If learning to adapt to circumstances is one of the most important lessons of warfare, then the Army Lessons Learned Centre (ALLC) is a beacon to others. Operating on a fixed budget with usually less than its allotted seven personnel, the centre has shouldered growing demand for its services while demonstrating a means of learning lessons that is being observed not only by allies, but also by other government departments and even municipal first responders.

The Canadian Forces prides itself on being a learning organization, no small challenge for such a large, multi-tiered and dispersed institution. Different histories, cultures and processes across the services, all affected by bureaucratic and political considerations, have made it difficult to bridge the divide between the environmental elements and tactical and strategic learning.

Like many military organizations attempting to understand the successes and failures of operations, the ALLC originally focused on deployed headquarters, sifting through post operational and exercise reports and conducting after-action reviews (AAR) and interviews in the weeks and months after events or tours of duty. That also meant sending people to visit operations or units where they were often treated as outsiders, given the guided tour or messaged with a specific agenda. The disconnection between what was happening on the ground and the information required within the institutional army were soon apparent.

So the ALLC adjusted, adopting a unique approach by embedding its people with deployed units and acquiring the ability to leverage AARs and first hand knowledge of incidents within hours.

“Finding the ground truth was often very difficult,” recalls the centre’s deputy director Major Stephen Rankin, a Class B reservist from the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment who has been with the ALLC since 2003. “We decided that the best way to understand what was going on was to have someone participating on operations – part of the battle group and other units – so that they would become a trusted member of the team and truly understand the environment.”

Where the ALLC once received canned messages and PowerPoint presentations typical of a visiting delegation, now lessons are identified and endorsed by the chain of command. In as few as eight days the training of tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP) for the next rotation of troops can be affected if required.

Just as impressive is the range and fidelity of information the ALLC is able to collect in theatre. Though the centre may be Army, it seeks its lessons from across the Forces, other government departments (OGD), multinational partners and even nongovernmental organizations (NGO) who are involved in land operations. “We can ask questions on things that may be difficult to ask because of political concerns: how do you apply the comprehensive whole-of-government approach if you are the only person there? We ask our questions at the tactical level – how often do you meet, with whom, how do you deliver effect? – that seem innocuous, and then we bring that information back to the ALLC and start looking at it from a broader and operational and strategic perspective. It is not so much a way of getting around things, but rather acknowledging that friction can exist when asking difficult questions from the top down or that involve other mission partners, and still get to the ground truth.”

Cultural change
Created in the wake of the Somalia Inquiry, the ALLC initially struggled with its role and whether it was having the desired effect. Nested within Land Force Doctrine and Training System (LFDTS) in Kingston, it operated inside a large, slow turning loop that involved printing Dispatches and the Army Bulletin. The topics covered were not always focused by higher headquarters, and were developed from interviews months after events that then had to be signed off by multiple headquarters – sometimes at the risk of glossing over or filtering out critical information or becoming obsolete before they were published. A significant step from this period was the formalization of the AAR process that now follows every army activity.

That all changed with the Afghan campaign. Following what was called the Jowz Valley Mine Strike – an IED incident in 2003 that claimed the first two Canadian lives due to enemy action – a board of inquiry identified several important lessons. But the high classification level of its report meant those lessons were not specifically attributed to someone to fix, nor were they pushed out to change TTP. Tragically, two years later as the Forces were shifting areas of operation from Kabul to Kandahar, an IED strike on Highway 1 under conditions eerily similar to Jowz Valley claimed two more Canadian lives.

Both incidents proved to be a catalyst for changing how the army learns lessons from land operations. In short order, the ALLC then under Commander LFDTS, General Walt Natynczyk, received explicit marching orders from the Chief of the Land Staff, LGen Marc Caron, to connect the operating environment to the institutional army. “General Natynczyk gave us clear direction that still stands today: the ALLC will focus on mission success and saving the lives and limbs of soldiers. That became our primary underlying thrust,” Rankin said.

Since IEDs were the main weapon system killing and maiming military personnel and civilians, not just soldiers, the centre’s focus soon encompassed all serving personnel in theatre.

In September 2006, during Op MEDUSA, Rankin was embedded as the lessons liaison officer with the battle group in theatre. Moments after an assault across the Arghandab River in which four soldiers were killed and six were wounded, the commanding officer pulled his troops together and conducted a formal AAR. “As I sat there with them it struck me: this is now occurring on operations under the worst conditions – a litmus test for how mature and transparent our learning culture had become.” It was a significant change from the challenges outlined in the 1997 Somalia inquiry report.

As with any change initiative, the ALLC needed a champion. The deputy commander of the army or Assistant Chief of the Land Staff, then LGen Marc Lessard, assumed responsibility for lessons learned, ensuring lessons identified received appropriate priority and were attributed to an authority to resolve. It’s a relationship that still stands with the Asst CLS approving the army’s critical topic list (CTL) that helps commanders across the army and ALLC scope its collection priorities.

Though the collection takes place at the tactical level, the CTL is strategic in its guidance. It includes standing topics such as force protection, training and capability development, but it also emphasizes focused topics on the evolution of the comprehensive approach, air-land integration, influence activities and reserve force integration.

Each lessons report that comes out of operations is signed off by the Joint Task Force Commander, reinforcing that its findings are supported by the deployed chain of command. “It’s considered by all the principal players in theatre,” Rankin said. “In one report you can have a colonel disagreeing with a general about a recommended resolution, but acknowledging what they are doing in the interim to bridge an identified gap.”

The vast majority of lessons reports from operations are classified. To push the lessons identified to the right stakeholders, a succinct, unclassified lessons synopsis report (LSR) is drafted by the ALLC. The LSR is intended primarily for the Land Staff and the next rotation of deploying troops that “cuts right to the chase,” Rankin emphasized. “There are a couple of sentences on each lesson identified, extrapolated from the classified report.” It’s kept short, he added, to “connect with the right people at the right time to make sure we get action.”

If the lesson cannot be conveyed in an unclassified form, the LSR also serves as a cue that a larger report exists on the classified system explaining how the operating environment is evolving. Both reports assist the next deploying task force and places like the Canadian Manoeuvre Training Warfare Centre and Combat Training Centre to update training scenarios.

As its reports have gained traction, so has the demand for its services. Rather than rely solely on its small staff to deploy on operations, the ALLC now trains a two-person team for deploying task forces. The team is prepared by the ALLC prior to training with their unit, followed by a final briefing from the commander of LFDTS to sign off on their information collection plan, based on the critical topic list.

Though sound in theory, generating teams and institutionalizing the process takes time. Three days into Op HESTIA in Haiti last January, the Joint Task Force Commander, MGen Guy Laroche, called to ask: “where’s my lessons learned guy?” – the contingency plan had not been updated to include a lessons liaison officer.

“Commanders now expect this,” Rankin said. “They see it as their voice from theatre to affect change for the next rotation or within the institution. That was a sign that we are now gaining traction in the command level culture. There is a maturity amongst our commanders and their staff regarding lessons learning that wasn’t there even in 2007: an acceptance of the process as being relevant and essential to mission success, not necessarily for that mission but for the next mission and the future.”

Model approach
If imitation is the best form of flattery, ALLC has its admirers. The air force and the capability developers have also adopted the embedded approach, and the Counter-IED team in theatre is linked closely with lessons learned. Though there is the potential for crossed wires, Rankin says “all of it is de-conflicted by the joint lessons learned officer to make sure people aren’t collecting on the same things and there are no gaps in their collection plans.”

More important, the ALLC’s approach is attracting attention outside the Forces. Rankin communicates regularly with the Stabilization and Reconstruction Task Force (START) program at Foreign Affairs, which now has a dedicated lessons learned officer, and recently with Canadian International Development Agency. Both receive the lessons synopsis reports. He has also briefed and continues to exchange information with the Public Health Agency of Canada – lessons that had been identified during the SARS outbreak had to be relearned during the H1N1 influenza scare – as well as the RCMP and municipal police and fire departments.

“Our process is considered in their lessons learned development and taken forward,” he said. “We’re encouraging departments to adopt learning cultures, to be transparent and willing to share.”

He admits the ALLC model may appeal to many simply because of its size and cost, something most departments can appreciate. In the U.S., for example, the Center for Army Lessons Learned numbers over 250 people.

Though the change in collection began in 2006, Rankin admits “we’ve only got the institutional piece developing well over the last 18 months or so. In the first part of the mission, we were pushing information where we knew it had to go, but in an informal way. Now we are linked into decision-making processes and into decision makers in a formal way that can monitor change, assisting to evolve a lesson identified into a lesson learned. And it’s not just with the Land Staff, it occurs across the CF and with our OGD and international partners.”

With the new training mission in Afghanistan, the ALLC could see its mandate change as well. Like much of the rest of the Forces, the ALLC is waiting to see which direction Transformation takes; however they have presented several options. “We could continue to focus on the Afghanistan training mission, focus on smaller missions, or we might be asked to look at everything in lessons learned from soup to nuts. This would be great if we had the staff; it would include: capability development, exercises and experimentation, training and operations. That would be the complete system. Or is there something else? I don’t know what’s going to be asked of us, but we will adapt – that’s what lessons learning is all about.”

Lessons across missions
Counterinsurgency and nation building in Afghanistan, disaster response in Haiti and security at the Olympics or G8/G20 may seem like disparate missions demanding unique capabilities. However, as the Army Lessons Learned Centre has discovered, all have more in common than might first be apparent.

Few can match the planning capacity of the military. Yet as successive missions have demonstrated, collaborative planning – be it with OGD, coalition partners or local players such as Afghan National Security Forces – is vital to understanding organizational culture and capabilities, and building trust. Whether in Afghanistan, Haiti or the Olympics, the army found that early integration of all partners in the planning process greatly reduced obstacles.

To further that integration, the CF now offers a two-week course to OGD on its operational planning process and has expanded the number of civilians in its Staff College courses. However, to date most collective exercises and courses have been military-driven; the army recognizes the need to participate in programs delivered by OGD. “We need to change that paradigm so that we are all perceived as equal partners,” said Major Stephen Rankin, deputy director of the ALLC.

However, if collective planning and training is not possible, strong working relationships can overcome much. Canada responded to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti by deploying a Joint Task Force Headquarters consisting of many people from the Forces and other departments who had recently returned from Afghanistan. “They knew how to do the collaborative planning; they were already a team. That enabled them to move forward quickly and effectively,” Rankin said.

Command and Control
Whether working with the Integrated Security Unit at the Olympics, the Representative of Canada in Kandahar in Afghanistan, or a Foreign Affairs lead in Haiti, co-locating military and civilian headquarters is critical for collaborative planning and cooperative mission command and control. “It’s not just the practicality of it; it says, we’re together on this,” Rankin noted.

Equally important are well-trained liaison officers. Once regarded as the B team in combat environments, they are now recognized as a vital piece in building relationships and developing a common language. “We learned, particularly in a counterinsurgency, that sometimes you need to take that A team player out of the battle group and put them in a more critical role. As operations shift from security to development to reconstruction, and you are liaising with OGD, you’ve got to have the right people.”

Common Operating Picture
In addition to understanding the physical terrain, building a common operating picture (COP) that reflects the knowledge of joint, interagency and multinational partners means comprehending local cultural dynamics and tribal relationships, what the army calls “white situational awareness.”

Developing that multidimensional map means adopting a “need to share” approach with all partners. “Shifting to that mindset is something we are still working on,” Rankin acknowledged. “We are bringing in police techniques used for mapping organized crime to apply to tribal relationships and IED networks. But getting all the right people to contribute can still be difficult. The CF learned the importance of linking into where the power structure networks exist and applied it to Haiti when we arrived. Who do you talk to when the government has disappeared? You talk to the OGDs, NGOs and local powerbrokers with existing networks who were able to provide a very detailed picture that we were able to leverage quickly to understand the environment. Our intelligence community is very comfortable mapping the enemy, but they are still developing the capability to look at that step beyond.”

Force Structure
Responses to natural disasters, special security events or small conflicts have highlighted the need for a deployable Joint Division Headquarters, rather than pulling resources from a force generation HQ. “We needed to have a headquarters capable of rapid deployment that wouldn’t significantly disrupt future force generation,” Rankin said. “Haiti demonstrated the need to have this capability ready to go if the government tasks us.”

In November, the CF stood up 1st Canadian Division Headquarters, a 130-member unit able to rapidly deploy at home or abroad in response to a variety of crises. Rankin also noted the expansion of the Stabilization and Reconstruction Task Force (START) at Foreign Affairs, which is now seen as a significant leader in a whole-of-government response.

In addition to reviewing its Managed Readiness Plan, the army also discovered contingency plans (CONPLANS) required updating to avoid scenarios such as Haiti, where old plans had to be significantly adapted to new force structures and the lessons identified in Afghanistan.

Material and equipment
Since OGDs or even other joint partners do not enjoy austere land environments quite like the army, it must be prepared to support them when necessary. “We have changed how we do pre-deployment training and missions to factor that in,” Rankin said. That also includes bridging the interoperability gaps between various communications systems.

In the rush to respond to the crisis in Haiti, the military dispatched sea containers in the early days containing material that was never used. Therefore, in addition to updating CONPLANS, the CF is looking at standing up a “theatre activation warehouse” in Trenton housing plug-and-play containers that can be quickly assembled for a mission. “Having it modularized and scalable would allow you to plug in the variables for a particular environment and pull out the right parts,” said Rankin.

Training and education
All of the previous lessons point to the need for more integrated whole-of-government pre-deployment training. “Training with others for a sufficient period of time before an operation allows us to develop that human interaction and understand their culture and what they bring to the table.” In that vein, more secondments and exchanges between the army and OGD would also be beneficial.

Rules of engagement (ROE) cards have long been a vital piece of a soldier’s kit, but they now share a pocket with presence, profile and posture (PPP) cards. “We’ve always known how to escalate force, up and down. Afghanistan taught us how to escalate presence, profile and posture, those intangible signs of your intent that are very readable, particularly by Afghans,” Rankin explained. “In a counterinsurgency, escalating and deescalating PPP is just as important as escalating or deescalating force. We applied that to both Haiti and the Olympics and it worked very well. Of course the context is different, but those skill sets that we learned in Afghanistan allowed us to leverage the soldiers’ new abilities to work well with police, local agencies and interact with the public. Public interaction is key to building relationships and to diffusing potential threats.”