By Arpi Dilanian and Matthew HowardJanuary 16, 2020
As the senior enlisted advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired Command Sgt. Maj. John W. Troxell was the eyes and ears of the joint force. The senior noncommissioned officer (NCO) in the United States Armed Forces, Troxell completed five combat tours of duty and most recently served as the Command Senior Enlisted Leader of the United Nations Command, Combined Forces Command, and United States Forces Korea. Known for leading by example and balancing discipline and compassion across his 37-year career, we sat down with him to discuss the impact our NCO corps has across the globe.
You've said the joint enlisted force is our military's greatest competitive advantage. What creates that advantage?
There are three things I know for sure. First: regardless of budget instability and sequestration in recent years, we have a military that's capable of defending our homeland and way of life--not only here in the continental United States but also our interests abroad. Second: we have a military that can meet our alliance commitments and assist our partners in securing their sovereign territory. And third: we have competitive warfighting advantages in the three traditional domains of air, land, and sea, and comparative advantages in the emerging domains of cyber, space, and nuclear.
But the greatest advantage we have is in the human domain. No other nation on the planet trains, educates, trusts, and empowers enlisted ranks like the United States. Whether it's a near-peer adversary like Russia or China, a rogue nation like North Korea or Iran, or certainly the generational threat of a violent extremist, none have that mid-level leadership known as noncommissioned or petty officers.
Our approach to their development is comprehensive. Combine a very robust education system, training exercises, deployment experiences, and self-study that we encourage; together, that all enables the ability to build trust. If you build trust, then you can empower. When you can empower, now we can execute mission command. A commander--through their orders, processes, and vision--can allow NCOs to execute disciplined initiative within the intent, apply agile and adaptive thinking, and accomplish the mission.
Regardless of where we would have to fight, any near-peer kind of threat will start off as that: near-peer with high-end equipment in the maritime, air, or ground domains. But over time--especially on the complex, expeditionary battlefield of the future--the fight will devolve and become decentralized. What must you rely on in a decentralized fight? Leaders at the tactical level who can execute commander intent and the mission statement without being supervised, and in certain cases, without an officer anywhere nearby.
On any given day, we have between 250,000 and 300,000 troops executing tasks from cooperation, to competition below armed conflict, to armed conflict in 177 of the 196 nations around the world. In nearly four years in this job, I've made it to 59, some in which we only have NCOs operating. There are security challenges, political issues, and unrest, but I've seen first-hand the phenomenal job they're doing. This empowerment of NCOs extends the commander's reach across the battlefield, wherever that may be.
At the end of the day, that's our greatest competitive advantage. We're going to continue to invest in our people as we move forward, even if--depending on budget uncertainty--that means we have to take a pause in modernization. We will never take a premium on our people.
How can allied and partner nations learn from the U.S. model of enlisted leader empowerment?
I think it's a professional military model that has shown to be successful, so we're going to help them. It starts with our second line of effort in the National Defense Strategy: strengthening alliances and attracting new partners. We are the global partner of choice to assist other militaries. The best thing we can do is export professionalism, and that means helping them build a robust, professional, and empowered NCO corps.
I recently attended United States Africa Command's Senior Enlisted Leader Conference, now in its third year. The first time around, only four nations and 10 senior enlisted leaders showed up; this time, there were 29 nations and 63 leaders from across the African continent. When you look at some of those countries, you see the challenges with unrest, meeting basic needs, and the spawn of violent extremism. But they've seen the U.S. model and what our enlisted force is doing and say, "We want to be able to do that."
From 2011 to 2012, I was the sergeant major in charge of day-to-day combat operations at the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command in Afghanistan. As I traveled around that country to see our troops in action, the Afghans would look at what the American NCOs were doing and then emulate it. If you look at the Afghan military now, a huge key to their success has been the empowerment of their NCO corps.
And as nations continue to seek out assistance, it may not come exclusively from the United States. We have great partner nations such as the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia that all have very professional NCO corps as well.
How must our NCO Corps evolve to maintain relevancy?
To prepare for high-end conflict, we have to be trained to standard in our primary mission role, and that includes both collective and individual tasks. If I'm a Stryker brigade combat team, those are things like attack, defend, ambush, raid, and reconnaissance.
We also have to understand the character of conflict is different now. We can't forget the asymmetric art we've learned throughout the last 18 years. First, the ability to communicate with, and understand, the population. Second, the ability to build partner capacity--understanding that even when we're assisting a host nation in high-end conflict, we're still going to be doing by, with, and through that partner nation. And lastly, continuing to understand the enemy.
In terms of a near-peer threat, we have to understand capabilities and capacities they may have, and then look for strengths and weaknesses. However, even though it may be high-end conflict, it could still spawn activity normally done by terrorists or insurgent organizations. So in addition to defeating that high-end threat through our primary mission role, we have to have men and women who understand the complexity of the operational environment and can focus beyond, "There's the enemy, I need to defeat that threat.
We have to be sensitive to potential asymmetry of the battlefield. That means being able to provide civil military support successfully and fulfilling our responsibilities to assure allies. It also means deterring strategic and conventional attack and competing below the level of conflict to impose cost upon a potential threat with which we have long-term power competition.
Can you discuss the significance of our logisticians against a near-peer threat?
In terms of logistics preparedness, there is no greater problem set than a high-end conflict on the Korean peninsula. I spent 27 months there, most of which was with Republic of Korea forces: getting out and making sure they were prepared, ready, and understood my commander's intent. But more importantly, I sought to understand the potential threat: North Korea.
Against North Korea, we have advantages in the warfighting domains; certainly we have the experience. But when you talk about what our Naval and Marine forces would have to do, and the number of brigade combat teams it would take, the level of detail required to ensure we could continue to pursue this threat from a logistics standpoint is enormous.
There are 1.1 million North Koreans in their military, with a conscription duty of 11 years. 750,000 are on the demilitarized zone--if you're a rifleman in a rotational brigade combat team (BCT) on the DMZ and you have to go to war, if you have 210 rounds, you better not miss. And a massive non-combatant evacuation operation would be required to get the 250,000 American citizens off the peninsula.
All of this means we would have to do combined joint logistics over the shore. Aerial and sea ports of debarkation would have to be accessible and secure to bring in material, ammunition, personnel, and resources. It's a huge mission, and the level of planning, detail, and military assets it would require to keep the fight going until the North Koreans surrendered or we secured Pyongyang is just humongous. I don't think we've seen anything like this, if we had to do it, since Desert Shield/Desert Storm when we went into Iraq the first time.
As prepared as our combat forces have to be, our combat support and combat service support forces have to be even more so. They have to be exercised and go through rehearsals because you just don't wake up one day and say, "Hey, I've got to support 25 BCTs, and every one of them needs food, water, fuel, ammunition, and everything else." If we don't have the logistics piece right when it comes to a high-end conflict against a near-peer threat like North Korea, we're going to have some significant challenges in being able to reach our campaign objectives.
What keeps you up at night?
My previous boss, former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, used to say nothing kept him awake at night; he kept others awake. I suppose I was one of those people!
We have a good understanding of the current threats to our homeland and way of life. But I worry about the unknown future of what threats may be, and unforecasted events that require us to take away someone's assets and reallocate them elsewhere. Will that leave our troops vulnerable?
Wherever we are in the world, and in the most austere operating environments, we have to make sure: our troops have the appropriate intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; we can support them with joint fires; they have the golden hour of MedEvac; and personnel recovery assets are in a place that we can get to them if we need to. We can't leave our troops out there without those four key things and the ability to get after their mission.
The other thing I worry about is properly executing fighter management. Our current operational tempo is not going to slow down, so it's critical we continue to look after our men and women. Are we giving them the appropriate downtime so they continue to be physically, mentally, emotionally, technically, and tactically ready for the worst day of their lives? We can't run people so ragged and into the ground that they're not prepared for that day.
That comes through engaged leadership, even in a deployed environment, to ensure they are getting the appropriate food to eat, the sleep they need, and their equipment is getting reset. Most importantly, it's ensuring they're communicating with their loved ones.
A year and a half ago, I was in Syria visiting a unit that was fighting hard against ISIS in the days leading up to their surrender. They were in a very austere environment, eating MREs, and had no latrine or shower facilities … but they did have internet. Because they were doing the mission they signed up to do--defeating a threat--and could contact and talk to their families, morale was sky high.
They had been in country about three or four months, and they hoped they would stay for a year.
If we're giving troops the ability and tools to do the job they signed up for, while still affording them that downtime to communicate with family, rest, and refit, they'll be ready to reload and go after the next mission.
What is the most important thing every member of the joint force should have in their hip pocket?
Be prepared for the worst day of your life. Understand that if today is the last day of peace and tomorrow is the first day of war and high-end conflict, you and your family must be prepared.
Every day, every man and woman in the military--from the Chairman and myself all the way down to the lowest private, seaman, airman, or lance corporal--has to have the mentality to get after it. When it comes to high-end conflict, we need all hands on deck. We cannot afford to have somebody on the sidelines or operating at 60 percent when the enemy's operating at 90. Live the warrior ethos and be prepared to go defend our homeland and way of life.
Every day is a day of preparation, and it starts with what you are doing to make sure you're physically prepared. Make sure the leaders of your organization, and your battle buddies to your left and right, can count on you because you have a high level of physical fitness.
your duty and strive for excellence. If you've trained for excellence no matter how degraded conditions are, when it comes time to perform your mission, you will overcome and not only survive, but thrive and win.
You are a tactical athlete, and we have to train like it. That means a lot of physical work and a lot of work on our craft to make sure we're striving for excellence in everything we do. Get after it every day.
Arpi Dilanian is a strategic analyst in the Army G-4's Logistics Initiatives Group. She holds a bachelor's degree from American University and a master's degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Matthew Howard is a strategic analyst in the Army G-4's Logistics Initiative Group. He holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Georgetown University.
This article was published in the January-March 2020 issue of Army Sustainment.