraints, they receive little education on actual use instead relying on contractors as the subject matter experts. Regardless, these two areas are easy to correct and the gains of efficiency are possible; it just depends on whether commanders’ want to embrace the millennial generation and update the war-gaming process or continue with what is familiar.

Design Methodology for Company Commanders (Part 1)

This post is the first in a series of post which will look at why the Army Design Methodology is only stressed once becoming a field grade officer and how to apply the design methodology to company grade officers. This first post introduces the subject with future posts detailing how the design methodology fits within the constructs of the Troop Leading Procedures.

The first taste of command, for most officers, is at the company level. Arriving at this point in their career, most officers participate in leading platoons, staff operations, and a few manage companies as executive officers. Additionally, further refinement of their professional skills, begun by battalion commanders and other company commanders, occurs at a career course; yet, too often, these places of learning focus solely on checklists and processes in order to convey how to become a staff officer first followed by a company commander second. Accepting the fact that good company commanders make good formations, this approach to developing future officers is outdated. In the battlefield of the decisive action environment in which the understanding  and predictions of an event is difficult, a checklist or regimented process constricts creative thought such that an officer approachs situations with an outdated mindset. Some aspects, such as design methodology, have crept into the planning process of the Army; yet, these elements remain the hostages of other institutions such as the Command and General Staff College or the School of Advanced Military Studies. In essence, the  Army, by restricting the company-grade officers to just checklists and not equipping them with the tools to enable creative thought such as the design methodology, sends the message that mechanistic approaches to problems, at the company-level, are adequate for mission success.

The requirement of processes such as the Troop Leading Procedures (TLPs) and the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP) ensures that those unfamiliar with planning do have something to use; yet, too often, company commanders take these step-by-step instructions as the only way to approach a problem and fail to address the situation fully. As the Army rightly states, the commander is central to the operations process. At this point, the commander is understanding, visualizing, describing, and directing formations so that mission command is clear and executable enabling disciplined initiative by his or her subordinates. Breaking the process down further, the commander understands the problem, visualizes the end state as well as the design of the operation, describes aspects such as time, space, resources, purpose, and action, and then finally directs the warfighting functions. These aspects tie together in the commander’s intent and the planning guidance. This process that the commander engages in is known as the Army Design Methodology.

The elements of design methodology, though, manifest at the field-grade level. Design methodology exists to handle odd, complex, or “wicked” problems. Design methodology embraces creativity. Outside-of-the-box thinking based upon an in-depth understanding of the operational environment allows for solutions to develop. Regrettably, as previously stated, the Army stresses this creativity at the battalion and above level, but company commanders can utilize the same techniques to better define the problem. Typically company commanders can understand a situation well based upon the application of mission variables such as Mission, Enemy, Terrain, Troops, Time, and Civil considerations (METT-TC) and can follow the process in which orders develop at the company level . The failure in the current design is that critical thinking becomes the most important aspect for the company commander while creative thinking becomes more of an obstacle. Typically, company commanders have little time to fully develop a plan so they arrive at conclusions through critical thinking instead of allowing for tactical patience in which the situation may develop further. Specifically, company commanders go with the first possible problem presented even if it is the wrong problem. This assumption allows TLPs to continue but the problem addressed is wrong and may lead to mission failure or wasted energy. Therefore tactical decision makers, the company commanders, require design methodology in order to focus the energy of their company towards addressing the right problem.  

The next post will examine how the design methodology fits within the process of TLPs specifically beginning with step one, receipt of mission.

Photo credit MAJ Amos C. Fox