A $trillion per year doesn’t buy a force that can win wars. A top military reform expert explains why.

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by Fabius Maximus

Summary:  The US will spend $687 billion on the US military, narrowly defined. Broadly defined, we spend almost a trillion dollars. But it repeatedly fails to defeat our poorly trained and equipped foes. Don Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired), one of our top experts in military reform, points to one cause: how the Army selects and promotes its officers.

Soldier thinking against sunset and american flag
ID 95066364 © Wave Break Media Ltd | Dreamstime.

The US military has a leadership problem. It’s visible in the deterioration of soldiers’ confidence in the leaders, shown by the 2014 Military Times survey asking 2,300 active-duty soldiers about their lives. There is much more evidence. An article in the Jan-Feb 2013 Military Review made waves: “Narcissism and Toxic Leaders“ by Joe Doty (Lt. Colonel, US Army, Retired) and Jeff Fenlason (Master Sergeant, US Army). And “Pentagon investigations point to military system that promotes abusive leaders” (WaPo, Jan 2014).  Also see these two posts about the recent scandals in the officer corps: looking at the scandals and asking why so many.

The problem is growing worse. There is a lot happening in the Army’s culture below the visible surface.

A diagnosis of the problem

I have been writing since 1999 that the Army – all the services – has an antiquated personnel system, the deep cause of their many disparate problems.

Our military uses processes bred in the age of Frederick Taylor and adopted after WWII (circa 1947). Designed to repeat WWII. our military leaders built a force capable of rapid large-scale mobilization. It is broad in experiences but shallow in professionalism. To run it they created an officer corps of industrial-age managers. Leadership was not required. This is the opposite of what the leaders of Germany’s Army did in the 19th century after their defeat by Napoleon.

Since then these processes have become institutionalized. Today nobody in Human Resources Command or G1 (Personnel) knows the origin or purpose of their methods. It is just the way they run.

The Army spends much effort cheering about their greatness. If the Army was so good, its actions would speak so loudly as to make boasts unnecessary. But our failed wars since 9/11 show a different Army than the one our leaders see in the mirror.

Our military leaders believe they are great and so have no need to change. They hear their boasts echoed by the news media. They are dazzled by the money they deploy – in 2018, 35% of the world’s military spending (most of the rest is spent by our allies). Our perceived superiority has become our greatest obstacle to success. Too bad our foes are unimpressed, and win from Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Four pillars

The four pillars of our Army

Today’s Army culture rests on four pillars. All over 60 years old. All rest on out of date assumptions about managing human talent.

1. A giant officer corps.

A heavier than necessary officer corps leaves junior officers little time to gain experience leading troops. The average time as a platoon leader is 6 – 12 months. Command assignments are 12 – 15 months (two in 24 months, if one is so lucky). Combined arms teams are very complicated. Such short terms are mad, commanding only long enough to gain some competence just as they leave. The Army has too many officers rotating through the limited number of command openings.

The Number of Officers per 100 enlisted personnel: 1901-2013.

The Number of Officers Per 100 Enlisted Personnel from 1901-2013
Star Creep“, Third Way, 7 January 2013.

For more about this, see Our army’s bloat of officers is one reason it can’t win wars.

2. A top-heavy officer corps.

How many officers do we have?
Testimony of Ben Freeman (Project on Government Oversight) before Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, 14 September 2011.

George C. Marshall knew that we were lucky in WWII. We had allies to fight Axis leaders who made stupid strategic decisions – decisions that bought us the time we need to prepare (there were only 17 thousand Marines in 1935). Rather than relying on luck for the next war, after WWII the Army’s leaders (Marshall, Ike, Bradley, etc) said we needed a larger than necessary officer corps, especially at the top, for mobilization against the Soviet Union or China or both. Next time we might not have years to expand.

The result is an Army built to keep all these officers busy. Such as redundant HQs that produce vast amounts of often-trivial information up the chain of command while generating trivial tasks for subordinates to keep staffs and senior leaders busy.

We get an army that cannot defeat our actual foes, who are little more than militia led by small numbers of lightly trained officers. For more about this problem, see …

  1. Do we need so many and such well-paid generals and admirals? — by Richard A Pawloski (Captain, USMC, retired).
  2. The cost of too many generals: paying more to get a less effective military – by Ben Freeman (Project on Government Oversight).

3. An officer evaluation system built for businesses.

Check the box

We have a  check-the-box evaluation system (state-of-the-art in 1947) built on an equally flawed one. In 1936, the US Army attaché to Germany unfavorably compared the US Army’s evaluation systems to theirs. Germany based theirs on essays in which superior officers evaluated their subordinates’ characters – especially the willingness and ability to seek and accept responsibility and moral courage.

Why do US officers not do this? The Army believes most officers cannot write cogently and that such evaluations would be too subjective. So we have 20 captains in a brigade evaluated by one Colonel – based on his observations, expressed in checking one of four blocks. Words are meaningless; only the block counts.

4. A centralized selection and promotion system.

The Defense Science Board’s 2010 Summer Study on Enhancing Adaptability of U.S. Military Forces stated that the Armed Services’s personnel system was the biggest obstacle to adaptability. While most major corporations (and the most successful armies in history) had decentralized boards and promotions approaches, the US has stuck with an out of date Industrial Age personnel management system.

Members of promotion boards evaluate stacks of papers, spending 30 seconds on each. Using these, they select and promote people who are most like them. Due to the large number of officers, anything but a perfect evaluation can side-track an officer’s career.

In the German Army at its peak, officers regarded perfect files with suspicion. Leaders with strength of character will inevitably anger people when doing the right thing.

The Germans also relied on examinations that combined essays and problem-solving exercises. Our Army doesn’t do so because it reduces senior officers’ discretionary power to promote people, much like the patronage-based government bureaucracies in the late 1800s – before the reforms that created the modern (and far more effective) civil service systems.

See the next post, in which Don discusses what the Army’s doing to reform itself, and the more powerful steps it could take.


Editor’s afterword

Martin van Creveld explains one foundation for the German army’s superiority in WWII in Fighting Power: German and United States Army Performance, 1939-45.

Seeckt {Chief of the German army} did reform the Evaluation Forms by which superiors of every rank judged their subordinates and which constituted the main instrument for selection; in 1920 these were redrafted to put an even heavier emphasis on character, that is honesty, selflessness, readiness to commit oneself, and a sense of responsibility. Careerism was frowned upon, whereas the ability to generate and maintain trust was counted as the single most important virtue. …commanding officers were warned that they would be judged …by the quality of their reports.

“The form known as Beurteilung (assessment, estimate) had to be filled in every two years. …Evaluating officers were asked to estimate their subordinates character, personality, behavior under fire, professional competence and accomplishments, physical condition, and fitness for other positions, in that order. Neither point systems nor forced comparisons were employed, thus forgoing objective standards and putting great faith in commanders’ ability (and willingness) to differentiate between the fit and unfit.

“The Beurteilung was to provide “a plastic description of the whole man.”

This was the opposite of the US military’s system of industrial management, which treats people like widgets. It produced a force that conquered much of Europe despite its inferiority in all material aspects.

Donald Vandergriff

About Donald Vandergriff

Donald Vandergriff retired in 2005 at the rank of Major after 24 years of active duty as an enlisted Marine and Army officer.  He now works as a consultant to the Army and corporations. Don is one of America’s foremost experts on ways to reform the military’s personnel systems. GI Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired) gives the bottom line to Don’s career.

“Vandergriff battles to improve DoD’s leadership and decision making. He challenges its senior leadership in order to bring meaningful change and accountability to DOD. Like others with his experience, he sees that DOD’s senior leadership (both uniforms and suits) today appears most concerned with their perks and the revolving door opportunities created by boosting profits for defense contractors. They lack the moral courage to serve the people they lead.

“Vandergriff offers creative and rational personnel and leadership solutions that enhance national security. He gives top priority to DoD’s people, ideas, operational creativity, and lastly hardware. Without more people like him in the Pentagon, our national security will continue to be at great peril.”

Posts by Don, providing valuable insights about our mad wars and broken Army. See all of his posts.

  1. About the importance of charisma for leaders.
  2. About military leaders in the 21st century: “Theirs Is to Reason Why”
  3. Afghanistan war logs: Shattering the illusion of a bloodless victory.
  4. Dragging American Military Culture into the 21st Century.
  5. Leadership in action: when resource constraints meet conspicuous consumption, we just ignore the problem.
  6. Reforming the US Army: can be done, must be done.

Posts about Don’s work.

  1. 4GW: A solution of the third kind – Vandergriff is one of the few implementing real solutions.
  2. Why Vandergriff’s work is a vital contribution to preparing America for 21st-century warfare
  3. Don Vandergriff strikes sparks that might help reforge the US Army.
  4. Obama can take a bold step to begin reform of the DoD & so end our series of defeats at 4GW– James Fallows proposes putting a reformer – Don – in a key role at DoD.
  5. A step to getting an effective military. We might it need soon. – Why we need to listen to Don.

Here are two excerpts from Manning the Future Legions of the United States: Finding and Developing Tomorrow’s Centurions.

  1. Preface – understanding the problem is the key to finding solutions..
  2. Training of officers, a key step for the forging of an effective military force.

For a description of his work and links to his publications see The Essential 4GW reading list: Donald Vandergriff. For an example of his contributions, see this about his Adaptive Leaders Course. Most importantly, see his books at the end of this post.




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