Morale: Shutting Down The Vampire Sukhomlinov

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April 21, 2018: The new American secretary of defense is the first combat infantryman and combat commander to run the Department of Defense. Equipped with that background he sees a lot of problems his predecessors missed or underestimated. In particular, the guy at the top understood the seriousness of a growing problem in the military; not enough time to carry out all the required training and verification events. In other words, too much paperwork and pointless busywork. This degenerative process got worse once the Cold War ended in 1991 and throughout the 1990s there were more and more mandatory training and verification tests. Many of these new requirements were based online, which somehow supposed to make them less onerous.

By 2002 a U.S. Army study found company commanders had 297 days’ worth of mandatory training and testing events each year, but only 256 training days in which to get it done. This absurd situation got worse after 2002 and because many of these requirements were imposed in response to unfavorable publicity or political pressure (or both) one could not just quietly drop a lot of them. That would subject you to more mandatory sensitivity and ethics training. There was no mandatory reality training and verification so commanders had no choice but to pretend much of this useless training and verification took place. In some cases that wasn’t enough and some recent fatal ship collisions in the navy were attributable to this requirements overload problem. The new secretary of defense had personal experience with this problem while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now attempting to fix it without triggering a backlash that would have angry politicians imposing even more mandatory training. In addition to all the additional, and largely pointless, training requirements, there was more paperwork, even for tasks that had long been quite simple to accomplish. This was often of the typical “bureaucratic bloat” variety where you had to file a request for permission to file a request for a request.

This sort of thing is nothing new and is often called the Sukhomlinov Effect because of a World War I Russian Minister of War who exemplified it with his fancy uniforms and colossal incompetence. The Sukhomlinov Effect describes a common pattern that develops in armies during peacetime. Untroubled by an armed enemy (and the need to be practical and effective), armies tend to concentrate more on style than substance. That means that sharp looking uniforms become more popular than developing better fighting skills. You can see the snappy uniforms, but not the fighting skills. Thus men who "look" like generals (tall, ruggedly handsome guys with broad shoulders and splendid posture), who wear the uniform well, are more likely to be promoted. A frumpy looking fellow, who has the awesome tactical skills, will go unnoticed, and unpromoted. The Sukhomlinov effect has been compared to a vampire that makes its victims weaker and weaker over time.

This pattern tends to apply universally, with even sergeants being selected more for their bearing than for their battlefield abilities. It's often noted that, once a war begins, the peacetime leadership is often found wanting, and is quickly replaced with guys who can get the job done, even if they don't look so great. Troops who are successful in combat often partake of what might be termed the "Bandit” look. This image derives from the ill-equipped, unkempt Mexican irregular troops, some of whom were bandits (at least some of the time), who outfought the splendidly attired French in the 1860s and the neatly uniformed Federales in the Revolution which began in 1911. These casually attired forces even outmaneuvered the comparatively well-turned out gringos under John J. Pershing, in 1916.

During the Vietnam War, most U.S. troops sported starched and pressed fatigue uniforms. The people at the numerous headquarters were particularly resplendent, with even their combat boots sporting a shine you could see your face in. Generals flitted about in helicopters featuring Simonize jobs any corporate limo would be proud of. In contrast, the Viet Cong and NVA wore dingy black pajamas. U.S. troops actually in the field, particularly those who were better led, soon adopted attire less elegant than that of their commanders. The best American forces, those actually able to go out there and beat the Viet Cong at their own game, on their home ground, regularly partook of the "Bandit" look that drove general Pershing and his troops nuts earlier in the century. Some extremely successful American commando units even preferred the black pajamas for some operations.

To a greater or lesser degree, in peacetime, all armies try to look good, and one way to do this is by concentrating on appearances to the exclusion of many more important concerns. When war comes, it's the army which has been least corrupted by such peacetime pathologies which win. The modern version of this involves piling on mandatory training courses and verification tests to ensure everyone has all the skills and social attitudes the government demands.

In the United States, the problem was there was never anyone in a position of authority to call out this insanity for what it was and fix it. Case in point were several scandals that made the news because of mandatory verification tests for the sailors who maintain and operate nuclear reactors on ships. By 2012 the U.S. Navy had already spent several years fighting allegations that there was pervasive cheating on the many qualification exams members of submarine crews must regularly take. This first made headlines in 2010 when the captain of the USS Memphis (an SSN, or nuclear attack submarine) was dismissed, along with ten percent of his crew, because they cheated on nuclear equipment qualification tests. After that former crewmen and officers on nuclear subs came forward pointing out that the practice was widespread. The reason was that the tests had been made more and more difficult, beyond the point where it made any sense. Rather than lose a lot of nuclear power system personnel, the officers tolerated cheating. More senior commanders, caught in the middle, looked the other way. The Navy insists that this has not, and is not, happening. It was, and it still is and the best commanders can do is wait for the periodic media and political outrage does not cost the navy too many valuable sailors and officers.

Three times between 2007 and 2012 the navy admitted to such cheating (twice on subs, once on a nuclear powered aircraft carrier). These incidents were revealed by inspections conducted by the high command. The Navy insists that there is no widespread cheating and that the tests are not excessively difficult. But sailors and officers who operate these nuclear power plants accuse the brass of covering their butts with the use of more tests and inspections while pressuring the senior officers on the ships (captains and heads of nuclear power departments) to keep their sailors in the navy. Many of these highly trained personnel are getting out of the navy, in part because of the poor leadership at the very top.

At the same time these “cheating scandals” were big news the U.S. has had to pay a lot more to keep experienced people with certain skills. Some types of submarine and nuclear power technicians were offered a bonus of up to $125,000 if they re-enlisted for another three years. This came about because, next to the SEAL commandos, the submarine service, especially nuclear power specialists (or "nukes"), is the most selective job and candidates require nearly as much training. These specialists have an easy time getting good civilian jobs if they get out. These civilian jobs had far fewer Sukhomlinov Effect problems since civilian firms that become too ineffective go out of business.

Meanwhile, the navy had to hustle to retain the services of over a thousand technical personnel to staff the nuclear power plants on submarines and aircraft carriers. The navy never lowered standards for nuclear power specialists. There has never been an accident with nuclear power plants used on hundreds of U.S. submarines and surface ships since the 1950s. This admirable safety record has not been easy to achieve, especially as more time had to be spent taking training verification tests. What the navy lost sight of was that the navy nuclear power program worked for many decades because the senior commanders were competent and understood what their subordinates had to put up with. Gradually that dedication and understanding was lost and the navy never acknowledged the problem. As the old saying goes, there are no bad troops (or sailors) only bad (ineffective) officers. And most of these inept leaders have a bit (or a lot) of Sukhomlinov in them because nothing hides failure (for a while) than new uniforms and more paperwork.

 


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