Oleksandr Kosynskyi: “A Modern Army Can Only Exist Effectively In a Professional Format”

'Ukrainian Week' spoke with CSM Oleksandr Kosynskyi, head of the NCO Department of the AFU General Staff, about the transformation of the sergeant corps of the Ukrainian Armed Forces

 “How important is it right now to build up and train a modern sergeant corps in our army?

-The history of the creation of a professional sergeant corps in the Ukrainian army dates back to 2005. Unfortunately, until the ATO this reform was moving slowly. But it’s one that was long overdue, because the more you put it off, the more complex weapons and equipment become, approaches to combat and operations change. Even the concept of assessing human resources in war has long been different. In the past, hundreds of thousands, even millions, died on the battlefield in a short period of time; success depended, to large extent, not only on training but the number of “bayonets”.

A modern army can only exist effectively in a professional format. And it should be small so that the country’s economy can support it. This is obvious. The formation of a professional sergeant corps in Ukraine should be seen as an investment in specific experts. I don’t just mean money, but also courses and training. And the most valuable investment is the experience gained by that person.   

I remember being a sergeant and teaching conscripts how to parachute out of a plane and shoot on target. But there wasn’t enough training time to make them professionals. We were constantly getting guys with zero skills, and all we did was teach them the basics - forget about any sort of advanced skills. And for us, this was a challenge, because you can develop or buy the latest tank or another system, but without specialists, it’s just a bunch of mechanisms. I saw myself how a mobilized soldier who had been conscripted in Soviet times, after a short period of training, came to the ATO zone, sat in a combat vehicle, and in a month or two it had to be sent for repairs. He didn’t know how property use it or service it because he didn’t have the right professional education. And this costs the country money. 

During the process of grooming a new sergeant, we must teach him how to work with people. Often this is more difficult than working with sophisticated equipment. You won’t get anywhere without good leadership qualities. Even a sergeant first class at company level needs managerial skills and the ability to motivate. I have seen groups on the front line perform tasks without fully understanding their essence. That’s what a sergeant is there for – to inform his people about the goal of an operation and to motivate personnel to execute it.

It is equally important that sergeants and officers learn to work in tandem. An officer must strategically calculate everything and build the right plan because the responsibility is on him. And a sergeant implements this plan together with his subordinates; that is, he trains them, supports them, and accounts for the small things that are decisive in battle.    

What is the role of a sergeant in the modern army? Does he just carry out the ideas of the officer or headquarters, or is he allowed to comment on the plan?

-This tandem is not meant to only be vertical in the paradigm of action “I give orders – you follow them”. You also have the reverse vector. This is the main idea behind creating the sergeant corps. An officer doesn’t work as closely with soldiers as the unit commander, and the higher an officer climbs up the career ladder, the less contact he has. A sergeant is a former private who experienced this himself and knows the kind of attitude soldiers want. He sees some things differently than an officer, and this isn’t a problem – it’s normal. A sergeant has a better idea of who to assign different tasks to. That’s why an officer and sergeant should work as friends that share thoughts and ideas to come up with the best solution. It’s important that sergeants are heard at every level of military management…

So now there are representatives of the sergeant corps at all levels of military management?

-Yes. The vertical of sergeant ranks has been built from unit commander to command sergeant major of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. That means that every commander, including the chief of the General Staff, has a corresponding sergeant. By communicating with the sergeants across this line, I understand the problems in the military, and information from the bottom travels much faster through this channel.

What are the most common problems in this vertical?

-There are many issues of a social nature. They have always been problematic and will probably remain so. In the past, sergeants were confused by the flawed system of professional training. There used to be three levels: primary, intermediate and advanced. Intermediate required 2.5 years of military college and allowed you to be a sergeant first class at the company level. Everyone understood that this was too long to be away from a unit. It was better to spend 4 years getting a higher education and the rank of officer. But a commander couldn’t let a good sergeant be away for so long. They would have to remove them from the unit personnel list and it wasn’t a fact that they’d return to the unit. The system of training itself was also peculiar. The military component was only about six months, while the rest of the time was spent on general subjects. But as foreign and domestic experience has shown, it is sufficient for a sergeant first class of a company or battalion to have a good secondary education. All they need is intensive military courses and leadership training. This is what we now teach in our short-term leadership courses.        

For that reason, we’ve introduced a four-tier training system. I studied how they reformed the sergeant corps in NATO countries, Kazakhstan, Georgia. Our colleagues achieved good results even in states where there are remnants of Soviet mentality: Lithuania, Poland, Latvia. The NCO PME Reference Curriculum recommends four development levels. Every country must meet at least 70% of these requirements. It’s an issue of interoperability of forces and having a single conceptual apparatus, so that when sergeants meet in a joint headquarters or in the field there aren’t misunderstandings about the joint operation. We studied this system and created special training centres for sergeants like the sergeant schools in the armed forces of Allied states. Through them, we are implementing a modern training system for the sergeant corps. There are no officer positions; the directors of the centre are senior sergeants and the training departments and courses are run by sergeants who studied in Ukraine and abroad. Most of them, as a rule, have several qualification certificates.

Are there any mathematical models that justify the economics of putting serious resources into the training of a sergeant profile?

-NATO counts every cent spent, including on training soldiers. There are calculations as to how long a country’s defence system can’t lose a trained sergeant. His value, like an aged cognac, increases over time. Ideally, everything should be done for him to remain in uniform until retirement; therefore, a normal, conscientious specialist should be constantly motivated. Until recently we didn’t have such calculations, but we’re slowly doing this very important accounting.

The problem was that a vertical of sergeant ranks was created, but not a corresponding progressive salary system. I worked with the MOD Finance Department for three years and we had difficulty reaching an agreement. But recently we had a breakthrough with the help of US Embassy Senior Advisor to the MOD Steven Silverstein. He sent information requests to a number of structures of the MOD and General Staff and did all the calculations. Steve showed that the country invests so much in training a basic sergeant that it’s worth motivating him to continue to serve. That way we save time and combat experience that would otherwise be lost if the sergeant left the military. Note that the retraining of one sergeant alone costs approximately UAH 30 thousand.  

Our system of training has several levels and requires that personnel complete additional courses throughout service. These are also investments that should bring added benefit. For example, at the brigade level, a sergeant must not only know English, he must prove his knowledge so that he can periodically attend courses abroad. And this is a good way to absorb the advanced military culture.

Sergeants’ jobs have command and instructional components, and they develop their careers alternating between these two roles. From a command position, at say the company level, he will move on to be an instructor and share his experience, and then again return to the command path, but at a higher level - for example, the battalion level. With time he will again be an instructor. This idea of effective transfer of sergeant experience is embodied in the three levels of courses for instructors. The transfer of personal experience to an audience is somewhat of an artform: it’s not enough to know something, you have to effectively transfer this knowledge. This system is still in its infancy, but it will be just as good as in NATO.

How do you motivate privates and sergeants to constantly improve?

-You shouldn’t think about motivation only in terms of money. When I was a sergeant serving in special purpose units all I dreamed about was the next level of advanced training. And I want us to have as many of them as possible. Similar to how the Special Ops Forces have a half-year qualification course based on the methods of the American Green Berets. It’s a very physically and intellectually demanding course, but it’s effective. We also want to introduce a rating system used to promote sergeants. The green light for promotion will be a good annual performance evaluation. We plan to institute a practice where the person with the highest scores, higher class, participation in operations, language skills, etc. becomes the number one candidate for promotion.

That’s how we will create a professional sergeant corps. Leadership courses are also very important: they serve as a filter because not everyone passes – 15-20% of all candidates drop out. Every day a new group leader is chosen, and it becomes clear whether or not that person can lead others. For this same reason, there is a common methodology for assessing leadership qualities at the start and completion of courses.

In what areas do your colleagues need to improve to match the average sergeant in NATO militaries?

-We’re still not perfect, and that’s why under the NATO cooperation program we need to reach serious results by the end of 2020. By then the system of multi-level training, personnel management and social support will be fully in place. I’m certain there’s enough time. By the end of 2018, we will introduce all four levels of sergeant training. 

We need to develop the tradition of partnership. The old model of the army was one where the commander gave an order and everyone ran to execute it. Today this won’t work. A commander needs to be a real authority figure, not a formal one. With the start of the ATO, a lot of mobilized officers came through that knew nothing about sergeant reform. Brigade sergeants would come to them with problems and they would say: “Oh, so you’re the brigade sergeant? I got it: you deal with uniforms, food, tents, mattresses.” The sergeants would tell them that they have other functions. But the officers would take the statute and say: “This ‘blue book’ only has the responsibilities of a company sergeant, so do them!” But everything is slowly changing. The new generation of officers and generals understands this better, especially those who studied abroad. They bring back a different culture of military partnership. Officers who were in the trenches with their sergeants also bring excellent experience to the table.       

Sergeants need to show that they can be advisors to commanders, work above their level of competence, understand issues that officers deal with. There are many examples of sergeants who worked hard on themselves and finally established good communication with their commander.  

How should military corporate culture be developed?

-This is very important. In the US I saw officers’ and sergeants’ clubs and recreation centres for contract soldiers. You can eat a hamburger or hot dog, have a beer, talk, play the guitar, watch a football game or boxing. I also saw army wives associations in military towns. When a husband or wife in the service is gone for a long time, their families are left on their own. They join groups to ease the burden of different problems, not only domestic ones. This corporate culture helps keep families together. It’s interesting to see how families integrate into the military community and start to better understand their other halves serving in the army. We’ve been thinking for a long time of building sergeants’ clubs. There is even a building for one at the 197th NCO Training Centre in Desna. But funds weren’t allocated this year for its refurbishment, so it hasn’t happened. But it’s something that has to be done. Many contract soldiers are currently living on military bases. These are young guys who need to be protected from problems common to their age. It would also be good to change our culture of recreation, form new military traditions. 

You have all the makings of a great officer. Have you ever thought of trying yourself in a new field?

-I’ve been offered to become an officer several times, but I chose a different path. More than 3,500 sergeants recently moved to officer positions, and I’m trying to keep the rest in the sergeant corps. This is like a knife to my heart because the best are leaving – the officer corps are gaining, and we are losing staff potential. Until I can break this tradition as command sergeant major of the Armed Forces, I have no moral right to take an officer position.

What ultimate result do you want to achieve?

-My goal is to implement the Concept of the Development of a Professional Sergeant Corps and reform the sergeant corps in Ukraine by the end of 2020. I’m certain that everything will be okay and the Armed Forces of Ukraine will meet the best standards of combat readiness. We have every chance of achieving this goal and transforming the military career, changing this army and country for the sake of a better future.

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Chief Warrant Officer Oleksandr Kosysnskyi.  Command Sergeant Major of the Armed Forces of Ukraine— head of the NCO Department of the AFU General Staff (since 2012). 40 years old. Born in Lviv region. Participant of the rescue operation in Zakarpattia (1999), peacekeeping missions in Sierra Leone (2001—2002), Iraq (2004—2005), several rotations in the ATO. Last year commanded a platoon of the Aidar Assault Battalion of the Ukrainian Ground Forces.

In 2010 he completed special language and Marine Corps sergeants courses in the US. In 2012 he completed an instructor’s course at the Military Academy of the Czech Armed Forces and graduated with honours from the master’s program of Central Ukrainian State Pedagogical University and the NCO College of Kharkiv Polytechnic University. The following year he completed the advanced level of sergeant training at the NCO College of Hetman Petro Sahaidachny National Army Academy. In 2014 he completed a course for staff sergeants on working in NATO headquarters at the Peace Support Operations Training Centre in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and last year he completed an advanced course for sergeants at the NATO School in Germany. 

Source: Ukrainian Tyzhden (in Ukrainian).