Category Archives: Our Military

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

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vast majority which really adhere to the values of the services; it is the systems that manage them that are so bad and out of date.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.

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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.

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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).

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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)

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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:

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William Lind looks at our generals, sees “rank incompetence”.

Summary: Concluding this series about our senior military leaders we have a typically brilliant and brutal analysis by William Lind. This would have been shocking news in 2000; a decade of failed wars show it to be the simple truth. We can do better, but the Pentagon will not reform without pressure from us.  Rightly so; it’s a professional military — but it’s our responsibility.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

“Chabrias said that the best commanders were those who understood their enemies. … He also said that an army of stags led by a lion was more formidable than an army of lions led by a stag.”

— From “The Sayings of Kings and Great Commanders” by Plutarch (46-120). Chabrias was a great Athenian general (d 357 BC). It need not be either of these choices; we can have lions led by lions — and even a few generals who understand our foes.

Lions led by donkeys

Rank Incompetence

By William S. Lind
The American Conservative, January/February 2013
Posted with the generous permission of the author and the TAC.“

It was tragic that the career of General David Petraeus was brought down by a mere affair. It should have ended several years earlier as a consequence of his failure as our commander in Afghanistan. Petraeus, like every other theater commander in that war except Stanley McChrystal, could have been replaced by a concrete block and nothing would have changed. They all kept doing the same things while expecting a different result.

Thomas Ricks’s recent book The Generals has reintroduced into the defense debate a vital factor the press and politicians collude in ignoring: military incompetence. It was a major theme of the Military Reform Movement of the 1970s and ’80s. During those years, a friend of mine who was an aide to a Marine Corps commandant asked his boss how many Marine generals, of whom there were then 60-some, could competently fight a battle. The commandant came up with six. And the Marine Corps is the best of our services.

Military incompetence does not begin at the rank of brigadier general. An old French proverb says that the problem with the generals is that we select them from among the colonels. Nonetheless, military competence — the ability to see quickly what to do in a military situation and make it happen — is more rare at the general officer level. A curious aspect of our promotion system is that the higher the rank, the smaller the percentage of our competent officers.

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The cost of too many generals: paying more to get a less effective military.

Summary: This chapter of our series about the US military’s officer corps examines what previous posts described as one of its crippling weaknesses — bloat. Having too many officers runs up the military’s cost while making it less effective. The data shown here should be dynamite blasting DoD from their comfortable niche into reforms. But nothing will happen unless people like you and I pressure them to reform.

This is a revised and updated version of a post from 2012.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

“The commanders who lead the nation’s military services and those who oversee troops around the world enjoy an array of perquisites befitting a billionaire, including executive jets, palatial homes, drivers, security guards and aides to carry their bags, press their uniforms … Their food is prepared by gourmet chefs. If they want music with their dinner parties, their staff can summon a string quartet or a choir.” (Washington Post)

The Number of Officers per 100 enlisted personnel: 1901-2013

The Number of Officers per 100 enlisted: 1901-2013

Star Creep“, Third Way, 7 January 2013

Contents

  1. About our bloated roster of generals.
  2. We can’t win wars, but our generals have prospered.
  3. Comparing our Army to successful & unsuccessful armies of the past.
  4. Other posts in this series about our officer corps.
  5. For More Information

(1)  About our  bloated roster of senior officers.

Too many officers makes promotion slow, forces the expansion of busywork, slows the organizations ability to learn and act, runs up its cost, and inflects many other kinds of damage. The latest in the long list of reports documenting this self-inflicted damage is by Third Way: “Star Creep: The Costs of a Top-Heavy Military“, Ben Freeman, 7 January 2013. Opening:

A top-heavy military undermines military effectiveness because it slows decision-making, impairs adaptability, and funnels resources from the warfighter to administrative personnel. Troops on the battlefield succeed despite these layers, not because of them.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates often bemoaned the DoD’s top-heavy and bloated bureaucracy. He once complained, “In some cases the gap between me and an action officer may be as high as 30 layers,” and this results in a “bureaucracy which has the fine motor skills of a dinosaur.”

And we have so many generals and admirals:

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