If I could change one thing (10): Slow down the officer merry-go-round
By Maj. Doug Krugman, USMC Best Defense contest entry Many of the reforms proposed and propounded in this series on military personnel reform have been very ambitious programs that could do a great deal of good. Unfortunately, many would require Congressional action to implement, which makes them unlikely in the near future. The first step ...
By Maj. Doug Krugman, USMC
By Maj. Doug Krugman, USMC
Best Defense contest entry
Many of the reforms proposed and propounded in this series on military personnel reform have been very ambitious programs that could do a great deal of good. Unfortunately, many would require Congressional action to implement, which makes them unlikely in the near future. The first step in reform should be something the services can do immediately. That is, shifting the balance away from institutional careerism to institutional effectiveness.
Young officers are told that careerism is a bad thing, but they are immersed in a system built on it. A new Lieutenant usually holds two to three different positions in his or her first unit for the sake of diversifying experience and preparing for future promotions. (My experience is mainly with Marine Corps and Army combat arms units, but it seems to apply to some degree in other areas and services.) Subsequent operational tours as a company commander and field grade staff officer are treated as check-the-box exercises — everyone must serve as a company commander, S-3, XO, etc. in order to prepare for the milestone of O-5 command. A significant number of officers spend 12-18 months in place to check the box, then are moved along. It isn’t the individuals driving this train — the institution demands it through the perceived preferences of promotion and command board members.
The end results of this institutionalized careerism are unstable leadership in our units and demoralized officers who have little incentive to take risks. I held command of my first company for 14 months. It was not long enough to implement any real change in the organization, something most business students know from reading and many military personnel know from experience. The junior enlisted personnel were there three and a half years and saw two to four different commanders pass through. If they didn’t like the way one did something, they just waited for the next one to arrive.
My reform proposal is simple: Slow down the officer merry-go-round. There is some value in lieutenants holding more than one job during their first operational tour. There is also a cost in both operational effectiveness and for those who serve under them. There should be a limit of two jobs in a three-year initial tour, with an average of 18 months each as the least bad solution.
There is less value and more cost in diversifying experiences at higher ranks. Company command, battalion command, and principle battalion and brigade staff positions should be a minimum 24-month tour, with a target of 36 months. The only way anyone leaves short of 24 months is relief for cause or injury. Shifting jobs between 24-35 months would be by exception.
We already have similar requirements for joint duty assignments. Though those rules frustrate many manpower planners, the services generally meet the requirements. As services are graded on compliance with joint requirements, battalion and brigade commanders would be graded by their division commander on their ability to comply with this system. Division G-1s probably already track their officer populations (they did in my division) and should be able maintain these statistics without much additional work. This should not become an overly centralized service headquarters function, though senior leaders should look for feedback from the division commanding generals to monitor implementation.
There are three obvious costs. The first is in perceived fairness of opportunity — locking people in billets longer will lead some to miss opportunities entirely. One answer to that problem is that more people will be fired, as battalion commanders who gave a poor leader the benefit of the doubt for 12 months will not want to be hobbled by them for three years. The second answer is that some people probably should miss these opportunities — the criteria for company command should be a little stricter than the promotion rate to captain. Finally, the precept guidance for promotion and command screening must emphasize what we tell lieutenants unhappy at being pulled from their platoons for staff work — bloom where you are planted and let your performance speak for itself.
The second cost people will claim is that not having the right mix of experiences, usually seen as company command then S-3 and XO time, will handicap future commanders. (Being both an S-3 and XO is less common in the Marine Corps but my Army friends seem to expect it.) The freedom of a three-year tour will help solve that problem. After three years, any company commander who hasn’t seen what the XO and three do enough to step into those jobs the next day probably shouldn’t get promoted. If three years isn’t long enough for an S-3 who missed company command to understand what a unit can and can’t do, that officer probably wouldn’t have been a good company commander either.
The third cost is in flexibility. Manpower planners and unit commanders will have to think more carefully about who gets what billet and put more effort into forecasting future requirements. Recurring requirements, like many of our long-running individual augmentation positions over the past decade, would have to be planned for well in advance, instead of the last minute grabs some of us have seen. True pop-up requirements, such as the unexpected return of training teams for Iraq, would require exceptions.
I know there are legitimate arguments that the right answer is at least 36-48 months if not longer in some positions including for lieutenants, but that is letting perfect be the enemy of better. Making that change would significantly disrupt military manpower systems. That may be a good thing, but it will take much longer and pose greater risk in implementation. This reform could start improving units much sooner.
Doug Krugman is a Marine Corps Infantry Officer and Southeast Asia FAO. He is currently a student at Marine Corps Command and Staff College. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense, United States Government, United States Marine Corps, or Marine Corps University.
Tom: Surely you’ve had ONE good thought about how to improve the U.S. military personnel system? Please consider sending it to the blog e-mail address, with PERSONNEL in the subject line.
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