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A Visual Tool for Mitigating Vulnerabilities

Army units must deal with a wide range of vulnerabilities in garrison, during field training exercises, and while deployed. Identifying and mitigating these vulnerabilities are essential to creating the conditions needed for freedom of maneuver throughout the battlespace and completing the mission.

Leaders of the 4th Infantry Division Support Command (DISCOM) at Fort Hood, Texas, knew that failure to alleviate risks and vulnerabilities could adversely affect our formations. Therefore, we developed a unique process for mitigating risks during reset after a deployment, while preparing for an upcoming deployment to Iraq, and throughout the deployment.

Vulnerability mitigation must be explained in a way that both leaders and Soldiers can understand and put into action. Rather than use a narrative Word document, we used a chart to depict visually the vulnerabilities, risks, and mitigating actions associated with an operation or event. This visual depiction provided a tool for leaders and Soldiers to identify vulnerabilities quickly and mitigate their risk.

Vulnerability Assessment

Before deployment, and in the middle of its reset, the DISCOM transformed to the 4th Sustainment Brigade. The problems inherent in transformation were compounded by preparation for deployment. After we arrived in Iraq, we received subordinate battalions with which we did not have a habitual garrison or operational relationship. The separate companies and sections we received represented the full spectrum of units throughout the Army—Active Army, Army National Guard, and Army Reserve units—all performing their traditional or “in lieu of” missions. This wide range of units increased our need to assess vulnerabilities quickly and find ways to mitigate them throughout our formation.

We assessed the vulnerabilities of each operation as we gained experience and confidence in our mission and ourselves and spent more time in Iraq. This aided in the mitigation of risks and reduced vulnerabilities during all phases of our deployment and operational assessment.

Although we assessed our vulnerabilities for many operations and missions, I will discuss only the operational assessment of our relief in place/transfer of authority (RIP/TOA) operation. Within a 6-week period, the brigade headquarters and two battalion headquarters, including their companies, went through the RIP/TOA process. During each unit’s RIP/TOA, we incorporated external and environmental vulnerabilities into our risk assessment.

Risk Assessment

Initially, we assessed our risk as “high” across the brigade. Since all elements of the command were new to the Iraqi theater of operations and to each other, we closely monitored our progress throughout the RIP/TOA process.

Because we had to perform our mission immediately after we arrived, it became the responsibility of leaders at every level to implement mitigating factors that would lessen the inherent risks of combat operations. We constructed our vulnerability assessment charts to reflect color-coded levels of risk and vulnerability, the timeline associated with the vulnerability, the current risk assessment, previous and projected assessments, and mitigating actions. (See chart below.)

The first step in our process was to identify clearly the vulnerabilities associated with a particular phase or operation. We depicted our vulnerabilities on the left side of the chart by showing increased proficiency and reduced vulnerability as we assessed an improved risk level. Vulnerabilities were tied into the level of risk our units experienced at a given time during an operation. Many of our vulnerabilities were associated with a lack of experience and inadequate time to learn and understand our mission and environment. Along with assessing our vulnerabilities, we assessed the progress of units in our area of operations as they advanced through their RIP/TOA phases and assumed their roles in the battlespace.

Next, we developed a list of mitigating factors associated with our vulnerabilities and depicted them on the right side of the chart. This proved valuable in stimulating thought. The chart served as a quick reference for leaders at all levels and helped ensure that they were on track in mitigating vulnerabilities. The factors depicted also gave leaders the ability to tailor their assessed vulnerabilities for each mission or operation.

Both brigade and battalion headquarters tracked mitigation progress for the time period depicted along the bottom portion of the chart. At the brigade level, we usually assessed ourselves each month. Our subordinate units generally traced their assessments by week. By assessing ourselves, we were able to update our status quickly and see if our mitigating factors not only were working but also were implemented at the company and platoon levels.

Our actual assessment of the risk level associated with a particular vulnerability was part art and part science. First, we determined all factors that were involved in the operation, including the mitigating factors that were in effect and how the length of time the assessed unit had been in country related to its mission proficiency. Then, after carefully determining how well our mitigation was working, we determined our risk level.

We denoted the current overall assessment with a bubble in the appropriate section on the chart. A solid line showed where we had been, and a dotted line showed our predicted assessment of future risk. We plotted our predicted assessment based on what we felt to be the trend of risk. We kept in mind the proper placement and execution of mitigating factors, including units operating in our area of operations and their effect on our mission.

On our chart, gradation of color showed changes (both good and bad) associated with the risk involved for a particular mission. For example, red moving to amber denoted that the risk moved from high to moderate, amber moving to green indicated moderate risk, and green signified low risk. We split the chart into three sections to break up the color codes and signify the risk level. For example, if an assessment was at the high end of moderate risk, we labeled the risk as amber/green.

The greatest challenge we faced in mitigating risk was keeping the bubble in the green, or low-risk, area by implementing mitigation measures to reduce vulnerability. Throughout the deployment, we constantly evaluated our mitigation criteria and where we stood in relation to our vulnerabilities. Constantly reevaluating ourselves prevented us from becoming complacent once we assessed our risk as green, or low. Another key advantage of the assessment tool was that it gave us the ability to see ourselves, the enemy, and our environment in spite of constantly changing tactics, techniques, and procedures.

Visual Information Sharing

By creating a visual risk assessment tool that painted a picture, the brigade was able to evaluate risks quickly and determine ways to mitigate the associated vulnerabilities during each phase of reset and deployment. Our chart was user friendly, which made it easier to identify and observe our progress. We found that leaders at all levels were more likely to refer to the vulnerability assessment chart rather than to a Word document. We also found that charting vulnerabilities and mitigation actions makes it easier to assess a unit’s risk during an operation or phased event.

Leaders at all levels of our formation found our vulnerability chart an extremely useful, succinct, and efficient way to share information about vulnerabilities, risks, and mitigation during all operations. Rather than use a narrative that simply addresses risks and gives a rating, units should consider using a chart similar to the one we developed to tie together all aspects of the risk assessment process.

Lieutenant Colonel Seth L. Sherwood is the S–3 of the 4th Sustainment Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, which is deployed to Tafi, Iraq, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He has a master’s degree from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and is a graduate of the Army Command and General Staff College.