RA Sigs Reflections: Troop Commanders, Regimental Signals Officers and Sub-Unit Commanders on their experiences and observations

There are many lessons that can be learned through the everyday experiences of leaders, managers and staff officers. However, despite the wealth of knowledge our predecessors can offer, we often fail to learn from the experiences of those that have gone before us. Valuable insights, even the most basic or seemingly intuitive, are routinely lost through the churn of Army’s posting cycle and our operational tempo.

The following is a collection of observations and reflections from Royal Australian Corps of Signals (RA Sigs) members that have recently completed postings as either a Troop Commander, Regimental Signals Officer (RSO) or Sub-Unit Commander. These positions can present many challenges and opportunities; a number of which are common to the all-corps environment and some which are unique to RA Sigs. The inherently technical nature of the Corps requires RA Sigs members to: develop and maintain specialised knowledge and skills; to possess particularly effective oral and written communication abilities; and to effectively manage the careers of soldiers with varied trade training requirements. The observations and experiences below are intended to assist other RA Sigs officers to navigate the challenges specific to the Corps by reflecting on lessons learned from previous incumbents.

Reflections from RA Sigs Troop Commanders

Technical requirements vs Command, Leadership and Management. An equilibrium between technical knowledge and command, leadership and management is achieved early in each RA Sigs Officer’s career, with this equilibrium adjusted to the individual requirements of their position. RA Sigs Troop Commanders should rely on their subject matter experts (Troop Sergeants and Corporals from the respective trades) to develop their technical knowledge. A Troop Commander's technical knowledge will steadily increase as time progresses and experience grows. Therefore focusing efforts on understanding soldier management and administrative process flows has been identified as a good method to support soldiers and their welfare during the initial stages of Troop Command. Help expedite this by establishing a strong rapport with key squadron staff, troop hierarchy and other troop members. This enables the formation of a baseline from which a deeper understanding of other job aspects can be developed. Once this stage has been reached, one junior officer suggested spending an hour each day with soldiers from each trade to develop technical knowledge and a deeper understanding of communications capabilities and functions.

Understanding career management. Some junior officers noted that they lacked a comprehensive understanding of the career progression models for respective RA Sigs trades. This included requiring a greater appreciation of the All Corps Senior Non-Commissioned Officer Training Continuum, as well as a more detailed understanding of the optimal completion windows for trade and equipment-specific courses. This knowledge gap should be corrected by professional self-development through resources such as the Manual for Army Employments and Directorate of Soldier Career Management – Army, as well as by training generated through the chain of command.

Acquire a list of the trade expectations of your soldiers. The Employment Category Number (ECN) Manual of Army Employments does not provide the knowledge required for a Troop Commander to distinguish whether a member’s technical skills are ‘above worn rank’ or ‘below worn rank’. A Troop Sergeant will know their own trade but are unlikely to have the same knowledge for the other ECNs. Squadron or Regimental Trade Managers may be able to assist through the generation of specific trade skills expected of each ECN up to the rank of Corporal. Alternatively, the Corps and Advanced Training Wing at the Defence Force School of Signals can provide guidance. A list of specific skill expectations by trade allows for the identification and rewarding of best performers and enables the creation of training programs that raise everyone’s skillsets.

Core deliverable focus. The focus of a troop should always be centred on its core role and this should drive everything they do. A reliable measure of this is the Personnel, Equipment and Training pie graph. If the team lacks experience, then the Troop Commander must provide opportunities to practice. If there is faulty equipment, repair of it must be made a priority. If the troop believes  they are ‘good-to-go’, it is the responsibility of the Troop Commander to test them against their core deliverable. For a Combat Signal Regiment Formation Node Troop, this means a full technical rollout. The problems encountered, and the standards which are not met during the test, will guide the requirements for the next stages of training.

Create soldier certainty by quarantining time. Creating structure in the calendar provides the certainty soldiers need to develop and conduct innovative training. More specifically, a battle rhythm provides intent to Detachment Commanders and enables them to act in the absence of Troop Headquarters. Without such a system, a dynamic is created where soldiers consistently require further direction in order to commence work. One suggestion for a Formation Node was to consider allocating certain days to governance, creating an opportunity for the remaining weekdays to be devoted exclusively to training. It was noted that for this to be successful, support from Squadron Headquarters must be obtained in order to stop short-notice governance tasks from being allocated to the troop unless there are exceptional circumstances. The most frequently cited reason for junior non-commissioned officers not running detachment training is the perception that they are unable to isolate the required time due to ‘random tasks’. Further engagement across the unit is required to enable Workshops, Q-Store and other supporting elements to schedule administrative tasks around training time. Quarantined time gives soldiers the certainty they need to train, innovate and use their initiative.

Troop training. Reinforcement of skills and cross-training of trades is important and develops the understanding and competence of all personnel, including Troop Headquarter staff. Placing significant effort towards cross-training reduce the risk-to-mission of an individual as a single point of failure. An excellent time to achieve this is during stable periods in a field environment, i.e. once communication services and a battle rhythm have been established. The benefit of this training has broader implications as the cross-training of personnel assists in their integration with both small unit nodes supporting manoeuvre battlegroups and deployment of teams in support of Special Operations Command activities.

Briefing as a Communications Duty Officer (CDO). One of the most difficult aspects of RA Sigs Troop Command involves the requirement of a CDO to brief technical information to audiences with a varied understanding of technical and non-technical matters. The ability to articulate information clearly, accurately and with brevity, is essential. It also requires the briefer to possess a comprehensive understanding of the content being presented and its anticipated effects on the audience’s area of influence. Tailoring the information presented to the audience, be it the RA Sigs Squadron Operations Officer, the Brigade Headquarters Operations staff or visiting dignitaries, is an important skill which develops with experience and an understanding of the underpinning technologies. These skills are addressed during the CDO component of the RA Sigs Regimental Officer Basic Course, but require continual refinement and effort in order for personnel to become truly competent. The skills acquired as a CDO continue to benefit RA Sigs Officers through their Captain, Major and staff officer years, yielding competent watch-keepers and officers confident and proficient at briefing members of a higher rank.

Foundation skills and professional self-development. Most RA Sigs junior officers reflected that they possess the requisite communication skills, technical knowledge and understanding of equipment capabilities to be ‘job-ready’ upon completion of their Regimental Officer Basic Course (ROBC) (notwithstanding unit-specific job requirements). However, it was acknowledged that individuals need to be responsible for their own continual professional self-development in order to remain abreast of emerging threats and capabilities. This includes learning concepts and technologies which may already be commonly used, but to which they have had limited exposure. This requires wide reading, engagement with peers, and identifying learning, education and training opportunities. While this should be supported by the chain of command, the professionalism of the Corps will ultimately be dependent on an individual’s willingness to invest in their own development. This is a theme reiterated at Defence Force School of Signals and is increasingly becoming a mantra across broader Army.

Reflections from Regimental Signals Officers

Communicating is the communications fundamental. RSOs should articulate information, issues and ideas in an easy-to-understand and meaningful manner, regardless of its technical nature. Failure to tailor information to the audience will frustrate supported personnel and not add value when conducting planning.

Know your worth. RSOs are posted into specific positions to provide specialist advice to the Commanding Officer. RSOs are highly qualified and trained officers in a complex field, and as such, are valuable to the effective functioning of the posted unit. Therefore building a strong relationship and trust with the Commanding Officer and Operations Officer early is crucial to ensure they understand your skillset and are able to rely on you to deliver it. Whilst an RSO is not required to be technically brilliant, it is important that you are confident in your ability to effectively plan communications. As communications systems develop in complexity, the RSO is critical to creating an integrated and robust communications plan. Becoming an integral member in the Operations Cell, and contributing subject matter expert knowledge when relevant planning is conducted, sets the conditions for success during execution of training and operations.

Work in the grey. The extent of an RSO’s duties and responsibilities are often not known by the personnel who are supported by them, leading some to perceive there is a lack of worth. It is essential to ensure that key personnel are kept aware of an RSO’s current workloads and future plans so that key functions and intent are understood. When this is achieved, it is possible for an RSO to have significant freedom to conduct testing, establishment and experimentation with communication networks, as well as having opportunities to autonomously build relationships with external agencies. Many RSOs reflected on their posting as a unique opportunity for an RA Sigs officer to be ‘hands-on’ with communications equipment, as they had the opportunity to physically build a network instead of leading a troop or squadron of soldiers and non-commissioned officers who complete it on their behalf.

Trust your training. The RSO is the only individual within a supported unit that will have received the training required to fully understand: the complexity of the technology; the networks; the wider strategic picture (as it pertains to communications); and the constraints on the employment of the equipment. In preparation for an RSO posting, or as early as possible after marching in, the completion of all digital communications courses (including Advanced Battle Management System (BMS) Planning) was observed to be a significant advantage both for shaping perceptions of the RSO and upholding the Corps' reputation. It also enhances the ability to support unit Standard Operating Procedures and enables greater innovation when developing solutions.

Our capability is communications, our effect is information flows. The starting point of any communications plan is being able to understand the command and control structure of the exercise or activity. The “who” of a communications plan is always more important to understand than the “how” – an RSO must thoroughly interrogate the information flows so that the relevant stakeholders, and the information they require to pass, is correctly identified (this includes identifying information exchange requirements). This baseline analysis is an essential aspect of communications planning and contributes to the development of a cogent communications support plan.

Be comfortable with change. Change is continual within RA Sigs. The introduction of new capabilities, and constantly developing technologies, ensures that an RSO will not be operating in a ‘known-known’ situation; instead they will need to be comfortable in a ‘known-unknown’ environment. Each major exercise sees a new and different method to employ the Battle Management System, strategic networks, radio nets, cryptographic plans and information management architectures. An effective RSO must be able to quickly grasp and understand the concepts of technologies being employed and develop a communications plan to facilitate this.

Lean on your network. Strong relationships with your local Combat Signal Regiment and other local support elements are integral to success. An RSO will be challenged to adequately undertake all aspects of the role without the help and support of trade specialists. One example of this related to Communication Security (COMSEC) procedures and seeking advice from a local Vault. A generalist officer will not always possess the appropriate skill set for the management of cryptographic material, so Vault support can be critical. It is important for an RSO to not hesitate to contact organisations and other subject matter experts for assistance. Support organisations such as Battlespace Communications Operations Group (BCOG), Joint Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence Systems Program Office (JC4ISPO), Satellite Operations (SATOPS), Network Operations (NETOPS) and Defence Communications Area Master Station (DEFCAMSAUS) offer invaluable assistance for an RSO to achieve their mission.

Reflections from RA Sigs sub-unit commanders

Looking up and managing down. Troop command aside, sub-unit command is the first time an officer has a comprehensive body of soldiers to manage as well as the appropriate authorities and delegations required to implement substantial change. However, it is important for OCs to remain cognisant of the commanding officer’s intent so that initiatives implemented at the sub-unit level nest with the higher commander’s intent and direction for the unit. A commanding officer’s priorities may not align with the innovative ideas of a new sub-unit commander, and vice versa. Therefore finding common ground, and balancing accordingly, is essential.

Personnel performance reporting. There is a common misnomer that the time taken to become a sub-unit commander has been necessarily sufficient to generate highly effective performance report writing abilities. Upon reflection, many OCs believed that they had more robust report writing skills when they took up the position than they actually possessed. Those OCs that were able to arrange a visit to Directorate of Soldier Career Management – Army or Directorate of Officer Career Management – Army to observe a Personnel Advisory Committee (PAC) noted that they were able to more effectively manage the careers of their subordinates by better understanding how Performance Appraisal Report writing affects the PAC process. Following this visit with the delivery of a Professional Military Education session for all report writers, to explain how the PAC board looks for specific hooks regarding future potential, would enable more effective report writing. These skills also enable report writers to draft duty statements that allow each subordinate to demonstrate the specific attributes which will be required to achieve success in both mission and career.

Training and development of subordinates. A common observation by recent RA Sigs sub-unit commanders was that many Lieutenants struggle with the unit-specific nuances associated with their first appointments, despite their recent completion of the ROBC. In response, some Officers Commanding (OCs) implemented unit-specific induction training lasting one to two weeks for all newly posted troop commanders. This initial investment gave junior officers the confidence, skills and knowledge required to succeed, and avoided the unrealistic expectation that they had learnt everything they needed to perform their roles effectively during their ROBC. This was found to be highly effective and augmented other officer training already being conducted as “how-to” sessions within units. 

Empower junior non-commissioned officers. RA Sigs relies heavily on junior non-commissioned officers (JNCOs) to run detachments remotely from higher elements, especially Communications and Information Systems support nodes attached to battlegroups or operating retransmission detachments. Operational experience in recent years has required JNCOs to work closely alongside senior non-commissioned officers (SNCOs), which has provided them with unique mentoring opportunities. However this has reduced the need for JNCOs to act independently or to demonstrate initiative, and has often led JNCOs to think of themselves more as ‘senior diggers’. Having the Squadron Sergeant Major establish a formalised training program focused on empowering the JNCO is one way to prevent this from occurring. It is important to support this with constant messaging to impress upon junior officers and SNCOs that Corporals are commanders in their own right, and they should be consulted when making decisions about a detachment member’s welfare, allocation of equipment, tasking, and so on. Additionally, certain tasks, such as administrative debriefs and some counselling sessions, could also be completed by detachment commanders.

Training to combat the threat. With regard to specific areas in which to focus training, it has been noted by recent RA Sigs OCs that there is a general sense of our Corps becoming more attuned to the existence of ‘a threat’, but that we are not enabled to incorporate it into planning and advice. This logically suggests that there needs to be a greater emphasis placed upon providing RA Sigs Officers and SNCO access to intelligence reports, developing and implementing relevant threat-centric training within units, enabling access to classified briefings and reports, engagement in continual education in current and future technologies, and creating the expectation that we consider threats in all aspects of our roles as communications specialists. Sub-unit commanders are in an ideal position to drive this and shape the development of our junior officers and SNCOs, driving the professionalisation of the Corps from inside units, and complementing training conducted in traditional learning establishments (this concept is supported by Defence Force School of Signals).

General comparison of RA Sigs and other Corps. Being a sub-unit commander in an RA Sigs unit presents many of the same challenges as other Corps. However, the additional complexity resulting from the technical aspects of the Corps' role may affect relationships up and down the chain of command. The requirement to articulate technical information up the chain, while managing the capability down, is a nuanced challenge. Multiple RA Sigs OCs reflected that the skills required to manage this challenge are developed in the period preceding sub-unit command, but are not perfected until well into a sub-unit command posting. It was also noted that taking responsibility for professional self-development and securing opportunities that present initially as challenges, is a great way to enhance these skills early in your career. To that end, it is recommended that a sub-unit commander has an understanding of: the capability lifecycle and current Communications and Information Systems projects; aligning innovative ideas; and planning to higher level capabilities or gaps.

Thank you to those members who assisted in the collation of this article by providing their personal insights. A related article from our US brethren at From the Green Notebook can be perused here: How to fail as the S6

About the author: Corps and Advanced Training Wing deliver training to officers and SNCOs as part of the advanced communications training continuum at the Defence Force School of Signals. The Wing maintains the PACE site, a professional development resource for the ‘community of communicators’. Read more here: PACE