The Army needs to admit it has a problem -- or things will only get worse.
I’m glad to see a concerned senior Army officer respond to my recent piece on the risks of brain drain inside the U.S. military. Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges undoubtedly speaks for many senior leaders in each service who feel exactly the same way about this looming challenge: "Hey, we don’t even have a problem!"
Maybe, maybe not. Frankly, I remain worried. The issue is not that the best and brightest in the military have already left. My concern is that the worst effects of the ongoing drawdown are still to come — and may well be years away. The people who must ultimately judge whether Hodges’s defense is sound are the junior officers and sergeants wrestling with tough individual decisions about staying in or leaving the service. But for the Army, now is the time to look for leading indicators and craft proactive strategies to avert what could easily become one of the worst unintended consequences of shrinking the force.
Each service will have unique challenges keeping top-drawer talent as numbers drop, budgets tighten, and opportunities to serve in combat dwindle. But the Army most of all faces a perfect storm of vexing issues. It is gradually coming down from a wartime high of nearly 570,000 troops, planning to hit 490,000 by 2017. Most Army leaders and defense analysts expect that number will decline farther — perhaps to 400,000 soldiers or less. Officer and NCO reductions — voluntary and otherwise — under that scenario could number in the tens of thousands.
At the same time it gets smaller, the Army is leaving a decade of combat that has energized the force with an unparalleled focus and sense of mission. The next Army will largely be a garrison force based almost entirely in the United States, with limited opportunities to serve abroad. Even its planned exercise program to rotate units regularly overseas is jeopardized by lack of funding. Convincing experienced combat leaders that this force will be an empowering, exciting place to serve is the ultimate challenge. The bare bones remedies Hodges outlines are not nearly adequate to the task. Fundamental change is needed. Here are a few ways to do it:
Reform the Army personnel system. Hodges notes that 22 of his 25 assignments resulted from superiors intervening in the process. That’s the definition of a non-functioning personnel system. Three years ago, the Army developed an innovative new personnel system dubbed "Army Green Pages." This prototype created a market system for talent within the Army, allowing both unit commanders and individual officers to "bid" on leaders to fill open jobs. Despite enthusiastic support by then-service chief (and now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) Marty Dempsey, it has since languished, blocked by Army bureaucrats. Adopting this system would completely revolutionize Army personnel management, and move it overnight from a wholesale Cold War system to a 21st century retail version. Individual goals would be matched with the needs of the service in ways the current system rarely manages.
Empower young leaders. The Army’s recently developed concept of Mission Command formally endorses the need for junior leaders to take independent action in combat — even in the absence of orders. This idea fully captures the spirit of empowered leadership. But it flies in the face of how the Army operates in garrison when it’s not at war. For example, today’s peacetime-focused system of Army regulations could fill a small town library. Eliminating 10 percent of those regulations a year for five years could clear out a lot of the constrictive underbrush and put teeth into the idea of granting more authority to leaders. Even better would be to task the Army’s inspector general to gather suggestions from young leaders in the field for divesting old rules still creating a bureaucratic morass.
Decentralize training. The Army of the 1980s that Hodges grew up in was built upon a highly structured, formalized training model. Junior leaders had little "white space" on the annual training calendar; the vast majority of training time was taken by higher levels of command for top-down ritualized training events, often driven by economies of scale and cost efficiencies. The pull to return to this proven system will be great. But the Army’s junior leaders have spent the last 10 years fighting a war at the small-unit level — the ultimate test of a leader. Finding creative ways to replicate those combat-proven levels of small-unit authority and autonomy in peacetime should be the focus of the Army’s next training model. Hundred-page written orders stipulating how the battalion will conduct its tank gunnery qualifications won’t cut it with this crowd.
Get serious about civilian education. Hodges favorably notes the Army’s Congressional Fellowship program, highlighting its 25 graduate school slots tied to follow-on Capitol Hill staff jobs. Unfortunately, all of the Army’s funded civilian graduate programs today represent a drop in the bucket, even in comparison to what the Army was doing in the 1980s. Civilian graduate school creates the intellectual seed corn of future Army strategic leadership. It is an essential tool in growing senior leaders capable of understanding and dominating the complex conflicts of the future. It is highly valued among the officer corps as a key developmental step as well. And it presents an important road to keep Army leaders better connected to the society they serve. Every officer who stays for a career should be afforded the opportunity for mind-broadening advanced civilian education — the mark of a professional force. Today at Harvard, I’m told there are over a dozen young West Pointers enrolled in graduate programs, but only a handful are still in uniform. Many left service because the Army would not support them attending — clearly a missed opportunity to keep some very talented people on the team. NCOs should similarly be able to compete for full-time sabbaticals for selective undergraduate and graduate programs to deepen the Army’s base of specialist skills.
Stabilize the force. More and more young Army leaders and their families place great value on staying in one location for extended periods — a much different model from the typical scattershot Army officer career path. My family moved 21 times during my 30 years — just one example of systemic madness in Army personnel assignments. Today’s Army families look for assignment stability so that children can stay in their schools longer, couples can own a home, and spouses can keep good jobs. Many young leaders are desperately trying to find ways to put their "families first" while remaining committed to an Army career. The Army needs to make that easier, not harder. Repetitive rotations to new places every two to three years disrupts children’s educations and upends family incomes in ways that will quickly become unacceptably onerous for this generation. Ignoring this reality unnecessarily risks the retention of great officers and NCOs.
Redefine senior leadership. No Army junior officer I know ever uttered the words: "I sure wish the general was out here visiting my training site." Notwithstanding the importance of senior leaders seeing what their subordinate commands are doing, I would argue the three foremost tasks of senior leaders in the coming years are mastering the senior levels of the profession of arms, which are: strategy and operations, developing and mentoring the next generation of leaders, and managing defense costs to deliver military capability for less expense. Of these, leader development may be the most important.
Before 9/11, most senior leaders prioritized managing unit collective training over developing mid-grade officers into strategic leaders. That balance has to change. Division and corps commanders should focus on developing and
mentoring brigade commanders. This group in particular has been disconnected from higher-level mentorship and professional development for the last decade. Intense time spent by generals mentoring colonels would make major contributions to growing a more diversified and broad-thinking next generation of senior officers. This might include table-top exercises, terrain walks, battlefield staff rides, diverse book discussions, and visits to innovative segments of the private sector. These opportunities have been largely absent for a decade given an Army at war. On the other hand, they could well be displaced by more micromanaging by senior leaders as the Army comes out of two wars and returns to garrison duties. Recognizing and then avoiding the temptation toward micromanagement will empower young leaders — and get the 10-mile screwdriver out of their backsides. It will also free up generals’ time to better develop strategic leaders among the next generation.
Listen to junior leaders. Young sergeants, lieutenants, and captains who have fought our most recent wars are of a much different generational gene pool from today’s generals, who grew up in the Army of the 1980s and 1990s. Their expectations, frames of reference, technological savvy, and lifetime aspirations — along with those of their spouses — are not at all synonymous with those of the Army’s senior leaders. For one, they want to have a bigger voice in mapping their future and will expect the Army to better accommodate their personal and family goals. They need to be carefully heard out. These ideas will often be fresh, sometimes counterintuitive, and at times wholly disruptive to the current ways of doing things. And they may be spot on. Senior leaders must seriously engage in this dialogue — in ways that have never been easy or comfortable within the Army’s deeply hierarchical structure. Simply paying lip service to these younger leaders’ concerns will only drive them from the force more rapidly. Important structures within the Army — ranging from personnel to training to leader development — need to be shaped by this dialogue. And listening to the junior officers who comment on the exchange between Lt. Gen. Hodges and me is a good place to start.
These are just a few ideas on what needs to substantively change in the Army to help keep the best leaders on board. Despite the "we don’t have a problem" cant of Hodges’s article, the reality is that the Army’s battle for talent has just begun. And the outcome won’t be decided by current or former generals having online debates among themselves — but by young leaders looking at the facts, and deciding if this next Army is one in which they see themselves.