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majority which really adhere to the values of the services; it is the systems that manage them that are so bad and out of date.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

Summary:  Don Vandergriff tells us about a well-deserved Medal of Honor presented to SSG Giunta by President Obama.  As a contrast, Obama awards an undeserved Medal of Freedom to money, in the person of Warren Buffett.


For those of us not able to be present when this young NCO received the Medal of Honor, here is a video link to the 8-minute presentation by the president. Staff Sargeant Salvatore Giunta is the first living service member to receive this award since the war in Vietnam. This is what our country needs, leaders like SSG Giunta, who is so humble, and very squared away.

I took three things away from this, first SSG Giunta’s leadership, how humble he is. Second, the President’s sincerity for this even and toward SSG Giunta (shows me that he can have a better half of his term if he stands up to big money and turns attention to helping the middle class), and the third, is the comradeship of SSG Giunta’s fellow soldiers who attended, some that even left the Army, still showed up to support him. That makes the Band of Brothers more than a bumper sticker.

If you don’t have 8 minutes to invest, as my good friend SFC Jeffrey (R) Roper so eloquently pointed out to me, take the time to listen to this Soldier speak for the last 40 seconds of the video. It’s worth your time.  For more information see this article in Stars and Stripes.


FM note, an addition to Don’s post

The antithesis of this is Obama’s decision to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to money.  From the White House website:

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Leadership in action: when resource constraints meet conspicuous consumption, we just ignore the problem

Summary:  Rising population, finite resources.  Don Vandergriff asks if we have the creativity and wisdom to cope with these two colliding trends? 

“In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if, in tempestous seasons, they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.”
— John Maynard Keynes in A Tract on Monetary Reform (1923)

I don’t understand why we don’t confront these issues head on? Is that we suffer from hubris? Or, is it people are just so scared, they ignore the data? 

What pisses me off about lack of leadership on these issues, and our own arrogant ignoring the signs is that in no time in human history have we possessed the information and resources to fix problems before they get too bad. The problem is hubris, stupidity and organized religions, all of them. 

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Dragging American Military Culture into the 21st Century

Summary:  Our soldiers fight using 21st century weapons but ancient methods.  Under the stress of a decade-long and running long war against adaptive but poorly equipped enemies, our military slowly evolves from its WWI doctrines (massed firepower, 2GW), towards methods used by the Wehrmacht in WWII ( maneuver war, 3GW).  The origin of these doctrines lies in the century following Prussia’s defeat in the Napoleonic Wars.  Here Donald Vandergriff describes what’s happening and why it is necessary.

We’ll start with a look at the goal, described in this excerpt from “The Historical Linkage –  How German Captain Willy Rohr changed infantry tactics, weapons and doctrine within the World War One German Army“, by Dave Shunk (Colonel, USAF, retired), Small Wars Journal, 3 August 2010:

{This} is a remarkable story. He succeeded in his task as a result of the German Army’s ideas of operational adaptability, mission command and decentralized authority. This paper presents by historical example the basic ideas and inherent power in the Army Capstone Concept based on the German model. But first, a few Capstone Concept definitions as a baseline reference.

So what are mission command, decentralized operations and operational adaptability? According to Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) Pamphlet 525-3-0, the Capstone Concept (dated 21 December 2009; Word document here):

Mission command is the conduct of military operations through decentralized execution based on mission orders. Successful mission command demands that subordinate leaders at all echelons exercise disciplined initiative, acting aggressively and independently to accomplish the mission within the commander’s intent.”  {From Operations (FM 3-0, PDF here)}

… Decentralized operations place a premium on disciplined, confident small units that can integrate joint capabilities and fight together as combined arms teams. Leaders must prepare their units to fight and adapt under conditions of uncertainty and, during the conduct of operations, must also ensure moral conduct and make critical time-sensitive decisions under pressure. Conducting effective decentralized operations will require a high degree of unit cohesion developed through tough, realistic training and shared operational experience. The Army must refine its capability to adapt training to the mission, threat, or operational environment changes while ensuring that individual and collective training fosters adaptability, initiative, and confidence.

… Operational adaptability requires a mindset based on flexibility of thought calling for leaders at all levels who are comfortable with collaborative planning and decentralized execution, have a tolerance for ambiguity, and possess the ability and willingness to make rapid adjustments according to the situation.  {It} is essential to developing situational understanding and seizing, retaining, and exploiting the initiative under a broad range of conditions. Operational adaptability is also critical to developing the coercive and persuasive skills the Army will need to assist friends, reassure and protect populations, and to identify, isolate, and defeat enemies.

So how did the Germany Army of World War One use decentralization, mission command, and operational adaptability to create infiltration tactics and revolutionize infantry tactics in World War I? The story revolves around a Captain Willy Rohr.

Vandergriff’s Analysis

Here is and has been my take about US Army application of Mission Command recently adapted by the US Army through the issuing of its Capstone Concept in December 2009, and attempted before in the 1980s through the publication of FM 100-5 (here) in 1982.

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Afghanistan war logs: Shattering the illusion of a bloodless victory

Summary:  Don Vandergriff looks at the significance of the Wikileaks documents about the Af-Pak War, borrowing the title from the Guardian article.

It is not as if the disaster described below, in the Afghan war logs released by Wikileaks to the Guardian, the New York Times , and der Spiegel, was not foreseeable.   For example, my close friend and mentor Chuck Spinney wrote an Op-ed for Defense Week in April 2001 “What Revolution in Military Affairs?”, well before we began the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  

I also told comrades about the disasters that would await us if we tried to occupy and convert Afghanistan into a democracy (trillions and years later, still no progress), and later when we invaded Iraq (and I describe in my 2002 book Path to Victory: America’s Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs (Presidio Press)) regarding the failure of occupations by foreign armies. I prescribe to the doctrine of 3-3-3, described by William S. Lind in “An Operational Doctrine for Intervention“, Parameters, Summer 1995.

And I was hardly alone or invisible.  Readers familiar with the work of reformers Colonel John Boyd, Pierre Sprey, Colonel James Burton, Colonel Mike Wylie, Colonel GI Wilson, Colonel Bob Dilger, Bill Lind and Tom Christie, among others, will know that they have been highly visible canaries in the high-tech coal mine since the late 1960s.  For those unfamiliar with their critical analyses, I refer you to  James Fallows’ National Defense (Random House 1981), and Robert Coram’s Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (Little Brown, 2002), or The Winds of Reform, Time (7 March 1983).

The Wikileaks about the Af-Pak War

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Another example of our nation’s leadership crisis: Tim Geithner’s Ninth Political Life

Summary:  To prosper — perhaps even to survive — the 21st century we must have adequate leadership.  In this post by Don Vandergriff, we look at our leaders, both as a class and one in particular.  It’s not a pretty picture.

My post a couple of months ago about William Deresiewcz’s fantastic article fits here:  “Solitude and Leadership“, The American Scholar, Spring 2010 — “If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts.”  Excerpt, about Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

Note the adjectives: commonplace, ordinary, usual, common. There is nothing distinguished about this person. About the 10th time I read that passage, I realized it was a perfect description of the kind of person who tends to prosper in the bureaucratic environment. And the only reason I did is because it suddenly struck me that it was a perfect description of the head of the bureaucracy that I was part of, the chairman of my academic department — who had that exact same smile, like a shark, and that exact same ability to make you uneasy, like you were doing something wrong, only she wasn’t ever going to tell you what.

Like the manager — and I’m sorry to say this, but like so many people you will meet as you negotiate the bureaucracy of the Army or for that matter of whatever institution you end up giving your talents to after the Army, whether it’s Microsoft or the World Bank or whatever—the head of my department had no genius for organizing or initiative or even order, no particular learning or intelligence, no distinguishing characteristics at all. Just the ability to keep the routine going, and beyond that, as Marlow says, her position had come to her — why?

That’s really the great mystery about bureaucracies. Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things — the leaders — are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along. Being whatever other people want you to be, so that it finally comes to seem that, like the manager of the Central Station, you have nothing inside you at all. Not taking stupid risks like trying to change how things are done or question why they’re done. Just keeping the routine going.

We are in a leadership crisis in this country.  As shown by “Tim Geithner’s Ninth Political Life“, Simon Johnson, The Baseline Scenario,15  July 2010 — Excerpt:

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