Category Archives: Our Military

About the operation of our military. It’s strengths and weaknesses.

Review of “Kill Chain: Rise of the High-tech Assassins”

Summary:  Today we have a review of an important book about America’s post-9/11 policy of mass assassination. We’ve adopted a tactic that both history and theory suggests will fail, and which has repeatedly failed since 9/11. Books like this explain what we’re doing wrong, but only political action by us together will reverse our mad geopolitical policies.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

“Assassination is the perquisite of kings.”
— attributed to Umberto I of Italy.

Kill Chain

Review of Andrew Cockburn’s
Kill Chain:
The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins

Reviewed by Chuck Spinney.
Posted at his website The Blaster.
Posted here with his generous permission.

Caveat emptor: the author of this book is a friend of 35 years, so I am biased, proudly so in this case.  While I know what Cockburn can do, I must admit I was literally blown away by this book. And I am no stranger to this subject, having worked as an engineer-analyst in the Office of the Secretary of Defense in the Pentagon for 25 years.

What makes Cockburn’s book so powerful, in my opinion, is not only his sourcing and detail (which are amazing), but the fact that he has written a book that is at once overwhelming in terms of information, yet so well written, it is accessible to the general reader.  It is a page turner.  He dissects the rise of drone warfare and examines its conduct in fascinating detail from the point of view of the targeteers in the CIA and the White House, to the controllers in front of video screens, and to the effects on the victims at the receiving end.

In so doing, he shows how the ideology of drone warfare is really old wine in a new bottle: it is a natural evolution of three interconnected mindsets:

Continue reading

Victory through airpower! We always believe the promise, despite the past.

Summary: We gear up for another round of wars, repeating the same methods that failed repeatedly since WWII, with pregame performances more predictable than a Superbowl’s halftime festival. Today we look at the grand claims of certain easy victory through airpower. Like Charlie Brown listening to Lucy, each time we believe — ignoring past disappointments.

“There are no innocent civilians. It is their government and you are fighting a people, you are not trying to fight an armed force anymore. So it doesn’t bother me so much to be killing the so-called innocent bystanders.”

— Curtis LeMay, interviewed by Michael Sherry after WWII, in his book The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon, Yale University Press (1989).

Victory Thru Airpower

Today’s propaganda: “How America’s Drones Can Defeat ISIS“, Arthur Herman (senior fellow at Hudson Institute, created as cheerleaders to the USAF ), Defense One, 15 March 2015. None dare call it warmongering, although that’s what it is. The money paragraph:

“Fortunately, Carter will have at hand the perfect tool for delivering a series of mortal blows against ISIS without putting a single American soldier on the ground: America’s fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAV’s.”

These performances before our wars are as predictable as a waltz. Each round of air power advocacy makes bold predictions of easy certain victory buttressed by grandiose but false claims about previous air wars.

Something similar happened more recently, almost by accident, in Kosovo in 1999, when persistent NATO air strikes so cleared away Serbian resistance that Kosovar militias were able to come down from surrounding hills and retake lost ground.

If we lift our habitual fog of amnesia to remember that war, even RAND, loyal servant of the USAF that created it), added a realistic note amidst its ritualistic accolades about the awesome Kosovo air war:

Continue reading

Reforming the US Army: can be done, must be done.

{Military reform} is not attacking the people in the Army, many of which sacrifice so much so many times. It is not the people, the vast majority which really adhere to the values of the services; it is the systems that manage them that are so bad and out of date. A lot of people succeed with selfless service despite the personnel system.

— From “Leading the Human Dimension Out of a Legacy of Failure” by G.I. Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired) and Donald Vandergriff, chapter 3 of America’s Defense Meltdown (2008).

Summary:  Yesterday’s post explained how the US Army’s leadership problem grow so bad. Today Don Vandergriff gives the good news, discussing reforms under way today — and more powerful reforms for the future. He concludes by asking why not take these steps now, rather than waiting until after a serious defeat.

Army Strong

What’s being done today?

We see what we call “beer can personnel management”: The operant idea is to reach into the stack (i.e. human resources) of cold beer sitting in the refrigerator, grab one, slam it down, crumple up the beer can (i.e. the individual), toss it out, and reach for another. The cycle is repeated over and over taking an irreparable toll on individuals, the personnel systems and operations.  {op. cit.}

The army has several experiments with reforms under way. But it’s only slow progress.

Even as late as 2011, Scott Halter (Lt. Colonel, Army), a successful Aviation Battalion Commander who practices Mission Command and Outcomes Based Training and Education (OBTE; details here), wrote “What is an Army but Soldiers: A Critical Assessment of the Army’s Human Capital Management System” (Military Review, Jan-Feb 2012) describing recommendations of the Secretary of the Army’s Human Dimension Task Force to reform the Army’s personnel system. Results of their work? Nothing!”

One promising tool is 360 degree assessments (aka multi source feedback). Used by the Wehrmacht in WWII, they’re based on work going back to the T-groups devised in 1914. Today the Army experiments with this on a small scale. Too many senior officers fear that the fastest “water walkers” would get exposed by it. I know guys that I commanded companies beside who were hated by their senior NCOs and Lieutenants, but did well — some making it through brigade command to general. Great politicians, but their soldiers knew the truth.

Continue reading

How did the US Army’s leadership problem grow so bad?

Summary:  The US spends $600 billion on the US military (narrowly defined; almost a trillion broadly), yet repeatedly fails to defeat our poorly trained and equipped foes. In this chapter of our series asking “why”, Don Vandergriff points to ways the Army selects and promotes officers (its problems are usually about people; seldom about hardware).  Tomorrow he discusses solutions.

Vandergriff (Major, Army, retired) is a long-time co-author on the FM website and one of America’s foremost experts on ways to reform the military’s personnel systems. See his bio here.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

Leadership as Chess

Seeing leadership as Chess: it’s a path to defeat.

The US military has a leadership problem. It’s visible in the deterioration of soldiers’ confidence in the leaders, shown by the 2014 Military Times survey asking 2,300 active-duty soldiers about their lives. Over only 5 years their answer grew much darker.

There is much more evidence. Such as “Pentagon investigations point to military system that promotes abusive leaders” (WaPo, 28 Jan 2014). This article in the Jan-Feb 2013 Military Review made waves: “Narcissism and Toxic Leaders“, Joe Doty (Lt. Colonel, US Army, Retired) and Jeff Fenlason (Master Sergeant, US Army). Also see these two posts about the recent scandals in the officer corps: looking at the scandals and asking why so many.

There is a lot happening in the Army’s culture below the visible surface.

A diagnosis of the problem

I have been writing since 1999 that the Army — in fact, all the services — has an antiquated personnel system, the deep cause of their many disparate problems.

Our military uses processes bred in the age of Frederick Taylor and adopted after WWII (circa 1947). Our military leaders built a force capable of rapid large-scale mobilization (as we did in WWII), broad in experiences but shallow in professionalism. To run it they created an officer corps of industrial-age managers. Leadership not required; the opposite what German’s leaders did in the 19th century after their defeat by Napoleon.

Since then these processes have become institutionalized. Today nobody in Human Resources Command or G1 (Personnel) knows their origin or purpose. It’s just the way they run.

Continue reading

So many scandals in the US military: signs of rot or reform?

Summary: This morning’s post looked at the unprecedented number of scandals involving senior officers of the US military. Here we examine its significance and causes. Much depends on understanding what’s happening, and responding correctly. {2nd of 2 posts today.}

“Each of us must rededicate ourselves to upholding the principles of sound leadership… Our culture must exemplify both professional excellence and ethical judgment.”
— Letter from SecDef Hagel to US military’s senior leadership, 13 March 2013

Rotten Peach

 

Rot in the military

Surveys in the late 1990s confirmed that the military’s retention rates resulted from a kind of internal rot as troops lost confidence in their officers. The Chief of Staff of the Army’s Leadership Survey 2000 concluded (CAPs in the original):

Top-down loyalty DOES NOT EXIST. Senior leaders will throw subordinates under the bus in a heartbeat to protect or advance their career.

The wars after 9/11 — enemies to fight, higher pay, more deployments — masked these problems. Now they reappear as that pressure fades. To see the results, in December 2014 the Military Times published a survey of 2,300 active-duty troops asking them about their lives, and compared the results with their 2009 survey. Even over only 5 years the deterioration was rapid.

Overall officers in the military are:

  • 2009 – 78% good or excellent.
  • 2014 – 49% good or excellent.

The senior military leadership has my best interests at heart:

  • 2009 – 53% agreed.
  • 2014 – 27% agreed.

The flood of disciplinary actions against senior officers during the past 5 years shows the scale of the problem. Nobody seems to understand the underlying problem, and the military has not (publicly, at least) shown data explaining if this is a surge of enforcement (i.e., reform) or a surge of bad behavior (i.e., a rot grown so large it can no longer be hidden).

Continue reading

Is Obama purging the US military leadership?

Summary:  Today we review the good news about signs of reform from within the US military, reforms starting at the core — enforcing high ethical and performance standards on its senior officers. It’s a big story, something reformers have long demanded. More broadly, it’s a strike against the system of high, middle, and low justice that’s emerging in America. How people react to this also says much about America.

Military Virtue Medal: Romania

Usually we post about national security in the afternoon. This is both good news and important, and so the subject of both of today’s posts. {1st of 2 posts.}

{A} private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”
— Paul Yingling (Lt. Colonel, Army ) wrote this in 2007. It might be changing.

Flag officers rediscover ethics

As one of America’s most powerful institutions, the military has the ability to resist all but the most powerful external pressures for change. Reformers have often focused, correctly in my opinion, on the behavior of its senior officers — well protected by custom from punishment excerpt for the most public screw-ups. That’s changing.

Reformers have almost totally ignored this good news. The Left clamors for more heads to roll on a few narrow grounds, such as too-slow changing the definition of sexual assault. The Right typically declares this a conspiracy-mongering, covering instituted personally by Obama.  Articles like this from Breitbart flood the internet: “Is Obama Purging the Military of Dissent?“, 18 November 2013. These often give stratosphere numbers for those purged; “200” is common.

Here’s one of the most common lists: “Obama Purging Military Commanders“, The Blaze, 23 October 2013  — “The Nine Military Commanders Fired This Year by the Obama Administration.” Let’s examine the facts to see if these claims are true. Read for yourself and decide (

Spoiler: not only are these claims false, they don’t even bother to cite actual evidence for it. Read these as accounts of military recovering its mojo, taking the first steps to reform.

(1) Carter Ham (General, Army, retired)

Continue reading

How does the Army reward heroism? Not well, as this story shows.

Summary: This series about the US military’s senior officers concludes with a shameful but true story showing their dysfunctionality. We entrust them with so much of our money, we esteem them so highly, and we get so little in return. It’s long past time for us to hit the reform button on our Department of Defense.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

Reform button

 

We open with an account of heroism on 20 February 2010 during Operation Moshtarak in Afghanistan. Then we see how America rewards its heroes.

Capt. Mathew {sic} L. Golsteyn was leading a Special Forces team … when an 80-man mission he assembled to hunt insurgent snipers went awry. One of the unit’s five vehicles sank in mud, a gunshot incapacitated an Afghan soldier fighting alongside the Americans, and insurgents maneuvered on them to rake the soggy fields with machine-gun fire.

Golsteyn, already a decorated Green Beret officer, responded with calm resolve and braved enemy fire repeatedly that day, according to an Army summary of his actions.

… The major earned a Bronze Star and Army Commendation medal with “V” devices for heroism in earlier actions, Kasker said. Golsteyn joined the Army in 2002. {source: WaPo}

On 25 February 2011 he received an interim award of the Silver Star, and DoD later “approved him for an upgrade to the prestigious Distinguished Service Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor in recognizing combat heroism by U.S. soldiers.” Golsteyn, a graduate of West Point, was later promoted to Major. Now for the rest of the story.

Military Review is “the U.S. Army’s cutting edge forum for original thought and debate on the art and science of land warfare”. Major Golsteyn was quoted in its March-April 2011 issue:

Continue reading