Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Wanted: Strategic leader, females need not apply—even though they’re better at it

By "A. J.O." Best Defense department of strategic affairs This decade of military strategy was not our finest.  Many prayed for a deus ex machina to save Iraq, and then Afghanistan, and the same general was required for both. Either this is a sign that the Army can produce one really effective general per generation, ...

U.S. Army / Flickr
U.S. Army / Flickr
U.S. Army / Flickr

By "A. J.O."

Best Defense department of strategic affairs

This decade of military strategy was not our finest.  Many prayed for a deus ex machina to save Iraq, and then Afghanistan, and the same general was required for both. Either this is a sign that the Army can produce one really effective general per generation, or this is a warning that the army's bench of qualified generals is dangerously short. As current wars wind down, we should ask whether the officer corps has kept pace with changing warfare.

By "A. J.O."

Best Defense department of strategic affairs

This decade of military strategy was not our finest.  Many prayed for a deus ex machina to save Iraq, and then Afghanistan, and the same general was required for both. Either this is a sign that the Army can produce one really effective general per generation, or this is a warning that the army’s bench of qualified generals is dangerously short. As current wars wind down, we should ask whether the officer corps has kept pace with changing warfare.

The shortage of prepared generals is a lagging indicator of the misalignment between the demands of strategy and those of a general’s career. With few exceptions, four-stars are selected from a small pool of successful maneuver brigade commanders. The only way to make it into this pool is to command maneuver companies and battalions. By the eighth year of an officer cohort’s service, the Army de facto eliminates 90% of officers from consideration for strategic leadership, including 100% of female officers. This would be acceptable if the requirements of junior maneuver officers aligned with those of senior leaders, but the Army’s requirements for maneuver officers are heavier on tactics than on strategy, which makes sense up until battalion commander. And then it doesn’t.  Because being a maneuver officer is a de facto requirement of strategic leadership, graduating three months of Ranger school increases one’s chances of becoming a strategic leader far more than does five years of doctoral education. 

A diversity of backgrounds in senior leadership would combat group-think and increase options for new leaders. It’s too bad there’s not a group of officers who’ve had the time to devote to strategic studies because they’ve been barred from maneuver branches.

But wait — there is! Female officers tend to have spent disproportionate time on strategic issues, because they are excluded from most tactical jobs.  In a post littered with generalizations, here’s the biggest: female officers tend to be more interested in enhancing their strategic skills, because they know that their chances of making brigade command are slim, division command microscopic, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff laughable. So why not do a stint as a speechwriter, get a PhD, or spend time in unconventional but challenging jobs? Despite these experiences, women currently play only supporting roles in strategy-advising and writing for senior generals. In future promotions, the army should consider non-maneuver officers, including women, for strategic leadership.

The author is a female Army officer who served with a combat unit in Afghanistan.

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. Twitter: @tomricks1

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