A billion dollar budget, 3.2 million employees, and deeply dysfunctional. Reforming the US military is a priority but considered almost impossible by experts. Who can do it and how – hopefully before we need it? Here is a solution, or a sketch of one.
This series discusses military reform as a practical project. The first two posts examined the core problem with the US military, and its cause.
Finding a solution is more difficult. The military is a complex entity. What is the end of the string to pull on so that the ball can be unraveled and unraveled? There are four often cited paths to reform. Let’s examine each.
(1) We need Lone Ranger reformers!
A well-known anecdotes about the late John Boyd (Colonel, USAF) describes role of an officer in today’s military, as described in Robert Coram’s Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (2002). Told as an upbeat story, but is in fact gallows humor.
“Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road. And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.
“Or you can go that way and you can do something – something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference.
“To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do. Which way will you go?”
Boyd didn’t reveal how many took the red pill. I’ll bet few did. Perhaps he would have gotten more volunteers for glorious lonely defeat if he had given this speech to samurai. A few Lone Rangers will never reform the Department of Defense, with its billion dollar budget and 3.2 million people. But we will know that reforms have succeeded when young officers need not make the stark choice Boyd offered between career success and pursuing reform.
(2) We need a leader to ride up and save us!
Many in the military hope for civilian leaders to impose reform on the military. That is possible from an Administration willing to commit great political capital to reforms which, if successful, will benefit future Administrations.
But that seldom happens, since presidents always have higher priority political goals and face more urgent crises. For example, the State department broke in the 1950s during the “who lost China” hysteria. . Subsequent Presidents improvised alternative arrangements using the military and the National Security Council. It remains broken today, severely distorting US foreign policy.
The odds are even smaller of Congress rousing itself to press through such a large and complex reform project. The odds are microscopic of civilians outside the government being able to make fundamental changes to our fabulously insular military. Reform must come from inside the military.
(3) We need catastrophic defeat to force reform!
The model for this scenario is the Napoleonic Wars. He kicked the Prussians’ asses at Jena-Auerstedt in 1806. Prussia lost half its territory and paid massive tribute to France. In response, a group of senior Prussian officers – including Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Boyen, Grolman and Clausewitz –implemented deep reforms to the army. Subsequent generations built on them, eventually leading to their great victories in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.
Perhaps America will, like Prussia, suffer a severe defeat that forces reform of the military. It is the most expensive path to reform. This is a version of a genre popular on both the Left and Right – how a cataclysm brings forth a remnant that build a new and better world. Larry Burkett’s Solar Flare is an extreme example.
I have found many officers that consider this a reasonable scenario, showing how unlikely they consider reform through normal mechanisms. It is a logical belief in the “Not Our Fault” military, even by distinguished and brave officers. This shows the complexity of people’s psychology, how they balance individual responsibility, institutional loyalty, professional obligations, and patriotism. It shows what dreams people use to avoid unpleasant actions.
Let’s not take this path to reform!
(4) The long, difficult path to reform.
Reform of any institution does not begin ex nihilo. It begins when a few like-minded people band together and work to a common goal. When they assume responsibility for the institution. This does not happen today in the US military because most officers have preemptively surrendered, accepting the military as it is — a service which works well for those who make it a career.
There are always reformers. But they are just motes now, working individually or in small groups. Too small to be effective.
What is the alternative to reform from Lone Rangers, civilian leaders, or disastrous defeat? Let’s look to Western history for ideas. Successful movements used collective action, people organizing for pursuit of shared goals as leaders and followers. Reform is a team sport. The tools are simple: networking, mutual support, exchange of ideas, etc. They have produced great results.
Samuel Adams and his fellow activists in 1764 Boston reacted to local problems by taking collective action: organizing the first of the Committees of Correspondence. They reached out to like-minded people in other colonies. Eleven colonies had Committees by February 1774. These groups steadily gained experience on a local and then State scale. They formed the nucleus of shadow governments, which later formed the basis of revolutionary governments.
In 1787 William Wilberforce began his crusade in Parliament against slavery in the UK, he drew upon support from groups such as the Quakers’ antislavery societies and the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, plus informal groups like the Testonites. Full victory came in 1833.
Benjamin Franklin helped organize America’s first Abolitionist Society at Pennsylvania in 1785. These spread across the nation. Victory came in 1865.
The first women’s rights convention was held at Seneca Falls NY in 1848. The first National Women’s Rights Conventions was held in Worcester, MA in October 1850. The 19th Amendment became law in August 1920 when ratified by the 36th State.
Flash forward to our civil rights movement. Rosa Parks’ act of civil disobedience in 1955 was a staged event, brilliantly developed into the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Greensboro sit-in in 1960 was unorganized, but used a technique developed during the previous 20 years by civil rights groups. The movement was an intelligently run loose alliance of groups such as the NAACP, Congress of Racial Equality, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference — plus others formed from the energy released by these early protests, such as Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
The context is, of course, different for reform movements in the military, but the organizational principles are the same. Networking among like-minded people, proselytizing, and carefully building links with civilian experts and organizations. Slow and low-profile are the keys to success. Reform might come from pressure over years from field-grade officers — or over decades from junior officers (who eventually become field-grade officers and generals).
Reformers can circulate new ideas and powerful perspectives as levers to gain influence. But there are more powerful tools, nuclear weapons in DoD politics (to be used carefully). For example, admitting the failure of procurement programs such as the F-35 fighter, the Littoral Combat Ship and the quite mad billion-dollar frigate. Most importantly, admitting the near total failure of foreign armies fighting local insurgencies (details here). Admitting failures is dark knowledge. It is impossible to stop once circulating, irrefutable, and can change the course of nations.
An example of a successful reform program
The successful large-scale military reform similar to our needs was the Cardwell Reforms to the British Army (1868-1874, see Wikipedia). Further reforms were pushed through by Secretary of State for War Hugh Childers in 1881, followed by a third wave of reforms in 1906–1912 by Secretary of State for War Richard Haldane. These created the British Army that fought so well during WWI.
One of the largest reform programs since WWII to the US military was the Goldwater–Nichols Act of 1986. – an attempt to get the services to play together on the global battlefield. It mandated structural changes were intended as immediate improvements, and required joint service posts in officers’ career paths to give them exposure to other services and appreciation of the value of joint operations. The architects hopped that this gradually would change DoD’s culture.
This is an example of how effective reform will come. First, by finding the leverage points in the services. That was done by the President’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Defense Management (1985). Reform advocates supported its recommendations, which Congress mandated in 1986. Unfortunately, there was insufficient support within the services for this to achieve its larger goals – although its institutional changes are working well. It was a good first step, but with no follow-through.
What do solutions look like?
Ten years ago this month I first wrote about ways to win modern wars – the wars we have fought since Korea. That is, about the three kinds of solutions to fourth generation war.
- Solutions of the first kind are new things (i.e., robots, autonomous flying vehicles, software to help us understand and manipulate foreign societies)..
- Solutions of the second kind are new ideas about tactics and strategy.
- Solutions of the third kind are new ways to shape our institutions – aka politics — usually by altering how they recruit, train, and promote people.
America’s military has invested much in solutions of the first kind, with little to show for it. There has been some discussion, and less action, on solutions of the second kind. There has been almost no effort in solutions of the third kind. Donald Vandergriff (see below) is one of the few pioneers in this area. Only solutions of the third kind will produce substantial and enduring change.
We can learn from the successful military reform programs in history. For example, the Marian reforms to the army of the Roman Republic in 107 BC, the New Model Army in the English Civil War, the Prussian Army reforms by The Great Elector and Frederick the Great, reforms to the Russian military by Peter the Great, reforms to the Prussian army after defeat by Napoleon, and the reforms to the British army by Prince Albert. None closely fit our needs. All have relevant lessons for us about how to reform our military.
Signals of success
Defining victory is a key for any movement. Success at military reform might mean winning our wars, mostly counter-insurgencies. It might mean fighting fewer ones. I suggest initially targeting easier performance criteria, then shooting for a gold medal at the Clausewitz military Olympics.
- Building aircraft like the F-16 and the A-10 — reasonable performance, reasonable cost.
- Building ships like the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer and Oliver Perry frigates – reasonable performance at a reasonable cost.
- Fewer cheating scandals at the service academies (details here and here).
- Reversing the falling IQ levels of Marine Corps officers.
- Advising the President against a new war, occasionally.
People who actually know something about the military can devise a more useful list of goals.
Reform is limited by the necessary resource that is scarcest.
— Liebig’s Law of the Minimum.
Military reform in the US has been impossible since Vietnam since it has not been realistically pursued. The tools exist. There are people willing to try. The missing ingredient is the knowledge about the methodology of organizing and running reform movements. Once a reformer in the military acquires such knowledge, who know what might happen?
Other posts in this series
- Why does the US field the best soldiers but lose so often?
- Why the US military keeps losing wars.
- Possible solutions, paths to a better future for the US military.
(8) For More Information
If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about our military, especially these…
- Careerism and Psychopathy in the US Military leadership — by GI Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired).
- Do we need so many and such well-paid generals and admirals? — by Richard A Pawloski (Captain, USMC, retired).
- Why the Pentagon would rather hire a jihadist like bin Laden than reformer Donald Vandergriff.
- A step to getting an effective military. We might it need soon.
- How officers adapt to life in the Pentagon: they choose the blue pill.
- Why does the military continue to grow? Because the tail wags the dog. — by Danny Hundley (Colonel, USMC, retired).
- Overhauling The Officer Corps. — by David Evans (Lt. Colonel, USMC, retired).
- The cost of too many generals: paying more to get a less effective military. – reports by POGO and Don Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired).
- William Lind looks at our generals, sees “rank incompetence”.
- How did the US Army’s leadership problem grow so bad? — by Don Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired).
Essential reading for those who would like a more effective military
Two books by by Donald Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired). See his Wikipedia entry. See his posts, all well-worth reading by those who want to better understand our military and our wars.
The Path to Victory: America’s Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs (2002).
Raising the Bar: Creating and Nurturing Adaptability to Deal with the Changing Face of War (2006).
Manning the Future Legions of the United States: Finding and Developing Tomorrow’s Centurions (2008).
22 thoughts on “Officers can reform our military and make America stronger!”
Dear Mr Kummer,
This is a deeply complex and interesting topic. That it’s at least theoretically possible makes it compelling and that we set almost a trillion dollars a year on fire every year in the name of “national defense”, you’d think we’d have broader interest in the project.
One problem and it’s not unique to the military, is its bureaucratic structure. Bureaucracies almost inevitably accumulate cruft and inefficiencies as processes and procedures once put in place for a good reason are adhered to with an ignorant and ossified rigidity by people far less capable than those who cooked up the procedures in the first place. I do not exaggerate when I say that there are barely literate people working in Federal contract administration working on multi-million dollar procurements. The overhead to provide a simple and required service to the military (or the Federal government) is mind-numbing.
One solution to bureaucratic centralization is decentralization and a necessary subsidiarity. The Brigade Combat Team is a good idea, in principle, but if it can’t escape the bureaucratic morass that is the larger DoD quagmire, there it’s stuck, and yes, they don’t do much even in principle against 4GW and other challenges…
I’d like to lay the blame at the feet of the civilians with their inarticulated non-strategies, but DoD has a bunch to answer for, including their complete inability to learn. I will leave you with a pointer to an absolutely brilliant piece by James Fallows from back in the day not of the military shooting itself in the foot, but slowly driving a spike through it even as people were telling it to them straight and we were throwing away heroes in misbegotten war:
With best regards,
“Bureaucracies almost inevitably accumulate cruft and inefficiencies as processes and procedures once put in place for a good reason are adhered to with an ignorant and ossified rigidity”
As I said, by the far response to all posts about American reform is surrender. It’s inevitable. That is, of course, total nonsense. Putting the label “bureaucratic” on an organization channels conservative American’s thinking like words act as blinders for leftists. Both react like Pavlov’s dogs. Organizations, like the people who comprise them, have the ability to reform and revitalize. They can renew themselves with each new generation.
“I’d like to lay the blame at the feet of the civilians ”
In America it’s always the fault of the guys behind the tree. Assuming responsibility — or assigning it to the people involved — has become an alien concept. That was the point of my previous post, the change from a “No Excuses” military to a “Not My Fault” military. Or as Rando said, one with the motto “Inculpabilis in Aeternum” (Forever Blameless!).
LK: Putting the label “bureaucratic” on an organization channels conservative American’s thinking like words act as blinders for leftist.
I disagree or maybe we’re talking past one another. I see a mismanaged bureaucracy as part of the problem and a solution to that is decentralization and subsidiarity with decision making pushed as close to the pointy end of the spear as possible. It does nothing to help with grand strategy of course and this is just one part of the problem, though I think it’s bigger than many people think. Koch Industries, for example, is run better than many other big organizations for a reason: focus on a domain of related expertise and enabling people nearest the problems to do what’s best for the organization and its clearly articulated goals. Koch is nowhere near as big as DoD, but it *is* order of magnitude as big as the USMC, though not with the magic manna budget, of course. Reform will come up through USMC or SOCOM, not Big Army, AF, or Navy (the irony of an ossified USN is tragic).
LK: In America it’s always the fault of the guys behind the tree.
Right. I was admitting my knee jerk willingness to do so, but I fight against my bias. There is blame to go around (a clear statement of our national grand strategy would *help*), but I specifically kicked the blame squarely back on DoD with the tragic story of the M16 procurement. It still works this way. It’s one of the many cancers that lives on today, as are the examples you cited (F-35 and friends).
With kindest regards,
(1) Successful reforms seldom involve decentralization. It’s a right-wing nostrum, with its roots in the South’s effort to preserve slavery (and later, Jim Crow). Look at the list in this post of successful military reforms (an addition in response to feedback). None were decentralization.
(2) I was reacting to this statement, which is historically false (organizations, like everything in life, go thru cycles — but that’s not the linear decay you describe).
“Bureaucracies almost inevitably accumulate cruft and inefficiencies as processes and procedures once put in place for a good reason are adhered to with an ignorant and ossified rigidity by people”
LK: Successful reforms seldom involve decentralization. It’s a right-wing nostrum, with its roots in the South’s effort to preserve slavery (and later, Jim Crow).
Ouch. Actually, I had some of the subsidiarity reforms of the Royal Navy in the 18th century in mind where responsibility for independent actions was pushed to the captains away from having to clear it with the fleet admiral to do anything. Also the Wehrmacht allowed for independent action by capable commanders below the rank of Colonel which gave them flexibility to deal with situations more quickly than the French who had to run commands up and down the chain of command. It’s not rooted in some racist ideology. Far from it. More Boyd than Burch or whatever. BCTs are a good idea (kinda) and example of what I mean by decentralization (kinda), but I don’t know how optimally implemented they are, but they’re still the wrong thing for the enemies we actually fight.
LK: I was reacting to this statement, which is historically false (organizations, like everything in life, go thru cycles — but that’s not the linear decay you describe).
Historically false? I never claimed global inevitability, but in my actual experience in building a company, the larger the organization the greater the bureaucracy and *almost* inevitably the accumulation of cruft. In my own company, things changed once we crossed the barrier where we thought it would be a good idea to hire a human resources officer. It wasn’t necessarily bad, but it was different and we certainly didn’t maneuver as quickly as we did when we were just programmers literally in a garage. Some large orgs (e.g., Koch) are *much* better at the game than others. There are just structural issues with trying to run very large organizations.
Geoffrey West is an interesting thinker.
As a junior Army officer in the late 80’s/early 90’s I can’t remember how many times I spoke up and said that something didn’t make sense, only to be told by a squadron or battalion commander “If you don’t like it here, you should consider a career change.” And back then all it took was a “2-block” on a SINGLE officer evaluation report (not even ‘”below center of mass”) to keep someone from ever getting a battalion command, thus limiting advancement.
I think we are left with a lot of senior leadership now (though I wouldn’t say everyone) who spent their careers not rocking the boat while the potential reformers of my generation took their battalion commanders’ advice and got out back in the 90’s.
I hear a lot of stories like that. What do you think of the recommendations in this post?
“the potential reformers of my generation took their battalion commanders’ advice and got out back in the 90’s.”
Not all. As Christians say, there is always a remnant — from 2nd Lt’s up to Colonels (e.g., Major Donald Vandergriff). But failure is guaranteed so long as they don’t have a long-term plan.
LK: Not all. As Christians say, there is always a remnant
Elegant reference and perfectly placed.
Short of a barely escaped existential event almost wiping out the nation, there will be no reform.
In modern America once you reach the upper end of the corporate and government elites. There is absolutely no penalty for failure. Perversely, monumental failure in elite America, is rewarded with money and honors.
I first noticed this after our Vietnam debacle. Which the best and brightest of our elites lurched the nation into. What the hell their children never got blown up.
Two examples, first the idiot General Westmoreland. He was brought home and made Chief of Staff of the entire U.S. Army. Then Stanford MBA, former President of Ford Motor Company, and probably the single most prominent architect of the Vietnam blood bath, Robert McNamara. His punishment for his malevolent incompetence. Well, he was appointed President of the World Bank.
Once again in 2008 Wall Street’s incredibly avaricious appetites coupled with the willingness of our political class to sell out the nation for peanuts, brought the entire world’s financial system to within a few hours of total collapse. For their punishment the Wall Street elites were guaranteed against loss, and given billions of our money.
I’m just about dead and probably won’t be around for the Day of the Barbarians. But you youngsters under sixty better strap in tightly. Because we as a people are unable to self correct, sooner or later It is going to be one hell of a bumpy ride.
“Because we as a people are unable to self correct, sooner or later It is going to be one hell of a bumpy ride.”
Every generation since the Founding has had people saying we’re doomed. We have proven them wrong for 242 years, and I am confident that we will do so again.
“Every generation since the Founding has had people saying we’re doomed. We have proven them wrong for 242 years”
That depends on how you define your idea of “doomed.”
Thomas Jefferson claimed that blacks and whites could not live together peacefully. Jefferson would probably regard the current USA as un-Constitutional.
Andrew Jackson said the USA would be doomed if the banks were not defeated. Jackson would probably regard the current USA as an abomination.
Benjamin Franklin didn’t want nonwhite immigrants. He would say “a republic, IF you can keep it,” and he would believe the current USA had NOT kept the republic.
So, has the USA really survived? Or is it a bunch of people that the Founders would refuse to recognize as their lawful heirs?
I doubt any of those people would say that the US was doomed by comparison with their time. Just because some aspects of modern America did not match their beliefs does not mean that your over-the-top claims are correct.
More specifically, I doubt than any of those three statements is correct: “unconstitutional, abomination, not a Republic.” I don’t believe they are even remotely correct.
I’ll say that reform will come, whether anyone likes it or not, it’s just a question of how painful it’s going to be. Catastrophic defeat would probably produce some reforms, but we don’t want it to come to that. We could make it easier for the Lone Rangers (And I think they exist) if we did something about the glut of senior officers. Calls for decentralization are probably futile until he officer glut is addressed. (Yes, I’m beating on that drum again. Deal) We need initiative in our commanders, but the officer glut stifles initiative.
Before World War II we had a military that was willing to experiment, and to think seriously about what the next war would be like and how best to win it. We had commanders who had seen the possibilities inherent in the tank, the aircraft carrier, the bomber, and other advanced weapons of that age. The Marines, for example, expected to be fighting to take pacific island bases, and had given serious thought to how to go about doing that.
We have the Lone Rangerss. They exist, somewhere, I’m sure of it. Right now, there is a Major somewhere, We need to encourage them, and one way to do that would be to cull the herd of “swivel chair hussars” as Robert Heinlein called them in Starship Troopers. That will take the commitment of an Administration that sees the need and is willing to spend the political capital. We need the Lone Rangers and we need better and more competent political leadership. We need both, or neither will work, and if options one and two fail, well…option three is waiting in the wings.
Sidebar: The National Security Council Staff has grown like a weed to command and control multiple secret wars. The NSC staff needs to be greatly reduced, or these people will micromanage operations in a way that is fundamentally destructive. I’m not talking about replacing Obama appointees with Trump or Pence appointees, I’m talking about a massive reduction in the numbers. This too is part of military reform.
“I’ll say that reform will come, whether anyone likes it or not, it’s just a question of how painful it’s going to be.”
Nope. Failure is always an option.
“We have the Lone Rangers.”
Yes. They are part of the problem.
“The National Security Council Staff has grown like a weed”
Not like a week. State is broken, and the NSC was adapted as an easy alternative work-around, since no administration is willing to commit the effort and capital to fix it. That’s also the problem with DoD.
On Boyd as a lone ranger, he had a cohort of like minded people who were on the same track. (the pentagon wars is great on a fight that he was at most a peripheral figure in) His group failed long term due to retirements/burnout/bureaucratic exile. (I think one member got shipped to Alaska?) So what kept that movement from escalating to long lasting reform compared to the other movements you mentioned? Did it not achieve a large enough footprint? Was it swamped by the inevitable counter revolution? Like other commenters I got out because I wasn’t willing to sell out and I wasn’t invested in sticking around to fight that particular fight. (A higher paygrade could probably comment on whether there’s the possibility of say a Russia 1905 to 1917, lessons learned and built on sort of dynamic)
I have discussed this at length with people who worked with Boyd. Boyd had many people who admired his work, but he was a lone ranger. He did little to organize either his thoughts or his works. He left little formal writings about his ideas, which is the very minimum requirement to have an impact in today’s large complex world.
To have a large impact, one has to develop a body of written work, actively recruit, support each other, etc. Boyd did little or none of that.
“Like other commenters I got out because I wasn’t willing to sell out”
That’s not, imo, a particularly useful way to conceptualize this.
“I wasn’t invested in sticking around to fight that particular fight.”
Now we have the answer. Nothing — nothing! — happens without recruitment of people willing to fight. Then training and motivating them. Then retention and rewards. The various military reform movements did none of those things. How would you describe an army that behaved like that? Would you expect them to win? How much effort would you put into explaining why they lost?
I was wrong to question the Lone Ranger classification. (I’d push back a little since there was a small group around him that pursued the same goals, and there have been movements with the dynamic of a leading figure with the organization/writing/etc done by someone else in that group but I don’t think that changes your point. Also cohort was probably the wrong word in the original post) Or to draw bad analogies, they tried the Castroist approach of a small vanguard and it failed.
I would be leery about extending this thought beyond my corner of the Air Force, (ICBMs) but how the force changed by who left after their 4 or 5 year service requirement was a frequent enough topic of conversation among the lts and captains. The proportion of people who had thrown coworkers under the bus went up substantially. (crude way to identify a certain population but I think it gets the point across) The trend appeared to intensify through lt cols. (though without knowing them as lts can’t say whether they started out that way or changed over time) So I think I was more trying to point out that the winnowing of the most likely contributors to change starts early, and I did a lousy job of communicating that.
You’re right in your last point. Though my mindset was more why fight to fix a tool that is being put to evil uses, at which point bringing up Scharnhorst and company in light of how that ended up is relevant. (though that took a long while to fully go off the rails) Thank you for the posts and comments, and when I continue to be either unclear or flat out wrong I am sure you’ll let me know.
That is an impressive follow-up comment. Easily gets my vote for Best of Thread. Thank you for sharing your experience!
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