Best Defense
Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

No, our best officers are not running off: 4 officers respond to that Atlantic article

I disagree with much of what follows here, but this blog is not about finding out who agrees with me, it is about thinking through the challenges facing us. I hope. I am publishing it because I think it is a well-argued defense of the status quo. Anyone advocating change in personnel policies needs to ...

Navy Visual News Service
Navy Visual News Service
Navy Visual News Service

I disagree with much of what follows here, but this blog is not about finding out who agrees with me, it is about thinking through the challenges facing us. I hope. I am publishing it because I think it is a well-argued defense of the status quo. Anyone advocating change in personnel policies needs to consider views like these.

In particular, I object to their dismissal of radical change. "Turning over the keys to a bunch of really smart captains," they caution, "is a recipe for strategic and policy disaster." Well, yes and no. It sure would be in some cases. But in others, and often in tactical situations, it might be just what we need. One example was the realization that a whole new generation of submarine skippers needed to be put in place — along with some torpedoes that actually worked.   

By COL James Miller, US Army
CAPT Anthony Calandra, US Navy
Lt Col Gabriel Vann Green, US Air Force
LtCol R. G. Bracknell, US Marine Corps

Tim Kane’s exposition on military officer retention, "Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving," hits close to the mark on the issue of whether the military is hemorrhaging talent at unacceptable levels resulting in a less capably led force. While Kane may be on to something, his incomplete methodology netted inconclusive findings as to the existence of a problem and available remedies. A close look at officer retention is certainly warranted, but his economic model for manpower management fails to account for vitally important constraints of military human resource management which make a pure market construct inapposite. Kane’s article is useful as a signal that something may be rotten in the state of Denmark, but its utility ends there. Accepting his assumptions, premises, methodology and conclusions could lead to a dangerously wrong assessment of what is wrong with our military manpower system. Without better evidence than that provided by Kane, one should not conflate the very personal aspects of the decision to separate from military service with the notion that best and brightest are leaving because "the system" has kept them down.

Regardless of how a narrow sample of West Point alumni captains, majors and lieutenant colonels feel about officer retention, the system ultimately produces what it is supposed to, even with certain inefficiencies: an adequate supply of highly qualified, well-trained, adequately educated, loyal leaders and managers with technical expertise and a developed sense of duty. It also produces senior (flag-level) leaders who are ably managing the world’s largest set of bureaucracies to achieve the nation’s strategic objectives. We won in Iraq – both in the "hot" war of 2003 (a decisive victory that achieved the President’s strategic objective of regime change) and in the long slog of counterinsurgency from late 2003 until the present (a fragile victory, the permanence of which will be tested by time). Iraq’s stability and state maturity is still a work in progress, but the bottom line is the U.S. achieved most of its strategic objectives there, notwithstanding the deferred timeline for success. Similarly, recent strategic reviews show progress in Afghanistan, though the mission is still at risk, mostly due to circumstances beyond the control of the US military. Perceived strategic failures and shortcomings in the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns are not necessarily the product of some fatal shortcoming in military manpower and retention policies which produces deficient generals and strategic leaders — more compelling evidence of causation would be required to make this link.

The author relies on a survey of West Point graduates from a handful of years ranging back a little more than two decades, as though opinions of a small sample of officers, gleaned from a single, unique commissioning source is reflective of attitudes throughout the force. If the author were interested in achieving a representative picture of attitudes, he would have relied on a more thorough cross-section of officers, including Army ROTC and OCS graduates from throughout the nation, not merely the cloistered set from West Point, whose viewpoints may be colored by their unique experiences. Moreover, one wonders why the author did not look at any other service; maybe the Army has a junior officer problem, but the other three services are doing just fine — or maybe not. We would never know based on Kane’s artificially narrow survey.

It is troubling that an economist would not rely on more quantitative methods than a very narrow survey. In the Marine Corps and Air Force, for example, the performance evaluation systems enable every performance report (Marine Corps) and promotion record (Air Force) to be reduced to a numerical value, which enables reports to be compared with the numerical values assigned to other reports and records. Assuming these reports and service records are impartially and candidly rendered as honest appraisals of performance and growth potential, these numerical values invite quantitative comparison among various groups of officers, including those who leave active service voluntarily, those who are invited to leave, those who stay past initial service obligation, and those who stay for a career. The Navy system is similar but also contains some qualitative attributes. While Navy officer evaluations may be too subjective and Navy enlisted evaluations a bit on the objective side, the vast majority of promotions in both ranks are well deserved. Examining and comparing these values (anonymous data sets, with names and other identifying characteristics redacted) might yield some meaningful conclusions about the quality of officers who are separating versus those who are staying. Instead, Kane is satisfied to rely on a survey, with a variance in the reliability of responses. His methodology of permitting self -selected respondents to define their own evaluation criteria invites disparity of meaning in interpretation of terms, making comparisons of results unsuitable and unreliable. Access to information germane to the performance of retained and separating officers is not an insurmountable obstacle, and would have constituted real "data" and would have improved the reliability of his findings immeasurably.

Kane trots out the example of John Nagl, a promising, intellectual officer who separated at the 20-year mark, his first eligibility for retirement. Kane blames slow upward mobility and the frustrating "risk-averse" bureaucracy as the principal reasons for Nagl’s retirement. Only Nagl knows the true reasons for his retirement, but it is worth noting that in 2008, Nagl’s predecessor at the Center for New American Security made over $230,000 in pretax income — a substantial improvement over the salary of an active duty lieutenant colonel or colonel, and there is reason to believe that figure is a conservative estimate of Nagl’s 2010 salary — and he is no longer required to deploy or move his family around the globe every 12-36 months. Moreover, Nagl is routinely mentioned as a candidate for appointed senior positions in the Department of Defense. These offices provide power and influence the likes of which would not be available to him as a regular Army officer until he became a very senior general — not a foregone conclusion, as military selection to be a general officer and advancement to the three and four star ranks takes account of a variety of personal characteristics, including but not limited to intellect, creativity, adaptivity, and entrepreneurship. In fact, being extraordinarily smart or entrepreneurial may not even be the leading characteristic — the military places at least as high a premium on courage, physical toughness, risk tolerance and mitigation, technical expertise, ethos, judgment, vision, management performance, personal decorum, soldierly virtue, temperament, and the ability to motivate and inspire others to work beyond their perceived limits. In truth, the reasons that Nagl retired could extend far beyond frustration with the Army or limitations on his influence or upward mobility; it may have been simply a rational, personal economic or political calculus. Kane chooses a simpler narrative that fits his yarn, which may or may not be Nagl’s whole tale.

Kane’s methodology is further flawed by relying on the results of surveys to establish the existence of an officer retention problem. To be clear, we believe that a problem exists by virtue of our own experience in the military institution, but not necessarily for the reasons that Kane cites. For example, Kane notes that "an astonishing 93 percent [of West Point graduates] believed that half or more of "the best officers left the military early rather than serving a full career." For Kane, that 93 percent of his small, unique sample set of a narrow cross-section of the officer community in only one service is sufficient to establish that a problem exists across the military. Similarly, Kane believes that 65 percent of graduates agreed that "the exit rate of the best officers leads to a less competent officer corps." By permitting the respondents to define "best", Kane’s audience is deprived of knowing whether they are referencing the qualities needed for success as senior military leaders or describing some other personal traits or characteristics which may or may not reflect their competence and promise as senior leaders. "Best" may mean "smartest", "sharpest," "fastest", "strongest", "funniest," "meanest," or "kindest, or it may mean none, some or all of these characteristics — none of which alone suffices as a criteria for the successful senior military leader. Moreover, Kane’s overreliance on the respondents’ subjective beliefs to establish that the officer corps is less competent than it otherwise could be is problematic: there is a perception of a problem, therefore there is a problem. In truth, perception of a problem is merely evidence of a problem — there might be a problem, or there might not. By Kane’s disappointing logic, he might declare bankruptcy based on a subtraction error in his checkbook, rather than simply checking the math. Believing you are in the red does not automatically drain your bank account, any more than believing you are in the black keeps your checks from bouncing.


Kane decries that "promotions can be anticipated almost to the day — regardless of an officer’s competence — so that there is no difference in rank among officer the same age, even after 15 years of service." He fails to account for the large number of officers whose year group "zone" changes, those officers being "deep selected" or chosen early for promotion. Additionally, officers who are initially "passed over" for promotion can be selected the following year and in rare cases two years after their normal promotion year. Unfortunately for many, the pyramid structure, like that of most large organizations, increases the level of competition for each advancement. Many extraordinary officers are left behind due to force restructuring, inadequate career paths, (sometimes at no fault of the individual), marginal performance or misconduct. It is an entirely reasonable and defensible human resource management practice to promote people at similar rates who operate within an acceptable band of excellence. In the military, experience, hierarchy, and dues-paying count for a lot — promoting a boy genius Harvard MBA graduate to colonel at age 32 simply will not fly when the majors serving under him have more years of experience and savvy, particularly in a military which has evolved to place a premium on experience, seniority, judgment and the wisdom accrued through years of service: to be a colonel (or a Navy Captain), and to be as accorded the esteem due a colonel in the unique context of the military, experience matters and is a prime factor in judging merit. Promoting an exceptionally talented officer to general with less than 20 years of service, as Kane appears to advocate, is as peculiar an idea as putting a brilliant and productive law firm associate on the Supreme Court, or a brand new investment banker on the Federal Reserve Board. Experience matters more than ever in complex endeavors such as planning and executing military operations and formulating and advising on national military strategy and policy. Turning over the keys to a bunch of really smart captains is a recipe for strategic and policy disaster.

Finally, Kane proposes a labor market for the military in which the invisible hand of the market would match available candidates with open positions. The market works well in commercial contexts; companies deliberately set up shop in places that have an abundance of talented individuals with skill sets that match their requirements. New biotechnology startups flock to the Research Triangle in North Carolina because of an abundance of labor produced by the three major research universities. Computer and software companies favor California because the labor market is rich with technically-savvy workers eager for new professional challenges. Defense contractors gather around military bases and Washington to siphon off a retiring and separating labor force steeped in the knowledge and processes of the Department of Defense. But in the military, labor requirements frequently exist in places the market cannot satisfy. Kane’s system works fine for the Army unit in Texas, Air Force units in Nevada, Navy units in Florida, and Marine units in California; ostensibly, enough people will want or find it acceptable to live and serve in these places that most units would be able to select suitable service members to fill their requirements. This model does not necessarily work when the posting becomes Diego Garcia (Indian Ocean), Kandahar (Afghanistan), Camp Butler (Okinawa), Manas Air Base (Kyrgyzstan), or Thule Air Base (Greenland). This is why orders are more useful than job applications to meet those requirements. Kane’s model would cluster talent in a few of the most popular units and duty locations – the competition for assignment to bases in Southern California and Europe has the potential to choke out the labor markets in less desirable locations such as Korea, Bahrain, and Alaska, risking mission failure.

The current system of providing assignment incentives, such as extra pay and allowances, heightened advancement potential, and first choice of duty station for follow-on assignments, works well to ensure the full set of personnel requirements is satisfied by volunteers. When those incentives do not meet the requirement, orders are issued — the convenient thing about the military is managers have the option of requiring people to do what they would not otherwise volunteer to do. Often heard after receipt of an suboptimal assignment: "That’s why they call them orders." Kane’s analysis, however, does point to the conclusion that a hybrid system of market-driven assignments (with transparent visibility on the availability of assignments) and ordered assignments is worth exploring in order to exceed mere satisfaction of requirements and to move toward assignment optimization. All services could benefit from a more rigorous effort in getting the right personnel in the right positions. Generally speaking, most officers would be grateful to be posted where they provide the greatest impact to the organization.

Mission success drives military assignment policy. Military members subscribe to a "service above self" ethos. This is a key distinction between military service and the civilian marketplace and is precisely why, for example, the Air Force revamped the officer voluntary assignment system in 1995. There is surely room to improve transparency and visibility of available assignments so that officers could provide their desires, but a pure market process would upset the entire apple cart. The assignment and advancement process does not have an obligation to be optimally fair or efficient, only sufficiently equitable and economical to remain credible and achieve its objectives of filling current operational requirements while selecting and developing senior leaders for positions of greater responsibility.

Departure of some officers is expected and required, and has been going on for as long as there have been armies. The key question left unanswered by Kane’s article is whether or not the current departure of officers is tolerable. For every John Nagl or scholar Andrew Bacevich who leaves "early," the Army retains rising stars, such as Brigadier Generals H.R. McMaster and Sean MacFarland, and officers firmly entrenched in the annals of history, such as GEN George Marshall and GEN Dave Petraeus. The Marine Corps suffers the loss of great talents such as the Center for New American Security’s Nate Fick, former Bank of America CEO and Chairman Hugh McColl, and Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams, but retains intellectual powerhouses such as Deputy Commander of U.S. Central Command LtGen John Allen and Marine icon Gen Jim Mattis. The Air Force "lost" late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Sen. Lindsay Graham and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates from active duty but retained former Chairman Gen Richard Myers, visionary military theorist Lt Gen Dave Deputla and pioneering military lawyer Maj Gen Charles Dunlap for careers. The Navy lost Presidents John Kennedy and George H.W. Bush and Westinghouse/EDS CEO Michael H. Jordan, but managed to hold on to Supreme Allied Commander Europe Admiral James Stavridis and nuclear trailblazer Admiral Hyman Rickover. Additionally, the retirement of a quality officer is not always completely negative, as these individuals often remain as influential asset to the military and the national security establishment, as they transition to positions in other areas of government or the private sector. The example of John Nagl springs to mind.

While Kane’s efforts may not have completely revealed a problem, and his recommended remedies may be unworkable, he has succeeded in surfacing a potentially vexing issue for further examination. With luck, his article will be noticed by senior leaders in the Pentagon who will apply more rigorous and systematic methods to determining whether there really is a talent retention problem and, even more importantly, how to better utilize the available talent pool.

The authors are career officers constituting the 2010-2011 class of military fellows at the Atlantic Council, Washington, DC.

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

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