Commentary Magazine


Topic: John Nagl

Our Military Personnel System Is in Definite Need of Reform

A snow day (which is what today is in the New York suburb where I live) is the perfect day to catch up on some reading. For those interested in military affairs, I recommend this intriguing article in the Atlantic, which argues that the armed forces are plagued by an antiquated personnel system which drives the best young officers out of the service.

The weakest part of the article, written by Kauffman Foundation fellow Tim Kane (a former Air Force officer), is its claim that “many of the most talented officers are now abandoning military life for the private sector.” There is little evidence that this is the fact; Kane cites the example of counterinsurgency strategist John Nagl, who left the Army as a lieutenant-colonel, and no doubt he was an outstanding officer; but the officers I meet still on active duty are no slouches either. Nevertheless, Kane makes a cogent critique of the out-of-date, top-down, industrial-era, one-size-fits-all personnel system that is an enduring source of frustration for most career officers. He writes:

The military’s problem is a deeply anti-entrepreneurial personnel structure. From officer evaluations to promotions to job assignments, all branches of the military operate more like a government bureaucracy with a unionized workforce than like a cutting-edge meritocracy. …

[T]he military personnel system—every aspect of it—is nearly blind to merit. Performance evaluations emphasize a zero-defect mentality, meaning that risk-avoidance trickles down the chain of command. Promotions can be anticipated almost to the day—regardless of an officer’s competence—so that there is essentially no difference in rank among officers the same age, even after 15 years of service. Job assignments are managed by a faceless, centralized bureaucracy that keeps everyone guessing where they might be shipped next.

Some of these complaints echo issues I raised in a Foreign Affairs article in 2005. I wrote:

Soldiers shuttle through units with dizzying rapidity: two-thirds of army personnel change stations every year, and the average officer spends only 18 months at each assignment over the course of a 25-year career. This system is designed to create a cadre of generalists who will be qualified for the upper echelons of command, but it prevents the kind of unit cohesion and inspired leadership that characterizes the highest-quality armies. Even the best troop leaders do not get to spend very much time with the troops: the average officer spends no more than 30 percent of his or her career in the field, with the rest spent in staff jobs and schools. Ordinary soldiers shuffle in and out of units just as rapidly.

This personnel system makes it especially difficult to cultivate the kind of cultural and linguistic expertise we need in today’s world, where most wars are fought against insurgents who blend into the population. Read More

A snow day (which is what today is in the New York suburb where I live) is the perfect day to catch up on some reading. For those interested in military affairs, I recommend this intriguing article in the Atlantic, which argues that the armed forces are plagued by an antiquated personnel system which drives the best young officers out of the service.

The weakest part of the article, written by Kauffman Foundation fellow Tim Kane (a former Air Force officer), is its claim that “many of the most talented officers are now abandoning military life for the private sector.” There is little evidence that this is the fact; Kane cites the example of counterinsurgency strategist John Nagl, who left the Army as a lieutenant-colonel, and no doubt he was an outstanding officer; but the officers I meet still on active duty are no slouches either. Nevertheless, Kane makes a cogent critique of the out-of-date, top-down, industrial-era, one-size-fits-all personnel system that is an enduring source of frustration for most career officers. He writes:

The military’s problem is a deeply anti-entrepreneurial personnel structure. From officer evaluations to promotions to job assignments, all branches of the military operate more like a government bureaucracy with a unionized workforce than like a cutting-edge meritocracy. …

[T]he military personnel system—every aspect of it—is nearly blind to merit. Performance evaluations emphasize a zero-defect mentality, meaning that risk-avoidance trickles down the chain of command. Promotions can be anticipated almost to the day—regardless of an officer’s competence—so that there is essentially no difference in rank among officers the same age, even after 15 years of service. Job assignments are managed by a faceless, centralized bureaucracy that keeps everyone guessing where they might be shipped next.

Some of these complaints echo issues I raised in a Foreign Affairs article in 2005. I wrote:

Soldiers shuttle through units with dizzying rapidity: two-thirds of army personnel change stations every year, and the average officer spends only 18 months at each assignment over the course of a 25-year career. This system is designed to create a cadre of generalists who will be qualified for the upper echelons of command, but it prevents the kind of unit cohesion and inspired leadership that characterizes the highest-quality armies. Even the best troop leaders do not get to spend very much time with the troops: the average officer spends no more than 30 percent of his or her career in the field, with the rest spent in staff jobs and schools. Ordinary soldiers shuffle in and out of units just as rapidly.

This personnel system makes it especially difficult to cultivate the kind of cultural and linguistic expertise we need in today’s world, where most wars are fought against insurgents who blend into the population.

Kane suggests that the answer is to borrow personnel practices from the private sector, giving officers more power to choose their own assignments and commanders more power to choose their subordinates, rather than delegating these tasks to some faceless, far-off bureaucracy. He suggests:

Each commander would have sole hiring authority over the people in his unit. Officers would be free to apply for any job opening. If a major applied for an opening above his pay grade, the commander at that unit could hire him (and bear the consequences). Coordination could be done through existing online tools such as monster.com or careerbuilder.com (presumably those companies would be interested in offering rebranded versions for the military). If an officer chose to stay in a job longer than “normal” (“I just want to fly fighter jets, sir”), that would be solely between him and his commander.

I am intrigued by these ideas and hope that at least one of the services will experiment with them. Even if the “best and brightest” aren’t necessarily leaving, and even if the services are hardly broken (in fact the armed forces are as good as they have ever been), there is always room for improvement, and the personnel system, which dates back to World War II, is a prime candidate for reform.

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Nagl and Yingling

Lieutenant Colonels Paul Yingling and John Nagl are two of the most interesting and provocative strategists in the armed forces today. Both Iraq veterans, they have been critical of the armed forces for not adapting quickly enough to the demands of counterinsurgency, and Nagl has put forward a controversial proposal to create a new advisory unit within the Army. Their outspokenness comes at considerable personal cost (Nagl is leaving the army and Yingling has given up hope of promotion), but they are performing a valuable service by speaking out in the hope of reforming the institution they love.

They recently spoke to members of the Council on Foreign Relations at a packed meeting in New York which I helped put together along with my colleague Michael Scavelli. Unfortunately I couldn’t attend the meeting, so another CFR fellow, Stephen Biddle, graciously stepped in as moderator. To hear some of what they had to say, I listened to a cfr.org podcast interview conducted by Greg Bruno. You can too by clicking here.

Lieutenant Colonels Paul Yingling and John Nagl are two of the most interesting and provocative strategists in the armed forces today. Both Iraq veterans, they have been critical of the armed forces for not adapting quickly enough to the demands of counterinsurgency, and Nagl has put forward a controversial proposal to create a new advisory unit within the Army. Their outspokenness comes at considerable personal cost (Nagl is leaving the army and Yingling has given up hope of promotion), but they are performing a valuable service by speaking out in the hope of reforming the institution they love.

They recently spoke to members of the Council on Foreign Relations at a packed meeting in New York which I helped put together along with my colleague Michael Scavelli. Unfortunately I couldn’t attend the meeting, so another CFR fellow, Stephen Biddle, graciously stepped in as moderator. To hear some of what they had to say, I listened to a cfr.org podcast interview conducted by Greg Bruno. You can too by clicking here.

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Max Boot in the Times

contentions contributor Max Boot has an excellent piece in today’s New York Times, applauding the State Department’s decision to send—will they or nill they—50 foreign service officers to Iraq. But Boot thinks more is required: a strategic reconfiguration of State to achieve greater regional and situational specialization and put more boots on the ground globally, the creation of a civilian reserve corps to help buttress humanitarian interventions, and the creation of what he calls a “federal constabulary force” to aid international policing efforts. (He also heartily seconds Lt. Col. John Nagl’s proposal to create an advisory corps within the military, an idea he’s written about enthusiastically on contentions.)

contentions contributor Max Boot has an excellent piece in today’s New York Times, applauding the State Department’s decision to send—will they or nill they—50 foreign service officers to Iraq. But Boot thinks more is required: a strategic reconfiguration of State to achieve greater regional and situational specialization and put more boots on the ground globally, the creation of a civilian reserve corps to help buttress humanitarian interventions, and the creation of what he calls a “federal constabulary force” to aid international policing efforts. (He also heartily seconds Lt. Col. John Nagl’s proposal to create an advisory corps within the military, an idea he’s written about enthusiastically on contentions.)

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Acknowledging Advisers

The Washington Post has a small but important story on American military advisers. The new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, has just visited Fort Riley, Kansas, where advisers for Afghanistan and Iraq are trained. He stressed how important these advisory teams are. Ultimately they are our only responsible “exit strategy,” because they can help turn the Afghan and Iraqi armies into forces capable of keeping order largely on their own.

The problem is that the army doesn’t traditionally reward advisory work. It tends to promote officers who lead American troops, not those who advise foreign troops—even if the latter mission is, in the grand scheme of things, more important.

The Post account has some telling quotes from mid-level officers:

“It’s not a dead end, but it slows down your career,” said Capt. Richard Turvey, 35, of Muncie, Ind.

“I became an officer to be a commander; now I’m going to have to wait longer,” agreed Capt. Mark Johnstone, 33, of Denver. “The teams are taking us from our traditional roles as artillerymen.”

“We have to have certain jobs to be competitive.” said Maj. Jason Jones, one of a group of army majors attending school at Fort Leavenworth who voiced reluctance to join the training teams. “That takes me out of the cycle. In essence, it sort of hurts you,” Jones said.

Promotion prospects for those who serve on the teams remain uncertain, said Maj. Kealii T. Morris. “The jury is still out” on how promotion boards will treat officers who serve on the teams, he said.

The army needs to make clear to its promotion boards that this type of service will be valued as highly as more traditional combat duty. One positive step in this direction would be to implement Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl’s idea for an Advisory Corps within the army—something I’ve previously advocated on contentions. Unfortunately, the army so far has resisted this innovation. It will take concerted pressure from the outside—especially from the Secretary of Defense, but also from lawmakers on Capitol Hill—to reform an out-of-touch personnel system that isn’t providing the skill sets we need to win the war on Islamofascism.

The Washington Post has a small but important story on American military advisers. The new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, has just visited Fort Riley, Kansas, where advisers for Afghanistan and Iraq are trained. He stressed how important these advisory teams are. Ultimately they are our only responsible “exit strategy,” because they can help turn the Afghan and Iraqi armies into forces capable of keeping order largely on their own.

The problem is that the army doesn’t traditionally reward advisory work. It tends to promote officers who lead American troops, not those who advise foreign troops—even if the latter mission is, in the grand scheme of things, more important.

The Post account has some telling quotes from mid-level officers:

“It’s not a dead end, but it slows down your career,” said Capt. Richard Turvey, 35, of Muncie, Ind.

“I became an officer to be a commander; now I’m going to have to wait longer,” agreed Capt. Mark Johnstone, 33, of Denver. “The teams are taking us from our traditional roles as artillerymen.”

“We have to have certain jobs to be competitive.” said Maj. Jason Jones, one of a group of army majors attending school at Fort Leavenworth who voiced reluctance to join the training teams. “That takes me out of the cycle. In essence, it sort of hurts you,” Jones said.

Promotion prospects for those who serve on the teams remain uncertain, said Maj. Kealii T. Morris. “The jury is still out” on how promotion boards will treat officers who serve on the teams, he said.

The army needs to make clear to its promotion boards that this type of service will be valued as highly as more traditional combat duty. One positive step in this direction would be to implement Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl’s idea for an Advisory Corps within the army—something I’ve previously advocated on contentions. Unfortunately, the army so far has resisted this innovation. It will take concerted pressure from the outside—especially from the Secretary of Defense, but also from lawmakers on Capitol Hill—to reform an out-of-touch personnel system that isn’t providing the skill sets we need to win the war on Islamofascism.

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Rejecting Nagl

I’ve blogged before about Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl’s idea to create an Advisor Corps within the army that would focus on producing training teams to work with foreign militaries.

I thought Nagl made a convincing case for such an unorthodox approach, and he certainly knows what he is talking about: He is in charge of a battalion at Fort Riley, Kansas, that trains advisors for Iraq and Afghanistan, and he has concluded, based on that experience, that the current training and manning system for advisory teams is too haphazard and too small to meet all of our national security needs.

Not surprisingly, the army doesn’t see it that way. The newsletter Inside the Pentagon reported on September 13th that the army has officially decided, in the words of a public affairs officer, “that is not the way to go.” The army would prefer building cookie-cutter Brigade Combat Teams and relying on a small number of Special Forces to specialize in the training mission. This decision comes, by the way, in the face of copious evidence that there are not nearly enough Green Berets to meet all the demands thrown their way.

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I’ve blogged before about Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl’s idea to create an Advisor Corps within the army that would focus on producing training teams to work with foreign militaries.

I thought Nagl made a convincing case for such an unorthodox approach, and he certainly knows what he is talking about: He is in charge of a battalion at Fort Riley, Kansas, that trains advisors for Iraq and Afghanistan, and he has concluded, based on that experience, that the current training and manning system for advisory teams is too haphazard and too small to meet all of our national security needs.

Not surprisingly, the army doesn’t see it that way. The newsletter Inside the Pentagon reported on September 13th that the army has officially decided, in the words of a public affairs officer, “that is not the way to go.” The army would prefer building cookie-cutter Brigade Combat Teams and relying on a small number of Special Forces to specialize in the training mission. This decision comes, by the way, in the face of copious evidence that there are not nearly enough Green Berets to meet all the demands thrown their way.

There are certainly good arguments that can be made against Nagl’s proposal. But my suspicion is that the army’s view is simply the default position of a lumbering bureaucracy averse to new thinking—even when it comes from within its own ranks. (Perhaps especially when it comes from within its own ranks.)

The larger problem here is the difficulty that the armed services have in assimilating and rewarding brainy officers like Nagl (author of a much-cited book on counterinsurgency lessons from Malaya and Vietnam) who don’t fit the standard mold. Others in that category include a pair of Ph.D. colonels—H.R. McMaster and Peter Mansoor—who have both earned stellar reputations not only in the academy, but also on the battlefield. But they are both in danger of not being promoted to general. Mavericks like them deserve support from the outside—especially on Capitol Hill—to help transform the military in spite of itself.

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Teaching Soldiers

It seems fairly certain that the Army will expand over the next few years. The only question is by how much. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wants to increase it from 510,000 soldiers to 547,000. Many of the presidential candidates, both Republican and Democratic, are calling for even bigger increases. Tom Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute argues persuasively in the Weekly Standard that we should aim for a force of 750,000, which would represent a return to the level at the end of the cold war.

These calls for expansion are necessary. But an important secondary issue, and one not discussed publicly as much as it should be, is what to do with all these extra troops. Donnelly lays out a wide variety of missions that the U.S. armed forces need to carry out around the world. Unfortunately, as we are learning in Afghanistan and Iraq, today’s military is still not well-prepared for the challenges of a post-9/11 world. But now one of the Army’s most innovative thinkers, Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, has come forward with a simple but brilliant idea for one step that his service should take to reshape itself: create a standing Advisor Corps of 20,000 soldiers for the training of foreign military services.

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It seems fairly certain that the Army will expand over the next few years. The only question is by how much. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wants to increase it from 510,000 soldiers to 547,000. Many of the presidential candidates, both Republican and Democratic, are calling for even bigger increases. Tom Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute argues persuasively in the Weekly Standard that we should aim for a force of 750,000, which would represent a return to the level at the end of the cold war.

These calls for expansion are necessary. But an important secondary issue, and one not discussed publicly as much as it should be, is what to do with all these extra troops. Donnelly lays out a wide variety of missions that the U.S. armed forces need to carry out around the world. Unfortunately, as we are learning in Afghanistan and Iraq, today’s military is still not well-prepared for the challenges of a post-9/11 world. But now one of the Army’s most innovative thinkers, Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, has come forward with a simple but brilliant idea for one step that his service should take to reshape itself: create a standing Advisor Corps of 20,000 soldiers for the training of foreign military services.

Nagl’s views deserve to be taken very seriously. Not only is he a combat veteran of Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom, he is a contributor to the new U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual and the author of an influential study of counterinsurgency, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. Nagl also commands a battalion at Fort Riley, Kansas, that trains teams to educate and advise security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Though the Army has made advances in how it sets up such training teams, Nagl points out that the soldiers who “train the trainers” don’t, for the most part, have much real-world experience in training foreign militaries. Nagl’s proposed Advisor Corps is a remedy to this problem. “This corps,” he writes, “would develop doctrine and oversee the training and deployment of 750 advisory teams of 25 soldiers each.” Soldiers would rotate through assignments in this Corps just as they currently rotate through the 10th Mountain Division or the 101st Airborne Division. In an ideal world, their advisory service would count as much as service in a “line” unit when it comes to promotion.

Creating such a Corps would enable us to make the kind of long-term commitment to Afghanistan and Iraq necessary to achieve a modicum of stability and democracy. As things stand now, the Army is straining to produce a few thousand embedded advisors—far too few for the challenges ahead.

Adopting Nagl’s idea would make more sense than simply creating more infantry or armor brigades focused on “kinetic” action. We need those too, of course. But we also need different kinds of competencies within our armed forces—and the government at large—if we are to prevail in the long war we now face.

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