The Army’s greatest crisis

(update of my article of August 2007)  We spend more on defense (broadly defined) than the rest of the world combined.  Nobody has military technology as advanced and powerful as ours.  American military journals assure us that our doctrines range from adequate to awesome.  None of this matters if we cannot attract and retain quality people in sufficient quantities.

 People, Ideas, and Hardware. “In that order!” the late Col John R. Boyd, USAF, would thunder at his audiences.

The US military’s personnel system is deeply dysfunctional.  The problem seems worst in the Army.  That is unfortunate for us, as modern warfare increasingly means close contract land combat.  Two recent articles discuss this crisis at length.

Kaplan describes symptoms of a long illness deeply established in our military, and his article describes several ways in which the Iraq War has exacerbated these internal systemic flaws.  Tilghman describes the conflict between military service and the needs of young officers in America’s Army.

This problem is neither new nor does it result solely from the Iraq War.  Kaplan and Tilghman have discovered it, in the sense that Christopher Columbus discovered Madrid.  They ignore the large literature describing its causes and possible remedies in favor of a dramatic story focused on bad guys and heroes.  As parents learn when telling bedtime stories, this is the format most easily understood by children.

This also illustrates the mainstream media’s almost amnesiac ability to discover the same phenomenon over and over again. These problems were earnestly described in the 1999-2000 news cycle, grave fodder for many articles – only to be quickly forgotten, as those articles in turn had ignored similar stories from the previous cycle in the late 1970’s.

The following list gives only a smattering of high-quality studies on this problem, focused on the last cycle, which ended with the post-9/11 and Iraq War mobilizations.

As usual, the definitive work on this was done early on by Martin van Creveld in his 1990 book The Training of Officers: from Military Professionalism to Irrelevance. His deep analytical insights suggest that many of the current proposed solutions are either useless or counter-productive.

Especially cogent – and disturbing to the status quo – is his analysis on the utility for officers of civilian university degrees. He shows how the current situation evolved, what are the forces maintaining it, and what constitute the barriers to change. He gives practical recommendation based on military history and modern needs.

For a combination of deep analysis and a detailed program for implementation see the many works of Donald Vandergriff (Major, retired, US Army). He summarizes both the need and path for change in his 2002 book The Path to Victory:  America’s Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs:

When I began to outline a plan to “fix” the army, my starting point was simple: why did the army leadership preach terms like selfless service, decentralization and trust, but practice careerism, selfish service, and centralized control? Finding the why before coming up with the fix was complicated, especially as my research and writing exposed more questions than answers

… However, as long as senior leaders and elected officials are happy with the current force and its culture, many of the officers who represent the army’s future will continue to leave, The personnel management system and the laws that influence it must be reformed into a system that discourages careerists and courtiers while creating a professional corps based on the principles of selfless service.

Some of the many previous studies of this problem

Here are additional articles worth reading for anyone interested in reforms that can give America a military capable of winning in the age of fourth generation warfare – and preventing more disasters like the Viet Nam and Iraq Wars.

Chief of Staff of the Army’s Leadership Survey 2000

Top-down loyalty – DOES NOT EXIST. Senior leaders will throw subordinates under the bus in a heartbeat to protect or advance their career. There is no trust of senior leaders in terms of loyalty because the record is clear. At the highest level, as example, 4 stars will watch our health care erode without taking a stand.

Captain Attrition at Fort Benning, Mike Matthews (January 2000)

  • Family issues and dissatisfaction with Army job/life are most frequently given primary reasons for leaving,
  • Pay is not a major factor in career intent.
  • A strong civilian economy enables career change, but does not cause it.

Sayen Report (July 2000)

If we put the Pentagon’s personnel managers in charge of the Sahara Desert, they would run out of sand in five years.

Generations Apart: Xers and Boomers in the Officer Corps, Leonard Wong, Strategic Studies Institute (October 2000)

In less than 2 years, the Army shifted from denial of a junior officer retention problem to a situation where the most senior Army leadership became involved in seeking help to staunch the flow of captains out of the Army. How could Army senior leaders miss the signals of an attrition problem? How could the Army’s senior leadership not see junior officer resignation numbers increasing or hear the growing discontent at the junior officer level?

Briefing by LTG Timothy J. Maude, Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel, US Army Commander’s Conference (19 October 2000)

Officer attrition is continuing at a rate that will not allow full manning of the force structure…

The Army Training and Leader Development Panel’s Officer Study Report (2001)

Army Culture is out of balance. There is friction between Army beliefs and practices. Over time, that friction threatens readiness. Training is not done to standard, leader development in operational assignments is limited and does not meet officer expectations, and officers and their families elect to leave the service early. Army Culture is healthy when there is demonstrated trust that stated beliefs equate to actual practices. Such a balance is vital to the health of the profession of arms and to the Nation it serves. Officers understand that there always exists a level of imperfection caused by normal friction between beliefs and practices. This is the Band of Tolerance. However, officers expressed the strong and passionate feeling that Army Culture is outside this Band of Tolerance and should be addressed immediately.

The Army must narrow the gap between beliefs and practices. It must gain and sustain itself within the Band of Tolerance.

The Army Transformation Meets the Junior Officer Exodus, Presentation to Security for a New Century (a bipartisan study group for Congress) by Mark R. Lewis (August 2001)

A lot of people have spent a great deal of effort advocating that the Army ought to take bold steps to correct this cultural schism for the simple reason that it’s the right thing to do. I can only judge the emphasis the Army puts on this situation through evidence of their efforts to address it, and so far, those efforts do not reveal any meaningful attempt at understanding and addressing the deeper issues.

… I have tried to show trends in officer experience, skill and quality in the preceding slides. Separately, these trends concerning, but when taken together as an overall sort of “Effectiveness Index,” I think they have significant implications for the future of the Army. …Clearly, these trends are at odds with what the designers of the future Army have in mind. It is certainly tough to reconcile them with the idea that Army will produce future leaders with a “higher level of doctrine-based skills, knowledge, attitudes, and experience.” In fact, there is no evidence to indicate that the downward trends are slowing, let alone reversing. …

(Update) –  “Army Officer Shortages:  Background and Issues for Congress“, Congressional Research Service (5 July 2006)

It presently takes 10 years to “grow” a major (from lieutenant to promotion to major), and 14 years if that major is an academy or ROTC graduate. Therefore, the projected shortage appears to be a significant long-term challenge especially as the Army continues to transform and maintain a significant role in fighting the Global War on Terror (GWOT).

This report analyzes a number of potential factors contributing to the shortfall, especially the impact of reduced officer accessions during and after the Army personnel drawdown of the early 1990s, and the significant increase in Army officer requirements caused by the Army force structure transformation to a modular, brigade-centric force through its Modular Force Initiative. At this time, the high deployment tempo associated with Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) does not appear to be associated with these shortfalls.

Although the Army has already introduced several new programs to enhance officer retention, other possible options exist that could help address the Army’s officer shortages. They include the possibility of officer retention bonuses. The Army does not pay any officer continuation or retention bonuses, with the exception of Aviation Career Incentive Pay.


The Army will not be able to develop experienced and skilled officers until it is able to hold them in positions longer and provide them with a deeper set of training opportunities.

It cannot be discriminating about whom it promotes until it can retain enough officers to allow for some process of selection.

These trends will not be slowed, let alone reversed, until the Army’s senior leaders understand the full nature of the problem.   There are few signs it has done so.  Everything else — new doctrines, new equipment, added manpower — is secondary to that, boosting its ability to attract, retain, and train the numbers and kind of people needed.  When that becomes the Army’s top priority the problem might be half way to a solution.

For More information

Other posts in this series:

For a wealth of information about this topic see the FM Reference Page An Army near the Breaking Point – studies & reports.


3 thoughts on “The Army’s greatest crisis”

  1. Thanks for the link! I’m not sure of its relevance here, but very much so to my comment on another post about the Tonkin Gulf incident. Interesting to have confirmation after so many years that it was largely faked.

  2. The Atlantic: "Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving"

    Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving“, By Tim Kane, The Atlantic, February 2011

    Why are so many of the most talented officers now abandoning military life for the private sector? An exclusive survey of West Point graduates shows that it’s not just money. Increasingly, the military is creating a command structure that rewards conformism and ignores merit. As a result, it’s losing its vaunted ability to cultivate entrepreneurs in uniform.

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