What it will take to fix the Army
By Daniel L. Davis
The U.S. Army’s generals, as a group, have lost the ability to effectively function at the high level required of those upon whom we place the responsibility for safeguarding our nation. Over the past 20 years, our senior leaders have amassed a record of failure in major organizational, acquisition and strategic efforts. These failures have been accompanied by the hallmarks of an organization unable and unwilling to fix itself: aggressive resistance to the reporting of problems, suppression of failed test results, public declarations of success where none was justified, and the absence of accountability.
Today, and consistent with these patterns, senior Army leaders are poised to reorganize the service into one that is smaller and less capable than the one that existed at the end of the Iraq War in 2011, and just as the threat environment is becoming more unpredictable and potential adversaries more capable.
Events have granted us a short window of time in which we might address the problem. America is drawing down after two intense wars, while the potential threats of the future are not quite upon us. Seven decades ago, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall surveyed an officer corps similarly ill-suited for the tasks to come. He forced into retirement scores of generals, clearing the way for the ones who would help win World War II.
Today’s times, like Marshall’s, call for a reformation of the general officer corps.
A Bad Track Record
Gallup polls show that American trust the military more, by a wide margin, than any other institution in the United States. Many people — from private citizens to members of Congress — view the military’s senior leaders as something close to infallible.
But a clear-eyed look at their actual track record shows a crying need for change. Over the past two decades, Army generals have consistently insisted that various acquisition, organizational and even combat efforts were on course despite substantial and frequent expert testimony to the contrary. They rejected alternative courses of action that independent analysis suggested might have produced superior results, and reaped failure after expensive failure.
A short and by no means exhaustive list of such failures might include the RAH-66 Comanche armed reconnaissance helicopter (launched in 1991, canceled after $6.9 billion), the XM2001 Crusader mobile cannon (launched in 1995, canceled after $7 billion), and the Future Combat Systems (launched in 2003, canceled after $20 billion). FCS in particular was notable for senior Army leaders’ efforts to ignore or suppress the results of simulations, tests and analyses that highlighted problems and ultimately predicted failure.
Today, we have the Ground Combat Vehicle program, which was launched amid the wreckage of FCS and has, despite official proclamations of confidence, already seen two delays that have pushed production out to 2020 or so. There is also the Joint Tactical Radio System, launched in 1997 as the heart of the effort to bring a robust network to the battlefield. In March, the Government Accountability Office reported that the 16-year-old program had yet to demonstrate in a realistic environment that the Rifleman variant could use one of its three critical technologies or that the Manpack variant could use any of its four critical technologies.
The Army has done little better in efforts to modernize the decades-old divisional structure. In the late 1990s, senior leaders launched the Advanced Warfighter Experiment, a set of war games ostensibly meant to guide the reorganization of combat formations for new challenges. In fact, these senior leaders had already chosen their path: reduce formations’ striking power, then try to compensate with better communications. Even though AWE’s simulations, command post exercises and field exercises exposed serious weaknesses in the concept, the Army dispatched a pair of three-star generals to tell the Senate Armed Services Committee about “compelling experimental success.” And when the Army proceeded to impose the principles of the AWE on its divisions, combat power suffered just as the experiment had predicted. As demonstrated in both Iraq and Afghanistan, additional soldiers assigned to various headquarters did not negate the need for front-line troopers to engage the enemy.
In 2004, Army generals reorganized the new “modular” brigade combat team by stripping away one of its three maneuver battalions. Defying internal Army analysis that predicted a less-capable force, the leadership attempted to offset the loss of infantrymen, tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and artillery with larger headquarters elements, technology and more intelligence capability. After spending nearly nine years and reportedly $75 billion on the reorganization, Army leaders are now trying to reverse course by returning the third battalion to the BCT.
This sad pattern extends into combat operations, as well. Since 2004, senior American military leaders have consistently made claims of combat success in Afghanistan. In the face of substantial evidence to the contrary, they repeatedly argued that the Taliban were being defeated and the Afghan National Security Forces were steadily improving. After I chronicled these claims in a February 2012 essay in AFJ, Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti told reporters at a Pentagon news conference that he had read the article but remained confident in DoD’s assessment that the war was on the right track. The general, who was then the commander of NATO’s Joint Command in Afghanistan and who now directs the Joint Staff, said the Taliban had been “unsuccessful at even reaching the level” of past violence and would fail again in the coming year.
Unfortunately, Scaparrotti’s confidence turns out to have been misplaced. In April, the independent Afghanistan NGO Safety Office released its report for the first quarter of 2013. Flouting the general’s expectations, the reports states that “the opening dynamics of 2013 all indicate the likelihood of a return to 2011 levels of violence [the all-time high]. Though grim, this assessment only represents a further escalation in the perpetual stalemate that has come to characterize the conflict.”
When the New York Times tried to compare the ANSO report to official U.S. accounts, it discovered that the American military, “which last year publicized data on enemy attacks with meticulous bar graphs, now has nothing to say. ‘We’re just not giving out statistics anymore,’ said a spokesman, Col. Thomas W. Collins.”
After each of these failures, one might expect the Army and program leaders to have suffered censure. Instead, the opposite seems generally to have been the case. The leaders of failed programs and other efforts received prestigious medals, promotion to higher ranks, and plum follow-on jobs; others retired and went to work for defense contractors, often with companies that had profited from the failed acquisition effort.
Going Wrong Again
With such a record, it should come as little surprise that our senior uniformed leaders appear to be going wrong again. They are poised to create a smaller, less capable combat force just as the future operating environment grows more dangerous and our potential future adversaries grow more modern and proficient.
Before a nation’s defense establishment can craft an effective strategy, it must conduct a comprehensive analysis of the operating environment the future force may operate in. It must be able to reasonably assess the quality and nature of a given area’s economic, ecological, agricultural and demographic foundation, and make educated guesses as to where those categories will trend in the coming years. Such an analysis must also take into consideration the military forces operating in that same area: What are their capabilities, what doctrine governs their fighting forces, how are they modernizing, and how might they match up against friendly formations if conflict were to break out?
It has become typical to dismiss the possibility of state-on-state war, but the likelihood is high enough to warrant military planning for it. In December, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence published “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds,” an effort to “stimulate strategic thinking by identifying critical trends and potential discontinuities.” Among its main points was that “demand for food, water, and energy will grow by approximately 35, 40, and 50 percent respectively owing to an increase in the global population and consumption patterns of an expanding middle class.”
The report predicted: “Many countries probably won’t have the wherewithal to avoid food and water shortages without massive help from outside.” But an even greater factor is affordable crude oil, key to every aspect of economic development. Evidence suggests global production may not meet that need. Nor can the United States realistically look to near-term energy independence, despite recent media reports citing numerous oil advocacy groups who say it may arrive as soon as 2020. In reality, many factors make this unlikely, including global production fundamentals and limits to domestic tight oil production.
If current trends hold — global exports continue to shrink, China and India continue to increase their demand — and U.S. production of tight oil and gas do not perform as hoped, competition for food, water and energy will eventually depress economies across the globe. The danger of social unrest will rise apace. Moreover, the DNI report says, it is unclear whether the world’s financial system is resilient enough to withstand a “global breakdown” in the face of “stalled economies or financial crises.” All in all, there is a significant possibility of the kind of pressures on national governments that have in the past led to state-on-state war.
I do not advocate armed conflict with the People’s Republic of China, nor do I hold that such conflict is inevitable. To the contrary, I strongly suggest that we engage Beijing in the diplomatic and economic spheres to foster mutual understanding and the common good of our nations and those of other countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Any sort of war would be destructive for all involved. Based on China’s recent declarations of their military intentions, however, it is wholly appropriate to ensure that our country is prepared for reasonable contingencies.
In April, the Chinese government laid out the focus of its military reformation in a white paper titled “The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces.” “The Asia-Pacific region has become an increasingly significant stage for world economic development and strategic interaction between major powers,” the document said. “The U.S. is adjusting its Asia-Pacific security strategy, and the regional landscape is undergoing profound changes.”
To meet these changes, the paper says, the People’s Liberation Army “is engaged in the building of new types of combat forces. It optimizes the size and structure of the various services and arms, reforms the organization of the troops so as to make operational forces lean, joint, multi-functional and efficient. The PLA works to improve the training mechanism for military personnel of a new type … and strengthens the development of new- and high-technology weaponry and equipment to build a modern military force structure with Chinese characteristics.”
Over the past decade, the Chinese leadership has taken concrete steps toward these aspirations. In “Chinese Lessons from Other People’s Wars” (Strategic Studies Institute, 2011), Martin Andrew explained that the PLA no longer relies on large-scale artillery fires and masses of infantrymen. Since 2000, he notes, the Chinese have been “in the midst of a transformation from essentially an infantry-based force into one designed around combined arms mechanized operations. A decade into the new century, the PLA is redesigning its forces into battle groups, using modular force structures and logistics to support operations in high-altitude and complex terrains, conduct out of area operations, and develop the core for its vision of a hardened and network-centric army.”
Recent articles in Chinese professional journals confirm that the PLA conducts combined-arms joint field exercises that in some cases involve two mechanized divisions, air force and naval assets. These exercises combine computer simulation, field units equipped with laser gear (as the U.S. uses in its maneuver training centers) and live-fire ranges. Some of these exercises have taken place over hundreds of kilometers, akin to the Reforger exercises U.S. forces once conducted in Germany.
In short, during a decade in which the U.S. Army and Marine Corps have been focused almost exclusively on counterinsurgency and small-unit warfare, a new generation of Chinese military leaders has deepened its understanding and application of conventional warfare.
Cuts Planned, Not Changes
Against this backdrop, let us now examine how the Army’s senior military leaders are posturing the force. The 2013 Army Strategic Planning Guidance says the force is “preparing to meet the demands of the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region and the emphasis on building partner capacity and shaping the security environment as directed by the new Defense strategic guidance.” It says such preparation will take the form of reinvigorating “existing capabilities, develop new capabilities for the changing environment, and adapt processes to reflect the broader range of requirements.” Ultimately, it says, “[t]he breadth of missions the Army must fulfill requires changing priorities in the way it organizes, mans, trains, equips and sustains to ensure that it is an agile, responsive, tailorable force capable of responding to any mission, anywhere, anytime.”
Unfortunately, the document’s amorphous language makes it difficult to ascertain how these concepts translate into actual plans and capabilities for the Army. There is little in the way of explaining what missions the Army will need to be prepared for beyond the bumper sticker of “across the range of military operations.”
And regardless of the answers to those questions, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno warned he may be unable to accomplish even these uncertain objectives. In Feb. 12 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Odierno said: “If nothing is done to mitigate the effects of operations under a continuing resolution, shortfalls in our funding of overseas operations, and the enactment of sequestration … the Army will be forced to make dramatic cuts to its personnel, its readiness, and its modernization programs, hence putting our national security at risk. … If not addressed, the current fiscal uncertainty will significantly and rapidly degrade Army readiness for the next five to 10 years.” He followed that up April 23 by saying that if budget constraints were not eased, he would have to cut at least 100,000 troops more than currently projected.
Few expect fiscal conditions to change soon, and so it appears the chief is prepared to respond by producing a smaller, less capable version of the Army that exists today.
What is needed now is real change, not mere cutting. In 1997, Douglas Macgregor, then an Army lieutenant colonel, published the first of two books on defense and Army reorganization. In his books, Macgregor (with whom I fought during Operation Desert Storm as part of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment) proposed to reorganize the Army into truly plug-and-play deployable modules that would be synchronized with the plans and capabilities of the Air Force and Navy. A reorganization along these lines could create a force that would add fighting strength, cost substantially less to operate, be more sustainable over the long term, and be more strategically and operationally responsive to the Joint Force.
The ideas are powerful enough to have moved a succession of senior Army leaders to pay them lip service — adopting “modular” and “adaptable” formations, for example. Yet the essential building blocks of the Army have remained unchanged: The force is still composed of combatant commands, followed by a corps-level three-star command, a two-star division command, continuing down to brigade and below. Even the weapons are the same: the M1 Abrams tank, Bradley Fighting Vehicle, 155mm self-propelled howitzer, Multiple Launch Rocket System, AH-64 Apache attack helicopters and iterations of command-and-control networks. In terms of tactical and operational effectiveness in combat operations, virtually nothing has changed.
Given the increasing conventional capability of our potential adversaries, the rising possibility of a chaotic future operating environment, the growing likelihood of an extended period of constrained budgets, and the statements made by our senior leaders that our Army will become smaller and less capable in the coming years, a substantive change in the composition and culture of the senior leaders must be undertaken.
I am not alone in sensing a pattern of failure at the top. In May 2007, Army Lt. Col. Paul Yingling argued (“A Failure of Generalship,” AFJ) that our military failures in Vietnam and the first four years in Iraq were “not attributable to individual failures, but rather to a crisis in an entire institution: America’s general officer corps. … If Congress does not act, [avoidable military defeat] awaits us.” Five years later, Tom Ricks expanded on the theme (“General Failure,” The Atlantic), writing, “Looking back on the troubled wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many observers are content to lay blame on the Bush administration. But inept leadership by American generals was also responsible for the failure of those wars. A culture of mediocrity has taken hold within the Army’s leadership rank — if it is not uprooted, the country’s next war is unlikely to unfold any better than the last two.”
The question today’s civilian leaders must ask themselves is this: Can America’s future interests best be served by those who have the track record, described above, of the past two decades, or by revitalizing the senior leader ranks via reform?
It is never easy to change national institutions. Inertia and the powerful constituencies that benefit from the status quo can be counted on to resist change. Current conditions offer a window in which change may be possible. First, the budget reductions mean that regardless of what anyone wants, change is coming. Second, the war in Iraq is over and our combat role in Afghanistan will be ending next year. Third, there is a new defense secretary who has at least declared a need for reform and, according to Army Times, there is soon to be a new Army secretary. Thus, in a time of inevitable change and manageable near-term combat risk, the civilian leader of DoD has the opportunity to bring in a new leadership team and make wide-ranging reforms.
The following changes should be considered:
Replace a substantial chunk of today’s generals, starting with the three- and four-star ranks. This is likely the most controversial step, yet also the most necessary. It is unlikely that today’s top leaders — who are products and benefactors of the existing system — have the appropriate motivation or buy-in for substantive change. New leadership is required. In particular, the Army needs a visionary leader at the top with the experience, moral standing and iron will to lead the charge against those who will resist and obstruct such reform.
Fix the promotion system. To change the performance of the general officer corps, there must be a reform in the way officers are selected for promotion. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, has recently indicated he might change the evaluation system of general officers, but his suggestions are too minor to deliver substantive change. The new “iron-willed” leader must develop the parameters and objectives of this reform, which should, at a minimum, be based on demonstrated superior performance, holding leaders accountable for what they do or fail to do, and fostering a new culture that encourages prudent risk-taking and nonconformist thinking.
Shrink the general officer corps. In 1945, about 2,000 general and flag officers led a total of about 12 million citizens in uniform. Today, we have about 900 generals and admirals and 1.4 million troops, and the ratio of leader-to-led has accelerated upward in the two decades since the end of the Cold War. In an age of unprecedented communications technology and with the education and training opportunities for today’s soldiers, this is indefensible. Many general officer billets are redundant and should be eliminated; others can effectively be filled by colonels or even lieutenant colonels.
With appropriate reform and new leadership, there is every reason to expect that the Army will continue to secure America’s national security interests even in an era of constrained budgets and an increasingly chaotic operating environment. AFJ
Daniel L. Davis is an Army lieutenant colonel. The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of the Army, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.