The past decade has seen the concept of the red team gain acceptance as a commander’s tool to anticipate actions by nonblue forces, yet relatively little has been written on how to organize, build and staff such a team.
Consequently, while most unified combatant commands and many service components operate red teams in various ways, there are as many methods as there are teams. Innovation is good, but we are missing the chance to capture and disseminate lessons and best practices.
To that end, this article will draw upon ideas from several real-world commands and present a scenario set in a fictional command. It is not intended as a nuts-and-bolts blueprint for building or operating a red team, but as a starting point for discussions about a common definition of what such teams are and how they work best.
Let us examine the red team at U.S. Arctic Command, a notional subunified regional combatant command under U.S. Northern Command. Its mission: ensure international freedom of access to waters above the 66th north parallel and support U.S. and international scientific efforts across its vast area of responsibility of roughly 9.5 million square miles. Arctic Command has a single service component — U.S. Naval Forces-Arctic — and it receives Army, Air Force and Marine Corps support from NORTHCOM components. There are no assigned combat forces. The command is led by a Navy vice admiral; its staff directorates are headed by service one-stars or civilian equivalents.
Soon after the current commander took charge of Arctic Command, he directed his staff to create a joint standard operating procedure for a red team. The admiral wants the new group to do three things:
Provide independent critical and creative thinking and alternative perspective to commanders and staff.
Improve decision-making and problem-solving through independent analysis.
Increase the understanding of adversaries, allies and third-party stakeholders, and therefore improve estimates and planning synchronization.
Adopting the doctrine outlined in Joint Publication 2-0 “Joint Intelligence” and JP 5-0 “Joint Operation Planning,” his staff set up the Arctic Command red team to be broad enough to tap into all staff functions across the command, yet flexible to ebb and flow with the demands of a varied mission. The team falls under the Special Staff and reports directly to the Arctic Command chief of staff, an Army one-star, who provides the team top cover, determines its priorities and directs its use by staff directorates.
The Arctic Command red team has five full-time staff members, including military and civilian members. All five completed training at the Army’s red team school at the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. But their similarities largely end there, thanks to the admiral’s philosophy that his red teamers should bring differing perspectives to their job.
The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) has provided Arctic Command funding for four civilian billets to staff a red team, in accordance with the order by the defense undersecretary for intelligence’s Joint Intelligence and Operations Center that all unified combatant command red teams have four to six billets.But the Arctic Command commander put his own stamp on the team’s composition, giving two of the four DIA-funded billets to his Intelligence Directorate (J2) for other needs and filling out the staff with three billets taken “out-of-hide” from elsewhere. Specifically, the commander told his Operations (J3), Logistics (J4) and Plans (J5) directorates to provide one billet apiece to the red team, giving the group the eyes of a logistician as well as combat-arms practitioners. The inclusion of a J5 planner reinforces the team’s efforts to shape command decisions through the Joint Operational Planning Process (JOPP).
Lines of Effort
Under the team’s joint standard operating procedure, its members work along three separate but linked lines of effort.
Each focuses on a different command function, an effort to increase the team’s relevance to operations. The lines of effort are:
Alternative analysis. Comprising two J2-provided personnel with backgrounds in analysis and production, the Alternative Analysis Branch is the heart of the red team’s operations, and its senior member serves as its chief. Using methods from the Leavenworth classroom, the AA teamers examine intelligence and operational issues through a nonblue lens. They produce alternative-outcome white papers — “deep dives” — at the direction either of Arctic Command senior leaders or through interaction with the Decision Support Branch. They aim not to contradict or frustrate traditional intelligence estimates, which typically focus on the “blue view of red,” but rather to focus on “the red view of red” in a bid to gauge how the adversary or other stakeholders might respond to blue force actions. Based on hypotheses and conjecture, their reports are speculative and often controversial.
The AA branch also provides other analysts or planners the opportunity to research and distribute alternative products that would not be possible otherwise. These products are published under the Arctic Command red team banner, without attribution to the author.
Decision support. Generally made up of two team members with joint planning backgrounds, the Decision Support Branch helps the red team play in Arctic Command’s Joint Operational Planning Process — especially early on, when it will have the greatest effect. A Decision Support red teamer is a core member of a planning team during the JOPP’s Step 1 (planning initiation), Step 2 (mission analysis), and Step 3 (course of action development). By the time planning has moved into Step 4 (course of action analysis and war-gaming), Decision Support has begun to disengage.
Still, the DS branch helps coordinate war-gaming, acting as a trusted agent who can ensure that red cell players understand the plan in question without revealing details that would skew testing.
Decision Support draws upon the reports from Alternative Analysis to challenge assumptions and end states within the planning effort, and in return, feeds the commander’s concerns back to guide more analysis.
Unlike the AA branch, Decision Support does not generate products for broad distribution or dissemination; its products are meant strictly for members of Arctic Command’s various planning teams: action officers a level or two below decision-makers. The DS branch is forbidden to write about possible flaws in a developing or completed plan.
Threat emulation. Staffed by a single member trained in war-gaming by the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command G-2 Intelligence Support Activity, the Threat Evaluation Branch has two responsibilities.
At the request of planning teams, the TE branch begins red cell operations, looks for flaws in the plan and points out possible branches and sequels that planners may need to address. The three-star atop Arctic Command, noting the potential conflicts when J2 planners run red cells, has anointed the TE branch as the trusted agent on all war-gaming. The red cell is not given an advance look at the plan, but is prepped on the situation by Decision Support.
The Threat Evaluation Branch assembles red cell members from across Arctic Command: personnel, logisticians and fires. For large-scale plans and exercises, TE may hire subject-matter experts, to lead or advise the red cell and the red force, and then fill them in via reachback agreements with the DIA red team, the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies, the National Defense University, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Army Directed Studies Office, the Navy Warfare Development Command and the service academies.
The admiral also told his staff to include the TE branch in any internal, small-scale war-gaming performed by the various staff functions as azimuth checks on their plans. The branch gathers lessons learned, serves as a general repository for command war-gaming knowledge and draws up best-practices documents. The three red team branches work together to anticipate and meet the commander’s needs. Alternative Analysis learns from Decision Support about the likely near-term decisions faced by Arctic Command. AA’s analysis is injected by Decision Support into command planning, and by Threat Emulation into red cell operations. Decision Support further prepares the red cell by laying out the operational environment and the chronology of events, helping Threat Emulation test the hypotheses developed by the other two branches.
None of the red team members is locked into a single line of effort and will cross lines of effort to help surge for particular issues. As war-gaming is sporadic, Threat Emulation will often support Alternative Analysis. All members of the team may function as Decision Support in times of heavy operational tempo. It is not unusual for several team members to participate in the joint planning process. The sole exception is that Decision Support — the trusted agent in war games — will never serve as Threat Emulation for plans it has worked on.
Red teaming the red team
The red team uses concepts and thoughts that are often disregarded or even disdained by traditional military staff functions: for example, motivational and hygienic modeling. Cost-benefit analysis is often used to explore the opportunity costs inherent in various actions. The team works closely with Arctic Command’s J8 Force Structure, Resource and Assessment Directorate to get quantitative measures to gauge the success of operations.
Arctic Command also helps the red team by drawing in other personnel to serve temporarily on an advisory board to give perspective not normally available to full-time members. This so-called matrix team draws from unlikely sources such as the command historian, chaplain, legal and medical offices. Each member is encouraged to attend a two-week critical-thinking red team practitioners course conducted annually at command headquarters by a mobile training team out of Fort Leavenworth.
This board will generally meet once a month for a two-hour roundtable, reviewing various projects in the works by the red team and offering opinions, suggestions and critiques. This “red teaming the red team” concept strengthens the effort, smooths buy-in across the command and creates a pool of talent for red cells.
The Arctic Command’s service component, U.S. Naval Forces-Arctic Region, established its own red team to examine operations and plans as directed by higher authorities. Working hand-in-glove with the Arctic Command red team, the component team generally views plans and operations through a tactical lens, giving the Arctic Command red team yet another perspective to bolster its own efforts. The component team also provides extra personnel for surge operations.
Arctic Command built its commandwide red team not only with resources and personnel provided by doctrine, but by adding “out-of-hide” billets from other staff functions and incorporating the red team on multiple levels.
This model has not come without its detractors and distractions. More than one operator or planner has expressed the thought: “I already consider all the alternatives, and that makes red teaming redundant and superfluous.”
Rather than fight this mentality, the Arctic Command red team embraces it. Then it offers the skeptic a way to explore alternative thought that time and demands might not otherwise allow.
This notional team is hardly a final model for all combatant command red teams. Indeed, we applaud commanders who mold red teams to fit their own needs and visions, just as we welcome more discussion about the best ways to set up these invaluable assets. AFJ