Leadership: January 15, 2004


The U.S. Army is trying to reform itself, again. This is the fourth major series of reforms in sixty years. The army went through major reforms during the early 1940s when it entered World War II. This produced something unique in American history, a large peacetime army and all of the organizations needed to make it work. There was another major reconfiguration in the 1950s and 1960s. This brought forth the modern battlefield helicopter (and tactics needed to make it work), the unit organizations we still use, and a lot of bad personnel practices. Another round of reforms took place in the 1970s, which created the all-volunteer force of professional and very effective soldiers.

But now some of the past reforms need reforming. The current personnel system, created in the two decades after World War II, has long resisted change. Troops, especially officers, are moved around frequently, in order to give them as much different experience as possible. But this means that no one sticks around long enough to get really good at a job. The proposed reforms aim to put a priority on keeping everyone in units long enough for training to be completed, and then be available for six months to a year as a fully combat ready organization. In the past, constant transfers in and out of a unit meant that, even though a battalion went through it's months of training, the personnel turnover greatly reduced the teamwork and readiness of the outfit. For decades, Department of Defense bureaucrats insisted the constant personnel shifts were in the name of efficiency. But that's how bureaucrats think. The reforms will attempt to change the emphasis from efficiency to effectiveness. This means that the objective of all army efforts is to create combat ready units. If this means some "efficiency" is sacrificed, so be it. Readiness for combat is what the army is all about, not saving a few bucks or making the paperwork look better. This won't be easy. Congress and the media understands bureaucratic efficiency better than they can comprehend combat readiness. But on the battlefield, bureaucratic efficiency can get you killed, and defeated.

One reform the army doesn't want is an increase in personnel. Congress wants to increase the size of the army. Each additional trooper will cost the army $120,000 a year (pay, benefits, training, housing). It will take two years to get new troops training and organized into new units. And by then the army expects the Iraq operation to be demanding far fewer troops. But the army will be stuck with the extra personnel and, knowing the way Congress works, no extra money to pay for them. Moreover, the army currently has, temporarily, about 20,000 extra people because of stop/loss orders (delaying retirement or otherwise leaving the service for six months or so.) Another 57,000 people are "lost" at any one time because of constant transfers. If that could be cut back, more troops would be available for service. 

Junior (first term) enlisted personnel with children, often as single parents, are also a major cause of troops not available for deployment. This is a relatively new development. For generations, first term enlisted troops were simply forbidden to marry or have children. Cadets at the service academies are the only ones who still have to follow this rule. When the draft was eliminated in the 1970s, the army did not insist on preserving the "no family for the first enlistment" rule (in order not to discourage getting enough volunteers.) But two decades of experience has shown that, in this case, the old ways were better. It's not PC (Politically Correct) to try and stop young troops from having families, but it would be a major plus for readiness and morale. 

Speaking of PC problems, another reform would reform the obsession with "zero defects" and commanders concentrating more on "looking good" (by avoiding any real or imagined problems), than in doing what has to be done. This will be tough. Over the past decade, it's become acceptable for officers to closely supervise NCOs and troops. This implied that the troops were not trusted to do the job, while the officers were simply taking the cue from above to "personally make sure" things did not go wrong. This does not work in combat, and is as unpopular with the junior officers as it is with the NCOs and troops. At least this problem is now on the hit list. Given the high quality of NCOs and troops (97 percent of the enlisted troops are at least high school grads, and the majority score above average in intelligence tests), a determined shove from the brass could make the bad old ways disappear in short order.

For the last decade, "transformation" has been the buzzword. But the new reforms are not looking at what the army might be in a decade, but what can be done to solve immediate problems. Part of this is the realization that the country is at war, and immediate issues are more important than those in the far future. But it's also realized that technology is changing so fast that it's more effective to take what's available and integrate it into the army, rather than spending a lot of time, effort and money to develop systems using future technologies that might never arrive, or will be available in unexpected forms. 

Reforms are attempted more frequently then they succeed, so it will be a few years before we know if the ones above have made it.




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