It is clear from all the available evidence that the Ukraine military are still developing their understanding of NCOs. It is also clear that in some parts of the defence system there is both a complete lack of understanding and even stronger resistance against NCOs being used properly. It is hoped that this article will help change that.
NCOs are not new phenomena. The British Army realised during the 100 years war against France 1337-1453 that the change to modern weapons based upon explosives required professional soldiers. They created the NCO rank of Master Gunner to manage the artillery train. This role was not something that you could trust to the conscripted citizen armies of the time. The US system obviously came later but was soon properly structured:
"In the early days of the American Revolution, little standardization of NCO duties or responsibilities existed. In 1778, during the long hard winter at Valley Forge, Inspector General Friedrich von Steuben standardized NCO duties and responsibilities in his Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States (printed in 1779). His work, commonly called the Blue Book, set down the duties and responsibilities for corporals, sergeants, first sergeants, quartermaster sergeants and sergeants major, which were the NCO ranks of the period." (US Army study Guide)
Other countries militaries such as conscript rich Finland and Sweden have concentrated their professional NCOs purely upon technical roles like maintaining missiles, communications and major weapon systems. But UK, USA, Israel and many other professional armies realised hundreds of years ago that combat roles like Infantryman and Engineer are now equally technical and need professional NCOs as well as officers if they are to function properly.
One fundamental point about the NCO ranks and then the Senior NCO ranks of Sergeants and Warrant Officers (The Sergeant Major) is that "promotion" must be progressive. There must be no jumping over ranks except in the most exceptional of war time circumstances. Promotion with higher pay becomes the reward for performance. This means that the best soldiers must become corporals, the best corporals become sergeants and the best sergeants are promoted to warrant officers. Promotion must be based upon performance and leadership on operations, on exercises and on field training. NCOs are not just "instructors" as many people refer to them but fundamental and equal parts of the leadership and management system within the forces. Their strength should be that they know how to do things and get things done with no fuss, orders or paperwork.
One unnamed NATO country got this wrong. They decided that to become sergeants, candidates, even directly volunteering from civilian life, could attend a one year course and get the sergeants rank. Now this is fundamentally wrong for several reasons. Firstly the best soldiers join the army precisely because they are not classroom people. They like fighting and difficult exercises. They enjoy being wet and cold. They like dangerous sports. The idea of a year in the classroom is abhorrent to them. Secondly being a senior NCO is not something that can be learned in the classroom. Academic learning does not help much until later in the career when NCOs are more involved in strategic management. The driving power of an NCO is gained from a combination of skills and experiences mostly gained from repeated military actions on operations, outdoor training, technical courses and exercises. It is learning how to do difficult things as part of section, platoon, company and battalion teams in difficult physical conditions. This means real practice day on day. The classroom does not help here as vital team and leadership skills can NEVER be taught this way. Imagine trying to learn how to ride a motorcycle for an international motor cross race in the classroom and you get my idea.
So what happened in this NATO country is that the newly graduated sergeants were of a lower grade than many the soldiers they were supposed to lead. The soldiers had three or four operational medals and were experienced, professional and very self confident. The NCOs despised the sergeants who had jumped the practical military "apprenticeship" and had only classroom solutions. The rank of sergeant became a joke. The system was eventually changed but not before many soldiers left in despair.
The key to promoting the right people seems to lie in having a clear understanding within the system of the role and tasks of NCOs and well written annual reports on every soldier of every rank by their commanding officers. To achieve this troop commanders write on corporals and below, company commanders write on sergeants, and battalion commanding officers write on warrant officers (as well as on their own officers). Then the organisations such as the navy, artillery, engineers and infantry should review each rank and person from corporal upwards and the best are promoted to the next rank. Standards and honesty are kept by independent boards. For example I have sat on selection boards for Military Police sergeants and also military accountants. It is true that this is a heavy writing load for officers, but it is worth it to reduce nepotism and to stop poor NCOs gaining high rank. It also means having a good reporting form that makes emphasis upon the important human requirements like leadership, physical and mental robustness, honesty, and technical and tactical ability not classroom documents. One major factor in this method is to ensure that no soldier of any rank can gain the highest report grade without excelling on operations. This ensures selection of the best and bravest soldier leaders and not those who find reasons to avoid operations.
So what does this NCO beast do that makes them so special? I shall concentrate upon the infantry. First they must be sufficiently capable in most of the unit weapon systems to fire them to marksman standards, to teach the weapons to new soldiers and to act as a shooting coach on the ranges for those not as good as they are. They are likely to have one or two specialist qualifications such as mortars, anti tank, communications or basic logistics. They will be a good leader who has strength to lead men in battle under fire. They will be able to maintain basic soldiering battle discipline and standards such as regularly cleaning weapons, wearing helmets and jackets, personal cleanliness, washing and shaving and maintaining battle duties properly when tired like guarding or radio watch.
They will have all the tactical skills to manage teams for creating a defensive position and living in defence, day and night patrolling, ambushes, anti ambush drills, also section, and platoon, company, and battalion attacks in day and night, counter attack drills, and all of these, both on foot and in vehicles. The time an NCO takes to learn and develop these skills counts in years not days. It shows that pre-operational brigade training needs to be several months to ensure that NCOs of all ranks can play a full part. The standards for these tactical skills should be taught and maintained by NCOs not by officers, but to do this they must be taught properly on practical outdoor combat courses first.
Sergeant First Class Anthony Kraft, a member of U.S. Army Europ's Joint Multinational Readiness Center briefs Bulgarian soldiers on tactical movement. Photo by Jordan Fuller
There is a second role for NCOs at every level and that is as the assistant to their immediate officer commander. In this role they must act as senior soldier for those below him. They will monitor the welfare, morale and administration of the soldiers to ensure that their officer is fully informed of what is happening within his unit. In this way they act like a union member ensuring that the rights of soldiers are not abused in any way. They will be the unit administrator supporting the officer concerned with logistics and paperwork especially with ensuring that training of soldiers is conducted properly and that no standards are slipping. They will accompany the commander on reconnaissance for training and exercises and then organise much of the administration for this. Vitally, they will act as mentor for younger officers ensuring that the young lieutenants understand their new role, especially that of caring for the soldiers under their command. As they become more senior the NCO will become the unit sounding board for officers dispensing the wisdom gained from experiences of operations and dealing more closely with troops than officers rarely can.
So what do officers do? What work is left? There is much and having good NCOs allows it to be a higher quality than now.
The key task for officers is to think. They must think about the combat situation as it is now and the task they have been given. They must think about the enemy and what they may do next, to think about tactics and standards and do they need improving, to think about logistics and could they support each one of their team better, to think about morale and how to keep it high, to think about their own personal officers performance and could it be improved, and finally to think about themselves and could they and the team support the commander better.
For middle rank officers they must manage the system, all operations and resources. Here senior NCOs take the day to day work load allowing officers to plan and ensure that resources of all types are properly managed and used. It is important always to have a balanced team.
For more senior officers their task as always is strategic thinking. They must think ahead as far as they dare and try to change the system and make it ready for any possible new threats and tasks. The Senior NCO is vital here helping keep the Officer’s feet on the ground by gaining realistic feedback from units and organisations about the realities of the daily situation and change. The official reports are often (even in the best armies) distorted by poor or hurried writing, tiredness, self interest, telling leaders what they think they want to know or many other reasons that twist, distort and hide the truth. The senior NCO is often the best conduit of truth a leader has. His knowledge, wisdom and insights are ignored at peril.
The best warrant Officers must become officers at the middle level of captain and major. They will bring strength and experience to the officer corps. They can act as role models to junior officers and they also show young soldiers that a professional career is worth pursuing. Commissioned soldiers are especially valuable in both combat logistics where their experience of front line needs is fundamental to delivering good operational support, and training, where they should be the masters of operational performance.
Finally the most senior solders should have roles as technical experts all over the army. If they are not going to be commissioned as officers, then they can be kept serving for longer careers as senior technical managers for weapons, logistics, ammunition, radars and vehicles, and so on. Their practical experience and professional love of soldiering often gives them the insights of what future equipment and systems are needed and they can make valuable contributions to capability development at every level across all three services and Special Forces.
All that I have written here applies across the whole system. Air Forces and Navies need good NCOs as well. Roles for the system must be thought through and officers must not be used where and NCO is a better and less expensive choice. Well trained, properly used and respected NCOs make for a great army and defence force – they must be highly valued.
By Glen Grant for Censor.NET
Mr. Grant is a graduate of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, the Junior Division of the Staff College, Warminster, and the Joint Defence Staff College in Greenwich.