Army After Action Review: The Steps & Tips for Success

The Army After Action Review, also known as an AAR is one of the commander’s most valuable training tools available.

An Army After Action Review is a professional discussion of an event, focused on performance standards, that enables Soldiers to discover for themselves what happened, why it happened, and how to sustain strengths and improve on weaknesses. It is a tool leaders and units can use to get maximum benefit from every training event or mission.

Here’s an additional definition I found online to describe AARs.

AARs are “a guided analysis of an organization’s performance, conducted at appropriate times during and at the conclusion of a training event or operation with the objective of improving future performance. It includes a facilitator, event participants, and other observers (ADRP 7-0).

The AAR provides valuable feedback essential to correcting training deficiencies. Feedback must be direct, on-the-spot and standards-based.
AARs are a professional discussion of a training event that enables Soldiers/units to discover for themselves what happened and develop a strategy for improving performance. They provide candid insights into strengths and weaknesses from various perspectives and feedback, and focus directly on the commander’s intent, training objectives and standards. ~

As the commander, you must leverage the AAR to your advantage. At the end of every major training exercise you should conduct a formal After Action Review with your key leaders and Soldiers. Seek input from all subordinate leaders whenever possible.

army after action review

Army After Action Review: The Steps

How does an After Action Review work? It’s quite simple. Listed below we will discuss the Army AAR format or Army AAR template.

Step # 1: Pick a Location

Set a start and end time for the event. Have a butcher block of paper or dry erase board on site. Make sure there is adequate seating and/or standing room.

Step # 2: Review Mission & Concept of Operations

Once everyone is assembled, tell everyone what was supposed to happen. Review the commander’s intent and concept of operations in detail.

Step # 3: Review What Actually Happened

This is the process of reviewing the actions others took. You look at the facts and get very specific about the details of the event.

Step # 4: Identify What Went Right

What went according to plan? What did your leaders do right? What would you sustain and do again?

Step # 5: Identify Shortcomings & Issues

What went wrong? Why did it go wrong? How could it have been prevented or handled better? Seek the answers to these questions.

Step # 6: Identify Areas of Improvement

What could the unit have done differently to achieve success? What will your unit do differently in the future?

Step # 7: Adjourn the Army AAR and Publish the Results

Remember, AARs must be a two-way conversation. It’s not just the commander or Operations Officer talking. Seek input from your NCOs and subordinate officers. Don’t forget to get your Soldiers input, too.

At the conclusion of the AAR prepare a memorandum for record. Give a copy to your supervisor and to your key leaders. In addition, file a copy away in your After Action Review folder or book. That way, you can reference the AAR for future training events.

Army AAR Success Tips

Too many times, I see weak leaders conducting an AAR and simply asking for, “three sustains and three improves.” This simply does not produce the tangible results that we seek to get out of an AAR. Here are my Top 10 Army After Action Review Success Tips so you can have an effective AAR with your unit.

# 1: Are the training/task objectives being met? 

Take a look at your 8 Step Training Model analysis and review what the unit’s METL Task is for the training event. Is the overall intent of the training being met? 

# 2: Are Soldiers/trainers fulfilling their roles?

Again, review your 8 Step Training Model and analyze what each party should be doing. Is the trainer training, or simply standing around? Are the Soldiers engaged and actually training or finding some shade?

# 3:  Are Soldiers/trainers communicating effectively?

Are the trainers communicating their skills and knowledge, or are they just reading from a slide show? Are the Soldiers providing feedback?

# 4:  Are there any problems with preparedness, procedures, and/or the simulation? 

This is a very important aspect to examine when analyzing your training events. Is the training realistic? Does it engage the Soldiers or are they bored and disconnected? Are there any drastic resource issues with training aids or equipment? Was there a lot of time wasted because Soldiers/trainers were unprepared for the training?

# 5:  Is the training adequately testing the Soldiers’ capability to implement what they have learned? 

Are there opportunities to conduct a “check on learning” during the training? What standards and objectives are in place to measure the success/failure of the training?

# 6: AAR talking points should address the issues witnessed by the leadership during the training/task and any lessons  previously learned. 

As leaders, it is our sole responsibility to ensure our Soldiers are properly trained. That is our bread and butter. That being said, we need to view training from this perspective and ask some of the questions stated above. Then, jot notes for the AAR discussion as the training is taking place. Are some of the pros/cons of the training reoccurring issues that have been talked before in previous AARs?

army aar tips

# 7: Review and discuss the overall concept/intent of the training/task and critical actions at the beginning of the AAR. 

Let the Soldiers explain to you, in their own words, what was supposed to happen. Allowing this to happen will give you a deep perspective in how what you may have laid out is actually interpreted by your subordinates. Determine what they deem as critical vs. what you identified as critical.

# 8:  Let the discussion points you observed earlier stimulate an exchange among Soldiers and/or trainers. 

You have already identified areas that are “sustains and improves” as you assessed the training/task. Talking points should address the issues witnessed by the YOU during the training! Use these talking points to steer the discussion and listen to your Soldier’s perspective on the why these things happened. The AAR talking points will usually stimulate good discussion between Soldiers. Discussion between the Soldiers should be encouraged. These discussions will offer you insight into:

  • Whether your training plan and protocols need to be updated or modified;
  • How effectively the training plan and procedures were implemented;
  • How effectively the trainers/Soldiers communicated; and
  • How effectively the training was actually run.

# 9: Use visual aids to address any talking points. 

For example, to verify if the plan was activated properly, a schematic of the training structure might be displayed on a slide to show “who’s responsible for what” and to demonstrate the critical roles that should have been assigned during the training/task. Oftentimes, a schematic can clear up confusion of the players involved.

# 10:  Use what you have learned!  

Don’t just hold an AAR, type it up, and then forget about it! An AAR is a tool that you should be using as a leader and trainer to streamline processes and to ensure that your Soldiers are receiving the best training possible. Keep your published records in a folder categorized by a particular training event or training period. During your training, planning, and development refer back the AAR conducted the year before to ensure that this year, you are not repeating any of the same mistakes!

Bonus Tip: Make sure your subordinates hold their own AARs.

Make sure your subordinates are doing AARs with their teams. This will give them practice and it will give them additional perspective they might not have gained in your AAR.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, these are my best tips on the Army After Action Review. I hope this post helps you use the AAR for what it was designed to do. Do you have any added tips? Do you have any questions? Just post them below. Thank you. Hooah!

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chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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18 thoughts on “Army After Action Review: The Steps & Tips for Success”

  1. I think the best tip I read in this post was getting the soldiers’ input.

    The best practice I have seen yet is to have opinions written down anonymously on note cards and handed to the management for all to read.

    Some suggestions will obviously not work, but quite a bit of good can also come from that. Knowing what the soldiers’ are thinking is important.

    1. That’s a great idea, Scott. I like the idea of everyone writing down their thoughts anonymously on an index card. It might not work well in the military, but it could. A lot of times Soldiers won’t say anything during an AAR, or say what they are really feeling, because they don’t want to get in trouble or get chewed out.

  2. An excellent point was to get the input of key leaders and your troops. I've read a few AAR reports that were basically the commander retelling the mission with a few mentions of what went right. If one person does it you will lack the honesty and point of view that it needs. You need to mention the good things along with the missteps you made. It's an after action report not a "Look how we did everything perfectly" report.

    1. Absolutely. If the commander is the only one talking during the unit’s AAR, it won’t be complete or 100% accurate. If anything, the commander should do the least amount of talking and get input from everyone in the unit who will contribute. That is where the commander will gain the “real story” and get input about things he might not have even considered.

  3. The best training in the world comes from experience. Using the AAR for this, a Company Commander is setting him/herself up for success. You hit the nail on the head when you spoke of getting input from all sources. The soldier may have noticed something that an NCO didn’t. From top to bottom, everyone has something to offer. We learn from past mistakes and make amends so that they don’t happen again. Great post Chuck.

    1. Spot on, Greg. You definitely want everyone’s input while doing an AAR in your unit. It’s great hearing different perspectives and points of view on the mission, objectives, and how everything panned out.

      And your point about learning from mistakes is right. That’s one of the reasons for doing an AAR: to objectively look at what happened and find ways to improve with future missions.

      Thanks for the comment.

  4. Colin Powell gives an interesting perspective of AAR’s in his book “It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership.” Specifically, in his chapter “Mirror, Mirror On the Wall,” he talks about self-examination, individually or as a group, and uses the AAR only as a tool to do so, incorporating it on a personal level as well as a professional level.

  5. Nanitertodori

    Your advice about the AAR is the best I have ever read. My unit normally just does the three up and three down method. I never got much value out of that, but I can see how your approach to the AAR would make a big difference.

    1. The three up and three down method is by far the most common type of AAR, usually because the unit’s leadership is lazy or untrained. By all means it’s better than doing nothing, but it would be in a unit’s best interest to do it the right way.

  6. Spending your time to get organized so you can have a thorough After Action Review is very important. So many leaders simply wing it and go through the motions. You should treat the AAR just as important as you treat the training event.

  7. Katelyn Hensel

    I know that the Army, the Marines, the Navy, etc all have their own policies on reviewing failed missions and training tools. It still makes me sad to think that with all of these procedures and policies in place there are still tragic accidents like what happened earlier this week with the marines in the SW. Hopefully practices like the Army After Action Review will make issues behind such problems clear and preventable.

    1. No matter what you do there will always be some level of risk in the military. The lessons we learn from AARs after these bad events happen can be very beneficial to preventing these things from happening again.

  8. Some of the best ways to learn are to review past events and activities. It’s nice to see you mentioning the AAR here and its power as a great tool for a Company Commander. Doing the AAR with your team is a great way to learn together, to celebrate success and also keep morale up. Constantly improving is the best way we can have the strongest unit out there.

    1. I agree with you Leslie that AARs are a great tool for Company Commanders, but I also know that they work for leaders at all levels, when done properly. Whether you are in charge of five people or five thousand, you should get feedback from your key players and Soldiers so you can improve, talk about lessons learned, and get different perspectives on the situation.

  9. I actually have this printed and placed in my Leader’s Book. I make my NCOs do so as well. I think that so many leader’s have the “old school” method of just saying, “Hey, give me 3 sustains and 3 improves” and the training is never really discussed like it should be. Every AAR that we do for each IDT is also kept in a “continuity book” that I keep in my office as well. That way, next year, when we do say, gunnery, I can review and ensure we don’t make the same errors we did last year.

    1. Great points Justin. We should all keep a record of our AARs and refer to them from time to time. You can learn a lot by reviewing old AARs. It is a huge training tool when used properly.

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