America’s soldiers have learned a lot over the last 10 years, most of it the hard way, but that irreplaceable expertise could walk out the door in the coming drawdown if the Army doesn’t figure out how to manage its people better.

Despite everything else that’s changed since September 2001, the ugly reality of 2011 is that the Army still trains its personnel, assigns them jobs, and promotes them through a centralized, bureaucratic system that was already dysfunctional in World War II and that Donald Rumsfeld was trying to reform back in 2001, before he got distracted.

Today, the personnel system still puts too few troops into critical jobs, from civil affairs to combat infantry. It still pressures them to follow Cold War career paths rather than advise foreign armies, for example, or to develop terrorist-tracking software. It still assigns people to positions through a centralized system that pays little attention to an individuals’ abilities, let alone to their desires.

The demands of two simultaneous wars – and generous bonuses – have overshadowed these frustrations since 9/11. But now both budgets and deployments are coming down. Troop levels will soon follow. The last time large numbers of service members were forced to leave the military after the Cold War, cost the services some of their best people. We’d better not blow it this time.

The biggest single shortfall in military personnel is that, after 10 years of counterinsurgency, we still don’t have enough infantrymen – the rifle-toting, foot-slogging grunts who actually fight for territory one inch at a time. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the shortage is so severe that troops trained in other specialties are routinely retasked as ad hoc infantry, especially artillerymen, whose big guns have few targets in a guerrilla war. While the services have made real progress in teaching support troops to fight in close combat, cannoneers and truck drivers are still at best second-best to actual combat infantrymen. Yet the active-duty Army, despite having expanded to over 570,000 personnel, still has only about 56,500 infantrymen, less than 10 percent. (The Marine Corps, with 200,000 personnel total, adds about another 23,000 infantry).

The infantry shortage goes back to World War II, when the War Department prioritized manning technical specialties, especially in the Army Air Force (not yet an independent service).

Only after massive casualties in 1944 did the Army change course, pulling young men out of technical courses and throwing them into the infantry. Throughout the Cold War, however, the Army emphasized helicopters and armored vehicles at the expense of foot troops. That worked for the blitzkriegs of 1991 and 2003. But it was disastrous for counterinsurgency.

In one telling incident in 2004, for example, Army troop carriers known as M2 Bradleys came to assist some ambushed Marines in near Karabilah, Iraq. “When they showed up, I told the vehicle commander to dismount his infantry and help me clear these buildings,” recalled the Marine company commander, Trent Gibson. “And he said, ‘This is all we got. It’s just me and the driver.’”

The American preference had been to provide a relatively small, high-tech force to support local auxiliaries, like the Afghan Northern Alliance or the short-lived Iraqi National Guard, which would provide the bulk of the foot troops. But even though such local forces have finally begun to function, more or less, they still need on-the-ground support from American infantry units as well, as from small teams of advisors.

And those advisors have been in short supply over the last decade. During the Cold War and the 1990s, advising foreign troops had been a Special Forces mission, disdained by the “Big Army,” where service outside U.S. units was not a recognized specialty and in fact hurt a soldier’s promotion prospects. There was and is a Foreign Area Officer career track specializing in work abroad, but to this day FAOs are notoriously unlikely to reach high rank. Anyway, after 2003, there were nowhere near enough Special Forces and FAOs to mentor the entire Iraqi army and police. So the military grabbed personnel wherever it could, throwing individuals with no foreign experience onto hastily trained advisor teams.

The early teams had little institutional support. One Army logistics officer who served as an advisor in Iraq in 2005-2006, Paul McCullough, said his team was not even assigned the unit ID codes required to request supplies. “The supply system didn’t work,” McCullough said. “I operated on the barter system…. You ever see MASH? I was Corporal Klinger.”

The Army and the other services have made real progress in training and supporting advisor teams, but they are still ad hoc creations for a particular mission. For now, the military can get away with improvising like this simply because so many servicemembers have first-hand experience with Afghan and Iraqi forces. But as the wars wind down, that expertise will dissipate if the bureaucracy does not prioritize and institutionalize the advisor mission. While proposals like Jon Nagl’s “advisor corps” or Andrew Krepinevich’s “security cooperation brigades” are probably overkill, the Army certainly needs some permanent, standing advisor teams for different areas of the world and a recognized career path for advisors. And those advisors must be encouraged and promoted.

Advisors, however, aren’t the only specialty the personnel system devalues. In fact, it discourages specialization altogether. “The career system makes you a generalist,” said Craig Cummings, a former Army major. “As soon as you figure out a job, it’s time to move on to something completely different.”

This is another legacy of the buildup for World War II, when the Army was constantly creating new units of raw conscripts and grabbing whoever was available to lead them. That’s hardly the situation in today’s force of long-service volunteers, but the personnel system is still set up to generate interchangeable officers who can be thrust into command jobs. While each officer is assigned a specific “branch” – such as infantry, artillery, or, in Cummings’ case, communications, aka the Signal Corps – they have to take an array of jobs within that branch.

So a successful commander will still have to leave his unit to take a staff job – sometimes in the middle of a tour in Afghanistan or Iraq if that’s when his allotted time is up – while a technical expert will have to go lead troops.

Cummings fought this system, and he won. He made himself an expert in the high-tech business of intercepting enemy communications and served three tours of duty at the National Security Agency. Instead of waiting for the personnel bureaucracy to choose his assignment, Cummings leveraged his connections and reputation in the intelligence world to get NSA commanders to request him by name. That way of getting a job is just business as usual in the business world, but it’s uncommon in the Army.

Few officers escape the system and its frustrations so successfully. Cummings himself ultimately left to join an IT start-up, quitting the Army in 2009 on the eve of a promotion and after seventeen years of service – just three years short of being eligible for a military pension.
Money is a powerful incentive, but pay and benefits alone won’t keep people in military, not when the private sector can offer so much more. As budgets tighten, the Pentagon can’t just throw money at its personnel problems. If the Army, in particular, wants to preserve its human capital in an era of defense cuts, it needs to improve how it manages its people.

Author’s note: I interviewed Maj. Gibson and Cpt. McCullough while at National Journal magazine.
Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., former defense reporter at the National Journal, now runs the website www.LearningFromVeterans.com.

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