Keep Calm and OCT On: The Hidden Benefits of OCT Taskings
Outside of a combat deployment, no single exercise defines a FORSCOM training calendar like a rotation at one of the Army’s Combat Training Centers (CTC). Between the months-long train-up, the logistical strain of deploying the unit’s personnel and equipment, and the prospect of fourteen days spent in “the box,” these rotations are typically dreaded by unit members at all echelons. This dread is intensified when a sister brigade is preparing for their rotation, and the inevitable tasking comes down – your unit is required to send Observer/Coach/Trainer (OCT) augmentees to support the rotation of the sister unit. However, OCT duty is actually a tremendous learning environment for junior officers and should be viewed as a great opportunity and not a painful additional duty.
At each of the CTCs, there is a dedicated unit of senior NCOs and branch-qualified officers who support each rotation by – you guessed it – observing, coaching, and training the rotational unit (RTU) as it goes through the phases of its operation in the box. These OCTs are armed with Army doctrine and the insight gleaned from watching unit after unit take on the opposing force, some successfully and others less so. However, such OCT organizations are still Army units, and therefore suffer the same personnel issues faced by your own. Between profiles, leave, or appointments, gaps arise in the ranks of OCTs assigned to assist the RTU. To fill these gaps, the CTC reaches back to the training unit’s parent organization, which usually passes the onus to a sister brigade. These augmentation taskings are understandably unpopular, but such taskings are hidden opportunities for junior officers rather than something to be avoided.
I was only two months past my promotion to First Lieutenant when I received word I would augment another brigade’s rotation at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) as the S-2 OCT for the engineer battalion. Although I already had a JRTC rotation as a RTU under my belt, I had only been an Assistant S-2 in an infantry battalion at the time, and a Second Lieutenant at that. I felt supremely underprepared to provide any guidance or feedback to the branch-qualified Captain that would be in the seat for RTU.
After consulting a mentor, I understood that although I did not have the experience of most other OCTs, I could fall back on doctrine in my coaching. It turns out that the “factory reset” in doctrine as preparation for being an augmentee is one of the great benefits of the tasking. After the completion of BOLC, all the doctrine that had been drilled and tested had slowly become fuzzy over the months of garrison tasks and staff work. Confronted with the prospect of standing in as resident doctrine expert in RTU’s TOC, my subsequent immersion in training publications and field manuals was a much-needed refresher. Learning doctrine in BOLC is one thing, but revisiting doctrine after having experienced numerous training exercises or combat deployments gives fresh perspective and enables a more thorough understanding. This is particularly true for junior officers, who are likely accustomed to working for commanders or on staffs where the battle drills are well-established and doctrine is rarely consulted, whether in reacting to contact or conducting MDMP.
In addition to the return to doctrinal understanding, another benefit of OCT augmentation for junior officers is the OCT Task Force structure itself that allows the augmentee to better his or her own skills and tradecraft. Mirroring the RTU, the OCT unit is divided into task forces, each supporting an RTU battalion. Within each task force, OCTs strive to match the MOS breakdown of the battalion they are supporting, across all warfighting functions. These warfighting functions have their own reporting system, so that as an S-2 OCT, I reported and fell under the Task Force for RTU’s engineer battalion, but also reported daily to the OCT Intelligence Warfighting Function. This structure allows OCT augmentees to learn not only from senior NCOs and branch-qualified officers that reflect the composition of the augmentee’s own unit, but from experienced members of the augmentee’s own warfighting function. The daily reporting requirements to these entities may vary, but generally involve reporting the things that one’s RTU counterpart is doing well, the things they could improve on, and what efforts one has made to course correct. Just the process of preparing these daily reports and periodically briefing them is a source of reflection and analysis that is critical not only for a Junior Officer’s development, but for her or her confidence in their tradecraft.
Most importantly, serving as an OCT augmentee gives a junior officer the unique opportunity of being a fly on the wall of another unit’s rotation and learn vicariously through their experiences. Whether the augmentee is in the TOC or on patrol with the training unit, observing a decision-making process or set of TTPs that is different from the officer’s own unit is an exceptional learning opportunity. Taking careful notes, a junior officer serving as an OCT augmentee can record best practices or lessons learned in real time against a thinking and skilled opponent. That experience alone is far more fruitful than any CPX or Warfighter Exercise in terms of understanding the effects of decisions and practices on a real-world scenario – or as close to real-world as can be achieved in a training environment. The augmentee gets a firsthand view of the fog and friction that work to confound the best of plans and get to see how other units react to crises and opportunities. The Junior Officer who takes advantage of this experience will return to their unit with a host of best practices and will be better equipped for the next CTC or combat deployment.
While the prospect of spending more time than necessary in the box, whether in the California desert, the Louisiana swamps, or the mud and forests of Hohenfels, is not a desirable one, there are several reasons why the tasking for OCT augmentee is a hidden gem. Junior officers especially have the opportunity to gain a better understanding of doctrine, to work with a host of experienced senior NCOs and officers, and to see real-time effects of TTPs that may differ from ones to which the junior officer is accustomed. Instead of actively avoiding an OCT augmentee tasker, junior officers should meet the opportunity head-on and look at the tasking as a chance to hone their tradecraft.
From the Green Notebook also published an article on OCT duty you might find interesting.
CPT Anna Rapp is a Military Intelligence Officer from Arlington, Massachusetts. She spent the first four years of her service in 2/101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, serving as both platoon leader and battalion intelligence officer. Since her experience as an OCT augmentee, CPT Rapp has spent five months in Afghanistan as part of a targeting team in support of 3/75th Ranger Regiment. She is currently stationed at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, in order to attend the Captain Career Course and is a 2021 CJO Leadership Fellow.