The Human Terrain System: A CORDS for the 21st Century

By Kipp, Jacob; Grau, Lester et al. | Military Review, September/October 2006 | Go to article overview

The Human Terrain System: A CORDS for the 21st Century


Kipp, Jacob, Grau, Lester, Prinslow, Karl, Smith, Don, Military Review


In accurately defining the contextual and cultural population of the task force battlespace, it became rapidly apparent that we needed to develop a keen understanding of demographics as well as the cultural intricacies that drive the Iraqi population.1

-Major General Peter W. Chiarelli, Commander, 1st Cavalry Division, Baghdad, 2004-2005

CONDUCTING MILITARY OPERATIONS in a low-intensity conflict without ethnographic and cultural intelligence is like building a house without using your thumbs: it is a wasteful, clumsy, and unnecessarily slow process at best, with a high probability for frustration and failure. But while waste on a building site means merely loss of time and materials, waste on the battlefield means loss of life, both civilian and military, with high potential for failure having grave geopolitical consequences to the loser.

Despite these potential negative consequences, the U.S. military has not always made the necessary effort to understand the foreign cultures and societies in which it intended to conduct military operations. As a result, it has not always done a good job of dealing with the cultural environment within which it eventually found itself. Similarly, its units have not always done a good job in transmitting necessary local cultural information to follow-on forces attempting to conduct Phase IV operations (those operations aimed at stabilizing an area of operations in the aftermath of major combat).

Many of the principal challenges we face in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom (OIF and OEF) stem from just such initial institutional disregard for the necessity to understand the people among whom our forces operate as well as the cultural characteristics and propensities of the enemies we now fight.

To help address these shortcomings in cultural knowledge and capabilities, the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO), a U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) organization that supports the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, is overseeing the creation of the Human Terrain System (HTS). This system is being specifically designed to address cultural awareness shortcomings at the operational and tactical level by giving brigade commanders an organic capability to help understand and deal with "human terrain"-the social, ethnographic, cultural, economic, and political elements of the people among whom a force is operating.2 So that U.S. forces can operate more effectively in the human terrain in which insurgents live and function, HTS will provide deployed brigade commanders and their staffs direct social-science support in the form of ethnographic and social research, cultural information research, and social data analysis that can be employed as part of the military decision-making process.

The core building block of the system will be a five-person Human Terrain Team (HTT) that will be embedded in each forward-deployed brigade or regimental staff. The HTT will provide the commander with experienced officers, NCOs, and civilian social scientists trained and skilled in cultural data research and analysis. The specific roles and functions of HTT members and supporting organizations are discussed below.

To augment the brigade commander's direct support, HTS will have reachback connectivity to a network of subject-matter experts now being assembled from throughout the Department of Defense, the interagency domain, and academia. This network will be managed by a centralized information-clearinghouse unit nested in FMSO.

At the same time, to overcome the kinds of problems now typically encountered when in-place units attempt to transfer knowledge about their area of operations upon relief in place, HTS will provide for the complete transfer of HTT personnel together with the HTT database to the incoming commander upon transfer of authority. This will give the incoming commander and unit immediate "institutional memory" about the people and culture of its area of operations. …

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