Next Steps for Military Personnel Reform

Photo of a Soldier in the sunset

Ten years ago the Center for Defense Information published Raising the Bar: Creating and Nurturing Adaptability to Deal with the Changing Face of War. Written by Straus Military Reform Project Advisory Board Member Major Donald E. Vandergriff, USA (ret.), the book has been used in numerous courses, including in the Department of Military Instruction at the United States Military Academy at West Point, and remains a pivotal reform text. This spring Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s attempts to modernize the military, an initiative called “Force of the Future,” have been largely rejected. We interviewed Vandergriff for his thoughts on the next steps for military reform.

People are key to improving and reforming our national security. History and science prove that if you get the people issues right, everything else falls in place.

Donald Vandergriff

Photo supplied by Major Donald E. Vandergriff, USA (ret.)

1. Why should civilians care about military personnel reform?

The current personnel system is both very costly and not successful.

People are key to improving and reforming our national security. History and science prove that if you get the people issues right, everything else falls in place. Yet, due to the short-term and zero defects-minded culture we live in and the military practices in, we retain an industrial-age personnel system with complex technology laid on top.

The hope of decision-makers (both in and out of uniform) is that technology will allow workarounds. Ironically, almost everyone acknowledges that the personnel system is antiquated and is the biggest obstacle to the military getting better, but no one wants to lead the reform effort.

The military personnel system gives the nation men and women who abide by Congressional obsession with technology (and its money) and society’s interest in using the military as a tool for social change. We have a military that spends more than the next 20 militaries, and it can deploy sizeable forces anywhere in the world in a few days. But it also has a very slow decision cycle, is risk-averse, and has forgotten how to conduct expeditionary, punitive, and Manœuvre Warfare. Instead it has focused on Counter Insurgency (COIN) doctrine, which is used to justify forced regime change and democracy at the point of the bayonet.

2. What should the next administration’s approach be for military personnel reform?

To create a system that not only protects but also promotes moral courage, strength of character, and professionalism. Reform has to start at the very beginning of a leader’s career. 

A combination of factors, based on out-of-date theories and doctrine of mobilization, cause careerism and undermine professionalism. These factors include the “up or out” promotion system (originated in 1916), a bloated officer corps (based on the need to mobilize for WWI), a centralized evaluation/promotion and selection system, and an outdated education and training methodology and doctrine.

Solving these problems won’t be easy, but it can be done. Solutions that encompass the latest in science and historical studies exist to take our military to the higher and next level of professionalism, at relatively low cost.

The new administration should immediately focus on four areas of reforming the personnel system:

1) Address the bloated officer corps, especially at the top. Many academic studies outside my own work address the downfalls of a bloated officer system. The bloated officer system also led to the establishment of bloated headquarters and organizations that just act as holding places for all the officers. They in turn create even more meaningless work that justifies their positions.

2) Decentralize personnel decisions. Currently, the DoD is the only large organization that centralizes most personnel decisions for promotion and selection at its respective service headquarters. Promotion depends on subjective evaluations—as well as photographs—to determine who will move ahead. As a consequence, it’s tainted by the personal beliefs of board members, who tend to pick in their own image. Ultimately it’s become a system that horribly lends itself to corruption and self-serving careerism.

3) Change the one-for-all evaluation system that is based on checking the boxes and subjective comments from the very chain of command that the officer has to please. A slight swing of the pen or a block in the wrong place can send an officer’s career to its demise when the evaluation is presented in front of a zero defects-oriented promotion board years later. This way, senior officers can avoid confrontation with their subordinates at the moment they damage their careers.  

4) Refocus officer development on the art of warfighting and mission command. We have a weak accessions system that focuses on areas that are not relevant to what we want from officers (though some effective reforms have been made recently to Army ROTC and at the Department of Military Instruction at USMA). Minimal focus is placed on strength of character, decision-making, and the desire to take responsibility. We continue to rely on creating citizen officers for mass mobilization. Always afraid of true military professionalism, and using out of date learning and training models, we have allowed the military profession to become more like a club on campus than a fully professional system like that of medicine, law, or engineering.

3. “Force of the Future” seemed to provide a ripe opportunity for military personnel reform but seems now to have largely been a failure. Why do you think it failed?

Dan Grazier summarized well in a POGO article earlier this year specific problems with the reforms proposed. Most of the so-called reforms did not address the real issues of the personnel system mentioned above, but were more like bribes to retain people. None of them get at the heart of protecting and promoting moral courage and growing professionalism.

While Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Brad Carson was passionate about it, it needed champions in Congress and a high ranking general. Yet, despite its lack of true professional reform, it was still a threat to the services and how they manage their personnel, particularly when Mr. Carson threatened the cradle of the personnel system by proposing to reform the detrimental and negative way we promote people, the “up or out” promotion system.

4. In previous work you’ve criticized past efforts to reform the military as being overly influenced by management science. Putting aside whether it was successful in the private sector, why do you think this is the wrong approach for the military?

The US Military, even in July 2016, is an industrial-age organization. It seeks to establish routine and habit through standardized procedures. Complex tasks are broken into simple steps that are assigned to organizational positions to ensure that employees are both interchangeable and easily replaced. Bureaucratic hierarchies tend to value quantifiable assessment of specific aspects of complex managerial tasks.

It is a horrible model because it is founded on poor assumptions about how to employ and empower people, and worse, how to promote leaders. As I’ve written before, industrial theorist Frederick Taylor promoted theories of Management Science based on his unscientific tests to validate his own beliefs on how people were to be used as “cogs in the machine.” The management practices were in vogue in industry at the time, and because no one had challenged how factory workers (and Soldiers) were trained and managed to achieve results, they were revolutionary.

To be sure, Taylorism transformed industrial production, but it also had a dark side: Taylorism treated people as unthinking cogs in a machine. By necessity, these people had to accept a social system based on a coercive pattern of dominance and subordination, as well as centralized control from the top. Every action and every decision made in the organization was spelled out in the name of efficiency. In theory, the entire regimen flowed from the brain of one individual at the top of the hierarchy.

The idea that people are interchangeable cogs in a machine and that self-interest is the only significant motivator of behavior help explain why the military focuses on increasing its “production” of lieutenants, cutting necessary training for young leaders, and reducing the promotion time to major to try to solve its statistical readiness issues with deploying units. This meets near-term requirements mandated by the military services and Congress for the number of field grades. Yet this kind of appeal to self-interest is precisely the kind of policy that has failed repeatedly in the past to produce the kind of officers necessary for long-term success. It serves only to increase the exodus of our “best and brightest” young people.

Turning to Silicon Valley for technological fixes won’t address what military art is all about: the complexity of leading and commanding combined arms and fire support units at platoon through brigade levels, or the ability to develop strategic thinkers for the future.

5. Similarly to that history, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter is now looking to Silicon Valley for ideas on how to reform our military personnel system. What do you consider to be the potential benefits or downsides to this approach?

It is not a bad idea, in regards to the logistical aspect of war, which the civilian sector closely resembles. During the American Civil War, World War II, and Korea, the nation successfully took experts in logistics and transportation and made them senior leaders dealing with similar problems within the military.

But many policymakers and senior military officers falsely equate technology evolution with intelligence, so they go to the center of technology for solutions. Turning to Silicon Valley for technological fixes won’t address what military art is all about: the complexity of leading and commanding combined arms and fire support units at platoon through brigade levels, or the ability to develop strategic thinkers for the future.

What needs to happen is that far fewer people need to be commissioned and platoon and command times of officers need to be extended so they can take in more opportunities to master the complexity of leading and commanding in high-intensity warfare.

6. One of the core problems of these policies that you identify in Raising the Bar is that they create an inherent conflict between individual careerism and serving the public. “The primacy of the individual alongside institutional rhetoric of selfless service… The legacies support an increasing motivation of individuals fueled by self-interest that pits the espoused selflessness of Army values, especially among leaders, against careerism.” What do you consider to be the consequences of this conflict?

The latest in reforms, including the defeated Force of the Future proposals, had potential to put the officer corps back on the right track by strengthening critical staff specialties throughout the military. Excellent officers not selected for command can pursue successful careers through repeated assignments in many specialized fields. The Force of the Future’s long-term goal was to eventually have well-qualified specialists selected as general officers, destroying the myth that command experience is essential to high-level advancement.

The emphasis on specialization means fewer officers will get “an opportunity to command.” This will be a small price to pay for the benefits of specialization, and arguments that more ex-commanders are needed for mobilization ignores the ability of staff officers and junior commanders to learn from good examples. Giving fewer people longer periods of command will benefit the entire organization as officers learn how to master the complexity of command at all levels. For example, the British give their majors 30 months minimum, the Turks 36 to 52 months, and the French 28 months’ minimum, but the US average of company command is 15 months, some getting just 12 months. They just begin to learn this critical and difficult position when they are moved out for someone else, in order to be fair by giving others time in command. Ironically, it is the US military culture that over-accesses too many officers in the first place, despite mountains of evidence over the years as to its adverse consequences.

More importantly, the Army would run well without the undue influences of the legions of entrenched civilian bureaucrats; cutting this chaff is of obvious benefit to the functioning of units in combat.

To anyone looking in from the outside, Force of the Future was a step in the right direction, yet more remains to be done such as addressing the problems caused by the “up or out” promotion system: a bloated officer corps, the “all or nothing” retirement system, and a lack of a unit personnel system.

Force of the Future only guaranteed that the competition would be "fair." By moving many out of the old command track, some of the proposals from Force of the Future promised all who reach the grade of major an equal chance to win. In this way the Military continues to feed the "up or out" promotion system, and to fill all the jobs mandated by law. They also ensure that few officers will become prematurely discouraged in the race for status. The symbol of status will swing somewhat away from the need to command. The Force of the Future proposals provide "many roads to the top" by increasing chances for promotion and promising all majors some type of post graduate opportunity or fellowship by remaining in their technical fields.

The current personnel system, though, continues to manifest the competitive ethic that results from the "up or out" promotion system and a bloated officer corps. It allows the organization to extract deference through competition. As did the earlier personnel management systems that evolved after the Vietnam War, the new system proposed by Force of the Future uses competition more than ever as a lever to control the career soldier. Under the culture of management science, from the very day officers receive their commissions, the military impresses upon them the importance of remaining "competitive" instead of professional. Thus, the military personnel system encourages officers to compete against each other to survive in the "up or out" system. It uses the "competitive ethic" in an explicitly coercive manner. To become "noncompetitive" is to risk exclusion from the officer corps altogether. Officers have felt and continue to feel compelled to give careful attention to the institution’s performance cues. Certainly the post-Gulf War draw-down has made the point clear to even the least attentive.

The military’s officer and NCO system under the current personnel system will continue to use competition, theorizing that the “best” will rise to the top. In fact, it corrupts. It creates an unhealthy strain that no one can escape. Officers must satisfy the institutional demand to remain competitive, if only out of self-preservation. Given the culture and the strict boundaries that the laws governing our officer system set, the reforms under Force of the Future are perhaps the best that could be given to the officer corps.

Before any changes can really be termed reforms, though, issues that generate careerism and undermine readiness must be openly discussed. Unfortunately, Force of the Future’s downfall, as it was with the previous personnel system "reforms," is that it leaves careerism unaffected due to the emphasis it places on the competitive ethic, which despite specialization, will remain.

Perhaps by recognizing the limitations of management science, the compulsion to maintain personnel policies around a personnel system developed for mass mobilization of civilians, and the need to be “fair,” which in turn creates competition, the officer corps will move forward. Force of the Future offers some short-term fixes piled on a series of evolutionary tweaks. But it could have been a bridge to more and better lasting reforms.

Eventually, the military, like society, will likely create its own version of a new, flatter organization with the inherent officer personnel policies revolving around unit policies that must accompany it. Only when that happens will the military reintroduce professionalism to its officer corps.

If we are going to be bold with our new doctrine and embrace new technology, then we need to be bold and create an institutional culture that creates officers who can handle the tempo the doctrine-writers are saying future technology will create. This is a different culture from the one we have now. We cannot continue to write glowing documents advocating an "agile" officer, yet subtly support peacetime practices that reinforce bureaucratic qualities.

Photo of Don Vandergriff instructing with a map

7. One of the other major problems you identify is the US military’s adoption of the French military’s method of training by checklists. Why do you think these checklists are so detrimental in warfare?

The officer corps walked away from World War I with three practices that would be passed on, be solidified in the inter-war period, and become almost impossible to break in light of the victory in World War II. First was an authoritarian style of leadership. The rapid expansion of the Army in size and in responsibility for officers, for instance, was beyond the competence of most individuals. Adapting an authoritarian approach was secure and hid the flaws as rapidly promoted and inexperienced pre-war regular officers had to direct the operations of thousands of amateurs. The next legacy was the Army’s adaptation of a doctrine of intense supporting firepower from the French. The doctrine was refined and called fire and movement tactics, and relied on the simple process of one unit firing while another moves forward, supported by massed indirect fires. The tactics of fire and movement warfare are largely linear, parallel to the proven business practices of the day, and were centrally controlled. Finally, shaped by a force structure that limited the Army to 89 divisions, the Army institutionalized the practice from World War I of using individual replacements. The Army went into World War I planning to use unit replacements with one division in the United States supporting two divisions in France, but by the time units were committed to the fighting in 1918, attrition occurred so rapidly that there wasn’t enough time to train new units to replace existing units. Instead of using the inter-war period to study the lessons from World War I to improve on or replace these legacies, the Army officer corps sat stagnant under a strain of no money and a public and Congress that drifted into isolationism.

Today’s “crawl-walk-run” or “lecture-demonstration-practical application” system used in leader development curriculums is dramatic. This contrasting American approach was born out of necessity in World War I. The US Army, arriving on the field of battle unprepared for large-scale war, followed the French military approach to education based on the philosophy of René Descartes. Descartes was a famous mathematician who broke down engineering problems in sequence, making it easier to teach formulas to engineering students. This approach was translated into French military training, where the French found it easy to break down military problem-solving into processes (checklists) to educate their officers and their awaiting masses of citizen soldiers upon mobilization. The Cartesian approach allowed the French (and later the United States) to easily teach a common, fundamental doctrinal language to many who were new to the military. It significantly reduced the time it took to master basic military skills. The downfall of this approach is that it simplifies war (complex problems) into processes where the enemy is only a template, not a free-thinking adversary with a very important voice in determining how the plan might be executed.

The Cartesian approach also slows down a decision cycle by turning the planners’ focus inward on process instead of outward on the enemy. The problem with this approach is that it does not fit in with the problem at hand. It is the same thing with operations research, which is a powerful tool for solving certain well-defined problems. The problem that we have in the Armed Forces is that we try to apply it to all sorts of inappropriate problems. The French, relying on a massed citizen army in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, had to find a way to instruct many citizen officers quickly in military doctrine. Sadly this is the core of the training and learning approaches used today in the 21st Century. This approach has come to be known as the worst way to learn and retain information, as well as to develop cognitive ability.

“I succeeded well with the current system, so it must be good!” says it all.

Dr. Robert Bjork, Dean of the UCLA School of Psychology, has done the most advanced work on learning in the world. He gave a presentation in August 2006 to the US Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) labelled, “How We Learn Versus How We Think We Learn: Implications for the Optimization of Army Training.” What this briefing said was that the Army continues to use out-of-date learning models that conflict with what we know about how people learn. What Dr. Bjork found is that “conditions of instruction that make performance improve rapidly often fail to support long-term retention and transfer [processes and checklists], whereas conditions of instruction that appear to create difficulties for the learner, slowing the rate of apparent learning, often optimize long-term retention and transfer.” In the last few years, I have developed learning methodologies applying Dr. Bjork’s approach as well as the most progressive learning methodologies through history. But TRADOC has largely rejected this methodology. A few individual courses take it upon themselves to teach using Dr. Bjork’s methods, but this is done unofficially. The larger question the public should ask is why the military refuses to change? Well, it goes back to answers to earlier questions—it is all about selfish motives and egos. “I succeeded well with the current system, so it must be good!” says it all.

Photograph of Mandy Smithberger

By: Mandy Smithberger, Director, CDI Straus Military Reform Project

Mandy Smithberger is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight.

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