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The After-Action Review (AAR)
Standards and Execution TTP

by MAJ Kevin B. Marcus
The AAR is the best tool we have to assess training. It is an extremely important event that links execution to assessment. Unfortunately, as extensive as our training doctrine is, this doctrine does not establish standards for success in the AAR. This article proposes some standards for the AAR and discusses tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) for achieving each of them.

This article is not meant to replace our existing doctrine; rather, it serves to augment those points addressed in FM 25-100/101 and TC 25-50, A Leader's Guide to the After-Action Review. This article also does not address each of the techniques used to achieve AAR standards. Many troop units and each Combat Training Center have effective AAR procedures and techniques which bear examination. The techniques addressed here, though, have been effective for me during the hundreds of platoon, company and staff AARs I have conducted.

Standards versus Standardization

We need to be careful not to standardize the conduct of the AAR. The end state of an effective AAR is improved unit execution. We reach that end state by achieving each of the standards described below. How you achieve the standards is largely a function of technique; trainers must match the technique to the situation. What might be effective in a formal company/team AAR at the National Training Center might not be so effective for an informal platoon AAR at Ft Riley, KS. The products used to support a brigade combat team AAR may not be effective when used to support a transportation company AAR. We should focus on the end state: improved unit execution by achieving AAR standards. Achieving standards does not equate to standardizing the conduct of the AAR.

Proposed AAR Standards and their Basis in Doctrine

1. Allow self discovery: FM 25-101 (p. 5-6) establishes that an AAR is a "structured review process that allows training participants to discover for themselves what happened, why it happened and how it can be done better." Appendix G of the same reference goes on to observe that "...soldiers learn much more when they identify for themselves what went right and wrong than when lessons are dictated." When we allow self discovery, units and their leaders internalize their shortcomings and take ownership of the solutions. Soldiers (and their leaders) are only going to fix what they see is broken.

2. Establish Cause and Effect: By definition, an AAR follows an event. The unit's actions are "effects" and serve as the basis of the AAR. The trainer and AAR participants must have a common understanding of the effects (what happened). This understanding of effect must then be linked to a cause (the "why") as a basis for problem-solving and improving unit performance. A successful AAR links effect (what happened) to cause (why it happened).

3. Focus on Problem Solving: The established purpose of an AAR is to improve unit performance. We improve unit performance by focusing on how to fix what the unit and trainer have determined to be "broken."

4. Reference Appropriate Doctrine, Tactics, Techniques and Procedures: The basis of our problem solving must lie in our doctrine. FM 25-101 (Appendix G) states that the AAR "focuses on training objectives and their linkage to METL and war-time mission." Both METL and wartime missions are framed and supported by existing doctrine. Thus, the AAR must also be framed and supported by doctrine. The trainer must know doctrine and be able to teach the unit to apply it on the battlefield. Moreover, the trainer must be able to translate doctrine into achievable TTP that allow the unit to improve execution. One caveat regarding TTP--they must be considered unique to the situation (METT-T) and not held up to be universal solutions to a tactical problem. The trainer must first ensure the unit understands the doctrine and that the "fixes" are doctrinally sound.

5. Foster Continuous Improvement: Both FM 25-100 and FM 25-101 note that AARs link lessons learned to future training: AARs ensure that by learning from past events, execution in future events is improved.. While the unit/leader may not "fix" the problem, the unit should improve after every mission and its corresponding AAR.

How to Achieve the Standards: Planning, Preparing and Executing

Planning: Planning the AAR is a continuous process; the trainer is always thinking of ways to achieve each standard and help the unit succeed. As the unit plans for a mission, the trainer plans for a successful AAR. Here are some items to support planning the successful AAR:

  • Review appropriate doctrine: Simply stated, the trainer has to know what "right" looks like. While the trainer must understand and be proficient in a wide variety of doctrinal topics/missions, before the mission he should review that mission-specific doctrine as it applies to the unit he is observing. For example, as a tank platoon plans and prepares for a defensive mission, its trainer might review direct fire planning doctrine in FM 71-1, Tank and Mechanized Infantry Company/Team, or obstacle integration doctrine in FM 90-7, Obstacle Integration. This review helps the trainer in two ways. First, it points out things to look for in each phase of the operation. Second, it provides reference material for "fixes" identified in the AAR. Maintain a portable "library" that supports a wide variety of battlefield operating systems. For example, a tank company/team trainer should deploy to the field with the following manuals:

    FM 100-5, Operations
    FM 34-130, Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield
    FM 17-95, Cavalry Operations
    FM 17-98, Scout Platoon
    FM 71-1, Tank/Mechanized Company Team
    FM 7-10,The Rifle Company
    FM 17-15, The Tank Platoon
    FM 17-12-1/2,Tank Gunnery
    FM 7-7J, Mechanized Infantry Platoon and Squad
    FM 90-7, Obstacle Integration
    FM 5-71-2,Armored Task Force Combat Engineer Operations
    FM 6-20-30, Fire Support for Bn/TF Operations
    FM 101-5-1,Operational Terms and Symbols

  • Apply predictive analysis: The trainer must be able to observe unit activities and predict what may happen as a result. For example, a mechanized infantry platoon who observes no Dragon boresight during unit preparation can predict problems during execution--we probably won't hit much with a Dragon that isn't boresighted. The trainer, armed with a knowledge of doctrinal TTP, observes everything a unit does and applies predictive analysis to understand the effects he may see on the battlefield.

  • Share information: Each echelon of trainers (e.g., platoon, company/team, task force) must understand their unit's plan relative to its higher headquarters' plan. Platoon trainers must understand the company/team commander's intent and scheme of maneuver while company/team trainers must understand the task force commander's intent and scheme of maneuver. All must know the OPFOR plan. Successful debriefs among trainers can ensure that each trainer understands the "big picture" and that each understands which key issues may arise in execution.

Preparing: Preparing the AAR can occur before, during and after mission execution.

  • Prior to the mission: Many training aids to support the AAR can be prepared before the mission. Sketches (objective area, OPFOR plan) can all be done as the unit prepares for the mission. Charts to reflect unit strengths/losses (to be filled in after the mission) and doctrinal "how to" sketches can be done as well. This preparation can save quite a bit of time after the mission.

  • During the mission:

    • Take notes: Events unfold quickly as the unit executes. The trainer has to be careful to record events as they occur. Events, such as unit BDA (who was killed, when, and to what) and content and time of fragmentary orders, should all be recorded. A technique is to use two 5"x7" index cards to ensure you capture the right information for the AAR. The first card records what happened (as it happened), why it happened and a proposed "fix." The second card is used for tracking unit BDA (Figure 1).

    • Be at the right place at the right time: To know what happened, the trainer must see things happen. You need to position yourself carefully and be in a position to see not just the enemy or just your unit. You must be able to see the enemy, your unit and also the effects of terrain on both the unit and the enemy. You can't see much if you spend the mission following your counterpart's Bradley. Neither can you see what you need to see if you simply sit on the objective and drink coffee during the entire mission.

    • Cross talk: No one trainer can see or know everything. Just as the unit's activities are only valid in relationship to other units, trainers' observations are only valid when taken in the context of the "big picture." During execution, trainers need to cross talk to ensure that key information is shared and understood. Platoon trainers ensure that the company trainers understand what their platoons are doing (and why). All trainers eavesdrop on other trainers' radio nets to ensure they know the status of adjacent units and how their unit activities are impacted.

  • After the mission:

    • Debrief your counterpart: The purpose of this debrief is to get the unit leader's perspective on what happened and why it happened. This debrief should happen immediately after the mission while events/perceptions are still fresh in the mind. This allows the trainer to focus his further AAR preparation on what the unit leader sees as the key issues.

    • Conduct trainer debrief: Following counterpart debriefs, trainer debriefs are conducted to ensure that each trainer has a common understanding of what happened in terms of the enemy, friendly units and terrain. For instance, after conducting a company/team training exercise, the platoon trainers would debrief the company/team trainer on what happened to/with "their" platoon and what they see as the key issues for their AAR. An effective trainer debrief also ensures that successive levels of AARs support each other; the platoon trainer knows which issues may be raised in the company AAR, and can support those issues in his (preceding) platoon AAR.

    • Select an AAR site: Ideally, the AAR site is positioned at the decisive point of the operation, usually coincident with the objective area or unit culminating point. In any case, position the AAR site so the participants can overwatch the area of operations. Position the AAR site so the participants are not looking into the sun, and are protected from rain/snow. Tarps/camouflage nets or the overhang of tank turrets offer some protection and are easily found and emplaced. Minimize any potential sources of distraction--do not position an AAR site in the middle of a working UMCP or next to a heavily used road.

    • Prepare the AAR site: Set up necessary aids. Some AAR aids to use include:

      • Terrain models: Ensure that the terrain model depicts the effects of terrain, and both enemy and friendly situations. Construct the terrain model using those assets easily accessible to the unit (this reinforces to the unit that they too can build an effective terrain model using those items on hand).

      • Butcher boards: Use butcher boards for sketching terrain, enemy/friendly situations and recording key issues/fixes during the AAR. Cutting the butcher board pads down to "half size" makes them easier to transport and use.

      • Doctrinal references: Have appropriate doctrinal references available (and tabbed) for easy reference during the AAR.

      • Dry erase board: These are great tools for impromptu sketches. A technique is to tape out grid lines on the dry erase board to give you an instant scaled map. Another technique is to use a metal board (lightweight metal), grid lines and micro-armor (glue magnets to the bottoms of the micro armor).

      • Colored chalk: Use colored chalk to draw terrain/execution sketches on the tank skirts or the sides of APCs. This is a very simple approach that can also teach the unit to do the same as they issue platoon/company operations orders.

Executing: Achieving the Standards

  • Establish cause and effect. The trainer must first establish what happened (effect). Effect is in terms of enemy, friendly and terrain "effect." The following may be some of the effects you will have to establish:

    Friendly
    Losses/BDA
    Mission
    Task/purpose
    Timeline
    Rounds per kill
    DA Form 2404/06
    Enemy
    Losses/BDA
    Mission
    Task/purpose
    Use of CS assets
    Terrain
    What did the terrain allow/force us to do?

    To establish effect, you have to show effect. The trainer must be able to demonstrate the cause and effect during the AAR. Some techniques for effective visualization are:

    • Use the actual terrain: Have the unit look at the actual terrain upon which they fought. With the AAR site positioned correctly, the participants can easily see the area of operations/objective area from both enemy and friendly perspectives.

    • Sketches: A picture is worth a thousand words. A series of sketches can easily portray a unit's activities in relation to the terrain and enemy/friendly forces. Use butcher board or a dry erase board to sketch first the terrain...then the enemy...and finally friendly situations. A couple of these sketches may be enough (one as the unit deploys and one at the decisive point). (See Figure 2.)

    • Terrain models: We've already discussed terrain models and, again, if you're going to use one, you must make it large enough for all to see... ensure that it accurately depicts the friendly and enemy situations and terrain.

    Once we've established WHAT happened (the effect), we establish WHY it happened (the cause) through visualization and questions designed to link the two in the unit's collective mind. An example of this process is found in Figure 3.

    The trainer has to first ask himself these "why" questions. Given that the trainer understands/sees effect, he simply asks "why" to come up with his OWN causes. In the conduct of the AAR, he asks the unit a series of "leading" questions to get them to discover their own causes. The two "causes" of an effect will usually match; if they do not, well, what is important is the unit's perception (as we'll discuss below).

    What is also important is the trainer's ability to look beyond the surface issues and keep "digging" to discover the real root cause of a problem. And tie that problem to an appropriate solution.

  • Allow self-discovery. A successful AAR is one that has the unit participants discover for themselves exactly what happened and why it happened. The unit itself has to come to grips with what needs to be fixed and how to do that. When we encourage self-discovery, the unit internalizes the problem(s) and solutions and accepts a sense of ownership for both problems and proposed "fixes."

    A soldier learns best what he learns for himself. Few units/leaders will react positively to a trainer who stands in front of them only to berate and point out their failures. The unit may acknowledge those failures (if for no other reason than to shorten a perceived "blood letting"), but they won't internalize the problems...nor will they fix them.

    To meet this standard, the trainer must first portray exactly what happened and why it happened. Simple sketches (Figure 2) can easily accomplish this. By seeing exactly what happened, the unit participants can often figure out exactly why it happened.

    Next, the trainer has to ensure that they discover "fixes" by asking the unit a series of questions designed to let them self discover both causes and solutions. There are four types of questions generally used in an AAR:

    • Open questions allow the respondent to give any response. An example may be "Company commander, what did you think of our actions on first contact this morning?" Open questions are often effective, but must be carefully handled to prevent the unit from losing focus on the issue at hand.

    • Closed questions limit the participant's responses. An example may be "Company commander, did we boresight this morning?" His answer may be either yes or no. A closed question is easy to use because it allows the trainer to focus the unit on the issues at hand, but usually limits discussion and usually requires a follow-up question.

    • Follow-up questions require the participant to elaborate on the yes or no response. An example would be "why not?" (for the above closed question response).

    • Finally, bias questions lead an AAR participant on one desired response. An example may be: "OK, given that we fired over 100 tank rounds and had no confirmed kills, was our MILES equipment/MILES boresight effective today?"

    Never ask a question to which you don't know the answer. Don't ask if they boresighted if you don't know whether they did or not.

    Also, the trainer needs to know whom to ask. As the unit plans, prepares and executes, the trainer has to be careful to listen...he can usually pick up on key leader issues as he wanders by a platoon leader's tank and hears the lieutenant's frustrated attempts to explain the company commander's operation order.

  • Focus on problem solving. We establish cause and effect to identify things we're doing well (and to keep doing them) and to identify problems (to fix). All too often, AARs are seen as "bloodlettings" because trainers spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on identifying problems at the expense of identifying ways to fix them.

    A rule of thumb:

    A successful AAR is one that dedicates
    at least 50 percent of the time identifying "fixes."

    To achieve this standard, the trainer must first ensure that the AAR is focusing on those problems that the UNIT has determined are problems. Without that sense of ownership, nothing will get fixed--at least beyond the short term.

    To solve a problem, the unit and the trainer must focus on the unit's problems, not those of higher headquarters. It does a company no good to blame its problems on an inadequate battalion operations order; the company commander cannot fix the battalion staff's problems. Neither would a battalion staff AAR benefit from a careful identification of "how those line companies screwed up our plan."

    Finally, the trainer has to be able to show them what right looks like. Draw it out...demonstrate it on a terrain model...put the unit participants in a formation and walk them through it. Have them describe what a successful end state would have looked like for their particular situation, then walk them through execution backwards. Make them show you what they should have done.

    The bottom line is this: Never end an AAR without the unit identifying concrete, achievable ways to improve their performance.

  • Reference Appropriate Doctrine, Tactics, Techniques and Procedures. The unit must recognize solutions that are doctrinally sound. Moreover, the unit has to be able to analyze the situation and understand METT-T factors that lead them to adapt appropriate tactics and techniques. They also need to understand that the technique that may have worked today may not work tomorrow.

    To achieve this standard, the trainer has to know doctrine. By virtue of his assignment, the trainer is seen as a subject matter expert. He has to live up to this identification through intensive study and preparation. At a minimum, the trainer will be well-versed on the specific training unit's doctrine: a Rifle Platoon trainer should be an absolute expert on FM 7-8/7-7J; the task force engineer trainer should know FM 5-71-2, Armored Task Force Engineer Combat Operations, and FM 90-7, Obstacle Integration. This level of expertise, however, is really "subsistence"-level stuff. To be truly effective, the trainer has to understand doctrine across the full spectrum of combat functions. CS/CSS must understand maneuver doctrine; maneuver trainers must understand fire support/field artillery doctrine. Training units will be tasked-organized with combat support assets; the trainer must understand their doctrine to ensure that he can address their issues in the AAR.

    Doctrine, however, isn't always enough. Doctrine requires judgment in application and must be modified by METT-T. The trainer needs to articulate the tactics, techniques and procedures that turn doctrine into action. Our new series of maneuver field manuals will all include appropriate "TTP" that illustrate possible methods/"ways." These are an outstanding source for the trainer as he illustrates technique. The CALL data base, CTC lessons learned, and personal experience are other sources worth examining. When discussing tactics and techniques, the trainer must be certain that the unit understands that those tactics and techniques are appropriate ONLY given specific factors of METT-T; what may have worked today may not work tomorrow.

    Finally, as with anything else in the AAR, the trainer needs to show an illustration of the doctrine, tactic, technique or procedure. Figure 4 (below) shows one example of a chart that can be prepared in advance of an AAR and referenced to support a teaching point.

    HOW TO BYPASS
    • Designate a fixing force
    • Conduct reconnaissance
    • Find/use covered and concealed routes
    • Use smoke (as required)
    • Fixing force, hand off contact to supporting force

      FM 71-1, pp. 3-45

    Figure 4: Teaching Chart

    As we discussed before, another technique is to draw a picture of what "right looks like" (Figure 5). Other examples can be found in doctrine. Look at the new FM 71-1, Tank and Mechanized Infantry Company/Team, and its sketches of the company/team assault/breach. These and other sketches found in our doctrine can be used to illustrate teaching points.

    Figure 5: Teaching Sketch

  • Foster continuous improvement. The trainer is not responsible for a unit's success or failure on the battlefield. The trainer is not in the chain of command and cannot "do" for the unit. However, when a unit does not improve over the course of a training event, the trainer has to take a share of the responsibility. A successful AAR is one that ensures the unit gets better over time. They may not "fix" everything, or even anything, but if they are showing progress, the AARs have generally been successful.

    To achieve this standard, the trainer has to hold the unit to its commitment to the "fixes" it has identified. Once we identify a problem area (and an accompanying corrective action), the trainer needs to ensure the unit follows through by implementing the corrective action(s). Continually ensure that the unit is doing what it said it would do. For instance, during an AAR, the unit commander says "...Next mission, I'm going to improve by conducting adequate reconnaissance before LD." After the AAR, as the commander plans his next mission, the trainer should remind his counterpart of the results of the AAR...and not let him get so caught up in the moment that he neglects to remember past "lessons."

    The trainer should record fixes identified in the AAR. As a lead-in to the next AAR, the trainer should review with the unit the results of past AARs, and quickly discuss the status of the identified "fixes." For example, the AAR for a unit's second offensive mission could begin with a quick discussion of those lessons during the first offensive mission. This lets the unit see (hopefully) that they are improving in some areas; while keeping visible those things on which they still need to work.

    No unit will train effectively for long when they don't see any positive gain. A unit that sees progress in itself is much more apt to grow hungry to find MORE "fixes" and improve itself further. These are the kinds of units that will make any AAR successful.

CONCLUSION

The AAR is the best tool we have to assess training and improve unit performance. Successful AARs are dependent on the trainer's ability to achieve each of these standards. Only when they are met can we use the AAR to improve unit performance.

Achieving these standards takes careful planning, extensive preparation and lots of practice. Few trainers will meet each standard in every AAR. All effective trainers, however, examine their performance, learn from their mistakes and improve with each AAR. As important as they are to our training units, the AAR deserves nothing less than that.

Note: These standards were developed by the Mechanized Infantry Team (Scorpions) at the National Training Center from 1992-94. The author thanks all those (particularly MAJ Chris Queen,MAJ Jim Adams and MSG David Bliesner) who have developed these standards and tested them in thousands of AARs.


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