Best Defense

How to get to the military of the future: We need a much more flexible culture

What the military of the future should look like is a popular and highly contested topic. However, the answer demands we first understand the organizational obstacles stopping the military from adapting. To meet the challenges of the future, the U.S. military will need a systemic cultural reformation — to improve outdated training, promote innovation, and retain talent.

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By Sebastian J. Bae
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted

What the military of the future should look like is a popular and highly contested topic. However, the answer demands we first understand the organizational obstacles stopping the military from adapting. To meet the challenges of the future, the U.S. military will need a systemic cultural reformation — to improve outdated training, promote innovation, and retain talent.

Military training evolutions are rigid, pre-determined exercises in marksmanship more than a test in adaptability and leadership. The majority of military training exercises are rubber stamp checklists, which follow strict scripts of preparations and execution. Fixed targets do not return fire and carefully tailored firing ranges offer no surprises, devoid of the intricacies of real combat. Whether captains or sergeants, soldiers and Marines must face training exercises that reflect the demands of real life combat. Otherwise, the military will continue to train for fictional scripted wars. Admittedly, the Marine Corps recently began institutionalizing immersion trainers to simulate the fog of war – everything from role players to hidden IEDs allow soldiers and Marines to experience the ambiguity of combat. However, with only three operational immersion trainers in the Marine Corps, this attempt to promote adaptive real-time decision-making is far from a comprehensive reform.

Beyond training reform, the military must abandon its organizational intolerance for mistakes. During my career as an infantry Sergeant, I saw careers of good Marines go up in smoke with a single, often understandable, mistake. When my unit was transiting to Iraq, a corporal misplaced a piece of serialized gear on the plane, which was eventually recovered and returned. Nevertheless, the corporal was summarily dismissed as team leader and irreversibly labeled ‘incompetent.’ This is a familiar story throughout the military, and the intolerance towards mistakes incentivizes inaction, conformity, and a risk-averse mentality. The system breeds a toxic culture where leaders are taught to regurgitate rehearsed answers instead of promoting innovation. If soldiers and Marines cannot make mistakes in training, they will be ill-prepared to adapt to setbacks in combat.

During my deployment to Iraq, my platoon commander was the poster child of a Marine officer. A computer engineer from Notre Dame, he was an avid reader of history and politics, a CrossFit beast, and a natural leader. However, throughout our deployment, his plans to be proactive in our area of operations were routinely rejected. The local outreach program to build trust in the community was deemed irrelevant. His request for a larger presence in the city to bolster security was judged reckless. Time and time again, higher command ordered my commander to simply follow orders and not rock the boat. On his last day, my platoon commander confessed to me, “I will miss the Marines, not the Marine Corps.” Disappointed by the Corps’ inability to evolve, I watched the best commander I ever served under walk away from the uniform he loved.

Unsurprisingly, the military has failed terribly to retain the best and brightest leaders of every rank. Experienced combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have turned to lucrative careers with private military firms, often doing the same job without the stifling bureaucracy of government employment. Meanwhile, exceptional leaders grow weary of the constant resistance towards new ideas by the military’s culture of mediocrity. Before the military can meet the inevitable technological revolution in military affairs, the military needs to develop an organizational culture capable of adaption and innovation. History has taught us organizations that cannot adapt become irrelevant, a lesson the military has seemingly forgotten.

Sebastian J. Bae served six years in the Marine Corps infantry, leaving as a Sergeant. He deployed to Iraq in 2009. He is now pursuing his Masters at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, specializing in counterinsurgency and humanitarian interventions. He holds the Marine co-chair on Best Defense’s Council of Former Enlisted.

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Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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