Appendix C. Military After Action Reports/Reviews
One of the most important collection techniques used in the U.S. Army and many other joint organizations is the after action review/report or AAR. The concept of the AAR can be easily adapted to fit anyone's lessons learned (LL) program, whether it is government or civilian. However, the examples used here are worded to support a military organization.
When the term AAR is used, it can mean two different collection techniques; however, both provide very important observations and lessons to a military unit, its higher headquarters, and the force in general. The two forms of AARs are:
Within the U.S. Army, no concept is given more credit for changing the way it trains or fights than the AAR process. AARs help provide Soldiers and units feedback on mission and task performances in training and in combat. They identify how to correct deficiencies, sustain strengths, and focus on the performance of specific mission-essential task list training objectives. The verbal AAR conducted after every operation played a major role in transforming how the U.S Army trained and fought after the Vietnam War when it was implemented at the combat training centers (CTCs). That, coupled with the completion of a written unit AAR after the completion of operations, is the major driver of any military LL program. You cannot have an effective LL program without the AAR.
The following pages provide sample formats that are examples only and can be easily modified to meet any situation or mission. Admittedly, these examples are designed for tactical military formations. However, the basic concepts can be adapted to any government or nongovernment organization. The main point is that any good AAR must provide LL to ultimately improve and enhance organizational performance.
After Action Review Format
Introduction and Rules
The training exercise or operation is over. It is now time to conduct the AAR. A facilitator for the AAR should be designated. For training events, the AAR facilitator may be a CTC observer/trainer who controlled the exercise. In combat, the AAR facilitator is typically the unit commander or operations officer. The leader should start by reviewing the purpose and sequence of the AAR to ensure everyone understands what an AAR is and how it works. His introduction should include the following thoughts:
Figure C-1 contains a recommended sequence for conducting an AAR.
Soldier participation is directly related to the atmosphere created during the introduction. The AAR leader should make a concerted effort to draw in and include Soldiers who seem reluctant to participate. The following techniques can help the leader create an atmosphere conducive to maximum participation. He should-
In some instances, it may be appropriate to separate AARs by Soldier rank to get candid comments. This may be more important for the lower enlisted ranks.
Figure C-1. Sequence for conducting AARs
Review of Objectives and Intent
The AAR leader should review unit training objectives for the training mission(s) the AAR will cover. In combat, he should review the objectives of the operation. He should also restate the tasks being reviewed as well as the conditions and standards for the tasks.
Commander's Mission and Intent (What Was Supposed to Happen)
Using maps, operational graphics, terrain boards, and so on, the commander should restate the mission and his intent. Then, if necessary, the discussion leader should guide the discussion to ensure everyone understands the plan and the commander's intent. Another technique is to have subordinate leaders restate the mission and discuss their commander's intent.
OPFOR Commander's Mission and Intent
In a formal AAR, the OPFOR commander explains his plan to defeat friendly forces. He uses the same training aids as the friendly force commander so that participants can understand the relationship of both plans. In actual combat, this role could be performed by the S-2 or someone knowledgeable about what the enemy was attempting to accomplish.
Summary of Recent Events (What Actually Happened)
The AAR leader now guides the review using a logical sequence of events to describe and discuss what happened. He should not ask yes or no questions, but encourage participation and guide discussion by using open-ended and leading questions. An open-ended question has no specific answer and allows the person answering to reply based on what was significant to him. Open-ended questions are also much less likely to put the person on the defensive. This is more effective in finding out what happened. For example, it is better to ask,
"Sergeant Johnson, what happened when your Bradley crested the hill?"
"Sergeant Johnson, why didn't you engage the enemy tanks to your front?"
As the discussion expands and more Soldiers add their perspectives, what really happened will become clear. Remember, this is not a critique, evaluation, or lecture; the AAR leader does not tell the Soldiers or other leaders what was good or bad. However, the AAR leader must ensure specific issues are revealed, both positive and negative in nature. Skillful guidance of the discussion will ensure the AAR does not gloss over mistakes or unit weaknesses.
Discussion of Key Issues
The AAR is a problem-solving process. The purpose of discussion is for participants to discover strengths and weaknesses, propose solutions, and adopt a course of action to correct problems. Leaders can organize the discussion using one of the three techniques in the following paragraphs.
Chronological Order of Events
This technique is logical, structured, and easy to understand. It follows the flow of training from start to finish and allows Soldiers to see the effects of their actions on other units and events. By covering actions in the order they took place, Soldiers and leaders are better able to recall what happened.
To focus and structure the AAR, the U.S Army sometimes uses the six WFFs (movement and maneuver, intelligence, fires, protection, mission command, and sustainment). By focusing on each WFF and discussing it across all phases of the training exercise, participants can identify systemic strengths and weaknesses. This technique is particularly useful in training staff sections whose duties and responsibilities directly relate to one or more WFF. However, leaders using this technique must be careful not to lose sight of the big picture. They must not get into long discussions about WFFs, which do not relate to mission accomplishment.
A key events discussion focuses on critical events that directly support training or mission objectives the chain of command identified before the operation began. Keeping a tight focus on these events prevents the discussion from becoming sidetracked by issues that do not relate to the objectives. This technique is particularly effective when time is limited.
One of the strengths of the AAR format is its flexibility. The leader could use the chronological format to structure the discussion; then, if a particular WFF seems to have systemic issues the group needs to address, follow that WFF across the entire exercise. Once that topic is exhausted, the AAR could proceed using the chronological format. Each technique will generate discussion to identify unit strengths, weaknesses, and training the unit needs to improve proficiency. However, the leader must remember to:
Discussion of Optional Issues
In addition to discussing key issues, the leader might also address several optional topics, included in the following paragraphs.
Tasks to Sustain/Improve
This technique focuses on identifying tasks on which the unit is proficient and tasks on which they need further training. The intent is to focus training on mission-essential tasks and supporting Soldier, leader, and collective tasks that need improvement rather than training to known strengths. Although it is important to sustain proficiency on tasks whose standards the unit has met, it is more important to train to standard on new or deficient mission-essential tasks. Train to weakness, not to strength.
All incidents or near incidents of fratricide, whether inflicted by direct fire, indirect fire, or close air support, will be discussed in detail. The leader must focus on identifying the cause of the fratricide and develop standing operating procedures (SOPs) and tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) to prevent it in the future. Regardless of the environment (training or combat), the leader must swiftly deal with all fratricide incidents. As soon as possible after the event, an AAR should be held to discuss the circumstances surrounding the event, using the following discussion points:
Through discussion, the unit can identify critical Soldier and leader skills that affected unit or individual performance. The leader should note these skills for retraining or for future unit training. (Often it is best to discuss leader skills in a separate meeting or AAR specifically for that purpose. This allows for a candid discussion of leadership issues without wasting unit AAR time best spent on reviewing the entire training exercise.) The AAR leader for follow-on meetings should be a member of the unit, so participants can candidly address key training issues without fear of airing dirty laundry in front of outsiders.
Statistics is a double-edged sword. Effective feedback requires participants to measure, collect, and quantify performance during the training exercise. Statistics supply objective facts that reinforce observations of both strengths and weaknesses. The danger lies in statistics for statistics' sake. Chart after chart of ratios, bar graphs, and tables quickly obscures any meaning and lends itself to a "grading" of unit performance. This stifles discussion and degrades the AAR's value. Statistics and statistics-based charts should identify critical trends or issues and reinforce teaching points. An example for an armored unit would be to link the number of rounds fired to the number of enemy vehicles destroyed. This would provide a good indication of unit gunnery skills. Judicious use of statistic feedback supports observations and provides a focus to AAR discussions.
Discussion of Force Protection (Safety Issues)
Safety is every Soldier's business and applies to everything a unit does in the field and in garrison. Safety should be specifically addressed in every AAR and discussed in detail when it impacts unit effectiveness or Soldier health. The important thing is to treat safety precautions as integral parts of every operation.
Closing Comments (Summary)
During the summary, the AAR leader reviews and summarizes key points identified during the discussion. He should end the AAR on a positive note, linking conclusions to future training. He should then leave the immediate area to allow unit leaders and Soldiers time to discuss the training in private.
Written After Action Report Format
The template below (Figure C-2) serves as an excellent guide to what a commander may elect to cover in his unit's written AAR. The AAR provides TTP and LL for dissemination to the Army. For example, the Center for Army Lessons Learned archives all AARs it receives and through its website makes them available to units preparing for combat operations or training events.
The AAR can be organized by WFF or by phases, as in the example. It should be arranged chronologically, where possible. The format is flexible; however, two key purposes of the written AAR should be to (1) document the operations conducted by the unit for historical purposes and (2) provide best practices and lessons in the observation-discussion-recommendation format that can be used to inform the Army's LL program (see example in Figure C-3). What worked well should receive as much attention as what did not.
Figure C-2. Sample written AAR format
Figure C-3. Sample observation-discussion-recommendation format
Last Reviewed: May 18, 2012