Reforming the US Army: can be done, must be done

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by Fabius Maximus

Summary:  Don Vandergriff’s previous post in this series explained how the US Army’s leadership problem grow so bad. Today Don Vandergriff gives some good news. The Army has begun to reform, with the possibility of more powerful reforms in the future. But slowly, step by step. He recommends that the Army do drastic reform now, rather than waiting until after a serious defeat.

“{Military reform} is not attacking the people in the Army, many of which sacrifice so much so many times. It is not the people, the vast majority which really adhere to the values of the services; it is the systems that manage them that are so bad and out of date. A lot of people succeed with selfless service despite the personnel system.”
— From “Leading the Human Dimension Out of a Legacy of Failure” by G.I. Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired) and Donald Vandergriff in Chapter 3 of America’s Defense Meltdown (2008).

Army Strong

What is the Army doing today?

“We see what we call ‘beer can personnel management’: The operant idea is to reach into the stack (i.e. human resources) of cold beer sitting in the refrigerator, grab one, slam it down, crumple up the beer can (i.e. the individual), toss it out, and reach for another. The cycle is repeated over and over taking an irreparable toll on individuals, the personnel systems and operations.”  {op. cit.}

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The army has several experiments with reforms under way. This is slow progress, but a start.

Scott Halter (Lt. Colonel, Army), a successful Aviation Battalion Commander who practices Mission Command and Outcomes Based Training and Education (aka OBTE; details here), wrote “What is an Army but Soldiers: A Critical Assessment of the Army’s Human Capital Management System” in Military Review, Jan-Feb 2012. He described recommendations of the Secretary of the Army’s Human Dimension Task Force to reform the Army’s personnel system. The results of their work? Nothing!”

One promising tool is a 360 degree assessment (aka multisource feedback). Used by the Wehrmacht in WWII, these are based on work going back to the T-groups devised in 1914. The Army experiments with this only on a small scale because too many senior officers fear that the fastest “water walkers” would get exposed by it.

It would be an effective tool. I know guys that commanded companies who were hated by their senior NCOs and Lieutenants – but they were promoted. Some made it to brigade command; some made it to general. They were great politicians, but their soldiers knew the truth.

The Pentagon and the Art of War
An old (1985) & still great key to understanding DoD. Available at Amazon.

Another vital, even necessary, reform is changing from individual replacements of soldiers (IRS) to rotating entire units off the front line for rest and rebuilding. It’s a vital step to maintain the cohesion of fighting units. Marshall devised the IRS in early WWII. It quickly broke down. It has produced ill results in every war since then.

The Army has attempted to reform this broken system, often. So far always unsuccessfully. For an introduction to the problem, see this 2004 article in Military Review. The key conclusions, discussing the Army’s most ambitious attempt at unit rotation (aka UMS): the COHORT system.

“The Army considered it essential that the command climate in the unit and above the unit support the COHORT model. COHORT worked best when an entire division, its home base, and its supporting and higher headquarters supported the idea of stabilized units.…

“COHORT failed because the entire Army did not support it. A small but influential group of advocates in senior positions initiated UMS but it became so complicated and contentious that when its advocates left the Army, it died. The demise of COHORT, however, does not mean that unit stabilization is impossible. If the Army heeds lessons learned from COHORT and current proposals to modify the personnel management and training systems, it might be possible finally to do this right.”

The Army is trying again, but it is reform in name only. The officer and senior NCO corps are not aligned with it. Mandatory career schools are not aligned with it. Nothing will happen.

The Path To Victory
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What the Army needs.

Reform is complex not just because it’s difficult, but due to the many second and third order effects that must be understood for success. There is much we can do now, such as reforming the 1980 Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA, mandating the “up or out” system), gradually reducing the number of officers (especially at the top), and improving the Army’s education and training programs.

In Path to Victory I proposed that leaders would command in annual war games, free play “force on force” exercises short of combat, which would count toward promotions or reliefs. Also, a smaller officer corps could spend more time on officer development. Our captains command too early and too briefly to be effective. Most will say that they were great, but then turn around and said they did not “get it” until they were almost done. Also, they only know what they know.

But piecemeal reforms might not work. Reforms must go across the board, or what is called Parallel Evolution, changing several institutions side by side at the same time. As described in my March 2005 PowerPoint presentation:

“The Army will fail if it tries to change its parts (institutions) in isolation without changing the culture, particularly in regards to providing the climate to nurture adaptive leaders and innovators.

“Solution: “Parallel evolution”, organizational evolution as a holistic problem …”

Reform will require broad support not just within the military but also in the civilian DoD staff and Congress. Especially Congress, by changing DOPMA 1980 and reducing the number of positions mandated by law (e.g., joint services, acquisition programs).

What’s the alternative to reform?

If we continue our current aggressive global strategy of occupations while executing the façade called COIN {counterinsurgency warfare}, eventually, we will be unable to retreat to Forward Operating Bases (FOBs), while our generals oversee platoon and company fights against an enemy who possesses very little tangibles {material resources} – but has heart. We have strategic defeats concealed by meaningless tactical victories.

Eventually, we will suffer not just hollow victories – such as Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the brilliant initial phase of Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan Oct-Dec 2001). The latter two evolved into costly occupations. Why must reform wait for a disaster such as Kasserine Pass (1943) or Task Force Smith (Battle of Osan, 1950)? Prussia reformed only after Jena-Auerstadt (Oct 1806). Let’s learn from their experience instead of repeating it.

The Army can reform. We should start today.


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. About the US Army’s leadership problem –

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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