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Army changing basic training this October

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Sept. 24, 2015) -- Who's the best judge of how well a young person is performing in Basic Combat Training, or BCT? It turns out the Army thinks that other basic trainees might be really good at evaluating how their peers are doing.

In October, the Army will make some changes to how it runs BCT, which serves for enlisted Soldiers as their first introduction to soldiering. One of those changes includes peer evaluations, something that is already being done in places like Ranger School.

In October 2015, the Army will make some changes to how it runs basic combat training, which serves for enlisted Soldiers as their first introduction to soldiering.

With peer evaluation, Soldiers in BCT units will evaluate each other on how they are adhering to standards, performing on tasks, and even if they shine when the drill sergeant is away in the same way they shine when he's glowering over them in formation.

"Nobody is going to know you more than the guy next to you," said Command Sgt. Maj. Dennis Woods, with U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command's Center for Initial Military Training.

"If I am the instructor, all of your buddies you are with know the things you are doing that the instructor never caught," he said. "Maybe you are only spotlighting when the instructor is around. But when he's not around, everybody has to pull your weight. This peer evaluation lets Soldiers see themselves through the eyes of their peers."

The peer evaluation won't be entirely new for basic training. Already at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, a peer evaluation pilot program was tried out. But in October, it will be implemented at all four Army basic training locations, including Fort Jackson; Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri; Fort Sill, Oklahoma; and Fort Benning, Georgia.

Woods said that the peer evaluations will primarily serve as an indicator of character for Soldiers -- that will allow the Army to better evaluate some of the things that are important about being a Soldier, but which are harder to measure through testing and performance.

"Some people will get all the warrior tasks, battle drills, and skills, because they are physically inclined," Woods said. "But their character may have an issue. That peer evaluation will help us uncover that character. As a result, a Soldier may spend more time in basic training before he ships to that first unit of assignment."

AN ARMY OF PREPARATION

There are more changes to BCT than just the introduction of peer evaluations. The driving force behind changes to BCT is a shift in what the Army thinks Soldiers will need to have under their belt when they make their first salute at their first permanent unit -- and this is directly related to the end of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan.

During the 14 years after 9/11, Soldiers knew that they'd probably be going to the Middle East after basic training. During that time, the Army was well-equipped and well-funded to recruit, train and equip Soldiers for an ongoing war. That is no longer the case.

Additionally, Soldiers went to their first unit of assignment ready to fight the ongoing conflict. The Army trained those Soldiers in BCT with a focus on the desert, convoys, improvised explosive devices, and countering insurgents, for instance. And when Soldiers deployed, most would fall in on a combat environment that was already manned by American Soldiers who'd warmed all the seats for them.

Now, with conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan over for most all of the force, Soldiers must be ready to deploy almost anywhere in the world -- not just the desert. And when they get there, they may not find American Soldiers already on the ground. Instead, they must be ready to clear the ground for Soldiers who will follow them. Soldiers must be trained to execute decisive action through combined arms maneuver and must be trained up on wide-area security competencies.

"We are transitioning from an Army at war to an Army in preparation," said James Walthes, a key designer of the new BCT program of instruction. "With that in mind, we got together at Fort Benning, Georgia, and we brought in company commanders, first sergeants and drill sergeants -- the ones that actually deal with the program of instruction on a daily basis. What we looked at was how we could go about preparing our Soldiers to meet the new demands of Force 2025 and beyond."

TESTING ... RETESTING

Army BCT includes a red, white and blue phase. Each includes lessons that focus on the social, physical and cognitive development of new Soldiers. At one time, the Army tested Soldiers to make sure they had learned what they were supposed to learn while in those phases of BCT.

"Long ago we used to do phase testing," Woods said. "Then we quit doing that. We are bringing phase testing back. There's red, white and blue phase testing."

In October, the Army will re-introduce end-of-phase testing. Soldiers will be evaluated at the end of each phase for what they were supposed to learn -- and each phase builds on and re-tests Soldiers on what they had learned in previous phases. "Testing at the end of each phase gets more difficult," Woods said. "And blue phase testing includes everything."

Woods said testing at the end of phases for everything taught up until then is a change from how things had been done, which was to test Soldiers after each lesson was taught. He said that created problems with knowledge retention. There simply wasn't enough time to get in the skill and knowledge application repetition that makes new ideas stick.

"I'd give you a bunch of first-aid training, and then test you on it," he said. "And if you pass, we move on to the next subject. But we weren't doing enough repetitions of these activities to make sure you have it under stress. There are more repetitions now and more time spent on a task."

One reason there is more time, Woods said, is because less time is going to be spent in BCT on theater-specific knowledge. Soldiers have to have general knowledge now, rather than Iraq-specific knowledge. Clearing out lessons that prepared Soldiers for the desert means there is more room to hammer home the ideas that are more applicable the world over, he said.

Soldiers failing to pass those end-of-phase tests might, at the discretion of the commander, be recycled back to an appropriate part of BCT so they can re-learn what they failed to capture the first time. Then they will be able to re-take those phase tests and prove they are good enough to be a Soldier.

Systems are in place now to recycle Soldiers back into earlier parts of BCT for such things as failure to meet physical fitness requirements, or for having gotten hurt. But those recycles are at the discretion of the commander and are also somewhat ad hoc in nature.

Thriso Hamilton Jr., who worked with Walthes on making changes to the BCT program of instruction, said recycles will now be standardized across all four basic training locations. "All BCT locations will be "on the same sheet of music" when it comes to recycles, he said.

"When commanders identify individuals who are not able to meet the requirements of BCT, they will have the opportunity to new-start or recycle those Soldiers to a point where they are able to go back over what they were not proficient at to begin with," Hamilton said. "Those Soldiers -- instead of them progressing though and possibly not meeting the requirements to graduate from BCT -- are going to be afforded a second opportunity to go through the training and that will increase the numbers of those who graduate."

FEWER WARRIOR TASKS

In the new BCT Program of Instruction, the Army plans to increase focus on Army values and discipline, increase emphasis on physical readiness; update rifle marksmanship training; reduce theater-specific training; update the existing field training exercise; and increase the rigor of some existing training courses.

In the past at BCT, Soldiers learned 15 warrior tasks, 81 individual tasks and six battle drills. The new BCT will drop three warrior tasks and add one. The knowledge of those warrior tasks is not gone, however. TRADOC experts said that some of the warrior tasks were repetitive and could in fact be rolled in under other similar warrior tasks.

Gone is "perform counter IED" operations, "adapt to changing operational environments" and "grow professionally and personally" from the existing roster of 15 warrior tasks. Being added is "select a hasty fighting positon."

Among battle drills, "performs actions as a member of a mounted patrol" and "react to indirect fire, dismounted" have been dropped as well, reducing total number of battle drills from six to four.

TRADOC experts said that changes to warrior tasks and battle drills were changed based on a 23,000-person survey that concluded that WTBDs needed to be refreshed based on changes to unit missions and doctrine updates.

Some instruction in the current BCT will be moved out of BCT and instead placed into a Soldier's first unit of assignment. For instance, lessons regarding interaction with news media, personnel recovery, and a class called "what is culture," will all be moved to a Soldier's first unit of instruction.

HAND-TO-HAND COMBAT

Instruction related to man-to-man combat, called "combatives," will also be updated. New BCT instruction will combine the use of hand-to-hand fighting techniques with rifle fighting techniques to create a Soldier who is "capable of operating across the full range of force," read a TRADOC document.

Soldiers use Pugil sticks now to simulate how they might use their rifle as a weapon once it runs out of ammunition. That kind of training will be enhanced, as well as combined with combatives, which is hand-to-hand combat.

"If all I ever teach a Soldier is how to shoot a rifle or throw a grenade, then when they interact with a person, death is the only thing on the table," Woods said. "Sometimes, a good smack to the face solves the problem. That's hand-to-hand fighting. Or if you are in some mega-city, and you have combatants hiding among civilians, and the civilians are agitated too, maybe to create a safe space a push or shove will suffice."

SAFER PHYSICAL READINESS TRAINING

"When Soldiers come in, they know nothing about how the Army conducts physical fitness," Hamilton said. "If you go to a gym to work out, one of the most important things the trainer can do for you is teach you proper technique."

The Army will now ensure Soldiers are doing physical readiness training, or PRT, with the proper technique, so that they can do it safely, Hamilton said.

Now, during the first two weeks of red phase at the beginning of BCT, Soldiers will learn how to do PRT in a session that is separate from where they actually perform the PRT. The Army estimates that with new Soldiers, their mental and physical capacity to absorb large amounts of new information during PRT sessions hinders the ability of a unit to exploit good conditioning.

By separating the teaching of PRT from actually doing the PRT, new Soldiers will better be able to absorb instruction regarding correct movement patterns, cadence, precision and body positioning as they relate to PRT.

The result, the Army estimates, will be Soldiers who are more knowledgeable on how to do PRT correctly, and this will result in fewer injuries and more physically ready Soldiers.

"This ensures the Soldiers conduct exercises properly," Hamilton said. "When they do that and you train them correctly the first time, it reduces injuries because they aren't performing exercises in an incorrect manner."

ADDITONAL CHANGES

To increase the ability of Soldiers to find their way home -- or a combat objective -- the Army has changed the land navigation portion of BCT by reducing the amount of classroom instruction, creating more demanding end-of-course land navigation evaluations, and changing from four-man land navigation teams in training to two-man land navigation teams. Smaller teams means a decreased likelihood that Soldiers with less-developed knowledge of land navigation will be able to simply "tag along" with more skilled Soldiers.

Beginning in October, Soldiers will be introduced to fewer weapons than they have been in the past. The M16 and M4 series rifles are still the centerpiece of weapons training for Soldiers. But familiarization with weapons that are less common among Soldiers, or that are similar in function and operation to weapons that remain in BCT, will instead be moved to a Soldier's first unit of assignment.

Soldiers coming into BCT in October can also expect to get more training and use of weapons optics, as well as expect to shoot more often in full battle gear -- as they would in actual combat, Woods said.

TRAINING THE TRAINER

While BCT will change in October, the curriculum over at the United States Army Drill Sergeant Academy at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, has already changed to prepare new drill sergeants to teach the new BCT program of instruction.

"There's a lot more emphasis on 'this is the weapon, this is how you use it' and more in-depth detail on how to operate the weapon," said Sgt. 1st Class Ryan McCaffrey, a drill sergeant leader at the drill sergeant school. "It's the same with PRT. We are trying to get the sergeants to understand the concepts of PRT and understand why we do movements the way we do."

He said drill sergeants will be able to explain "why we do push-ups, or why we do the different exercise and condition drills, and tie it into the warrior tasks and battle drills. Then Soldiers understand how their physical training ties into what they do on the battlefield."

McCaffrey, who was a former drill sergeant of the year for the Army Reserve, said that new instruction in the drill sergeant school also prepares noncommissioned officers for incoming Soldiers who are accustomed to asking a lot of questions. He said there is a course now in drill sergeant school that addresses the topic of "Generation Y," the generation now coming through basic training.

"They are more apt to ask questions, and question why we do things," McCaffrey said. "I think once a person understands why you are supposed to do a task, they take more ownership of it, and they are more willing to execute it properly. We discuss that in class. We are not looking for Solders that just say yes and no. We want Soldiers who can think."