Fight like a starfish: Squads going lighter, deadlier and decentralized [UPDATED]

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Attention NCOs: It’s time to read The Starfish and the Spider.

Spiders die when their heads are cut off, and starfishes can multiply when they lose any part of themselves. The book uses this biology lesson to compare how top-heavy organizations and civilizations crash while decentralized, adaptable movements thrive–and it’s a favorite of the top Army general Gen. Martin Dempsey.

Working with authors Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom, Training and Doctrine Command started its Army Starfish Program last year. There are some signs of it seeping in.

“The past eight-plus years of war have taught us many things as an Army,” said Dempsey, while he was TRADOC commander and we were just eight years into the war. “One particular lesson we’ve learned is that decentralized threats are best countered by also decentralizing our own capabilities. To adapt to what we’ve learned, the Army is training its leaders to think, act and operate in a more decentralized fashion.”

This week’s Army Times (on newsstands only until next week, so go buy it) details how the Army plans to implement these principles to transform the brigade-centric Army into the squad-centric Army.

“The nine-man squad,” Dempsey says, “is the center of our universe.”

Maj. Gen. Robert Brown, commander of the Maneuver Center of Excellence says, “Dominant everywhere is unrealistic. You have to be dominant at a given place and time. We must establish  favorable conditions while retaining  the squad’s ability to react. We are surprised way too much.”

Although neither man mentions Starfish, you just have to read between the lines. The idea is to use cutting-edge technology to push intelligence and surveillance usually given to divisions to small units, to give them lighter equipment, better training, more trust and more responsibility.

The idea is that the Army must be more adaptable to fight adaptable  organizations.

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  1. About time. H.J. Poole has pushed this concept since 1997 with his books. My experience as a National Guardsman starting in the 80s also reflects this as we were trained by Vietnam vets. To beat a guerilla you have to be a better guerilla. It seems that we always have to re-learn the obvious. My experience in Iraq in ’06 was a lack of confidence in the enlisted soldiers and leaders by the officers who seemed mostly concerned with OERs. Regardless of the fact that most of the enlisted leaders had many more years of experience. This also led to a lack of confidence in the officers by the enlisted which results in a term I heard recently “toxic leadership”. You can’t run a squad or platoon from a TOC miles away. The guys on the ground have to have the ability to make immediate decisions without radioing back for permission. Small unit training has always been our strong suit. Most of the major operations in WW2 went bad but the day was saved by small unit leaders.

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