Training of officers, a key step for the forging of an effective military force

Summary:  This is the fifth in a series of articles about Donald Vandergriff, explaining why changing the Army’s methods of recruiting, training, motivating, and retaining people are the key structural changes to make it better fitted for warfare in the 21st century.


Today we have an excerpt from Don Vandergriff’s book Manning the Future Legions of the United States: Finding and Developing Tomorrow’s Centurions (2008).  He describes the problem, then gives solutions — some of which he and others have pushed into motion.  Posted here with permission of the author.

Chapter six:  Training (and Educating) Tomorrow’s Soldiers and Leaders

There is no standardized entry test for U.S. Army commissioning.

  • 10%-15% of officer cadets come through the United States Military Academy at West Point. Here, academic excellence takes priority over military proficiency and many of the places are allocated on the basis of Congressional patronage.
  • Most of the rest of cadets (future officers) join through the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) located at 270 schools throughout the US and its territories.
  • A small, but growing, percentage comes through the 16-week Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, GA. This course has been frequented more by former noncommissioned officers (NCOs) than by those who have met the minimum entrance standard with a degree and only basic training prior to attending, which is good for the Army if those former NCOs are not tied to the old way of doing things.  (See “OCS expanding to turn out more officers“, Army Logistics News, Nov-Dec 2000)

The standards across these three entrance pathways are mixed, the newly established Basic Officer Leaders Course (BOLC) II at Forts Sill and Benning aims to level the playing field. As will be discussed later in this chapter, BOLC II is also employing a new learning and development approach for these new officers, but at six weeks, remains short of what many consider necessary for young officers to be prepared for 4GW.  (See “Basic Officer Leadership Course Gets Green Light“, Army News Service, 25 February 205)

There are few training opportunities at battalion and company level.

  • All individual and most squad-level training is directed by NCOs, to standards set by the Sergeant Majors and NCO academies, which have a chain of command almost independent of the officer corps.
  • Young officers are principally responsible only for the moral component of the troops under their command. Their involvement in training is limited to authorizing exercise and safety standards, not for the conduct or the standard of the training itself, which are mainly the purview of the NCOs.
  • This tends to produce repetitive, unimaginative, and risk-averse training, heavily tied to formatted training objectives, as well as further limiting opportunities for company officers to develop their own training and leadership skills.

There is no tradition of unit or subunit organized Tactical Exercise without Troops or adventure training, both of which encourage junior leaders to develop self-confidence and independence of judgment.   (This comes with discussions with 47 junior and middle grade officers from June 2005 to December 2007 who talk about more centralization of training management, as well as the pressure on field grades to do everything right when they are in their critical branch qualifying jobs as majors.)

Finally, a top-heavy officer corps in which field grade officers’ ratio to junior officers is one to one also discourages junior officer initiative. This is because the Army does not understand the critical impact the current out-of-date force structure and personnel management system have on the operational Army.

These two institutions are in place today based on out-of-date assumptions, and they have become accepted as untouchable when speaking of military reform. Current organization and equipment are designed for Cold War era “jousting matches” and conceptually simple conventional combat (besides enriching defense contractors). This greatly reduces the number of “boots on the ground” that current organizational models can yield.  (Input of Lieutenant Colonel John Sayen (USMC, ret.), January 7, 2007. John is an expert of force structure and organization, as well as equipment.)

This all leads to the statement that there is an uneven application of Mission Command or Trust Tactics amidst a widespread culture of conformity and uncritical compliance. This is, in part, driven by a bottom-up, staff-driven Military Decision Making Process that encourages staffs to develop simple command choices for their commanders, rather than seeking the commander’s intent and guidance up front. Finally, the American culture has a short-term focus, largely reflected in a Congress that has much more direct influence over military matters, particularly with technology, while having little understanding of the human dimension of combat or military effectiveness.

These are intractable issues, deeply rooted in U.S. Army culture, and there has been little appetite to address them until recently, as the war in Iraq and Afghanistan is forcing even the die-hard defenders of the status quo to question past methods. At present, the focus for change is at the level of doctrine, training, and force development; and in these areas, the signs of an institution in the throes of genuine cultural change are everywhere. Progress is inevitably patchy, with some branches and formations far ahead of others, as we will see later in this chapter, but this is largely dependent on the personalities and commitment of individual commanders.

The entire Army is now “talking the talk” and, increasingly, signs are appearing that it is “walking the walk.” In some cases, the buy-in is simplistic, going little beyond mastering a new set of doctrine or “tactics, techniques, and procedures,” but many now understand the deeper mindset changes that are required. Increasingly, U.S. Army officers will suggest that, despite the strains, current operations are making the Army better within its own confines of a 2GW structure and personnel system.

Change on the scale of organizational culture evolving inevitably takes time, but progress is being made, and what will be addressed here is how the Army used to train and develop its soldiers and why, followed by some new ideas that are being implemented that promise to better prepare the Army for 4GW. …

About the author

Donald Vandergriff retired in 2005 at the rank of Major after 24 years of active duty as an enlisted Marine and Army officer.  He now works as a consultant to the Army and corporations.  For a description of his work and links to his publications see The Essential 4GW reading list: Donald Vandergriff.

Reports about the Army’s recruitment, motivation, and retention of officers

(a)  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.”

(b)  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.

(c)   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.”

(d)   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?”

(e)  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 …”

(f)  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.

(g)  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. …

(h) 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 drawdownof 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.

(i) Strategic Plan Needed to Address Army’s Emerging Officer Accession and Retention Challenges“, Government Accountability Office, January 2007

The Army has not been accessing enough officers from ROTC and USMA.  Army officials stated that to meet their current ROTC goal they need at least 31,000 participants in the program, but in FY 2006 they had 25,100 participants in the program. Fewer Army ROTC participants may reflect the decrease in Army-awarded scholarships to officer candidates in recent years, an outcome that Army officials attribute to budget constraints.

Additionally, USMA’s class of 2005 commissioned 912 graduates, short of the Army’s goal of 950, while the class of 2006 commissioned 846 graduates, missing its goal of 900 graduates.

Commissioning shortfalls at USMA and in the Army ROTC program, as well as the Army’s need to expand its new officer corps, have required OCS to rapidly increase the number of officers it commissions. However, OCS is expected to reach its capacity in FY 2007, and resource limitations (such as housing, classroom space, and base infrastructure) may prevent its further expansion, limiting the viability of the Army’s traditional approach of using OCS to compensate for shortfalls in the other officer accession programs.

(j)  A speech from someone on the front lines of the struggle to recruit young men and women into the Armed Forces:  How Do We Recruit, Train and Retain the Right People for the Future Force?”, Panel Discussion at Transformation Warfare 2007 Conference on 20 June 2007.  Here is an excerpt from a report on this panel by the Air Force Times, 21 June 2007:

Most of today’s youth are not eligible for military service because they are too fat, too weak, not smart enough and prone to drug-use and criminal behavior, according to a panel of senior military officers.

“We are all victims of our own past success.  We all have a conscript mentality that there’s a never-ending supply of perfect high school graduates that are over the horizon coming at us to fill every job we have,” said Vice Adm. John Cotton, commander of the Navy Reserve.  “I’ll tell you what, we’re about to be shocked, because they are not there.”

Cotton spoke on a panel on recruiting and retention with officers from the Marines, Army and Air Force at a conference on “transformation warfare” hosted by the U.S. Naval Institute and the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association in Virginia Beach.  72% of American youth between 17 and 24 years of age are not eligible for military service for fitness, academic and law enforcement deficiencies, Cotton said, citing national statistics that some 30 percent of male youths drop out of high school.

Stephen Duncan, a Naval Academy graduate and former assistant defense secretary for manpower and reserve affairs, moderated the panel discussion on recruiting and retention.  “You can talk about acquisition and technology and all that is important but, as John Paul Jones said, ‘Men mean more than guns in the rating of a ship,’ ” Duncan said.  “A lot of other general officers have said the same thing. We win or lose based on our people.”

(k)  For a historical perspective, see this comparison of human resource practices in the US and German armies during WWII:  “Configurations of human resource practices and battlefield performance: A comparison of two armies” by Max Visser, Human Resource Management Review, December 2010. For a more detailed analysis see Martin van Creveld’s Fighting Power: A Comparative Study of German and American Armies in WW 2.

For More Information

(a)  For more about the importance of military education see Martin van Creveld’s Training of Officers: From Military Professionalism to Irrelevance.

(b)  Posts about the US officer corps:

  1. About military leaders in the 21st century: “Theirs Is to Reason Why”.
  2. Preface to Manning the Future Legions of the United States: Finding and Developing Tomorrow’s Centurions.
  3. Training of officers, a key step for the forging of an effective military force.
  4. Dragging American Military Culture into the 21st Century.
  5. Leadership in action: when resource constraints meet conspicuous consumption, we just ignore the problem.
  6. Do we need so many and such well-paid generals and admirals? By Richard A Pawloski (Captain, USMC, retired).
  7. How officers adapt to life in the Pentagon: they choose the blue pill.
  8. Why does the military continue to grow? Because the tail wags the dog. By Danny Hundley (Colonel, USMC, retired).
  9. Overhauling The Officer Corps. By David Evans (Lt. Colonel, USMC, retired).
  10. The cost of too many generals: paying more to get a less effective military.

(c)  About the skill and integrity of our senior military leaders:

  1. The Core Competence of America’s Military Leaders.
  2. The moral courage of our senior generals, or their lack of it.
  3. Careerism and Psychopathy in the US Military leadership, GI Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired).
  4. Rolling Stone releases Colonel Davis’ blockbuster report about Afghanistan – and our senior generals!.


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