Training is More Than an SOP

Standard Operating Procedure: a set of guidelines that govern action and behavior. A checklist that becomes a habit. A way of doing things that reflects a unit’s culture; the Ranger Handbook come to life.

It’s convenient to develop a plan of training to rely on SOPs. It’s easy. If you want to train CQB, you have a set of PowerPoint slides and materials you use to teach people, step by step. This is how the US military does things. It is how you, the trainer, were taught or trained during your time in the US military. Checklists make sure you don’t forget things. They have been assembled in a particular order, to accomplish a particular goal. Go down the checklist, point by point. When you get to the end of the checklist, the people or units you’ve trained are either a “go” as in they have understood and demonstrated competence at the particular tasks being trained, or a “no-go,” at which point you do remedial training to fix the thing that people or units have had trouble understanding.

Trainers may be seduced into thinking that this approach is the best or only way to help people prepare for military activity. We will train you how to do things the US military way. It’s a promise that is based on the truth that no contemporary military is more capable, respected, or (by its enemies) feared than that of the United States of America. Who wouldn’t want to be trained by Americans, in the American way?

It should be as easy as running through a checklist. But it isn’t.

The number one mistake US trainers make when endeavoring to help or train units in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Taiwan, or anywhere else is trying to train American soldiers. The checklist was made by Americans in an American military for Americans in an American military. It assumes things about culture, it makes (with allowances for expediency) certain administrative and doctrinal constraints and organizational luxuries. As this Twitter (now X) thread that made the rounds in July illustrates, beneficiaries of American–provided training may react critically if they feel it is not adapted to their own organizational culture, operational context, and SOPs. 

What does this mean? Why worry about planning for close-combat attack (CCA), close air support (CAS), or fires if one does not have those capabilities? How does one choose missions without them? How does the US-standard military decision-making process (MDMP) change when instead of 20 or 30 staff officers, one has 8 or 10? How do US-standard troop-leading procedures (TLPs) change when what is expected of a team leader or squad leader is different — when one can only delegate so much authority?

Ukrainians are generally much more “like” American soldiers than, say, Afghans culturally and doctrinally, but there are still important differences that one needs to take into consideration before beginning training. This goes for German soldiers – and French, and British, and Swedish, and Japanese, and so forth. Only American soldiers in the US military are perfectly suitable for American training. 

This means good and effective trainers will evaluate what can be trained before beginning their task — what is needed, and what is feasible to achieve. For instance, a challenge with training Ukrainian units in MDMP is that at present, no Ukrainian unit has the officers, soldiers, and sergeants needed to do American MDMP to standard. Nevertheless, knowing this, and also knowing the advantages MDMP brings, a good trainer can still sit down with Ukrainian staff officers and figure out a protocol that accomplishes something, that brings their military closer to the types of procedures that are needed to operate with NATO and the US (and, also, the types of procedure that will offer them advantages against their enemies) without signing them up to do more than they can with the people they have.

It’s a kind of dialogue or exchange of ideas, it’s a synthesis of what is needed and what is feasible.

The people who tried to do all their training off checklists and doctrine messed up in Iraq and Afghanistan; by contrast, a common refrain among officers and NCOs on those military training teams (MTTs) that were successful was “Iraqi solutions to Iraqi problems.” It is essential to work with partners beforehand to establish what training can be done and work to custom-tailor training of tactical tasks to fit the local cultural context and doctrinal milieu.

Photo credit (Photo by: Staff Sgt. Jennifer Bunn, 2d Cavalry Regiment, DVIDS)


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