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majority which really adhere to the values of the services; it is the systems that manage them that are so bad and out of date.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

Reform button

Another vital reform is changing from individual replacements of soldiers (IRS) to rotating entire units off the front line for rest and rebuilding. It’s a vital step to maintain the cohesion of fighting units. Marshall devised the IRS in early WWII; it quickly broke down, and has produced ill results in every war since. The Army has often attempted this reform, so far always unsuccessfully. For an introduction see this 2004 article in Military Review. The key conclusions, discussing the Army’s most ambitious attempt at unit rotation (aka UMS):

The Army considered it essential that the command climate in the unit and above the unit support the COHORT model. COHORT worked best when an entire division, its home base, and its supporting and higher headquarters supported the idea of stabilized units.

… COHORT failed because the entire Army did not support it. A small but influential group of advocates in senior positions initiated UMS but it became so complicated and contentious that when its advocates left the Army, it died.

The demise of COHORT, however, does not mean that unit stabilization is impossible. If the Army heeds lessons learned from COHORT and current proposals to modify the personnel management and training systems, it might be possible finally to do this right.

The Army is trying again, but so far this is reform in name only. The officer and senior NCO corps are not aligned with it. Mandatory career schools are not aligned with it.

The Path to Victory
At Amazon.

What the Army needs.

Reform is complex not just because it’s difficult, but due to the many second and third order effects that must be understood for success. There is much we can do now, such as reforming the 1980 Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA, mandating the “up or out” system), gradually reducing the number of officers (especially at the top), and improving the Army’s education and training programs.

In Path to Victory I proposed that leaders would command in annual war games, free play “force on force” exercises short of combat, which would count toward promotions or reliefs. Also a smaller officer corps could spend more time on officer development. Our captains command to early and too briefly to be effective. Most will tell they were great, but then turn around and said they did not “get it” until they were almost done. Also, they only know what they know.

The Pentagon and the Art of War
An early (1985) & still great key to understanding DoD. At Amazon.

But piecemeal reforms might not work. Reforms must go across the board, or what is called Parallel Evolution, changing several institutions side by side at the same time. As described in my March 2005 PowerPoint presentation:

The Army will fail if it tries to change its parts (institutions) in isolation without changing the culture, particularly in regards to providing the climate to nurture adaptive leaders and innovators.

Solution: “Parallel evolution”, organizational evolution as a holistic problem …

Reform will require broad support not just within the military but also in the civilian DoD staff and Congress. Especially Congress, by changing DOPMA 1980 and reducing the number of positions mandated by law (e.g., joint services, acquisition programs).

What’s the alternative to reform?

If we continue our current aggressive global strategy of occupations while executing the façade called COIN, eventually, we will be unable to retreat to Forward Operating Bases (FOBs), while our generals oversee platoon and company fights against an enemy who possesses very little tangibles, but still has heart. We currently have strategic defeats concealed by meaningless tactical victories.

Eventually, we will suffer not just hollow victories (e.g., Desert Storm, the brilliant initial phase of Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan Oct-Dec 01-brilliant counter offensive turned into a costly occupation)) but a major setback. Why must we wait for a Task Force Smith (Battle of Osan, 1950) or Kasserine Pass (1943) to reform? Prussian reformed only after Jena-Auerstadt (Oct 1806) , but we can learn from their experience instead of repeating it.

The Army can reform. We should start today.

Donald Vandergriff

About the author

See the bio of Donald Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired) on the FM authors’ page.

For More Information

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. Overhauling The Officer Corps. By David Evans (Lt. Colonel, USMC, retired).

7 thoughts on “Reforming the US Army: can be done, must be done.

  1. Reform will require broad support not just within the military but also in the civilian DoD staff and Congress. Especially Congress, by changing DOPMA 1980 and reducing the number of positions mandated by law (e.g., joint services, acquisition programs).

    This explains why U.S. military reform won’t happen. Too many people are making too much money and building their careers on the rot that afflicts the American military.

    Don’s supposition that America will experience another Kasserine Pass debacle seems unlikely inasmuch as America no longer engages in large-scale land wars. At worst we might experience another Dien Bien Phu — but the American people have little interest in our foreign wars, an thus would probably not even notice.

    1. Thomas,

      Your logic appears sound, But geopolitics, esp wars, often confounds logic. For example, WWII should not have happened (Germany and Japan attacking everybody? What were they thinking?). Looking forward, we’re doing our best to anger the emerging Islamic peoples. I don’t know what that might mean, but probably nothing good. If we get a global 4GW war, with terrorist attacks in the US “homeland” (should I say “Heil” when I wrote that?), future historians probably will say that was inevitable after we killed so many people so casually abroad.

      To look at your forecast from another perspective, nations usually believe their small wars will not spread out of control. Usually they’re right, but not always. The “not always” cases can be painful. “The troops will be back by Christmas!”

  2. Is ” individual replacements of soldiers “(IRS) still in place? I thought that was the first reform demanded by the officers from the Vietnam era? It even more striking, considering that the US Army would have learned from its experience from fighting along side Australians in that conflict, who followed the British practice and rotated whole units. Which goes way back to lessons they learn back in the first wold war? I can now see why the US Military, despite their massive material and technological advantages, is in such trouble.

  3. ” If we get a global 4GW war, with terrorist attacks in the US “homeland” (should I say “Heil” when I wrote that?), future historians probably will say that was inevitable after we killed so many people so casually abroad.”

    That will simply be an incentive for more of the same post 9/11 stuff. More patriot acts, improved torture techniques etc. You know the drill.
    That is not the sort of “enemy army seizes the Capital” type of defeat that might produce wake up calls.

  4. FM remarks: “But geopolitics, esp wars, often confounds logic. For example, WWII should not have happened (Germany and Japan attacking everybody? What were they thinking?).”

    Both the global geopolitical situation and FM’s discussion of it seem much more complex than anyone giving them credit for.

    In the 1920s and 1930s Germany suffered under absurdly punitive reparations forced on them by France and America in the Versailles Treaty. While no one foresaw Germany trying to conquer Europe militarily, many (including John Maynard Keynes) recognized that “nothing good” would come of this, as FM notes about America’s current absurdly punitive mass murder of women and children (most them innocent bystanders) in impoverished third world countries today. The same applies to America cutting off 90% of Japan’s access to oil in 1940, which made their attacks on Java an the rest of Asia pretty much inevitable. So, while WW II didn’t confound logic, the pressure cooker that led up to it certainly provides an eerie parallel with today’s geopolitical situation. A massive global depression, check: vicious punitive misbehavior by superpowers toward much weaker adversaries, check; efforts by the super-rich to suck up even more wealth for themselves at the expense of the bottom 90% of the population, check; and technological quantum leaps in warfare, check.

    In fact FM’s remark could be translated to 1935 with good effect: “Looking forward, we’re doing our best to anger the emerging Islamic German peoples. I don’t know what that might mean, but probably nothing good.”

    I think FM goes awry in the next sentence: If we get a global 4GW war, with terrorist attacks in the US `homeland’..” The implication both here and in Don’s discussion is that Islamic 4GW fighters might start attacks inside America. I think this fundamentally misunderstands the nature of 4GW. As William S. Lind and Martin van Creveld point out, 4GW seeks to leverage the moral legitimacy of the victims and the moral illegitimacy of the perpetrators. This works well as long as a technologically and militarily superior power like America perpetrates atrocities against indigenous third world populations. At that point, the third world population clearly has moral legitimacy and a nation-state like America (or Israel) that uses M1A1 Abrams tanks and Cobra gunships against children who are armed with bolt-action rifles and rocks gets universally regarded with repugnance an contempt. 4GW leverages this situation to collapse the stronger adversary from within.

    But the instant Islamic jihadists started blowing up shopping malls in America (as opposed to killing U.S. soldiers with IEDs in Afghanistan), they would completely lose any moral legitimacy. At that point, they would be correctly perceived as murdering innocent bystanders — just as America currently murders innocent bystanders in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Without the ability to leverage their morally superior position, 4GW fighters cannot win — and are not even perceived as freedom fighters, but rather as common criminals, viz., Timothy McVeigh. I didn’t see mass protests in the U.S. against the execution of McVeigh, whereas we did see lots of mass protests inside America protesting the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions and the detainment & torture of Guantanamo prisoners.

    I think the real dangers from America’s Global War On Brown Women and Children don’t involve 4GW actions inside America. 4GW has mainly been successful when fought on native soil by native populations under foreign occupation (Algeria in the 1950s, China in the 1920s-1940s, America in the 1770s, etc.). Rather, the big dangers from America’s current berserk foreign policy probably involve something we can’t foresee today — perhaps a group of influential BRIC nations getting together and creating a functional alternative to the World Bank with a viable alternative global reserve currency instead of the dollar. Or possibly the complete collapse of capitalism an the substitution of some other socioeconomic system, as seems increasingly likely in the zero-growth economy we’re heading into as we bump against the global limits on population and natural resources.

    Short version: it’s not clear to me that America military “must” be reformed. There seem no serious military dangers to the U.S. from its current dysfunctions and pathologies. Instead, the global socioeconomic system that supports American military & financial power seems more likely to wither away as a result of those pathologies, tasking current U.S. military capabilities with it. But that’s a wholly different set of dangers to America than jihadists running around throwing bombs in U.S. shopping malls.

    1. “There seem no serious military dangers to the U.S. from its current dysfunctions and pathologies.”

      I wonder how often in history people have declared their military to be unnecessary, since they see “no serious military dangers”? I suspect the answer is “frequently”. As a glance at any history book shows, that’s often very bad advice. When people like Thomas see the danger, it’s usually too late to undertake the long difficult process of building an effective military (or reforming a dysfunctional one, almost as difficult).

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