COIST staffs play crucial role on today's complex battlefield

By Phil SussmanJune 19, 2009

FORT LEWIS, Wash. - On today\'s complex battlefield, company commanders make decisions quickly - and that is sometimes difficult without a staff trained to analyze the constant flow of information.

As a result of a concept developed by Col. Harry D. Tunnell IV, the commander of 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, the company commanders in his maneuver battalions will have more of the resources they need to make timely, effective decisions.

Shortly after standing up the brigade in 2007, Tunnell installed battle staffs at the company level. Now standard throughout the brigade, the Company Intelligence Support Teams are crucial elements of those staffs.

According to brigade intelligence officer, Maj. Derek McClain, the COIST is a decentralized method of command and control that also helps the brigade commander to see a more complete picture on the ground.

"The colonel is ultimately responsible for the whole sector, but he can't have visibility on every single personality that has to be dealt with, so he's empowering the guys below him to take care of those issues," McClain said.

Tunnell's commitment to providing company commanders additional tools and his confidence in the judgment of those commanders were apparent from the start. He tasked company commanders to identify, recruit and train Soldiers they determined best suited for the missions of the small teams.

As the modified table of organization and equipment does not provide intelligence analysts at the company level, commanders were required to staff the COIST "out of hide," with Soldiers from their companies.

Apache Company, 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment's head COIST Soldier, for example, is assigned as the chemical operations NCO, according to his commander, Capt. Edward Graham.

"(He) really doesn't have a job in the current global war on terror, because there's not a chemical fight," said Graham.

Although the Soldier was not formally trained as an analyst, he quickly adjusted to his new role within the COIST.

"We gave him all the tools that he needed to be able to take the current battlefield picture, understand its dynamics ... and be able to put all that information together and develop further on targets," said Graham. "Now he can be focused on being an analyst."

Before COIST Soldiers could perform their new roles, they first needed to learn the technology. The brigade's February rehearsal exercise at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., gave them the chance to test and practice using systems that allow teams at the company- and platoon-level to rapidly compile and share information, package it and send it up to the battalion tactical operations center faster than ever before.

As a platoon is conducting a combat patrol, for example, a COIST member constantly communicates with the platoon leader on the ground.

"When platoons go out and conduct engagements ... with a (village) chief or elder, they have certain information requirements," said Graham. "Whether they're going to deny an area from the Taliban ... (or) gather intel on patterns of Taliban movements, (the Soldiers) will get additional information, such as a truck on a ridgeline watching the whole time. After every patrol, platoon leaders and (Language Enabled Soldiers) have a debriefing with company leadership. The COIST then shares (the information) with everybody."

The COIST speeds the sharing of information among the companies and sending it upward. Previously, from companies, intelligence often traveled slowly through battalion and brigade channels, diminishing its value in time-sensitive operations.

While the COIST has become vital to information flow, the team is only as valuable as the Soldiers who collect the intelligence from local villagers. The Soldiers, 50 Arabic- and Pashtu-trained linguists throughout the brigade, are tasked with conducting tactical questioning alongside interpreters during local engagements.

The Language Enabled Soldiers remain at the platoon level and serve as an auxiliary component to the COIST, feeding information to commanders and intelligence teams following each engagement.

With so many Soldiers contributing to the success of the company intelligence staff, the commander can prioritize better, worry less about details and take a broader, more comprehensive view of operations, said Graham.

Fifth Brigade's deployment to Afghanistan will be one of firsts. Not only will their Stryker vehicles be the first to roll onto Afghan soil, but the brigade will also be among the first to test the company battle staff concept.

Phil Sussman is a reporter with Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian.