By Trent Lythgoe
Source: Modern War Institute
I think we’re overly centralized, overly bureaucratic, and overly risk averse, which is the opposite of what we’re going to need in any type of warfare, but in particular the warfare that I envision.
—Gen. Mark Milley, US Army chief of staff
In a recent essay, retired Col. Kevin Benson calls on the Army to evolve its collective thinking on tactical risk assessment. As he points out, commanders must not be content to avoid risk. Instead, they must deliberately accept tactical risk to create and exploit relative advantages over the enemy. Col. Benson is correct that the Army must revisit how it doctrinally defines tactical risk. However, the chief obstacle to tactical risk taking is not doctrine; it is risk aversion.
From a military perspective, this propensity to avoid risk is most problematic in situations where taking risk is advantageous. There are three main reasons Army commanders tend avoid risk: loss aversion, institutional risk norms, and senior leaders’ lack of comfort with risk.
To overcome risk aversion, the Army should strive to deliberately train commanders as risk adapters. Risk adapters do not avoid risk like most people, nor do they seek it out like gamblers or adrenaline junkies. Instead, they weaponize it. Risk adapters use risk deliberately and precisely to create relative advantages in particular domains. Risk research has found three strategies that Army commanders can use to become risk adapters: perspective taking, risk norming, and decision framing.
Why Army Commanders Avoid Risk
The first reason Army commanders avoid risk is loss aversion. In the Twitter exchange that Col. Benson says prompted his article, Brig. Gen. Patrick Donahoe argues, “With great risk should come great reward. If the risk-benefit analysis is skewed to the risk outweighing the benefit the COA is not acceptable.” While this is true, it assumes a commander will accept the risk if the reward is greater. According to behavioral economists, this is rarely the case because of loss aversion—the tendency for people to fear losses more than they desire equivalent gains.
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