Our army’s bloat of officers is one reason it can’t win wars

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by Fabius Maximus 

Summary: Since Korea, our military has proven itself unable to win wars. We cannot win even against foes with little training and less equipment. We cannot win even when the US fields large armies fueled with almost unlimited funds against foes having neither. As we walk on the verge of war with Iran, we must ask “why?” There are a thousand and one answers. But we should look first at our leaders, often the difference between victory and defeat.

Photo of US military officer's ribbons from Government Executive.

Photo from Government Executive.

To understand why our military consistently fails to win, a fun place to start is one of the best books by one of the greatest science fiction’s authors: Starship Troopers by Robert Heinline (Lt, US Navy, retired – Annapolis 1929, ranked fifth in his class academically). It describes the “Mobile Infantry” (MI), an ideal version of the Army. In it, he describes the challenge of developing leaders for a fighting force.

“To fill each necessary combat billet, one job to one officer, would call for a 5% ratio of officers – but 3% is all we’ve got.

“In place of that optimax of 5% that the M. I. never can reach, many armies in the past commissioned 10% of their number, or even 15% – and sometimes a preposterous 20%! This sounds like a fairy tale but it was a fact, especially during the XXth century. What kind of an army has more “officers” than corporals? (And more non-coms than privates!) An army organized to lose wars – if history means anything. An army that is mostly organization, red tape, and overhead, most of whose “soldiers” never fight. …

“{T}he M. I . never commissions a man simply to fill vacancy. In the long run, each boot regiment must supply its own share of officers and the percentage can’t be raised without lowering the standards.”

Heinlein accurately describes a key structural feature distinguishing effective from ineffective armies. For an expert’s analysis coming to the same conclusion, see the presentation below by Donald Vandergriff. In it, he compares our Army with others – past and present, effective and ineffective. Here is the grim bottom line. Officers comprised 3.0% of the 1940 German army and 6.0% of the 1967 Israeli Army. These are armies that won battles, often against high odds, by operational excellence.

Compare those numbers with those of the US Army, where officers were 9.4% during WWII. 14.9% during Vietnam – and are 18.9% now (roughly). See this ugly trend in a graph from “Star Creep: The Costs of a Top-Heavy Military” by Ben Freeman.

The Number of Officers Per 100 Enlisted Personnel from 1901-2013.

The Number of Officers Per 100 Enlisted Personnel from 1901-2013

The bloat is worse at the higher ranks. There are an incredible 1.5 three- and four-star generals and flag officers for every 10,000 troops. Since the Cold War ended (~1991), no DoD personnel group has grown at a faster rate. For more about this problem, see The cost of too many generals: paying more to get a less effective military by Ben Freeman (Project on Government Oversight).

For those interested in military reform, the path to America again winning wars, Don’s presentation is essential reading. See his bio below, and at the end you will see information about his newest book.

Officer Manning: Armies of the past.

By Donald E. Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired).


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. 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.

  1. About the importance of charisma for leaders.
  2. About military leaders in the 21st century: “Theirs Is to Reason Why”
  3. Petraeus’s Baby.
  4. Another example of our nation’s leadership crisis: Tim Geithner’s Ninth Political Life.
  5. Afghanistan war logs: Shattering the illusion of a bloodless victory.
  6. Dragging American Military Culture into the 21st Century.
  7. Leadership in action: when resource constraints meet conspicuous consumption, we just ignore the problem.
  8. A Thanksgiving Day note.
  9. How bad is our bloat of generals? How does it compare with other armies? — The heart of the problem.
  10. How did the US Army’s leadership problem grow so bad?
  11. 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 – shown at the end of this post.

For More Information

Ideas! For shopping ideas see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

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Vandergriff shows that we can reform the US military

These books by Donald Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired) explain how we can do it. It won’t be easy.

He takes these themes to the next level in his new book, Adopting Mission Command: Developing Leaders for a Superior Command Culture. It draws on his decades of work with US Army officers and experience in our wars, proposing ways to build better leaders. From the publisher …

“In September 2010, James G. Pierce, a retired U.S. Army colonel with the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, published a study on Army organizational culture. Pierce postulated that “the ability of a professional organization to develop future leaders in a manner that perpetuates readiness to cope with future environmental and internal uncertainty depends on organizational culture.” He found that today’s U.S. Army leadership “may be inadequately prepared to lead the profession toward future success.”

“The need to prepare for future success dovetails with the use of the concepts of mission command. This book offers up a set of recommendations, based on those mission command concepts, for adopting a superior command culture through education and training. Donald E. Vandergriff believes by implementing these recommendations across the Army, that other necessary and long-awaited reforms will take place.”





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