….and He shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats….
-– Matthew 25:32 (King James Version)
The military’s personnel system does lots of stupid things, like sending Arabic speakers to Korea or forcing out skilled commanders at age 50. But of all our self-inflicted wounds, argues a forthcoming report on “Building Better Generals” (now online) from the Center for a New American Security, the stupidest is how we manage our generals and admirals.
“We do a lot of things that are probably illogical and pretty dysfunctional,” said the report’s lead author, retired Lt. Gen. David Barno – a former top commander in Afghanistan – “because of our interchangeable parts model.” Instead of treating generals and admirals as specialized professionals, he told me, we swap them around from job to job to job every year or two “with random abandon” and without proper training for the duties of each position.
“I went from theater commander [in Afghanistan] to the guy running [Army] installations around the world literally overnight,” Barno said in an interview with BreakingDefense. “I was a complete neophyte.”
Even worse is when a manager is put in charge of combat operations. “Hey,” said Barno, “the skills required to be a management or enterprise guy are dramatically different from the skills required to be a warfighter or an operator.”
So why don’t we create two separate tracks for two-star officers and above? One set would specialize in managing the massive organization that trains, equips, and supplies the fighting force, proposes the CNAS report, while the other masters the art of command.
“Can you move them back and forth if you have too? Yes,” said Barno, “but today we do that with abandon, often without a whole lot of thought, driven by vacancies” that happen to come open. “Many short assignments in diverse things that you may have no background in [is] probably not a very coherent model.”
That mismanagement imposed strategic costs. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, “despite immense bravery and steady adaptation to the demands of each conflict, US forces failed to achieve a decisive strategic victory in either,” notes the CNAS study on “Building Better Generals,” scheduled for release Monday morning. The biggest strategic blunders may have been made at the highest political levels by presidents and defuse secretaries, but the years of bloody trial and error at the theater and tactical levels, the report says very mildly, raise “questions about US generalship.”
Part of the problem is that, unlike everyone else in the armed forces, admirals and generals aren’t actually trained to do their job. The military, especially the Army, puts non-commissioned, junior, and mid-grade officers through months and years of systematic (even rigid) “professional military education” programs. As soon as you pin stars on your shoulders, however, that system breaks down.
Flag officers’ time is considered too important and too short for prolonged training. That is another self-inflicted wound from moving them rapidly from job to job – three or four years in one position is “an extraordinarily long tour,” said Barno – and from mandatory retirement ages that kick out most one-, two-, and three-star officers in their fifties. Longer tours in specific jobs and longer careers overall would allow more breathing room for education. Today, the people with the most important jobs in the armed forces spend the least time learning how to do them. The formal courses they do take, the CNAS report says scathingly, are not only short – days or weeks at most – but “ad hoc at best[,] lacking academic rigor, and focusing more on networking than providing a serious educational experience.”
Commanding or managing large organizations isn’t something you can learn by “osmosis,” Barno told me. “To think you can achieve those skillsets purely by experience [and] one week courses….probably undervalues the complexity of the jobs.”
So how exactly do you educate an Eisenhower or a Nimitz? Most generals and admirals have extensive experience commanding tactical units, from platoon to corps and from destroyer to battle group. Orchestrating an entire theater of war, however, is a higher level altogether, one that requires not only strategic vision but significant diplomatic and political skills to work with foreign allies and our own elected leaders.
Barno’s model here is Britain, specifically the three-month-long Higher Command and Staff Course (HCSC) at the Defense Academy of the United Kingdom. “It’s extremely intense,” he said, “[and] it’s highly evaluated” – that is, instead of using a gentlemanly pass-fail approach like many US officer education programs. The US Army is currently developing a four-week course for its brigadier generals (one-stars), which is an improvement, the study notes, but it is not enough. Instead, CNAS recommends, of the roughly 60 officers promoted to two-star rank each year, some 20 to 30 hand-picked for leadership and warfighting skills should attend an Americanized version of the British HCSC.
So what about the others senior officers? They need to develop their managerial skills along what the CNAS study proposes as “the enterprise track.” The fact is that a modern, mechanized fighting force requires a host of support functions, from fuel supply to network management to developing new weapons, and those support personnel outnumber the actual fighters. That’s true among generals and admirals as well. And the higher up you go the smaller is the number of officers who engage in combat operations.
“65 percent of one-star billets, 80 percent of two-star billets, 82 percent of three-star billets and approximately 92 percent of four-star billets are non-operational, or enterprise management, positions,” the CNAS report says, citing an Army study. “These enterprise jobs across each of the services more closely align with common corporate management responsibilities such as human relations, public affairs, global supply chains and information technology services.”
That of course raises the question of why you need military officers in these jobs. Why not just hire experienced civilians, whether civil servants who know the bureaucracy inside-out or corporate executives who know how to shake things up?
Barno argues these senior military jobs require “an understanding of the warfighting aspect of the military, to a degree, from personal experience,” Barno argued. You don’t want your weapons development directed by someone who’s never had to fire a shot in anger, your intelligence networks by someone who’s never begged for more information on an enemy, or your supply system by someone who’s never run out of ammo, fuel, or food.
“Those are kind of blended positions,” Barno said, “[that] require some civilian managerial skills [and] a very fundamental understanding of how the military works.” Even when a civilian is in charge – as with all the political positions from deputy assistant secretaries of Defense on up – you need a military deputy who “connects the political appointee, who may have no military background, to what happens out there on the ground, in the rain.”
You also need to keep both managers and commanders in their jobs much longer for them to make a real impact. One Defense Science Board report cited numerous case studies showing it takes “five to seven years” in charge of an organization “to achieve cultural change.” CNAS highlights how Gen. Stanley McChrystal revolutionized the hunt for terrorists in his five years as chief of Joint Special Operations Command, how Gen. Curtis LeMay built the Cold War nuclear bomber force in his nine years leading Strategic Air Command, and how Adm. Hyman Rickover spent 33 years – as long as Jesus of Nazareth’s entire reputed lifetime – running the Navy’s nuclear submarine program.
It’s not just generals and admirals who need more time, Barno added. Mandatory retirement ages devised long before the days of modern healthcare kick colonels and Navy captains (grade O-6) out at 30 years of service, typically just after they turn 50. That’s not a great age to be leading young men through the mud, but it’s still far short of senescence as strategists, war college professors or weapons developers, all jobs where decades of accumulated experience matter more than the amount of cartilage remaining in your knees.
“We force these guys out at 30 years when they’re at the peak of their professional skills and we get no use out of them,” Barno told me, “except for bringing them back as contractors” – at much greater expense. “We ought to be giving some serious thought to extended careers for colonels [of] 35 years or longer… ‘super colonels.’”
There’s an old military saying, in fact, that the smartest officers are the colonels who never get promoted to general. “I’ve seen that,” Barno said. “I’ve seen a couple of guys who were brilliant officers growing up with me….who didn’t make general [because] one could argue they were too smart. They were viewed by their peers as being excessively bright” – and, perhaps, a little lacking in social skills.
“The perfect example is H.R. McMaster,” Barno said. “I’ve known HR since he was a colonel… Good general officers saw that potential, saw those skills, saw that brilliance, and did everything possible to move him through the ranks and protect him, [but] there were other people out there who were trying to make sure he never got promoted to brigadier general [for] various reasons that had nothing to do with his talent but some combination of envy and a wrong-headed belief that he was just too sharp-edged and not enough of a ‘team player.’”
“But the right generals finally won out, and that’s a very good thing for the Army and the nation,” Barno said. Today, McMaster is not only a two-star general but the commander of the “Maneuver Center” at Fort Benning, Georgia, the conjoined infantry and tank schools at the heart of the combat arms.
Not every story ends so happily, however. “The system is really tilted against those kinds of officers,” Barno said: the iconoclasts, the innovators, the mavericks with sharp minds, sharp elbows, and sharp tongues. “Our best generals are looking for those folks and trying to protect them,” Barno said. “Our evaluation and selection system” is not. It’s hard to imagine a George Patton rising through the ranks today.
Nor is the smothering grip of conformity confined to the Army, Barno added: “I was talking to a retired 4-star from a service other than my own who said, ‘we drive out the best generals at lieutenant colonel.’”
That’s a problem we need to fix well before the next war starts. Because the military grows its own rather than hiring talent from outside, the generals and admirals of the 2040s are already in service as young second lieutenants and Navy ensigns today. For their sake, for the sake of the troops they’ll lead, and for the sake of the nation, we had better get this right.
Updated 5:20 pm with comments about Maj. Gen. H.R. McMaster. Updated 1:05 pm Monday with link to final release of report.