Tag Archives: Reform

The Problem With Personnel Reform: Who Are the Army’s Best and Brightest?

This piece was originally published by Small Wars Journal and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Robert P. Callahan, Jr.

The phrase “best and brightest” is frequently used but ambiguously defined. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s Force of the Future aims to recruit and retain this group, but it fails to define who the best and brightest are. Many proposed personnel reforms do the same thing. Doctrinal and popular sources define which officers are the Army’s best and which are its brightest. These sources suggest that the Army’s best and brightest officers form two almost completely independent groups. The best officers succeed in traditional leadership positions, the brightest officers leverage their participation in Broadening Opportunity Programs to attempt to improve the Army, and the best and brightest do both. The firmly defined career track of the Army’s best and the Army’s up-or-out policy combine to prevent the best and the brightest from overlapping. A number of reforms have been proposed to address this state of affairs, but recent reports suggest that the Army’s policies will not change.

Setting the Stage

During late February 1991, Captain Herbert McMaster led Eagle Troop, 2nd Squadron, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment (ACR) east across the deserts of Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm. Eagle Troop was ordered to the 70th easting (a measure of distance east or west) on the afternoon of February 26th, and their advance led directly into a village heavily defended by Iraqis. After engaging the Iraqis and bypassing the village to the north, CPT McMaster’s soldiers decisively engaged a dug-in Iraqi position on the back slope of a ridge. Weaving through minefields, clearing bunkers, and peppering the unprotected rears of Iraqi tanks, Eagle Troop wiped out the Iraqi position. During the course of these actions, Eagle Troop had moved beyond the 70th easting to the 73rd easting. When McMaster’s executive officer radioed a reminder that the 70th easting was the limit of advance, McMaster replied, “I can’t stop. We’re still in contact. Tell them I’m sorry.”[i] McMaster was awarded the Silver Star, the Army’s third highest award for bravery, for his initiative and the successes of Eagle Troop.

Following Desert Storm, McMaster rose steadily through the ranks, commanding 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment and the 3rd ACR. Then Colonel McMaster deployed to Iraq with 3ACR in 2005 and 2006. Before its deployment, McMaster replaced a typical National Training Center rotation, which would have closely resembled then CPT McMaster’s experiences at 73 Easting nearly 15 years earlier, with innovative language and cultural training, which even incorporated Arab-Americans role-playing as Iraqi locals. 3ACR put this training to use while clearing Tal Afar, Iraq in 2005 and 2006. At the outset of this effort, Tal Afar was a training base for foreign fighters and home to cells from Al-Qaeda, Ansar Al-Sunna, and former Baathist elements. 3ACR began pushing into Tal Afar on September 2nd, 2005 and successfully cleared the city after overcoming some heavy resistance. 3ACR’s cavalrymen and a battalion of paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne then set out to keep the anti-government forces from retaking the city. These cavalrymen and paratroopers set up a network of small outposts throughout the city and they stayed for months, thereby convincing the locals that the American military and, by extension, the Iraqi government was there to stay. Violent incidents became less frequent and less deadly, and the 3ACR’s actions were heralded as proof that “individuals and units within the Army could learn and adapt on their own.”[ii]

Although McMaster’s career may seem prototypical, the years between his commands in the Middle East and his conduct as 3ACR’s commander marked McMaster as an unusual officer. McMaster taught history at West Point during the mid-1990s, earned a PhD in history from the University of North Carolina, and challenged the conventional wisdom that the military leadership was blameless for the conduct of the Vietnam War in the 1997 Dereliction of Duty, based on his dissertation. Despite these academic and professional successes, McMaster was passed over twice for promotion to brigadier general. Contemporary accounts suggest that it took bringing General David Patraeus, then the commander in Iraq, back to the United States to chair the 2008 brigadier general promotion board for McMaster to be selected for promotion.[iii] When the 2008 brigadier general selections were announced, Slate trumpeted, “Finally, the Army is promoting the right officers.”[iv] According to some commenters, McMaster’s promotion to brigadier general by exception proved the rule that the Army disdains innovative officers.[v] As these commenters tell it, the Army will face an unknown threat in the future, and stifling innovative officers, such as McMaster, will have negative consequences on the future battlefield.[vi]

Meeting the Future Head on

This argument is one of many that conclude that the Army’s current personnel policies, for whatever reason, are setting the Army up for failure.[vii] Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s Force of the Future, an initiative focused on recruiting and retaining the people our country needs “to serve and defend our country in the years to come,” is intended to prevent such a situation from occurring.[viii] During a speech introducing the initiative, Secretary Carter stated that the military is committed to recruiting America’s “best and brightest” to serve as soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, and that America will need its best and brightest to serve our country in order to meet the challenges of the future.

Perhaps the Force of the Future is just in time. Some people feel that the US Army has been losing its best and brightest since at least 2007.[ix] Others disagree, instead arguing that the best and brightest officers remain in uniform for a full career.[x] What both groups agree on is that there is some group of officers who are the Army’s best and brightest. Unfortunately, neither group defines who these best and brightest officers are. According to Secretary Carter, “college and higher learning are encouraged because we need our sailors, soldiers, airmen, and Marines to be the best and the brightest.”[xi] Secretary Carter’s logic suggests that the best and the brightest are the college educated. However, educational attainment is of limited use as a discriminator since effectively every active duty commissioned officer is required to hold a bachelor’s degree. Therefore, we need to understand who our best and brightest officers are if we are going to examine how our personnel system influences the military service of these officers.

Examining the relationship between the Army’s best officers and its brightest officers offers a path towards gaining such an understanding, and hopefully we can discover which of the following three statements is true: first, all of the Army’s best officers are also its brightest officers, second, some of the Army’s best officers are also its brightest officers, or third, the Army’s best officers and brightest officers are two entirely independent groups. ADRP 6-22 Army Leadership and the Officer Evaluation Report (OER) define the best Army officers, and both Army regulations and popular discourse can be used to characterize the brightest Army officers. These definitions will allow us to explore the relationship between the best and the brightest and to examine how these officers contribute to the Army. Finally, we can use the current state of the Army’s best and brightest as a baseline for discussing some of the proposed reforms; reforms that are predicated on maximizing the impact of these officers.

You Want to be the Very Best

According to a 2014 Human Resources Command brief, the Army changed its OER in part to “identify talent” and correctly assess officers at different grades.[xii] In an attempt to keep the OER relevant and adaptive, the changes were informed by a variety of sources including two Chiefs of Staff of the Army, the other Armed Services, and Industry examples. HRC highlighted that the new OER would help identify talent by assessing performance based on leadership attributes and competencies. According to ADRP 6-22, a leader’s attributes are character, presence, and intellect, and a leader’s competencies are leading, developing, and achieving. Although every officer is expected to demonstrate the leadership attributes and competencies, how these characteristics are evaluated depends on the rank of the rated officer.

The Army Leadership Requirements Model

First and foremost among the leadership attributes and competencies is character. Every officer who receives an OER is rated on her character. The character of a company grade or field grade officer is evaluated independently from any other metric; this emphasis says that nothing else matters if an officer’s character is deficient. A brigadier general’s character and potential are described in a single paragraph; this combination recognizes that an officer’s potential to shepherd the Army as an institution is inextricably tied up in his character. Although this notion may seem quaint, the aftermath of Colonel James Johnson’s affair demonstrated how an officer’s character influences his effectiveness as a leader and public servant. But what about the other attributes and competencies in the Army Leadership Requirements Model?

A company grade officer’s presence and intellect, who she leads and develops, and what she achieves are all described independently. For a field grade officer, these assessments are no longer independent, but are instead evaluated through one all-encompassing narrative. For a brigadier general, this assessment falls completely to the wayside and is replaced by two observations of her character and potential. What does this demonstrate about how the Army determines who its best are? One possibility is that if an officer has been promoted, then the Army has already determined that she possesses the attributes and competencies required of an Army officer in her grade; in short, her rank speaks for itself. However, as the saying goes, it’s never what you’ve done, it’s what you’ve done lately. Therefore, it is safe to assume that the Army has designed its rating scheme with a different justification in mind.

Making It Happen

According to ADRP 6-0 Mission Command, “military operations are complex, human endeavors characterized by the continuous, mutual adaptation of give and take, moves, and countermoves among all participants,” and “the unpredictability of human behavior affects military operations. Commanders and subordinates must learn from experience, anticipate change, and develop adaptability,” and these processes occur as a part of Mission Command.[xiii] “Mission Command is the exercise of authority and direction by the commander using mission orders to enable disciplined initiative within the commander’s intent to empower agile and adaptive leaders in the conduct of unified land operations.”[xiv] Each commander assigns a part of accomplishing the mission to each of his subordinate units and sets the limits within which the subordinate units can act towards mission accomplishment. As mission orders propagate down the chain of command, smaller and smaller units are assigned more and more specific tasks, but those tasks are still placed in the context of the one and two level higher unit’s mission and the higher unit commander’s intent. Eagle Troop’s success at 73 Easting can be viewed as a textbook implementation of this concept. Although then CPT McMaster had an explicit order to halt at the 70th easting, Eagle Troop did not halt there because continuing to engage the Iraqi forces would have done more to contribute to both 2nd Squadron’s and 2ACR’s missions that day than remaining at the 70th easting.

There is an inverse relationship between an officer’s rank and the availability of troop leading positions. A review of DA PAM 600-3 Commissioned Officer Professional Development and Career Management shows that successful company grade officers are typically expected to be in at least two troop leading positions, specifically platoon leader and troop/battery/company commander, but higher ranking officers will spend the majority of their time off the line. A field grade officer will not command a unit again unless he is selected both for lieutenant colonel and for battalion/squadron command, and he cannot compete for brigade command unless he has already been selected for colonel. A typical general officer’s first command opportunity is a two-star division command. Furthermore, a specific leader’s breadth of responsibility decreases the further he is down the Chain of Command. Subordinate leaders must accomplish their assigned task in support of their immediate commander’s mission. However, they can also achieve results that contribute to their one and two level higher unit’s mission.

When 3ACR deployed to Tal Afar, then COL McMaster set the stage for his unit’s actions, but his subordinates actually made them happen. Indeed, then LTC Chris Hickey met with tribal leaders from both sides of the Shia-Sunni divide in order to lay the groundwork for stabilizing Tal Afar, and the company and platoon level leaders of and attached to 3ACR established and manned the network of outposts which created a semblance of stability in Tal Afar. The facts that lower ranking officers have more leadership opportunities and lower level leaders have an outsize opportunity to exercise disciplined initiative can together explain why an officer’s attributes and competencies go from individually evaluated, to generally evaluated, to not evaluated at all as an officer is promoted from the company grades through the field grades to the general officer level. Given this rating scheme, the best officers are those who possess impeccable character, excel in the Army’s desired leadership attributes and competencies early in their careers, and continue to develop potential as they are promoted up the ranks. Now that we understand what makes an Army officer one of the best, we can turn our attention to which Army officers should be considered the brightest.

Who Burns the Brightest?

The doctrinal definition for the brightest Army officers would most likely be those officers who best leverage the attribute the Army has dubbed intellect. According to ADRP 6-22, “an Army leader’s intellect draws on the mental tendencies and resources that shape conceptual abilities applied to one’s duties and responsibilities.”[xv] Using this definition sheds no light on who would be Army’s “best and brightest” since the Army’s definition for best already includes a consideration of each officer’s intellect. It would be akin to saying that CPT Smith has the highest PT score in the battalion and also did the most push-ups in the battalion during the last APFT. These two facts tell us different things, but the first tells us the totality of what the Army would like to know about CPT Smith while the second provides information that is suggested by the first. Ideally, defining the population of the brightest Army officers would provide some information not explicitly or implicitly provided by our definition of the best Army officers.

We can begin defining who our brightest officers are by examining which Americans are generally considered to be the brightest. In public discourse, someone is usually considered bright for one of two, usually juxtaposed, reasons. The first definition for a bright person would be one who has performed well in academic settings throughout their life, attended an undergraduate or graduate program with pedigree, and holds or will hold a high-prestige job in government, academia, or the private sector. Such people tend to be lampooned by many, including the proponents of the second definition. Under the second view, our country’s brightest are distinguished by their efforts to improve the lives of others, their innovative nature, or their commitment to change. As demonstrated by Forbes, these two definitions are not always mutually exclusive; pedigree does not preclude public service, nor does membership in an established profession necessarily prohibit fostering innovation.[xvi] Therefore, let us consider bright to generally mean some combination of a name-brand education or profession and a desire to innovate, a proclivity for change, or a drive to solve others’ problems.

Who among the Army’s officers would best match this description? The most likely candidates are participants in the Army’s Advanced Civil School options and other Broadening Opportunity Programs. According to MyArmyBenefits, ACS, “facilitates the professional development of Regular Army Officers by providing them the opportunity to participate in a fully funded graduate degree program.” Most, but not all, Broadening Opportunity Programs are administered under the aegis of ACS, but the Broadening Opportunity Programs have a specific mission of, “building a cohort of leaders that allow the Army to succeed at all levels in all environments.”[xvii] Those officers who participate in a Broadening Opportunity Program or complete Advanced Civil Schooling form the population that includes the Army’s brightest, but we still need a method for separating the truly bright from the academically inclined.

Although the term bright has intellectual connotations, our initial pool of possibly bright officers has already been defined purely by their educational choices and career paths. Perhaps then, the brightest officers should be identified by how their personal choices demonstrate the habits of mind indicative of an innovative nature or commitment to improving the Army. For example, McMaster was not marked as a one of the brightest Army officer solely for earning a PhD. Instead, McMaster’s reputation as a bright officer began when he adapted his dissertation research into a book which challenged the reader to reexamine the role of the Army’s leadership in national decision making. The Army’s brightest officers do not always tread the well worn path of the Army’s best. However, their personal efforts help foster a healthy institutional Army which the Army’s best officers can lead “to prevent, shape, and win in the land domain.”[xviii]

The brightest Americans are generally considered to be those who are well educated or act upon an outstanding character. The Army’s brightest officers are drawn from those who have participated in the Broadening Opportunity Programs or completed Advanced Civil Schooling, but they are specifically identified by the impact of their personal endeavors on their professional activities. Since we have identified that best as being responsible for leading the Army and the brightest for ensuring that we have an Army worth, it is time to turn our attention to the relationship between the Army’s best and brightest.

Whiz Kids or Warrior Monks?

The Army’s best officers are promoted to positions of ever greater responsibility, and its brightest officers leverage their additional education and nonconventional assignments to sustain and improve the Institutional Army. Some of the Army’s Advanced Civil School opportunities are functional area producing courses of study and a majority of the Army’s general officers are promoted from the combat arms, therefore the Army’s best and its brightest cannot be the same exact group. That leaves two possible options: there is some overlap between the Army’s best and its brightest or the best and the brightest are completely independent.

In 2015, Spain, Mohundro, and Banks found that ceteris paribus for a one standard deviation increase in what they termed the “Intellectual Human Capital” of a West Point graduate, that officer was 29% less likely to be promoted early to major, 18% less likely to be promoted early to lieutenant colonel, and 32% less likely to be selected for battalion command.[xix] Spain et al. suggested a number of potential reasons for this relationship. One hypothesis is that such officers participate in Advanced Civil School and other Broadening Opportunity Programs, which means that these officers receive fewer Officer Evaluation Reports and have less of the troop leading experience which the Army values. Therefore, these officers present a less competitive profile to the promotion and command selection boards. If Spain et al.’s hypothesis is correct, then there is a very strong case that the Army’s personnel policies create two groups: one comprising the Army’s best officers and another its brightest officers. Accepting this conclusion, the School of Advanced Military Studies’ Advanced Strategic Planning and Policy Program (ASP3) offers one of the few bridges between the Army’s best and brightest. The Army’s decision to allow select field grade officers the opportunity to both command and pursue a PhD highlights an important fact about the relationship between the Army’s best and brightest. Those few officers, like LTG McMaster, whose careers place them at the intersection of the Army’s best and brightest provide something that its best and its brightest cannot provide alone.

The career requirements placed on the Army’s best make it impossible for the best and the brightest to overlap at the tactical level. Many of the authors who have discussed the “best and brightest” offered suggestions for what to change in order to retain their undefined group of officers, advice which is no less valid when applied to a defined group of the best and brightest.[xx] In fact, Darrell Fawley posits that some of the Army’s best want the chance to also be its brightest, and the chance to become the “best and brightest” earlier in their careers.[xxi] Most of these suggestions can be summarized as loosening restrictions on the military’s labor market and eliminating time in grade or time in service considerations in order to place each officer in the position where they can best contribute to the Army’s mission.[xxii]

Regardless of whether or how the Army reforms its personnel policies, the policies the Army has in places matter because, as Colin Griffin points out, “[they are] about whether America can win wars.”[xxiii] The rhetoric surrounding the Force of the Future has been focused on preparing the US military for some nebulous “future battlefield,” but others argue that the future battlefield is now.[xxiv] If these dissidents are correct, the effects of America’s personnel decisions will be felt in the coming months and years, not years and decades. In the worst case, making the wrong choices will cost American lives and could cost the survival of the American experiment.

Secretary Carter’s Force of the Future initiative is motivated by a desire for the armed services to maintain a competitive edge in the quality of its service members and civilian employees. Thus far, these reforms have focused on improving the military services’ human resources practices and family leave policies; a good thing given that the military’s best and brightest can only consist of those who are willing to join and remain in the military. Recent reports suggest that, despite the Force of the Future, the Army will not change its personnel policies. The current policies discourage the best and brightest officers from overlapping; the result is that the Army’s best officers spend the majority of their time leading and its brightest officers do little else but think. If the Army wants to grow officers who can both lead and think, then its assignment and promotion policies must change. However, the Army must first ask itself whether it wants to change at all. The answer will depend on which officers get to answer. Who will it be: the best, the brightest, or both? SWJ.

1st Lieutenant Robert P. Callahan, Jr. is assigned to Fort Rucker, AL. Rob is an associate member of the Military Writers Guild.

End Notes

[i] McMaster, Herbert R. “Battle of 73 Easting.” February 26, 1991. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://www.benning.army.mil/Library/content/McMasterHR%20CPT_Battleof73Easting.pdf

[ii] Packer, George. “The Lesson of Tal Afar.” The New Yorker. April 10, 2006. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/04/10/the-lesson-of-tal-afar

[iii] “McMaster to Be Brigadier General.” BlackFive. July 16, 2008. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://www.blackfive.net/main/2008/07/mcmaster-to-be.html

[iv] Kaplan, Fred. “Finally, the Army Is Promoting the Right Officers.” Slate, 4 Aug. 2008. Accessed 24 Mar. 2016. http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/war_stories/2008/08/annual_general_meeting.single.html

[v] Barno, Dave. “Major General Herbert Raymond McMaster: The World’s 100 Most Influential People.” Time. 23 Apr. 2014. Accessed 24 Mar. 2016. http://time.com/70886/herbert-raymond-mcmaster-2014-time-100/; Freedberg, Sydney J., Jr. “Army Taps Controversial Generals: What McMaster & Mangum Mean For The Future.” Breaking Defense. February 19, 2014. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://breakingdefense.com/2014/02/army-promotes-controversial-generals-what-mcmaster-mangum-mean-for-the-future/; Joyner, James. “H.R. McMaster Gets Third Star, Charge of Army Future.” Outside the Beltway. February 19, 2014. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/h-r-mcmaster-gets-third-star-charged-army-future/; Freedberg, Sydney J., Jr. “How To Get Best Military Leaders: CNAS Says Split Warriors From Managers.” Breaking Defense. October 25, 2013. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://breakingdefense.com/2013/10/how-to-get-best-military-leaders-cnas-says-split-warriors-from-managers/;

[vi] Schafer, Amy. “Why Military Personnel Reform Matters.” War on the Rocks. October 28, 2015. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://warontherocks.com/2015/10/why-military-personnel-reform-matters/;

[vii] Freedberg, Sydney J., Jr. “Big Army Must Improve People Management Or Lose Talent.” Breaking Defense. September 12, 2011. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://breakingdefense.com/2011/09/big-army-must-improve-people-management-or-lose-talent/; Lind, William S. “An Officer Corps That Can’t Score.” The American Conservative. April 17, 2014. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/an-officer-corps-that-cant-score/

[viii] Carter, Ash. “Remarks by Secretary Carter on the Force of the Future.” U.S. DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE. March 30, 2015. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://www.defense.gov/News/Speeches/Speech-View/Article/606658

[ix] Tilghman, Andrew. “The Army’s Other Crisis.” Washington Monthly. December 2007. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2007/0712.tilghman.html; Kane, Tim. “Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving.” The Atlantic. January/February 2011. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/01/why-our-best-officers-are-leaving/308346/; Andrews, Fred. “The Military Machine as a Management Wreck.” The New York Times. January 05, 2013. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/06/business/bleeding-talent-sees-a-military-management-mess.html?_r=0; Joyner, James. “Why America’s Best Officers Are Leaving.” Outside the Beltway. January 6, 2011. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/why-americas-best-officers-are-leaving/; Kane, Tim. “How to Lose Great Leaders? Ask the Army.” Washington Post. February 5, 2013. Accessed March 24, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-leadership/how-to-lose-great-leaders-ask-the-army/2013/02/05/725f177e-6fae-11e2-ac36-3d8d9dcaa2e2_story.html; Farley, Darrell. “A Junior Officer’s Perspective on Brain Drain.” Small Wars Journal. June 17, 2013. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/a-junior-officers-perspective-on-brain-drain; Schafer, Amy. “What Stands in the Way of the Pentagon Keeping Its Best and Brightest?” Defense One. July 14, 2014. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2014/07/what-stands-way-pentagon-keeping-its-best-and-brightest/88630/; Stensland, John. “Military’s Best, Brightest Deserve Commensurate Benefits.” Statesman Journal. September 10, 2015. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://www.statesmanjournal.com/story/opinion/readers/2015/09/10/militarys-best-brightest-deserve-commensurate-benefits/72035738/; Barno, David, and Nora Bensahel. “Can the U.S. Military Halt Its Brain Drain?” The Atlantic. November 5, 2015. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/11/us-military-tries-halt-brain-drain/413965/; Barno, David. “Military Brain Drain.” Foreign Policy. February 13, 2013. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/02/13/military-brain-drain/

[x] Hodges, Frederick. “Army Strong.” Foreign Policy. March 27, 2013. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/03/27/army-strong/; Kroesen, Frederick J. “Losing the ‘Best and Brightest,’ Again.” ARMY Magazine. March 2011. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://www.ausa.org/publications/armymagazine/archive/2011/3/Documents/FC_Kroesen_0311.pdf

[xi] Carter. “Force of the Future.”

[xii] “Revised Officer Evaluation Reports.” U.S. Army Human Resources Command. April 1, 2011. Accessed March 24, 2016. https://www.hrc.army.mil/site/ASSETS/PDF/MOD1_Revised_Officer_Evaluation_Reports_Jan14.pdf pg. 2

[xiii] ADRP 6-0: Mission Command. Washington, DC: Headquarters, Department of the Army., 2012. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://armypubs.army.mil/doctrine/DR_pubs/dr_a/pdf/adrp6_0.pdf pg. 1-1

[xiv] ADP 6-0: Mission Command. Washington, DC: Headquarters, Department of the Army., 2012. Accessed March 24, 2016 .http://armypubs.army.mil/doctrine/DR_pubs/dr_a/pdf/adp6_0.pdf pg. 1

[xv] ADRP 6-22: Army Leadership. Washington, D.C.: Headquarters, Department of the Army, 2012. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://armypubs.army.mil/doctrine/DR_pubs/dr_a/pdf/adrp6_22.pdf pg. 5-1

[xvi] “30 Under 30.” Forbes. 2016. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://www.forbes.com/30-under-30-2016/

[xvii] “Advanced Civil Schooling (ACS).” MyArmyBenefits. August 4, 2015. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://myarmybenefits.us.army.mil/Home/Benefit_Library/Federal_Benefits_Page/Advanced_Civil_Schooling_(ACS).html?serv=147; “Broadening Opportunity Programs.” U.S. Army Human Resources Command. January 29, 2016. Accessed March 24, 2016. https://www.hrc.army.mil/OPMD/Broadening%20Opportunity%20Programs%20Building%20a%20cohort%20of%20leaders%20that%20allow%20the%20Army%20to%20succeed%20at%20all%20levels%20in%20all%20environments

[xviii] ADP 1: The Army. Washington, D.C.: Headquarters, Department of the Army, 2012. Accessed March 23, 2016. http://armypubs.army.mil/doctrine/DR_pubs/dr_a/pdf/adp1.pdf

[xix] Spain, Everett S. P., J. D. Mohundro, and Barnard B. Banks. “Intellectual Capital: A Case for Cultural Change.” Parameters. Summer 2015. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/parameters/Issues/Summer_2015/10_Spain.pdf

[xx] Simons, Anna. “Intellectual Capital: A Cautionary Note.” Parameters. Summer 2015. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/parameters/Issues/Summer_2015/11_Simons.pdf; Wallace, Cory. “A Tale of Two Majors: Talent Management and Army Officer Promotions.” War on the Rocks. January 13, 2016. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://warontherocks.com/2016/01/a-tale-of-two-majors-talent-management-and-army-officer-promotions/; Griffin, Colin. “Who’s Out of Control?” Small Wars Journal. February 6, 2016. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/who’s-out-of-control/; Arnold, Mark C. “Don’t Promote Mediocrity.” Armed Forces Journal. May 1, 2012. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://www.armedforcesjournal.com/dont-promote-mediocrity/; Schafer. “What Stands in the Way of the Pentagon.”; Barno. “Military Brain Drain.”; MacLean, Aaron. “We Don’t Reward Top Military Performers-and It’s Costing Us.” Washington Post. 9 Nov. 2011. Web. 24 Mar. 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-leadership/we-dont-reward-top-military-performersand-its-costing-us/2011/11/09/gIQApzbj5M_story.html; Kane. “How to Lose Great Leaders.”; Joyner. “America’s Best Officers Are Leaving.”; Kane. “Our Best Officers are Leaving.”

[xxi] Farley. “A Junior Officer’s Perspective.”

[xxii] Grazier, Dan. “Military Reform Begins With Personnel Reform.” Project On Government Oversight. August 25, 2015. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://www.pogo.org/blog/2015/08/military-personnel-reform.html; Grazier, Dan. “The Pentagon’s Pricey Culture of Mediocrity.” Project On Government Oversight. January 27, 2016. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://www.pogo.org/straus/issues/military-people-and-ideas/2016/the-pentagons-pricey-culture-of-mediocrity.html;

[xxiii] Griffin. “Who’s Out of Control.”

[xxiv] Barno and Bansahel. “Can the U.S. Military Halt Its Brain Drain?”; “World War III: Stop Trying to Prevent It.” The Angry Staff Officer. February 13, 2016. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://angrystaffofficer.com/2016/02/13/world-war-iii-stop-trying-to-prevent-it/; Buchanan, Patrick J. “No End to War in Sight.” The American Conservative. February 12, 2016. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://www.theamericanconservative.com/buchanan/no-end-to-war-in-sight/

Featured Image: Secretary of Defense Ash Carter addresses U.S. Army ROTC cadets attending training at Fort Knox, Ky., June 22, 2016. (DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley/Released)

Athena Project San Diego Innovation Jam Roundup

This piece was originally published by the Athena Project. It is republished here with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Dave Nobles

Wednesday’s Innovation Jam onboard USS ESSEX (LHD 2) was an important and monumental moment for Naval Innovation.

The event was sponsored by a number of organizations, including Commander Pacific Fleet, SPAWAR Systems Center Pacific (SSC Pacific), the Office of Naval Research (ONR), and the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. The support of such senior leadership for Deckplate Innovation made the event a resounding success, demonstrated in spades through awarding not one but two Sailors $100,000 to fund their concepts through prototyping and transition.

That’s the important part. Ideas born out of frustration, perseverance, and a quest to make the Navy better have been funded. However, the significance of the Innovation Jam is beyond the funding.

During the Innovation Jam, the assembled crowd of Sailors and government civilians listened to senior uniformed leadership within the Navy, like the Commander of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Scott Swift; The Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Readiness and Logistics, Vice Admiral Phil Cullom and the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Mike Stevens. The three military speakers kicked off the event with a volley of support for The Athena Project, Tactical Advancements for the Next Generation (TANG), The Hatch, The Bridge, and other efforts to bring about positive change.  Each message resonated with the entrepreneurial and intraprenurial philosophies.

The voices of those senior leaders, combined with civilian thought leaders such as Dr. Nathan Myhrvold, the first Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of Microsoft and founder of Intellectual Ventures and Dr. Maura Sullivan, the Department of the Navy’s Chief of Strategy and Innovation, all echoed the a consistent theme:

Innovation is about taking risks.

The sponsorship, collaborative support and allocation of resources serves as a beacon of thoughtful risk taking by senior leadership in the Navy. And, funding two Sailor concepts serves as inspiration to empower all Sailors at all levels to share their own ideas and as a clear signal from the Navy’s top brass that they’re not only listening but that they’re also ready to act.

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Sailors and engineers work together to reframe their concepts during athenaTHINK at SSC Pacific.

Over two days in San Diego, six Sailors who presented ideas through innovation initiatives such as The Athena Project, TANG, and The Hatch, were given the opportunity to interface with scientists and engineers at SSC Pacific and ONR to reframe and refine their concepts at an athenaTHINK event before presenting their ideas at the Innovation Jam to a panel of experts, who would decide a winner.

On the panel Dr. Myhrvold and Dr. Sullivan were joined by Dr. Stephen Russell of SSC Pacific, Mr. Scott DiLisio of OPNAV N4, Dr. Robert Smith of ONR, Mr. Arman Hovakemian of Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) Corona Division, ETCM Gary Burghart of SSC Pacific and the Commanding Officer of the host ship, USS ESSEX, CAPT Brian Quin.

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The panelists evaluating the pitches onboard USS ESSEX (LHD 2).

The panel heard the six pitches and, after deliberation, Dr. Russell announced the results:

First Place: LTJG Rob McClenning, USS GRIDLEY (DDG 101)

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LTJG McClenning and Dr. Russell.

LTJG McClenning presented his concept which he originally pitched at Athena West 3.0 called the Unified Gunnery System (UGS). The system would provide ballistic helmets equipped with augmented reality visors to the Sailors manning machine guns topside on a warship, and command and control via tablet in the pilot house. Commands given on the touch screen would provide indications to the gunners displaying orders, bearing lines and more. The system would be wired to prevent cyber attacks. The augmented reality capability of the system would mitigate potential catastrophic results of misheard orders due to the loud fire of the guns, and improve accuracy and situational awareness. LTJG McClenning received $500 for his concept, and $100K to develop the idea in collaboration with SSC Pacific.

Second Place: LT Bill Hughes, OPNAV N96

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LT Hughes and Dr. Russell.

LT Hughes flew in from Washington, DC to pitch his concept, also from Athena West 3.0. The idea, CosmoGator, aims to automate celestial navigation through installed, gyro-stabilized camera mounts and small-scale atomic clocks to provide redundant Position, Navigation and Timing data to shipboard navigation and weapons systems. LT Hughes’ concept would continually update inertial navigation systems to enable continued operations in the event of GPS denial. Previously, this concept had been explored by the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell. LT Hughes received $300 and in a surprise move, OPNAV N4 funded his idea with $100K as well.

Third Place: GMC Kyle Zimmerman, Afloat Training Group Middle Pacific

GMC Zimmerman’s concept, originally presented at Athena West 4.0, intends to bring virtual reality to the Combat Information Center. Through the use of commercially available headsets, GMC Zimmerman proposed streaming a live optical feed of a ship’s operating environment to watchstanders to increase situational awareness and provide increased capability in responding to casualties such as Search and Rescue. GMZ Zimmerman received $200 for his idea.

Honorable Mention: LCDR Bobby Hsu, Commander, Task Force 34

LCDR Hsu pitched an idea from Theater Anti-Submarine Warfare (TASW) TANG for a consolidated information database for the litany of data required to effectively manage the TASW mission. The concept, Automated Response for Theater Information or ARTI, would leverage voice recognition software like the kind found in the Amazon Echo or Apple’s Siri, to enable watchstanders and commanders alike rapid access to critical information.

Honorable Mention: LT Clay Greunke, SSC Pacific

LT Greunke presented a concept that he began developing during his time at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) and pitched at Athena West 9.0. His concept leverages virtual reality to more effectively train Landing Signals Officers (LSO) by recreating the simulator experience of an entire building in a laptop and Oculus headset. LT Greunke demonstrated his prototype for the panelists and described a vision for the LSO VR Trainer, called ‘SEA FOG,’ as the first piece of an architecture of virtual reality tools to improve training in a number of communities and services.

Honorable Mention: OSC Erik Rick, Naval Beach Group ONE

OSC Rick first presented his idea for a combined site to host all required computer based training on The Hatch, though he acknowledged that the concept had been a highly visible entry on The Hatch, as well as in previous crowd-sourcing initiatives such as Reducing Administrative Distractions (RAD), BrightWork and MilSuite. His concept is to make universal access tags for civilians, reserve and active duty personnel to enable easy tracking of completed training as well as required training. In his proposal, the host site would combine the requirements of the numerous sites currently hosting training requirements and deliver an App Store-like interface to simplify the experience for users.

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All of our presenters and panelists. America.

Not enough can be said for the courage that all of the presenters demonstrated to take the stage in an nerve-wracking setting and present their ideas. In another good news story, the panelists and the assembled crowd provided feedback to all the presenters, which will assist in the further development of all six concepts.

With the success of the Innovation Jam in the rear view mirror, the process now begins to build on the ideas that received funding. We’ll continue to provide updates of the future successes of the two funded concepts right here on the blog.

This milestone for Naval Innovation is nothing short of monumental. Many can relate to a near exhaustion with the rhetoric surrounding innovation: Agility, fast failure, big ideas, consolidating disparate efforts, getting technology to the warfighters, and certainly partnering partnerships with non-traditional players.  When actions are weighed against rhetoric, it is action that wins, taking the initiative, assuming the initiative to act and moving the needle. And Wednesday, we saw that happen.

This inaugural Innovation Jam will not be a one-time thing. As stated by VADM Cullom in his Keynote Address the event will be coming to every fleet concentration area in the future. Here at The Athena Project, we’ll continue to push initiatives like the Innovation Jam to inspire the creative confidence to present ideas and aid in any way possible to turn concepts into reality.

And, for those wondering how they might get involved in an events like this, support your local Athena chapter, submit your ideas to The Hatch and participate in workshops like TANG! Participation in these, and any innovation initiative will make you eligible for your regional Innovation Jam!

The future looks bright indeed not only for innovation but for action.

And we’re damn proud to be a part of that.

Dave Nobles is a member of the Design Thinking Corps at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and the founder of The Athena Project. He is also a Navy Reservist with the Office of Naval Research.

Featured Image: September’s Athena East Event at Old Dominion University.

People Not Parts: Returning Ingenuity and Tenacity to our Officer Corps

By Ian Akisoglu

Since the end of the Second World War, the military dominance of the United States has rested on its relative technological superiority over its adversaries, what has been underwritten by its impressive economic strength and high-tech domestic industries. For the first time in seventy years, the United States military is forced to contemplate a long-term strategy without the implicit guarantee that it will enjoy decisive technological superiority as its most likely adversaries come closer and closer to achieving parity in both technological and economic strength. In order to remain viable in future conflicts, the American military will have to rethink its operational paradigm and learn to rely more heavily on the creativity and individual zeal of its leaders and less on its hard assets.

For much of its history, the American military has fought its major conflicts without the overwhelming technological and financial superiority that it has enjoyed since the end of the Second World War. I believe that this phenomenon can best be explained by the following paradigm: raised in an age where American military power was relatively lacking on the world stage, the American officer corps did not possess any of the bad habits or laziness of thought engendered in today’s officer corps. Looking down on the rest of the world’s militaries from a plateau of overwhelming superiority and relative security, we have become haughty and ignorant of our peers’ capabilities. Previously generations of American military officers were forced to contend with a world in which the United States Army and Navy were not the best – indeed, not even in the top ten at times.

This forced American military leaders to develop and utilize a currently unimaginable level of organizational, operational, and strategic creativity comparably unknown to the armed forces of today, where an over-reliance on financial superiority has led to an over-reliance on technological superiority, which has led to an over-reliance on established procedures and doctrine. In order for the armed forces of the United States of America to continue to enjoy success in the future, both on the battlefield and as a viable instrument of soft power, American military leaders must look to lessons from the past and re-learn how to plan and fight wars without the assumption that they will always enjoy superiority of force.

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A humorous quote from a European officer highlights the benefit of this, “One of the serious problems in planning against American doctrine is that the Americans do not read their manuals nor do they feel any obligations to follow their doctrine.” This emphasizes the extensive freedom of judgment American commanders previously enjoyed while executing missions in complex operational environments. From the author’s perspective as a contemporary unrestricted line officer in the U.S. Navy, this freedom of judgment is virtually non-existent nowadays. Instead, American military commanders are so hamstrung by strict adherence to the protocol and procedures that have been enshrined throughout their military upbringings that they are often afraid to rely on their own intuition, experience, and creativity. This risk aversion is not unjustified since the risk to reward ratio for officers willing to try new ideas has shifted so heavily to the risk side, that many deem the potential gains not worth imperiling their careers over. The main problem with this method of doing business is that operational arenas are not the static playing fields that we presuppose them to be in most exercise and operation briefs. They are constantly evolving, which requires adaptability and ingenuity instead of a flow-chart approach to missions.

Members of the U.S. Naval Academy Class of 2014 participate in the Oath of Office ceremony at Tecumseh Court. (U.S. Navy photo by David Tucker/Released)
Members of the U.S. Naval Academy Class of 2014 participate in the Oath of Office ceremony at Tecumseh Court. (U.S. Navy photo by David Tucker/Released)

This is not meant to be a rebuke of procedural compliance – far from it. Procedural compliance is important to ensure the safety and proper execution of our technical missions: safety and maintenance. However, it is important to also recognize its inherent limitations, and understand that it’s impossible to write “winning a war” into procedural compliance, since procedures only extend to the realm of what is known, and war often devolves into the area of the unknown. Simply put, officers should be proficient at procedural compliance and planned execution, but once the situation is no longer covered by procedures, strategic entrepreneurship and improvisation must take over seamlessly. If we consistently deny our Navy leadership the ability to improvise and test their creative problem solving abilities for fear of imperiling their careers, how and when can this creative solution seeking process be fostered?

The key question then is how do we recapture the ingenuity of the individual officer? I assert that it must start at the earliest possible point in the officer’s career – for creativity once lost is nearly impossible to rediscover. The Navy should develop programs that both encourage and train officers to think of creative solutions to problems early on in their careers. The best time to start this is at the O-2 and O-3 levels, directly after the completion of an officer’s initial warfare qualifications and first operational tour.

The importance of instilling and encouraging the idea of creative thought early on in the officer corps cannot be overstated. Senior officers that attend the Naval War College relatively late in their careers to explore ideas on war and its strategic theory have already come to depend on the rigidity of the Navy establishment for their paychecks and lifestyle, and thus are less willing to question the institution or its authority. The junior officer, relatively fresh and with fewer mental harangues, owes no such allegiance to the organization and does not see it through the same cynical lens, allowing them to see the flaws in our organization much more clearly than a dyed-in-the-wool career officer. These junior officers are still willing to question the military’s fatal deficiencies and flaws before becoming completely indoctrinated into the system.

One way to implement this would be to establish a school that officers attend with peers from their warfare areas concentrated around every major career milestone. The goal of such a school would be to gather high-flying officers into small groups where they would be posed complex operational problems. However, they would face them with handicaps and constraints put in place, making normal doctrine and pre-planned responses obsolete, and forcing them to develop creative solutions to real world problems. Officers would return to the course at every major career milestone, such as in between division officer tours, prior to starting their department head tours, prior to beginning their XO/CO fleet-up, and prior to achieving flag rank.

One of the most resonant lessons that has been gleaned from the attacks on the USS Stark, USS Samuel B. Roberts, and USS Cole is that in unexpected situations, conventional procedures often are inadequate, and improvisation dominates. Generations of American military officers have become complacent through the knowledge of their nation’s technological and financial superiority. It is time to train them to think and fight absent this implicit safety net once again. It is better to start learning these critical skills now, while remaining in control of the pace, than to be forced to learn them under fire in a future conflict.

Capt. Frank Olmo, deputy commander, Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC), introduces SMWDC and the new career opportunities it provides junior surface warfare officers (SWOs) during a brief aboard USS Bunker Hill (DDG 52). U.S. Navy photo).
Capt. Frank Olmo, deputy commander, Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC), introduces SMWDC and the new career opportunities it provides junior surface warfare officers (SWOs) during a brief aboard USS Bunker Hill (DDG 52). (U.S. Navy photo).

Secondly, while an understanding of mathematics and the sciences remain ever important in an increasingly technical and specialized military, officer programs must also recapture the emphasis on liberal arts education and creative thinking that has steadily dwindled in the twentieth and twenty-first century formation of modern military officers. At the United States Naval Academy it is a requirement that sixty-five percent of those graduates must complete degrees in the science, technology, engineering, or mathematics disciplines. Of students commissioning from ROTC programs around the country – which, combined with the Naval Academy, contribute roughly two thirds of new officer accessions the fleet each year – eighty-five percent of available scholarships are rewarded to those students who choose majors in the STEM fields. Those remaining fifteen percent who do express interest in studying disciplines outside of these fields, ignominiously referred to as “Tier 3” majors, find their options for earning scholarships and commissioning more limited.

Technical courses do an excellent job training officers to operate complex combat systems and nuclear reactors, where every aspect can be distilled to checklists and procedures, but do a poor job in training strategic and creative thought. Such critical thinking skills are ultimately where officers render the greatest value to the armed forces as leaders and warfighters, not technicians. At a minimum, a certain number of liberal arts courses in subjects such as philosophy, history, literature, and economics should be required for certain officer programs in just the same way that calculus, physics, and other mathematics and science courses are. An officer able to harness the problem-solving ability taught by an education in engineering with the propensity for creative though that comes from a study of the liberal arts would be the best equipped to execute all of the Navy’s missions.

Thirdly, the United States military must push decision-making back down the chain of command to the unit level. In our age of global real-time communication we have achieved the ability to control even the minutest detail from the highest level. We must resist the temptation to do so, for this robs on-scene commanders of the crucial experience that comes from tense, independent decision-making. Instead, we must once again become comfortable with giving commanders autonomy over their units and operations, giving direction only in broad strokes and leaving the details to the “man on the spot,” who is inevitably the subject matter expert on what is happening within and directly around his unit. In today’s fleet, the number of daily updates that a deployed warship is required to provide up the chain of command off-ship has become a full-time job on top of the full-time job of running the ship and executing its mission. No effective leader has two full-time jobs.

Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt on the steps of the Naval War College.
Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt on the steps of the Naval War College.

And all of this for what? It is absolutely ludicrous to imagine that a remote commander and their staff, often years detached from single-unit leadership, require or need all of the information now required to be tracked on a daily basis. The massive off-ship administrative burden that this places on the wardroom of an operational unit, simultaneously interfering with their ability to effectively do their job within the lifelines of the ship, significantly degrades morale and unit-level success. By fostering a culture in which officers are afraid of making even the smallest decisions themselves, we are handicapping the abilities of junior officers to develop leadership skills and to learn to take the initiative, resulting in the ones who adapt to this climate being cautious to a fault for the rest of their careers, and inducing those individuals who want more control and autonomy to seek opportunities elsewhere.

Finally, the United States military must consider drawing talent into its ranks from untraditional sources outside the military and recognize that its rigid and traditional career path that exclusively emphasizes hiring and promotion from within might have to change. This is not entirely without precedent – the Navy already does this for many of its staff corps officers who have demonstrated experience and proficiency in their civilian careers. There are many individuals with different backgrounds and specialties who hear the call to serve their country at different points in their life. A master software engineer at Google with ten years in the industry would be an incredible asset to the military’s cyber warfare communities, but at that point in his career he would likely be too old to enlist and would have his talents wasted as a newly-commissioned ensign while also being grossly under-compensated. Instead, why not bring this cyber star in as a Lieutenant Commander? This arrangement would offer significant benefits and opportunities to both the military and the individual.

If the United States wants to avoid catastrophe on the battlefield in the coming decades, it will need to come to terms with the fact that having more money and better technology will no longer be enough to win the next war against the next foe – who may very well enjoy parity in these domains, if not even superiority. Accepting this, rather than continuing to do the same thing while expecting a different result, is a required preliminary step.

Deputy Secretary of Defense presents a Master of Science diploma to Ken Thomas at the Naval Postgraduate School.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work presents a Master of Science diploma to Ken Thomas at the Naval Postgraduate School.

The United States military must fundamentally change the way it does business and drive its officer corps to rediscover skills that gave way to technology and money when they seemed to no longer be needed or valued. In order to do this, we must encourage creative thought in our officers starting at a very junior level – both by commissioning a greater portion of our officers with backgrounds in the liberal arts as well as technical majors, and by creating incubator programs at multiple levels of officer career tracks to cultivate and stimulate creative thought. The military must also learn to re-delegate greater amounts of control and authority to unit commanders while unit commanders must learn to do the same to their subordinates. This ensures that if subordinate commanders are fighting a conflict in which they are cut off from communication with headquarters or things are not going quite as they had expected them to, they aren’t paralyzed with indecision, experiencing what is in effect their first ever real experience with high-stakes decision making.

Finally, the United States must harness the huge pool of potential talent that exists in the form of civilians who want to serve but don’t fit into the current recruiting construct. By allowing experienced non-military personnel to enter the organization at mid and even upper-level officer positions, the military can harness a huge untapped reservoir of private sector talent. The same skills that our military forefathers used to achieve victory on the battlefield when outclassed in technology, money, manpower, and weapons – creativity, zeal, initiative, and guile – are needed once again. All that is lacking is the will and tenacity to bring them back.

Lieutenant Junior Grade Ian Akisoglu is a Surface Warfare Officer living in Norfolk, Virginia.  He graduated from American University with a Bachelor of Arts in economics and history and was subsequently commissioned through Officer Candidate School.  The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the U.S. Department of Defense or the Department of the Navy.  He can be reached at ian.akisoglu@gmail.com.

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Bibliography:

Kimbrough IV, James M. MAJ, USA. (2008). Examining U.S. Irregular Warfare Doctrine. 14.

United States Naval Academy. (2015). Academics – Majors and Courses.

Population Representation in the Military Services FY 2013 Report: Appendix B: Active Component Enlisted Accessions, Enlisted Force, Officer Accessions, and Officer Corps Tables.

United States Navy ROTC. (2015). Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps Scholarship Selection Criteria.

Long, Roger D. The Man On The Spot: Essays on British Empire History. (Ed.), Praeger, First Edition (Sep 26, 1995).

The Current Acquisition Regime is Sinking America’s Navy

By now it is no secret that the U.S. Navy is the service in the best shape for 2014. However, a decade of combat operations and two decades of underinvestment have left the Navy too small and inadequately equipped to meet all of the growing demands placed upon America’s men and women in uniform. The military’s equipment is old, unreliable, increasingly obsolete, and insufficient in number.

Last year I coauthored a paper on Representative Mac Thornberry’s defense acquisition reform initiative. The reforms would help to free up resources for badly needed weapons modernization and put the Department of Defense on a sustainable fiscal path. The reforms would also help keep new ships under construction and existing ships maintained.

To be fair, fixing problems with defense acquisition would not remedy all that ails the Navy and the broader defense program. Strengthening the program will require an array of different initiatives, of which the most important and most immediate is breaking the impasse over the federal budget in a way that preserves adequate overall defense funding and replaces the current structure of sequestration. Nevertheless, defense acquisition reform is a necessary initiative within this array.

To ensure that effective reform is implemented, Congress should:

  • Ensure accountability for major acquisition. Congress should reverse its inclination to centralize acquisition authority and micromanage the acquisitions process. Instead, it should authorize the services to regain responsibility for acquisition programs, allowing flexibility and decentralization in management.
  • Implement performance-based logistics. Despite the success of previous performance-based logistics, Congress continues to exercise bias against private contractors. Instead, Congress should incentivize a performance-based approach, managed by public-private partnerships.
  • Repeal the outdated Federal Acquisition Regulation and Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement. Certain provisions, including the reduction in non-value-added overhead currently imposed on the industry, should be eliminated.
  • Reduce DOD overhead. Congress should ensure that the Defense Business Board staffing recommendations are implemented and that DOD fulfills its commitment to a 20 percent reduction in civilian and military headquarters funding.
  • Reform the auditing process. Congress should require DOD to follow best practices in managing its finances. Money saved from the proper and timely payment of invoices and the consequent reduction of interest penalties should be put back into acquisition; the funds saved as a result of improved audits should also be returned to acquisition accounts.
  • Reform and reduce security clearance costs across the DOD enterprise. Congress should prioritize reforms that reduce cost, push for major improvements in the timeliness of investigations and adjudications, reduce unnecessary redundancy and waste, and streamline policies and procedures.
  • Disciplining the Acquisition of High Technology.  Define Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) up front and use that to bound requirements. Require better funding balance of research and development (R&D) and procurement; having on ramps for new technologies (spiral development) but requiring they be funded through R&D, conversely baring using R&D for procurement.
  • Defense Base Closure and Realignment (BRAC). Adopt a new approach for assessing the military’s infrastructure requirements while taking advantage of lessons learned from the previous BRAC. This new approach must be global, transparent, and conducted in close discussion with affected communities.
  • Acquisition Workforce Reform. Focus on the longevity and Knowledge, Skills and Abilities (KSAs) of senior leaders.
  • Contracting Reform. Eliminate measures that reduce efficiency and add cost, particularly stopping abuse of small business set asides.

The Navy continues to juggle the pivot to the Asia–Pacific and unforeseen requirements in the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, the sea service is also struggling to determine the future of its surface fleet. Reforming the defense acquisition process is critical for making the most of each dollar spent on our national security.

Emil Maine is a National Security Research Assistant at the Heritage Foundation, where he conducts independent research on U.S. defense posture. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own.