America's noncommissioned officers and petty officers deliver the military's biggest asymmetric advantage, Army Command Sgt. Maj. John Wayne Troxell, the senior enlisted advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a recent interview.
Troxell has served since 1982 and has a proven combat record in Panama, Iraq and Afghanistan. He also has served as a mentor to generations of noncommissioned officers.
The military has to have empowered mid-level managers and leaders who are able to apply agile and adaptive practices to defeat enemy threats, solve problems and accomplish missions based on the commanders' intent, Troxell said.
That's easier said than done.
Even though the United States once had 150,000 service members in Iraq and 130,000 in Afghanistan, the size of those countries meant that troops were spread thin. NCOs often led patrols and route-clearance missions and dealt with sheikhs and tribal elders. NCOs were often the hands-on instructors of indigenous forces -- and their counterparts from partner nations often were officers.
American NCOs and petty officers are empowered in ways their partner nation counterparts often aren't, Troxell said. They understand the orders they receive, the resources available to them and the objectives they need to reach, he explained.
And, the sergeant major said, they are trained to use their initiative within the scope of their instructions.
"NCOs are the doers," the senior enlisted advisor said. "They provide inspiration, purpose, motivation, direction and discipline to the troops they lead, and they are also responsible for the individual training of those in their charge."
Empowerment can come only through training and trust, he said.
"Once commanders have trust, they can extend their reach at the operational and tactical levels, because they have noncommissioned officers who can execute leader duties, as well as the normal managerial duties in taking care of troops," Troxell said.
Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand treat their NCOs in much the same way as the United States military does. Others see the advantages that the U.S. military employs through its NCO corps and are looking to develop a similar cadre.
"Singapore, Romania, Colombia, Malawi, Ghana, Liberia and Botswana are doing a fabulous job of empowering their enlisted force," Troxell said. "They see it is a much more efficient way of doing operations. They don't need an officer for every operation."
An empowered NCO corps is relevant even in a near-peer conflict, the sergeant major said.
"On any battlefield we will fight on … over time … it will devolve into a small-unit fight," he said. "When that happens, the combatant that has the best empowered NCOs will have the strategic initiative, and they will win."
The role of NCOs has not remained static. When Troxell joined the Army, NCOs were in charge of tasks such as maintaining the barracks, training, inspections and the like.
"There wasn't a lot of discussion from my NCOs on how to prepare for a threat, which at the time was the Soviet Union," the sergeant major said.
The military began systematically capitalizing on what NCOs bring to the fight, Troxell said. Each service began increasing the responsibilities given to junior personnel and strengthened NCO professional military education.
"When we started formally educating our sergeants and petty officers, it had a huge effect on how we utilized them," he said. "And through this education system we have continued to morph and accelerate and get better and better through the years."
Early on, most of that education came from officers.
"My first few years in the military, it was always the officers who talked," he said. "Then it was senior NCOs, and now it is to the point where all NCOs have that responsibility."
After 9/11, Troxell said, "We realized in a hurry that in order for the commander to have the desired influence and extend their command reach across this enormous battlespace, it had to be through their trusted and empowered noncommissioned officers."
The biggest test for empowered NCOs and petty officers came with deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. "In my opinion, we passed with flying colors," Troxell said. "Did we have incidents out there? Yes. But in the end, we took those incidents and … we've learned from that and poured it back into our education system."
The sergeant major said he believes the military needs to create opportunities for enlisted service members to "go joint" earlier.
"At about the E-4 rank, they have mastered the basic skills," he said. "We think that at about the E-5 ranks, we need to expose service members to joint service."
Until recently, the joint duty for NCOs started at around the E-7 level, and training occurred through two courses: Joint Professional Military Education 1 and 2. JPME-1 was aimed at E-6 and E-7 personnel, and JPME-2 was for the E-8 and E-9 grades.
"But as I started traveling around, I saw more and more E-5s immersed in joint and multinational organizations," Troxell said. "I saw more and more of these nonstandard NCO and petty officer development courses at installations bringing young NCOs together to learn about other services." And, he said, he observed E-5s exercising mission command responsibilities in joint multinational environments such as Afghanistan and Iraq.
The service and combatant command senior enlisted leaders also saw this, he said, which led them to change the joint professional military education courses to allow E-5s to benefit from them.
It is just another way that the NCO corps is providing an asymmetric advantage, Troxell said.