Under Secretary of the Army, Dr. Joseph W. Westphal, pins brigadier general rank on Brig. Gen. Burt K. Thompson with his wife Kala Thompson April13, 2012, at the Fort Myer Officer's Club on Joint Base Myer Henderson Hall, Va. Thompson's oldest daughter... http://www.army.mil/article/78018/Thompson_promoted_to_brigadier_general_in_the_U_S__Army/

Friends and family formally “pin on” a newly promoted general’s first star.

….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.


  • Don Bacon


    When Freedberg’s on, he’s way on. And Barno’s correct in spades which is why we have had such mediocre general officers (Barno excepted).

    First, regarding “Split Warriors From Managers,” people have to understand the vast difference between leadership and management. To simplify, combat requires leaders who can personally influence others to achieve difficult missions despite heavy opposition. Complex organizations require managers who can plan. organize, direct, control and coordinate — the functions of management. Either one or both of these skills comes naturally to some officers, but personal attributes and education also play decided roles for most.

    Secondly, Barno’s correct point that the military system is tilted against mavericks and individual thinkers, and favors go-along to get-along, with an emphasis on showmanship and not ruffling the waters. Lose a lot of good people that way. The ones on top got there that way, and so they won’t recognize those who operate differently. (Somehow the Pentagon got lucky with Dempsey, IMHO.)

    Thirdly, make better use of females as managers. Many studies have shown that women are better managers than men. They are cooperative rather than competitive (none of that dangerous drug testosterone), they have better empathy for people, and as we men all know so well, they can multi-task whereas we can’t possibly.

    Now — what we need is a Freedberg-Barno collaboration to produce a book to go beyond Ricks’s The Generals (if you will) into these vital fields and considerations. (–But then I have a fault of overly advising others.)

    PS: I could also go on about the archaic military grade structure with ten commissioned grades, which more and more compares unfavorably with the relatively flat civilian corporate organizational structures. It absolutely suffocates smart, energetic go-getters who have to deal with all those layers of fat above them, all the colonels and generals along with their horse-holders. But changing the (French origin) grade structure is beyond the scope of this topic, besides being hopeless. **sigh**

    • Mike

      Well said Mr. Bacon…… You can teach a lot of people to count and keep track of the “beans”, but few of those officers are really good when the “angry rounds” begin to fly and people begin to die… Those skills and the empathy needed within upper echelon to deliver the goods to the combat scene are scarce behavioral traits…. Sadly, the Army has far too many “bean counters” and far too few combat capable leaders…. The OCS at Benning does a good job, but up the line the important things get muddled… Sadly we need a world war every so often to clean our the “counters” and allow the combat leaders to percolate to the top positions so that the Army operates as it should during those scary, very trying times………

  • Matthew Hipple

    Sounds like a large part of this article is also an excellent justification for getting rid of alot of the higher-level officers if their jobs are just “enterprise management”. There’s probably too much blue and red ribbon up there.

  • SS BdM Fuhress ‘Savannah

    Can’t believe I read beyond the Matthew! So a war in the 2040’s. With China or Russia. Now the money is not there at that time so it is not a tech game but a number game. We lose that don’t we depending on which Allie joins in with us or against us? But why would anybody think those above in power wouldn’t move Generals in the warzone or Generals pushing pencils to not be an advantage to us but a dis-advantage just because they can. I played basketball with a guy who trained new soldiers. He told me they had no thinking to them as if a problem came up that wasn’t in their little scenario they was caught in they were doomed. That was probably 10 years ago. Hope they at least got that straightened out.

  • Ridiculous

    I find this ridiculous. Yeah, there might be a learning curve at the GO level, but come on, it’s not like they were platoon leaders, then twenty years later they’re in charge of a theater of war. Before division command, they’re DCO’s for support or maneuver. Before that, they’re brigade commanders. Before that, brigade S3/XO/etc. Saying generals – unlike the lower ranks – get short shrift on education is giving far to much credence to the military’s professional education system. Having attended all professional education up to COL, I can say unequivocally that none of it prepared me for my next level of command. At most, it was simply a good break from deployments. The preparation was the experience I had before. Yes, I’m sure running a theater of war is complex, but success isn’t predicated on some four month school. As for segregating “operators” (I can’t believe a GO is now using that term to describe a warfighter) from managers, all that will do is create a second class of citizen. We already segregate at the commissioning of the LT., at the branch level. I get that GO’s are branch immaterial, but an officer who spent twenty years in quartermaster is going to stay on the logistics side. He’s not going to command an infantry division. Honestly, this sounds like whining to me. With all of the various problems of in the military right now, this isn’t one that I’d consider high priority. Realistically, instead of building a new school house for GO’s, I’d start out by taking a hard look at how many flag officers are necessary. I’m pretty sure we could take that 92% and turn it into 50% just by cutting slots.

  • JRSCline

    The real racket is the practice of giving combat arms senior officers the jobs that senior non-combat arms should fill, by dint of experience and service.

    Case in point: the Army Chief of Public Affairs is almost invariably a combat arms one-star who is destined for a division command follow-on. Why?

    This makes no sense, when there are a dozen-plus Public Affairs (46A) colonels who can do the job equally well or better. What career track can PAOs aspire to, when the top job is reserved for a non-PAO?

    The traditional thinking seems to be that combat arms types are inherently better leaders. In combat, probably. In the office, however — dealing with a diverse population that includes more women, more minorities, and civil servants — a man with nothing but leadership experiences in the whitebread, testosterone-driven combat arms may not be the best fit.

    We’d never dream of giving a COCOM, division, or even a line company command to a loggie, or until recently, a female. Something’s lacking – experience and the credibility that goes with it.

    So yes – why are we assigning our top non-combat roles to infantrymen?

  • Austin

    Nimitz’ greatest strength likely came from his fairly extensive time at the Navy’s Bureau of Personnel in officer assignments.

    Come wartime, he knew with some fairly good precision who was capable of what…and if he didn’t personally know, he knew who did.

    Successful war fighting from a flag level is largely a people-assets business.

    • Wishful Thinking

      Island Nation? Huh? The biggest bumper-sticker in DOD right now is “air-sea battle”, which is all about penetration of A2 D2. In other words, we need to get through anti-access/anti-denial so we can go fight on land. Yes, a LAND battle. Or I could mention Iran, North Korea, Syria, and a host of other places – all which will require an engagement on land to achieve our national security objectives. Who’s to do that? The Marine Corps? Good luck with that. We emotionally may not WANT to commit Iraq scale land resources anytime again, but the enemy has a vote. In fact, we didn’t want to commit the Iraq “scale” that we did in 2003, myopically thinking we could clean house in six months, then come home – but the enemy voted differently. Coming up with a new bumper-sticker because we didn’t like the sacrifice doesn’t alter the facts.

    • Jrggrop

      He also served in the Navy when the service was a bit more forgiving of young officers making mistakes. Can you imagine what would happen an ensign today that ran his destroyer aground on a sandbar?

  • USAF06

    As an Air Force Colonel, this resonates with my service as well. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this article is the idea that we boot out those officers who are seen as critical thinkers…those who are not afraid to speak up when something is headed off the tracks. Col Boyd, and Col Worden are just two of many examples where strategic thinking officers were pushed out at 30 years, not promoted to flag rank, and seen as mavericks that too often challenged the status quo. IN the 2010 Colonel SERB (selected early retirement board), the USAF forced out six officers with PhDs…because these officers spent time earning a PhD, they were unable to be Group or Wing commanders. Not having this myopic requirement meant they were not seen as the best officers to keep in the USAF. IN fact, if you had a PhD in the 2010 SERB, you had an 85% chance of being selected for early retirement. Also, forcing someone out at 30 years when they are at the very top of their knowledge game is not good business practice. Interestingly, the USAF has yet another Colonel SERB in Dec 2013. The way it works is that Colonels who are up for consideration in the SERB can volunteer to retire early and then they will not be involuntarily selected…the bonus for making that determination is the ability to know your future and to stay in the USAF a few more months before leaving. However, the end result is a complete organizational mess. Those officers who have significant skill sets (UAVs, engineers, PhDs, Cyber experts, pilots) where there is a tremendous need for them on the outside take the opportunity to get out and make a ton more money. Those officers who do not chose to voluntarily get out are those who have limited skill sets, are specialists in areas where there is no civilian opportunity. The system boots the best and keeps the rest…and they then become GOs…what a mess

  • Joe Boyum

    fire half of the flag ranks for starters. There will be less competition for positions.

  • Gary Church

    Way way too many officers. I also had my fill of warrant officers and senior NCO’s when I was in (and there are more now I am sure). We were always short on people and busting our asses trying to keep ahead of the game while the officers were off to school or typing their one thousandth email to an academy buddy. Don’t get me wrong, Some of the officers I served under were truly amazing people. I will even name a couple;

    http://projects.militarytimes.com/citations-medals-awards/recipient.php?recipientid=33731 The “Ratman” was the finest pilot I have ever seen; and I flew with a couple hundred at the air training center in Mobile Alabama.

    -and my old Skipper who could fly a helicopter better than most even though he had so little practice he forgot where some of the switches were. That guy could fly.

    But for the most part the rest were overpaid, arrogant, and mostly pushed paper from one basket to another. Worthless. Cut the officer corps in half and no one would notice. Get rid of ALL the retired on active duty E-9’s and there would be more than a few wild parties of jubilation.

  • James B.

    If the military allowed Colonels and Captains to stay on past thirty years, we could cut hundreds of flag officer positions, and justify keeping those super-O-6s in specific areas where they became masters of both the subject matter and of the relevant people and agencies involved.

    I would rather an O-6 who loves the job and knows everything about the subject, than a flag officer biding time until the next tour, or worse, one of those who fix things that are not broken, just to leave their mark on things.

    How many of the recent bad ideas in the military came from the non-flag ranks?