Best Defense

The U.S. Army grapples with a basic question: What is our operating concept? (That is, who are we and what do we do?)

That’s a good question, and one that the Army is trying hard to answer. Overall, the new document, released in its final form on Tuesday, is very good, especially if you read it as an aspirational statement of what the Army should become, rather than a prescription for how it is going to become that. ...

Eisenhower Library
Eisenhower Library

That’s a good question, and one that the Army is trying hard to answer.

Overall, the new document, released in its final form on Tuesday, is very good, especially if you read it as an aspirational statement of what the Army should become, rather than a prescription for how it is going to become that. It is much clearer than most bureaucratic prose, and that is good to see. It is a document produced by thinkers, not bureaucratic munchkins.   

As I picked it up, I was eager to see what it had to say about innovative and adaptive leaders, because I hear the Army say that it needs such people, but I don’t see much action backing up the rhetoric. I kept on wondering as I began reading the first pages. I started to worry when on page 10 I saw that, "Understanding the technological, geographic, political, and military challenges of the urban environment will require innovative, adaptive leaders and cohesive teams who thrive in complex and uncertain environments." That’s a good head nod. But the next sentence pivots off to "Operating in urban environments will require decentralized combined arms and joint capabilities." Which left me wondering, great, but how to get such leaders?

The document returns to the leadership issue on page 18, saying that, "The institutional Army and operational Army develop competencies in leaders and Soldiers critical to future responsibilities." I re-read that sentence about ten times. It strikes me as terribly vague. I am not sure what it means, but I think it must mean more than I understand. What am I not getting here. Is the message that this development should be considered a mission by both the institutional and operational sides of the Army? Your thoughts welcome: What is the message conveyed here, and to whom?

The document gets closer to the mark at about this point. The following paragraph begins well, but then veers into the need for strength. Again and again I thought, great goals, but how will the Army find, develop and promote such leaders?

"j. Develop innovative leaders and optimize human performance. Decentralized operations in complex environments require competent leaders and cohesive teams that thrive in conditions of uncertainty. Leaders foster discipline, confidence, and cohesion through innovative, realistic training. Repetitive training combined with self-study, rigorous education in joint and Army institutions, and leader development in units ensures that Army forces thrive in chaotic environments. Army forces gain intellectual advantages over adversaries through cross-cultural competencies and advanced cognitive abilities. Leaders think ahead in time to anticipate opportunities and dangers and take prudent risk to gain and maintain positions of relative advantage over the enemy. Leaders foster trust among other leaders and Soldiers. They develop unit cultures that encourage the exercise of initiative consistent with the philosophy of mission command. Leaders and Soldiers are committed to each other and the Army professional ethic. They remain resilient and preserve their moral character while operating in environments of persistent danger."

We get the answers on page 19. This is a very good paragraph, especially the last sentence:

"Adaptability is responding to new needs or changes without a loss of functionality. Adaptive leaders possess many different skills and qualities that allow the Army to retain the initiative. Army leaders think critically, are comfortable with ambiguity, accept prudent risk, assess the situation continuously, develop innovative solutions to problems, and remain mentally and physically agile to capitalize on opportunities."

And that is the big payoff. I think that paragraph is absolutely right, especially that third sentence. Of course, calling for such leaders is the easy part. How to do it is, I think, what we need more of from the Army’s leaders.

The best line in the whole document may be tucked away in an appendix on page 30: "Develop resilient Soldiers, adaptive leaders, and cohesive teams committed to the Army professional ethic that are capable of accomplishing the mission in environments of uncertainty and persistent danger." (My only gripe here is that I think it should be "who are capable," not "that are capable.")

That’s the nutshell. As the document notes, we know our enemy will be adaptive, and it is important to be reminded of that, because it tells that being adaptive is not a choice for our military. Rather, it should be an order.

I’d welcome an essay by someone comparing this document to the Australian army’s similar effort.

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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