The U.S. Army has decided to shutter the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies, a.k.a. “Red Teaming University,” ending one of the most revolutionary experiments in applied critical thinking and effectively pulling the plug on red teaming in the American military.
“Effective 1 October 2021, the Army will defund the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies (UFMCS) and repurpose our $2.5 million for other priorities. As a result, the Army, and the Department of Defense at large, will no longer possesses the ability to train and educate Red Teamers,” said the school’s director, Mark French, in a statement sent to me by UFMCS Friday. “At this stage, UFMCS leadership has exhausted the avenues for reconsideration.”
This cost-cutting move, necessitated in part by the Trump Administration’s absurd decision to steal money from the Pentagon to pay for a worthless wall on a tiny stretch of the nation’s southern border with Mexico (a wall that Mexico was supposed to pay for, the president promised), reflects a broader turning away from critical thinking – and indeed thinking in general – that has occurred under this regime.
It’s an unfortunate decision, because UFMCS was widely regarded as the gold-standard for formal red team training worldwide – and because red teaming is needed now more than ever, not just by our military, but by every organization.
It’s also my alma mater.
UFMCS was established in 2004 at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, as part of the Army’s Command and General Staff College.
By then, what had originally looked like easy victories in Afghanistan and Iraq were starting to look a lot more like inescapable quagmires. The Army knew its own missteps had contributed to the dire situation that now existed in those two countries. It was determined to learn painful lessons of those failures and take measures to ensure they were not repeated in future conflicts.
A lessons-learned team established at the Pentagon concluded that the military’s failure to challenge its own assumptions, a tendency to ignore disconfirming evidence and alternative perspectives, and an arrogance born of past success all contributed to the problem, so it decided to create a formal methodology for challenging its own thinking and stress-testing its own strategies. This methodology would rely on an array of applied critical thinking tools and groupthink mitigation techniques, all of which would be taught at a new school created specifically to train contrarian thinkers.
The school’s name – the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies – was a clever cover designed to prevent America’s adversaries from discovering its real purpose.
Since it first opened in 2004, UFMCS has provided red team training not only to Army officers, but also to those from other service branches, government agencies and even allied militaries.
In 2015, I became the first – and now only – civilian from outside government to graduate from the Red Team Leaders Course.
The education I received at UFMCS was worth more than any I received at any civilian school, college or university. My class was made up of 11 Army officers, mostly majors with multiple combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and one Air Force intelligence officer. Our instructor was Dr. Kevin Benson, a retired Army colonel who had literally planned the invasion of Iraq (but not the ill-conceived occupation that followed it). Over the course of three months, we read dozens of great books – everything from Clausewitz, Jomini and other classics of military strategy, to cutting-edge cognitive psychology texts from the likes of Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein, to business books such as The World Is Flat and The Fifth Discipline. We also learned, practiced and mastered dozens of applied critical thinking tools and groupthink mitigation techniques, such as PreMortem Analysis, Devil’s Advocacy and Alternative Futures Analysis.
What I learned at UFMCS provided the foundation for my book Red Teaming, which was published 2017. Since then, the many business leaders and companies I have shared these learnings with have found them to be equally valuable.
Of course, it wasn’t perfect: In the five years since I left UFMCS, I and my team – which includes other Red Team University graduates and faculty – have discovered that there are limitations to the formal red teaming model, and we have evolved the tools and techniques taught there to make them more flexible and easier to use by individuals, as well as small teams on an ad-hoc basis. And the Army’s training program, which ran as long as 12 weeks for Special Forces officers, was too much for some commands to digest. We’ve provided far more rapid training and support to Army Futures Command, Strategic Command and others in the U.S. military.
But I have remained a big believer in UFMCS, because I do think that the formal, structured approach to red teaming taught there can be invaluable for a large, hierarchical bureaucracy like the U.S. Army.
The problem is, red teaming only works if you let it.
Both President Bush and President Obama could see the value of red teaming and came to appreciate the work done by red teamers from Fort Leavenworth, the CIA and other agencies. Sometimes they listened to these red teams and their decisions benefited as a result. The “Surge” in Iraq and the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan are two cases in point. Other times, they ignored the advice of red teams to their detriment.
Trump, on the other hand, has shown little interest in red teaming, and has rejected most analysis that challenges his own thinking in any way. That means that major military decisions are no longer being red teamed the way they once were. So, it’s hardly surprising that red team training is being deprioritized at the Pentagon. The U.S. Marine Corps closed down its red teaming school at Quantico – which I also had the pleasure of attending – a couple of years ago, and now the Army is following suit.
One of the first lessons they taught us at UFMCS was: You can’t red team in the Führerbunker.
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