Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Dave Barno’s top 10 tasks for General Dempsey, the new Army chief of staff

By Lt. Gen. David Barno (U.S. Army, ret.) Best Defense bureau chief, Army issues Marty Dempsey’s nomination as the next Army Chief of Staff means one thing: The U.S. Army has just won the big Powerball jackpot.  For a service struggling with the grim realities of ten years of war, and facing an uncertain future ...

United States Library of Congress
United States Library of Congress

By Lt. Gen. David Barno (U.S. Army, ret.)
Best Defense bureau chief, Army issues

Marty Dempsey’s nomination as the next Army Chief of Staff means one thing: The U.S. Army has just won the big Powerball jackpot.  For a service struggling with the grim realities of ten years of war, and facing an uncertain future of inevitable defense cuts, this wily cavalryman is exactly the right medicine to revitalize the force.

Dempsey leads the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), an organization once described as “the architect of the future Army.”  He’s been acting commander of U.S. Central Command and served twice in Iraq. He’s a scholar with a degree in English who taught at West Point. He listens and thinks. With coming budget belt-tightening, two wars winding down and a shrinking Army end strength, Dempsey is the pivot man holding a historic opportunity to re-shape the Army Next.

So — what are the “gotta do” items in the next Chief’s overflowing inbox? My top 10:

1) Finish the Fight. Both Afghanistan and Iraq will likely wind down on Dempsey’s watch. Armies exist to fight and win wars — and the U.S pays huge costs in peacetime so the Army can deliver the goods when the fire alarm rings. And this Army has delivered in spades, after some rocky starts.  Now as these wars unwind, the U.S. Army must spare no energy in seeing that its remaining deployed forces, particularly in a major fight for Afghanistan, get everything the service can institutionally provide. Soldiers and their leaders have given their all for ten years, winning one war and beginning to turn the tide in another. But the bureaucratic Army track record here has been decidedly mixed (see: Rodriguez IJC HQ standup). Pull out the institutional stops.

2) Generation Keep. The officer and NCO leaders of this force rival the Greatest Generation of WWII fame. But in an Army soon to be largely back in the motor pools and on rifle ranges, these “war babies” could leave the Army in droves rather than stay in a stifling over-centralized, power-point-centric Army. The training-focused Army of the 80s and 90s so prized by today’s general officer leadership is foreign to them, and returning to that auld sang lyne model may not scratch their itch.  The next peacetime Army – – not the CPTs and MAJs, SSGs, and SFCs — must change.  A return to a bureaucratic garrison mindset is already becoming the natural line of drift.  Micromanagement, hours of power point Quarterly Training briefs, and the occasional Combat Training Center rotation slapped atop of a newly resource-austere force could drive out many of these best and most experienced officers and NCOs in the Army’s history — people that the Army vitally needs for its next incarnation. The quality of who stays matters — not just the raw numbers of butts in seats.

3) Reform the Army’s Personnel System. The one Army system that affects every single Soldier, his or her family, and defines the arc of their life in uniform is The Personnel System. It’s been largely untouched and unreformed by the longest war in the nation’s history. Changing it in ways that do not flip over the apple cart in the midst of two wars is no small task. First order: build in flexibility. Get more personal adaptability and openness in assignment and promotions. Second, challenge assignment officers to abandon rigor — and give them the tools to better manage this convoluted system as it evolves. Third, find ways to creatively ease out the perfect “up or out” industrial-age promotion pyramid: enable officers to drop back year groups, open up direct commissions for selected skills, put more warrants in place of officers in techie jobs, and make shifts easier from active to reserve (and back again).  Lastly, add better civilian education for NCOs (think: a few NCO Foreign Area Officers?) and more sabbatical opportunities for all. Fewer deployments may actually free up serious time for more and better professional development — especially if there is less tolerance for peacetime Army busy work! Changes on the Hill to the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act may be needed to support re-shaping the officer billet structure — but the Army simply must give officers and NCOs better ability to manage their careers and their lives.  In a smaller professional force competing for talent with the Googles of the world, this reform is a “must do” if the Army is to keep its best on board.

4) Find the Best Senior Leadership.  Arguably the most important job of the Chief is to grow and select the Army’s next cadre of Generals.  Chiefs who slough this off abandon their most vital tool for shaping the Army and encouraging the next generations of officers.   Bad generals — dumb generals — kill off innovation and risk-taking, poison the well of future talent, and leave a legacy of “ducks picking ducks” in their wake.  The Chief must know his leaders  — from a 360 degree viewpoint, not just from all their shiny mirrors pointed upward.  Find and eliminate the Toxic Leaders — your junior leaders know who they are. And clearing the underbrush of the Army’s hierarchical layers while opening the door to collaborative leadership outside of combat would also send a powerful message of value to every leader in the force. LTs and CPTs employ flattened “battlefield collaboration” in combat — modern command and control has moved in that direction with chat functions and networked coordination. Home station Army leadership and garrison-based force management has not. Pick the right leaders for the force — and get them involved from their earliest days of service in contributing to flatter decision-making, opening doors for innovation, and decentralizing control and authority to junior leaders. 

5) Get Ready for the Next War.  This unwelcome worry is a feature coming to a theater near you — and both sooner and probably in a different form than most experts think.  Figure it out. Debate and then decide on the next Big Idea(s) in human conflict and the Army’s role in it. What does “landpower” mean in the 21st Century?  Sketch out the next “AirLand Battle” — or devise a couple likely variants.  Set up the Army to dominate that fight — but more importantly, drill it to adapt quickly when it’s not quite right.  Make choices — “full spectrum ops” is not a helpful bumper sticker to a company commander taking his troops out to train.  Worse, it provides next to no guidance when making tough choices on competing ideas for organization, weapons systems, or kit.  The next war will not be like the last — but who’s seriously thinking about what it is going to be?  Think hard too about the Army’s role in preventing wars — today there is precisely zero Army force structure devoted to “building partner capacity,” helping others secure themselves.  How do you avoid “failures of imagination” — akin to those that have serially plagued the U.S. military for the last ten years?

6) Refine the Army Culture. The Warrior Ethos and Army Values remain spot on. The evolution of two armies — the (hooah) operating force and the (wimpy) generating force — does not.  NCOs and officers are not “taking a knee” when they serve in TRADOC, the Pentagon, or study their profession. Two big wars over ten years have gutted the respectability of service outside of the line (not to mention military intellectualism) by heroically valuing “gunfighters” above those serving in the rest of the force.  Education today simply does not matter in the Army’s “down range” culture. Plenty of well-meaning generals have fueled this disastrous corrosion. Restoring professional thinking, writing, education and developmental assignments to the forefront of what it means to be a Thinking Warrior has to start now.  Civilian grad school, mandatory career-long resident education, and developmental tours for NCOs and all grades of officers are a must. (See also: Reconnect the Army to Society). War is a thinking man’s — or woman’s — business.

7) Re-connect the Army to Society. ROTC to Ivy Leagues. Ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Post-deployment speaking tours for company commanders. Visits to University presidents and faculty.  East Coast/West Coast speaking engagements and editorial boards for (smart) Army generals.  Jon Stewart.  Just who is this Army that the nation has had out there at the edge of the universe fighting for the last ten years? Who knew? And inside the force — regaining a sense of humility that can disappear when too many view military service as a calling for “the best of the best” and often increasingly view the rest of their countrymen with disdain. Today’s Army — including its leadership — lives in a bubble separate from society.  Not only does it reside in remote fortresses — the world’s most exclusive gated communities– but in a world apart from the cultural, intellectual and even geographic spheres that define the kaleidoscopic United States.  This splendid military isolation — set in the midst of a largely adoring nation — risks fostering a closed culture of superiority and aloofness.  This must change if the Army is to remain in, of, and with the ever-diverse peoples of the United States.

8) Embrace Austerity and Challenge Requirements.  Setting aside for a moment the “fixed” costs of personnel, Army discretionary acquisition burns through more money than a thief with a stolen credit card. In the near future, less money in the Army’s kitty means less stuff — and raises the necessity of getting the right stuff, the first time.  The Army (hold your breath) has squandered well over $10 billion on cancelled and broken programs over the last ten years: Crusader, Comanche, Future Combat System, Non- Line-of-Sight missile, and Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter to name a few.  The latest “must-have” is the Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) — unfortunately with a lot of the same ol’, same ol’ optics.  Requirement #1: gotta have a full 9-man squad dismount.  But not so for the last 30 years — the Bradley only dismounts six, and the Army fought two big wars in the Mideast (1991, 2003) with Bradleys.  Dismounting nine men will add 20-30-40 percent more cost, weight, size, propulsion, suspension and armor.  Is that really a “requirement?”  The coming New Austerity will demand rolling back ten years of bad buying habits from almost every corner of the Army — from buying $100 camelbacks for every recruit in basic training to allowing pie-in-the-sky requirements generation by nearly every schoolhouse. What do you really need?  And how do you get every leader to squeeze value out of the taxpayers’ dollars like they were their own paycheck?  (They are). Make Austerity a Virtue.

9) Flatten Out and Power Down.  Shades of the 1970s and pop-culture “re-engineering the corporation!” Unfortunately, what the Army learned in its post-Vietnam renaissance period from its bright lights like Walt Ulmer and Don Starry was lost in the last ten years of war. The Army has more three-star (and two-star) headquarters today than it had on 9/11.  Yet a careful scrub will reveal that despite being in a decade long two-theater conflict, just about none of those bureaucratic dinosaurs have anything to do with fighting the war. A the 4-star level, do you really need both a TRADOC and a FORSCOM?  Could they be flattened (along with their countless junior 2- and 3-star HQs) and merged?  Recent years of ever-growing budgets and burgeoning personnel rolls — uniformed, DA civilians, and contractors, contractors, contractors — have swollen the Army bureaucracy to staggering levels. Defense Secretary Gates’ worry about “Brass creep” is right on target — too often in today’s force (and especially in the Pentagon), BG’s do Colonels’ and LTCs’ work, while Colonels try to be Majors. This not only reflects too many officers at too high a level, but deeply corrodes the motivation and sense of accomplishment of more junior leaders. Fewer Generals could actually help relieve this problem by pushing more responsibility downward.  But a garrison-based force of micromanagers could also make this worse — and might be simply intolerable to a generation of young leaders who have been given great responsibilities at an early age in combat, only to see them revoked when returning to home station. And if “home station” now lasts for an entire career, how many of the best will stay?  Can the Army break from its traditional post-war return to a top-down system of centralized control, over-supervision, and bureaucratic inertia?

10) Improve Resilience.  Army Chief Creighton Abrams often said: “People aren’t in the Army–people are the Army.”  In some ways more so than the other three services, people are what the Army revolves around — not technology, not weapons systems nor a fixation on the demands of a unique domain such as air, sea or space. Taking care of the people who are the Army — Soldiers, civilians, families  — worn by ten years at war will demand much time and energy in coming years.  Growing out of the current wars into a new, less certain future cannot mean that those who bore the scars of today’s battles get left behind. A stronger Army commitment both to its veterans and to those remaining on active duty who will carry lifelong burdens from these wars will be an important part of the next Chief’s job. And this responsibility and relationship to the Army should not abruptly end once Soldiers take off their uniform.

So there it is! A daunting list — but one that both Dempsey as Chief and the U.S. Army are up to.  Dempsey and his sidekicks must find and encourage leaders at all levels who can understand, embrace and execute the changes that will be needed — and get those leaders into the jobs where they can help lead this new mission. This Army is at a strategic inflection point — success in the next war may well rest on how it manages this wrenching transition. This job is not about “housekeeping,” and not about patching together an Army after a war — it is about leading change going forward into difficult and austere times. It will require listening to the force, questioning basic assumptions, and leading by personal commitment with vigor, smarts and humor. Dempsey must avoid the temptation to simply look back and try a re-do of the nineties drawdown — this is a different world, and different Army.  His leadership tenure will shape an entire generation of this new U.S. Army — and the Army is most fortunate to have this Irish ballad singer stepping up to its helm as it navigates these rough waters.

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 Twitter: @tomricks1