Ranger School Is Not A Leadership School
by Major John Spencer
Editor’s Note: This is another excellent article from Major John Spencer at the Modern War Institute (MWI). This article was originally posted on the Modern War Blog, where you can read Major Spencer’s biography and see what qualifies him to write an article like this. While there, you can also check out other great articles by him and MWI’s many contributors. The views expressed in this article are the author’s, and are not an official position of the US Army or the Modern War Institute.
The US Army calls Ranger School “the most physically and mentally demanding leadership school the Army has to offer.” The Ranger Training Battalion makes leadership the subject of the first chapter of its Ranger Handbook. And I routinely hear anxious future Ranger students ask about what to expect and be told some version of “Ranger School uses small-unit tactics as the vehicle to teach leadership.”
As a former Ranger instructor, I promise you that despite what the Army and Ranger School itself claim, this is bad advice. Ranger School is not a leadership school.
Ranger Instructors do not teach leadership. Leadership is not why the course was created and it is not why over half who try to complete it fail to do so. The course is a small-unit tactics course for dismounted infantry. To say otherwise is a disservice to potential Ranger students; being a great leader is important in the Army, but is not on its own sufficient to earn the Ranger tab.
Ranger School was developed in 1951 during the Korean War after Ranger companies, made up of volunteers who underwent intensive specialized training, demonstrated overwhelming combat proficiency on the Korean battlefield. Army Chief of Staff Gen. J. Lawton Collins knew a good thing when he saw it and ordered Ranger training be extended to all combat units in the Army.
The initial Ranger School program was built on lessons learned from World War II and Korea, with Korean War Ranger company veterans serving as many of the first instructors. These veterans emphasized the importance of individual combat skills, mental and physical toughness, and decision-making under extreme stress—skills that remain the focus in Ranger School today.
The legacy of the 1950s continues and is seen in the Army’s own description of Ranger School:
Ranger School is the Army’s toughest course and the premier small unit tactics and leadership school . . . a mentally and physically challenging school that develops functional skills directly related to units whose mission is to engage the enemy in close combat and direct fire battle. . . . [Upon completion] Ranger Students are proficient in leading squad and platoon dismounted operations around the clock in all climates and terrain. Rangers are better trained, more capable, more resilient, and better prepared to serve and lead Soldiers in their next duty position.”
Although the description states that Ranger School is a leadership school, leadership instruction is not in the curriculum. It is a tacit assumption that students arrive well versed in the Army’s fundamental leadership skills. These skills will be tested throughout the course, but they are not taught. What students are taught before they go on graded patrols are squad and platoon tactics, the use of weapons, field craft, and other tactical and technical skills.
If Ranger School was a leadership school, poor leadership skills would be expected to be the cause of most failures, but they aren’t. Only 40 percent of the soldiers who undertake the course pass. Of those who fail, over 62 percent do not meet the initial physical and skills assessments tests (e.g., pushups, 12-mile foot march, land navigation) given during the first week of the course—the tough, week-long Ranger Assessment Phase (RAP). Ten percent leave the course for administrative reasons (injury, voluntary removal, major violations of course rules, etc.). Thirteen percent leave for failing their graded patrols. Finally, less than 1 percent fail for bad evaluations by their peers, perhaps the only direct measure of leadership flaws.
Ranger students fail patrols more for tactical errors than inadequacies in leadership abilities. Ranger instructors use objective observation reports (grade cards) to evaluate students during their patrols. Students can automatically fail an entire patrol if they deviate from required procedure—failing to state the mission during their operations order, getting lost en route to their objective, or getting found and compromised by the enemy on a reconnaissance patrol, for example.
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