November 1, 2012  

Don’t box in the red team

It must be free to truly challenge the organization

Red teaming is a white light that takes on various characteristics as it shines through the prism of different organizations. Some teams focus on physical intrusions, while others strive for projections or emulations; and the cyber realm has ushered in a whole host of new challenges. None is “right” or “wrong.”

But as the community of interest pursues the incorporation of red teaming into joint doctrine over the next year, there is a danger that the concept may be unhelpfully described as a tool best used to emulate and understand an operating environment and its human terrain. If this happens, it will lead to the end of independent red teams, and perhaps the greater idea of red teaming as a whole.

Instead, we must spread the word that red teams serve commanders best when they scrutinize not just adversaries and partners, but also “blue” forces — including their own units. At its core, the red team mission is about challenging the organization to make it better; its motto is “per provocatio roboratus,” or “strengthened through the challenge.”

Two Approaches

A brief history of Army-Marine Corps cooperation helps illuminate how each service has come to approach red teaming.

In 2008, the Marine Corps and Army agreed to work together to continue developing the concepts of red teaming. Five Marine officers were assigned to the Army Directed Studies Office, the red team for Headquarters, Department of the Army.

For two years, this Army-Marine team worked on projects at the service, combatant command, component and brigade levels, building up broad experience from which to draw lessons. Although tasking was nominally received from the G-3/5/7, most ADSO projects looked at the operating environment to support war fighters, combatant or component commands, Marine Expeditionary Forces or Army brigades.

As the two-year partnership agreement drew to a close, the Army decided to close ADSO in 2011. The Marines reassigned its red team experts, but it hardly dampened leaders’ interest. In November 2010, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos directed the Corps to institutionalize the practice. He installed the former ADSO officers as his own red team, and set them upon service-level issues at the direction of the commandant, assistant commandant, and deputy commandant for combat development and integration.

As for the Army, after ADSO’s closure, the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies is the service’s de facto advocate for and coordinator of red teaming. The university offers several red team courses, all of which provide a good baseline explanation of the Army’s version of red teaming, offer some exposure to common tools and (perhaps most unusually among professional military education courses) each actually begins to teach students how to think critically.

As the university’s name would suggest, its red team courses deal primarily with helping commanders through consideration of cultural, sociological, historical and religious aspects. Their students learn to explain the points of view of enemy, partners, allies and others. Or rather, to try to explain them — true understanding is a tall order for a team that typically numbers less than a dozen military generalists, supported from time to time with subject-matter experts.

And that begins to explain why using a red team primarily as a tool to understand one’s operating environment is too limited a focus.

What Not To Do

It is true that one of red teaming’s driving forces has been the attempt to understand and control our environment so that U.S. forces don’t suffer as we did after 9/11 and after capturing Baghdad in 2003. The first years of the 21st century showed that the intelligence agencies and activities, whose job is to describe and explain the operating environment, and the planning community, whose job is to exploit it, were struggling to do so, largely relating to “culture.” So our national leadership pushed red teams to fill the void and to develop tools to help.

But there are at least two reasons that red teams will not long remain the operating-environment gurus.

First, unless the military decides to make operating-environment red teaming a full-time specialty and provides in-depth academic and experiential expertise — like that gained by an Olmsted scholar or a foreign affairs officer — military officers and enlisted members cannot possibly hope to become proficient enough in a specific geographic area to provide expert-level advice on cultural issues. The most they can hope for is a broad understanding and to ask the help of actual experts in the field, be they academic, think-tank or interagency. Without expert knowledge, even the best tools in the Red Team Handbook cannot accurately describe the operating environment.

One might ask: If it’s easier to learn red team tools than to become a foreign-area expert, why not teach the experts about the tools? In fact, that’s probably inevitable, which is the second reason red teaming must go beyond the operating and plans environment. Few of the tools in the Red Team Handbook are in any way limited to use by trained red teamers, or indeed red teams at all. There is nothing magic or secret about them; they are simply analytic tools, some structured, some free-flowing.

The U.S. military is a learning and adaptive organization (we assert this, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary) which slowly incorporates useful tools into its normal processes. Eventually, the big Green Machine, be it the Army or the Marine Corps or even the DIA and CIA, figures out what it did wrong and corrects it. Given the past decade’s intense focus on cultural understanding and human terrain, tools that have proven effective will inevitably be incorporated into the organization’s intelligence and planning functions at some point in the not-too-distant future. These include those in the Red Team Handbook. As military planners and intelligence analysts grow and adapt from these lessons, any red teams that exist solely to explain the operational environment will find themselves less and less able to make further valuable contributions. The intelligence analysts and planners of the world will take over this operating-environment function once again.

Yet even as more and more people use these techniques, this in no way alters the fact that groupthink, standardized processes, analytic requirements, etc., will still lead to many of the same problems we face today. This is why red teaming must move beyond the planning process, must move beyond the myopic focus on the operating environment, and must seek to provide true alternative analysis and independent review of their organization. This is precisely where our partners in NATO are taking this capability. They in fact eschew the very term red team in favor of AltA (alternative analysis) in order to emphasize the alternate and independent review aspect of red teaming.

The Challenge

Present-day red teamers have been specially trained, typically by UFMCS, to analyze, determine and critique logic flows and fallacies, and identify and expose biases. This doesn’t make them cultural or sociological experts, nor does it qualify them to act as a shadow staff.

What they can do is offer commanders a dedicated group, inside their organization yet independent, to critically review policies, plans, processes, tactics, techniques and procedures. For example, a red team can investigate why tactics, techniques and procedures are or are not working; whether the staff is set up in the most effective way; or whether the battle rhythm actually supports the commander or is simply a way for the staff to get face time.

The red team can also interact with other red teams across organizations and echelons to gain valuable insights, reach expertise not resident in their own organization and learn about new or different ways of doing business. These insights can be used to challenge the command and make it more effective. This often occurs at very low levels with support to operational planning teams and intelligence analysts, but it should occur cross-functionally and command-wide when necessary.

When so directed, a red team can certainly help the G-2 describe the operating environment, or assist the G-5 in developing plans, branches and sequels. The commander may very well want his red team to focus on those areas from time to time if he is not convinced he has all the relevant information or alternatives.

At the lower levels of command, much of the effort and action revolves around the plan and the planning process. This is natural, and is in every way an area where a professional, independent red team can provide assistance. If they need to challenge an evaluation of the operating environment because they believe the intelligence section or the planners have overlooked or misunderstood something, then by all means use all available tools and resources, internal and external to the command, to provide the commander the best understanding of the situation.

Similarly, if the G-5 is excluding viable alternatives to plans and methods due to lack of interest, or lack of the time and resources required to explore them, then the red team should interject in a positive manner. If they can help determine whether alternatives are worth investigating, then they should. If an alternative looks viable but will draw resources that other staff sections are not willing to provide, the red team needs to work within the staff primaries and with the chief of staff to provide the commander the opportunity to hear the alternative and for him to decide whether to explore it.

No one is arguing that red teaming is not useful in describing the operating environment or in the planning process; it certainly is. However, there is far more good to be gained by expanding the lens through which the red team can shine that white light.

The Path Ahead

Understanding the operational environment, and planning for missions to exploit it, are certainly large and important parts of what our military does. But eventually the intelligence professionals and the planners of the world will find ways to incorporate the tools and methods developed by red teamers to date. If red teams continue to focus on the OE, they will eventually be subsumed into the already well-established staff sections, and we will lose the opportunity to provide the commander a valuable tool.

The value of the red team comes not from the tools it leverages — be they related to the OE, planning or otherwise — but rather from its independence, its direct interaction with and trust of the commander, and its free license to challenge the organization. It is the challenge function which is common to red teams across the spectrum and is at the heart of the benefit they provide. We have dedicated and well-trained staffs who do good work, typically in a time and resource constrained environment. We have been fighting battles and winning wars for a long time and doing it well. Red teams seek not to replace these professionals but rather to assist them.

Red teams help make our military organizations better across the spectrum of activities through challenging them, and our doctrine, training and utilization of them must reflect this. AFJ

LT. COL. BRENDAN S. MULVANEY is the director of the Commandant’s Red Team and was the Marine officer in charge at the Army Directed Studies Office from 2009-2011. He is an AH-1W Cobra pilot and was an Olmsted scholar in Shanghai, China, where he earned a Ph.D. in international relations from Fudan University.