02 March 2010

The Devil is in the Details: Revitalizing America's Military Officer Corps

The Center for New American Security, with a distinguished panel of experts, put forth a proposal that addressed needed changes in officer training and development. You can read the entire proposal here. Al Sahwa's contributors wanted provide some comments, from the perspective of the Junior Officer.

First, I want to point out that I agree with the panel's proposals. They provide refreshing ideas that address gaps in our institutionalized training models. Obviously, the 80 page PDF file could not begin to address the details for this proposal's implementation. I think it would be beneficial for us to highlight some of the broader proposals and generate some ideas for future implementation.

-On page 6, the authors stated, "A more holistic officer development program is required to counteract a disproportionate focus on tactical training over strategic education." This statement will make most junior officers in combat arms run for the hills; however, we need to dive deeper into this topic. I think you would be hard pressed to find any entry level job that has a steeper learning curve than today's combat arms second lieutenant. Any officer who believes that 2LTs need to solely focus on tactical training versus strategic level learning should be chaptered out of the military immediately. In today's contemporary operating environment (COE), the actions of a 2LT can and often have strategic implications. It is vital that all officers understand how their objectives/actions nest with the Nation's strategic objectives. The Devil arises when we look at the time trade off between focusing on tactical training and strategic learning. In my personal experience (ROTC), it is hard to properly resource adequate tactical training in college. I think the officer corps could benefit from classroom education covering strategic learning during college. If we have to decide on cutting tactical training to facilitate strategic learning, let that trade off occur during ROTC/Service academy training. Some people may believe that it is wiser to learn the tactical level of war, then operational, and conclude with strategic learning, in a standard building block model. While there is validity to this model, I have a different experience. In college, I was eager to learn about my new career choice, so I picked the only field Manuel (FM 3-0 Operations) I could find and read it. It was incredibly beneficial for me, because I had a basis of understanding as to how the tactical level training I received fit (nested) with the Battalion, Brigade, and Division operations. I believe this helped me learn more from the same block of instruction than my peers, who did not read FM 3-0. This is why I believe Strategic and Operational learning could be beneficial to future officers during college. Having said that, I would not support any reduction in tactical training conducted in the basic officer courses. Our combat arms officers need repetitive training focused on closing with and destroying an enemy. Again from personal experience, I assumed the duties and responsibilities of an Infantry Platoon Leader in combat. My Commander did not have the luxury of training and developing me prior to deploying to combat. In a war time situation, we cannot afford to cut any tactical training from our basic officer courses. To summarize, I 100% agree that junior officers need to have a deep understanding of the relationships between tactical, operational, and strategic objectives. This can be done over the course of 4 years in college, allowing the basic officer courses to focus on training small unit tacticians.

-In Chapter 2, Dr. Don Snider recommends every officer has a window of 2 years within the first 10-12 to pursue civilian masters education. This is a great idea, especially in a counter insurgency fight, where a wide range of skill sets are needed in every unit. Many officers pursue masters degrees in their limited free time by taking night and online courses. I don't have any statistics, but in my personal experience, most of these officers are setting the conditions for civilian employment when their military obligation is complete. The reason many officers don't take time off from active duty to pursue a masters education is the active duty obligation they will incur. This is a great deal for any officer who already knows he or she wants to remain in the military. The problem with the program is the first opportunity an officer gets to utilize this is post command, when they pin on the rank of major. The reason I think this can be problematic is the skills and knowledge gained could be beneficial for an officer in company command or BN/BDE staff. It is not uncommon for college students today to remain enrolled after receiving their bachelors degree and continue on with their masters degree. I would be interested in some research on the feasibility of officers getting their masters degree prior to platoon leadership or company command.

-Language/Culture Training: We cannot underestimate the benefits of bi/multi lingual officers. The military will undoubtedly place a focus on languages spoken in the current theaters of operation. The problem with this is it will be too little too late, and most college institutions don't provide classes in Pastu, Urdu, Arabic, or Farsi (if I may be that bold). I do believe that any language capability will be a benefit and should be encouraged. I also think wide spread dissemination of Rosetta Stone to future officers would allow the self driven individuals an opportunity to build a competitive resume. Keep the monetary incentives in place and encourage officers to seek out language training.

-Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental, and Multinational experience (JIIM): This is a great point and could be implemented almost immediately. One of the best experiences of my young Army career was when Pat Ryan and Josh McLaughlin (both al Sahwa contributors) convinced our Battalion leadership to stick me in a fusion cell for 6 months. I had the opportunity to work with every branch of our military (including SOF) and a multitude of intel agencies, all in the same room. It was an eye opening experience and will directly impact my effectiveness as an infantry officer. I think there are a multitude of ways to implement JIIM experience early on in officers careers. We could quantify multinational experience as time abroad during college. Some of my West Point counterparts had amazing experiences on short trips (one month) overseas to places like Sierra Leone, Czech Republic, and Bosnia. This program could and should be implemented in ROTC. Between graduation and OBC, 2LTs could partake in month long overseas programs building their cultural experience and get them out of their comfort zones. As for Joint, Interagency, and Intergovernmental experience, I think the liaison officer billet (LNO) could be put to effective use. In between platoon leadership and company command, officers should have an opportunity to serve a short stint (6 months or less) as a liaison officer to help coordinate and support "Unity of Effort" between their parent branch and any group that works with them. We know that the State Department is severely restricted on manpower, why not increase their manpower through LNOs assigned to PRTs or other overseas State Department billets. The beauty of the LNO position is there are little guidelines defining their duties and responsibilities. This ambiguity could allow proactive LNOs to dive head first into a support role to learn by doing.

-As the tittle of this post alludes to, ideas may brief well on paper, but the Devil is in the details. We should look at some potential implementation pitfalls.
One of the points made by the CNAS report is that we shouldn't attempt to find a slot for each officer in all proposed programs. I believe this is a perfect opportunity for the military to find the right person for the right job by balancing individual desires with the needs of the military. It will undoubtedly become a nightmare for personnel commands to balance grad school, sabbaticals, JIIM opportunities, and institutional education. The military is notoriously bad at putting the right person in the right job, largely because of the size and scope our military.
Broadening horizons largely means moving around the country/world chasing opportunities. This highlights a potential friction point between improving the officer corps and improving married couples' dual career employments. The only way to improve family life is to limit the number of PCS moves, which flies in the face of many of the identified improvements.
"Rode hard, and hung up wet", Commanders at all levels try to hold onto their studs for as long as they can. Are you willing to send your best officers for JIIM assignments? Who rates officers in JIIM assignments, and how will they stack up against officers who stayed with their operational units? These changes will need to be preceded by a change in command climate or simply our culture.

Closing ideas:
-Military institutional schooling, BOLC, CCC, ILE, and CGSC, need to be taught by the very best officers we have. An instructor should not be allowed to teach in these assignments if they are not rated in the top 3 from their senior raters. There also needs to be some discriminator between the best available instructors that ensures they have the capacity to teach subordinates. Let me caveat this by saying, I have had exceptional instructors at both OBC and CCC. The reason I advocate for ensuring our top performers instruct is simply because this would be the best, most cost effective combat multiplier. Depending on class size, a two year stint at a CCC allows the best company commander to instruct roughly 120 future company commanders. One reason that our best and brightest decide not to take an instructor job is highlighted next.
-The military, most likely, cannot implement the above changes without adjusting officer timelines. The trends right now have officers being promoted to Captain and Major in less time than the current LTCs and COLs were promoted in their day. The Marine Corps has a longer dwell time between platoon command and company command. The Army would most likely need to adopt this model if they wanted to allow their officers to broaden their horizons.


  1. While I like the idea of pursuing strategic competency in ROTC, I'd hesitate to assert that cadets would have 4 years to study the interplay between the tactical and strategic level.

    I am currently an MSIV (senior) cadet, and right now I'm dealing with freshman and sophomores who don't know what rank a squad leader generally holds in an Infantry squad (and this is at Georgetown University which has a very solid program). Obviously this is just one example, but the point is that the younger cadets generally have a very immature military IQ. Given the fact that cadets can join ROTC off the street anywhere up to and including their MSIII (junior) year, the vast majority of cadets other than MSIV's are going to be nowhere near ready for an introduction to the strategic level of war.

    The other issue is that the assessment camp (LDAC) is focused 100% on tactical and small unit garrison leadership. I am struggling to simply get enough tactical knowledge into some of my MSIII's (the ones who are going to be assessed this summer) to get them to the point where cadre will even send them to camp. Even with the more proficient MSIII cadets the focus always has to be 100% tactical, because they really haven't been introduced to tactics until that year in their development (MSI's and II's simply learn basic military knowledge). Between that and squaring away their PT performance, there really isn't any free time to go into strategy (keeping in mind that 40% of their accessions is their academic GPA, we can't overload them with hours and hours of extra ROTC stuff). The bottom line on this point is that unless the methods in which cadets are assessed and subsequently granted their branches somehow incorporated strategic knowledge (I really can't envision how that would look, but maybe I am short sighted), I don't think it is reasonable to expect strategic thought to be part of a cadet's education.

    Now, as far as the MSIV level goes, I think this is where you could legitimately start to incorporate some of these ideas. At least in my experience/program, the scant amount of assigned reading has been relatively useless stuff that can be picked up on the fly at our units. I would be very interested in a bit of guidance in exploring FM 3-0 for the first time. Granted, introducing strategic concepts at this stage only allows for a year of study, I think the trade off would be relatively easy and well worth it.

    So I suppose the essential point is I think that introducing strategy onto a ROTC curriculum would probably necessitate a whole scale reshuffling of the program itself, unless it was limited to senior cadets.

  2. I have to read the CNAS piece, but in general...the first step is to reduce the proportion of Army Officers - which is 300% overstrength by design. It was a policy adopted after WW2, and frankly - a mistake.

    Education to develop people: overrated, and why our govt in general is failing. We need people who do well, we have people who test well.

  3. Jimmie P,

    First, you are not short sighted, and I am glad you commented. The crux of your comment is how can we possibly fit in strategic level learning into the limited time available? Bottom line, today's 2LT has the steepest learning curve in the history of our military. You undoubtedly will lead soldiers in some of the most ambiguous and hostile environments seen thus far. The current issue this post begins to shed light on is; how can we teach you the tactical side of operations, while showing you the potential strategic ramifications of your actions? Unfortunately for you Jimmie, you won't see any paradigm shift in our officer training. We won't see any change as long as the LDAC focus is on small unit patrolling. Having said that, I don't believe we should change the grading focus of LDAC away from small unit patrolling. All we can do right now is view strategic learning as supplemental requirements.

    Second, The best thing you and your peers can do is to be proactive on the learning front. It's difficult if no one is steering you in the right direction. Other than the tactical patrolling manuals, FM 3-0 and FM 3-24 are the best places to start. Also, anything pertaining to COIN written by David Galula and David Kilcullen. FM 3-0 will explain "Full Spectrum Operations" and how they interact with each other. In COIN, you can feasibly conduct Offensive, Defensive, and Stability Operations in the same day. You have to know the difference and be able to rapidly shift back and forth. Next, read FM 3-24 COIN, you may not understand it all right now but you have to read it cover to cover. I recommend reading it again after OBC and during your deployment because it is easy to forget the nuances. Then read David Kilcullen's 28 Articles http://usacac.army.mil/cac2/COIN/repository/28_Articles_of_COIN-Kilcullen(Mar06).pdf

    Once you are done with those three, continue to find anything and everything you can get your hands on.

    Great comment, good luck with your last semester.

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  5. I'd be curious to know what they mean by "strategic" learning. I do agree that more small unit leaders need a better understanding of the big picture. But that is only so that there will be less likely to do stupid things (like mistreat prisoners, act rudely to civilians, etc). While those are obviously discipline issues, they are also leadership issues. The leadership piece of it is more than just enforcing guidelines. It is keeping the Soldiers informed of the purpose for everything they are doing. This requires a big picture understanding. But that big picture understanding really doesn't require any complicated or "strategic" thinking, imo. Some Soldiers do stupid things because they lose focus of the big picture and obsess over the situation that is unfolding within their 10 meter radius.

    Given the sorry state of tactical proficiency that I think has been endemic in the Army at least since I was commissioned, I'm more concerned about tactical/operational level learning. And given the role of a CPT in developing LTs and training squads and platoons, I'd prefer that strategy not be a significant focus until ILE.

    Agree that if we're going to integrate strategic level stuff, it would best occur in MSIV ROTC because it's difficult to do much in the way of field training in college. Really, it's going to be so abstract anyway, it's not like they're going to get anything less out of it than an LT or Junior CPT.

  6. Schmedlap,

    I think you touched on an important question concerning strategic learning, what do LT/CPTs need to know to be successful?

    Your examples are accurate as well. If the media reports my mistreatment of prisoners, it will hurt our strategic objectives because it will prolong the conflict. What are the second and third order effects of my actions? This type of strategic learning should be our focus. I think vignettes are a good way to teach strategic learning. It is more than ethics. What type of munition should I use to neutralize an immediate threat with respect to collateral damage? The problem starts out on the tactical level, but impacts the operational level, concerning monetary payouts for collateral damage, and could impact the strategic picture, if innocent civilians are killed in the process. Oh by the way, this decision process happens in less time than it takes you to say, "15-6".

    All in all, I think your comment begins to outline the correct focus of strategic learning.

  7. Schmedlap, you said, "The leadership piece of it is more than just enforcing guidelines. It is keeping the Soldiers informed of the purpose for everything they are doing. This requires a big picture understanding."

    Here is an example:
    "The Israel Defense Forces called off a raid into the West Bank after a soldier posted details of the operation, including the time and place, on Facebook, Haaretz reports..." Read more here;

    The US DoD just released guidelines on Social Networking while at work. The military has allowed the use of blogs, supporting it tenfold. Here, the use of Facebook by an Isreali soldier shows how officers need to be aware (and even monitor) the use of such sites; i.e. Twitter.

    Officers provide the larger picture many times, not only because of strategic objectives but also because of learned mistakes. Because of this example, more administration is instituted; i.e guidelines.