Skip to comments.How To Fix My Army: A maverick officer s plan to overhaul the service s culture
Posted on 07/01/2002 7:19:52 AM PDT by Stand Watch Listen
On June 27, a major on the verge of retirement conducted a one-on-one briefing with Vice Chief of Staff Gen. John Keane in the latters roomy Pentagon office. The major had a blunt message: the Army is broken, and fixing it will require the most comprehensive overhaul of the service in decades.
The major then offered the four-star general a plan to do just that. His proposals included: shattering the personnel system; keeping a battalions troops together for four-year cycles so they achieve true cohesion; eliminating division, corps and army-level commands; and slashing the number of general-officer billets.
That a twice-passed-over major would get the ear of a superior widely believed to be the Armys next chief of staff is noteworthy in itself. That he was detailing for Keane revolutionary proposals to fix the Army should raise even more eyebrows.
The major is Don Vandergriff, author of "The Path to Victory," a new book that details his suggestions for a wholesale revamping of the Army, including doctrine and force design, but especially the personnel system.
Vandergriff began his military career in 1981 as an enlisted Marine. But after one year in the Corps, he decided to join the Army and become an officer.
"I wanted to be a Patton," he said. "The Army had 44 tank battalions, the Marine Corps had three."
His Army career has included tours in Korea and Germany, as well as more than three years at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif. Now an ROTC instructor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Vandergriff has spent much of the last 10 years researching and writing journal articles about the Armys culture, doctrine andwhat he views as its dysfunctional personnel system.
"The Path to Victory" represents his magnum opus an ambitious take on the need to transform every facet of the Army to prepare it for the wars of the 21st century.
At 356 pages, the book is not a quick read as it traces the history of the problems Vandergriff and many others in the Army say are preventing the service from reaching its full potential:
** A personnel system that accords a higher priority to the careers of individual soldiers than to the needs of their units or the Army.
** A zero-defect culture that inhibits trust between leaders and led, resulting in commanders who are afraid to take risks on the battlefield or to speak unpleasant truths off it.
** A doctrine that Vandergriff says pays lip service to maneuver warfare, but in reality promotes attrition warfare, as evidenced by the many battles at NTC that become virtual slugfests between the training unit and the resident Opposing Force.
** War-fighting proficiency that is far lower than it should be because units are not kept together long enough for their squads, platoons, companies and leadership teams to achieve cohesion; inexperienced leaders inhibited by a zero-defect culture dont empower their subordinates, and multiple noncombat-related taskings keep troops from training for war.
These issues are not new. They have surfaced in survey after survey of soldiers conducted by the Army through the 1990s.
The Army didnt respond to requests for an interview for this article. From time to time outspoken officers active duty and retired have published journal articles dealing with one or more of the problems and proposing potential fixes.
What makes Vandergriffs book different is his holistic approach to solving the Armys diverse problems.
In effect, he is saying that the Armys troubles are all related, and that the service cant hope to deal with them effectively in piecemeal fashion.
Instead, the Army must implement simultaneous reforms throughout personnel, force structure, force design and doctrine.
"A thorough historical analysis has shown that if you try to reform one aspect at a time," he said," the status quo overwhelms or suppresses the intended reform" Vandergriff said in an interview.
In "The Path to Victory," he explains how he believes the Army must reform itself.
Careers vs. combat skills
The "insidious and impotent" individual replacement system with which the Army manages its personnel is at the heart of the services problems, Vandergriff contends.
Vandergriff says the personnel systems bias towards the perceived needs of an individuals career ensuring, for instance, that officers are cycled through command, staff and school positions on a rigid timeline, spending no more than two years, and sometimes less than a year in each job hurts the Armys combat effectiveness.
The numbers seem to support his conclusion. According to the Army Science Board, a typical battalion experiences a 32 percent turnover of personnel every year. That means that after three years, only 4 percent of the soldiers who were present at the start of the first year remain. Such circumstances make it virtually impossible for companies and battalions to progress beyond rudimentary training to master the collective skills necessary for maneuver warfare.
Vandergriff would keep battalions together for four-year cycles. A cadre of officers and NCOs would greet enlisted soldiers straight out of Advance Individual Training.The battalion would spend its first year conducting individual and crew-level training.
At the start of the second year, the battalion becomes available for deployment and begins to concentrate on collective training at the platoon, company and battalion task force level.
It spends the next two years honing its collective combat skills including at least two rotations to one of the Armys combat training centers and deploying on six-month rotations to combat operations, peacekeeping missions or forward deployed in South Korea or Germany. Under Vandergriffs plan, there would be no permanently stationed forward-deployed units.
During the fourth year of the cycle, the battalion draws down. Its soldiers perform traditional "red cycle" duties on post working in the gym, evaluating other battalions training exercises while turning in their equipment.
In Vandergriffs system, the soldiers in the battalion at the end of the fourth year would be the same troops who had been present at the start of the first year. No soldiers including officers would leave to go to school or to other jobs outside of the battalion. Even soldiers forced out by injury or illness would not be replaced because Vandergriffs research has convinced him that introducing fresh soldiers into pre-existing cohesive units does more harm than good.
Vandergriff believes his system would institutionalize bonding between soldiers that the Army now achieves only haphazardly, in units that the service has stabilized for deployments.
"The Path to Victory" contains other sweeping changes to the personnel system:
** Tougher accessions for officers. Every officer would serve a minimum of two years as an enlisted soldier before becoming a lieutenant. In Vandergriffs view, this would give officers greater appreciation for and understanding of the work done by their soldiers and promote mutual respect and trust. It would also do away with the tradition of platoon leaders being the least experienced soldiers in their units.
"Do you really want an officer whos not willing to be an enlisted man first?" Vandergriff said.
Cadets would be required to pass a demanding tactical exam lasting several days before they became lieutenants. A similar exam would have to be passed four years later, before the young officers could become captains. By making the path to a commission so much more challenging, Vandergriff says, he hopes to make the officer corps more professional.
He also wants to make officers understand that they have succeeded just by becoming officers, thus pre-empting any temptation to define career success in terms of achieving higher rank than their peers.
** Killing the "up-or-out" promotion system and replacing it with what Vandergriff sometimes calls "up-or-stay" and at other times refers to as "perform-or-out."
Combined with an officer evaluation report that ties an officers career to impressing the officer two grades higher, the "up-or-out" system has created a culture of "risk aversion and careerism" in the officer corps, Vandergriff said. By forcing officers to compete with each other, it has created a conflict between "selfish service" and "selfless service," he said.
"The most detrimental impact of the up-or-out promotion system is that it undercuts trust among officers by creating constant promotion anxiety, forcing officers to always try to impress their immediate superiors," Vandergriff writes. He proposes de-emphasizing the importance of an officers evaluation by his senior rater by introducing "360-degree evaluations," in which officers would also be rated by their peers and their subordinates.
** Drastically reducing the size of the officer corps over the course of 10 years, cutting 50 percent of the field grade officer slots. He describes the services bloated officer corps as a relic of a World War II-era mobilization-based Army.
Doing away with so many field grade slots would reduce the need to push officers through command positions so quickly, as well as tamp down the unhealthy competition between officers, according to Vandergriff.
He would cut even more deeply into the general officer corps. The Army now has so many generals that Vandergriff believes some otherwise superfluous headquarters and echelons of command exist mainly to provide the surplus generals with jobs. There is now one general for every 1,090 soldiers. Under Vandergriff, that ratio would revert to its World War II level of 1-to-10,000.
** Organizing the Army into regionally based regiments, similar to the British Armys regimental system. The colonels who command each regiment would have responsibility for all promotions and assignments for personnel in their regiment. The Department of the Army would only manage officers at the rank of colonel and above.
The timing could be right
Normally, such revolutionary proposals would not have stood a chance in the Army. There are many entrenched bureaucracies that have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. But these are not normal times.
The Bush administration is determined to remake the military for the 21st century, and its move to kill the Armys cherished Crusader howitzer has shown it doesnt mind stepping on a few toes to do so.
The Army also is deep into its own Transformation, a process Vandergriff says will require more than simply designing new units and equipping them with new gear and war-fighting doctrine.
"The Army is people," says one of his briefing slides. "Transform the personnel system and you transform the Army."
Vandergriff acknowledges that as a victim of the very system he is seeking to dismantle, he faces a potential credibility problem. His own career was sidetracked when he was a captain after a personality conflict with his brigade commander left him with an OER that removed him permanently from any chance of attending Command and General Staff College. He knows his opponents in the personnel bureaucracy are likely to use this fact to cast doubt on his objectivity, but says this is just a feature of the system hes trying to fix.
"Its sad, because success is measured by the rank you gain, not by your competence," he said.
In interviews and briefings, Vandergriff displays no rancor over the way his career was derailed.
"Im a professional," he said. "I love the Army. Ive never been obsessed with rank. Ive viewed [my career setbacks] as an advantage it made me work harder. Im a very happy guy." Those who know him say his heart is in the right place.
"I dont agree with everything hes written, but his motives are pure," said retired Col. Steve Robinette. "And that goes a long way with me."
Vandergriff will be eligible to retire in a year. Hes promised his wife, Lorraine, he will, with one caveat. If Army leaders decide to implement some of his reforms and ask him to stay on to help, he will.
Such a scenario may not be so far-fetched.
In addition to Keane, Vandergriff has briefed Brig. Gen. (P) Dorian Anderson, the new commander of U.S. Army Personnel Command, and Brig. Gen. (P) John Batiste, the military assistant to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. And Keane has directed him to brief Lt. Gen. John Le Moyne, deputy chief of staff for personnel, now referred to as the G-1.
Meanwhile, several articles in major newspapers and magazines like The Washington Post and The New Yorker have highlighted his ideas. Other commentators are raising their voices to support his ideas, or proffer similar proposals of their own. In an article in the May-June issue of Armor magazine, published by the Armor Center, Fort Knox, Ky., Lt. Col. (P) Tim Reese states: "The evidence is clear, overwhelming, and available for anyone who wants to look at it (including our potential enemies). ... Our current personnel system does not support combat readiness and, in fact, indirectly works against it."
And Victor OReilly, a novelist retained as a consultant by the Army to evaluate the services Transformation effort, had this to say in a report to Keane: "The Army personnel system in relation to the officer corps, with its emphasis on zero defects and numerous postings, undermines the accumulation of expertise in depth, discourages creativity, weeds out some potentially innovative leaders, minimizes accountability, covers up inadequate management skills and is destructive to unit cohesion . In short, the Army works despite the personnel system, which is to the great credit of the average soldier. It could, and should, work much better."
After years as a voice crying in the wilderness for personnel reform, Vandergriff senses that his ideas are finally gaining traction. "The time" for change, he claims, "has never been better."
Indeed, with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfelds demonstrated willingness to slaughter the militarys sacred cows, whos to say Don Vandergriff wont have to postpone his retirement for a year or two?
And I've long thought that all officers ought to have to serve some time as an enlisted man. Nothing like a little chipping and painting to give you an appreciation of how the other half lives. I'd also recommend giving all enlisted personnel an automatic shot at a commission one they reach E-6. By the time a guy makes PO1/SSGT, he's got an incredible amount real-world experience, and it's a crying shame to waste it. Why should a born leader with ten years of hands-on experience end up pushing paper at the division level just because they lack a book education?
My two cents as an Army brat and a Navy vet...
Former MM3, USS ENTERPRISE (CVN-65)
Another small place to start would be to get rid of putting that (P) after a soldiers rank. It adds little value and seems to be there for an ego boost.
As far as the battle of Mogo goes. It was ENTIRELY Garrison's fault that it took so long for a armored personnel transport rescue to be organized. He should of briefed the Paki's BEFORE going in. FWIW Abrams (M1A1) in Mogo would have been severly hampered by the close streets and adjacent buildings. My first choice would have been for the AC-130's stationed in the Gulf to clean house - but half-Aspen was worried about public opinion of 5000 dead Skinnies - instead he got 1500 dead ones and a bunch of Rangers and D-boys KIA
Vandergriff knows full well that not being a grad of West Point dooms his effort before it starts. The many perfumed gentlemen from West Point will never allow a former enlisted person to transform THEIR army.
I bet if Omar had SAMs and fighters, the AC-130 would have been dead meat.
Once there were also career privates. Men who beat the bush and carried the load. The Army did not want those kinds any more and made it up or out. What is wrong with a guy who is a 10 year E4 or E5, but is a damned good E4 or E5. Everyone is not made out to be a supervisor or leader of men/women, yet could still be a totally productive soldier in his/her MOS? These people want to be soldiers and want to do a good job, but might not have the "head space and timing" to be a leader in a critical combat job.
Training is the name of the game. Our people do spend short times together and very shorter time in the field. Actually, I loved to go to the field. But, I knew others who would try any excuse to try to stay out of the field. I know that as my career developed, I learned that there are many things I would have done much different if I had known better. Like most adults, I wanted to get married and have children. Little did I realize how much time I would spend away from those children and my wife. It lead to me not seeing my kids much or being around much. It was bad for me and bad for my kids. I missed out on so much of their young lives, and they did not see much of me from time to time. Makes the mother be almost like a single parent. Would I have stayed single if I had known better or more, probably. But, married troops, with large families, have many distractions. In today's world, what I am saying probably would not work, but would probably be better.
On a side issue, has anyone seen the stupid commercial for MTV where the female sailor says she did not join the Navy and expect to go to war? Jesus, Thelma and Louise, what kind of people do we have on the lines defending this country? People along for the pay check, not people who are there to defend the country. At times like this, I wish I were young enough to put the uniform back on and hit the field again. This is very sad. Sad for our Nation, and someday sad for those who will die because of stupid attitudes like this broad's. (Sorry ladies, that is how I feel. This gal ain't no Lady.)
Don't have any military service, except watching "Heartbreak Ridge" 3 times, but your observations totally square with what I've seen in the fire service. For some reason, we seem to have lost respect for the tradesman who does his job well. BTW, NOTHING is nicer than having 3 experienced hands with you when going into a structure fire.
More and more people are starting to listen to MAJ Vandergriff. I retire from the Army in a few months, and I think that most of his points are valid. Their are a lot of junior and mid-grade officers, as well as NCOs, who would love to see the Army shaken to the core and rebuilt. Incremental change won't cut it.
You still need armor and artillery. Aviation is critical, but not the panacea some would think. If it was, then the 2nd ACR wouldn't have had to knock out two Republican Guards Tank Divisions with their Abrams tanks during the Gulf War. There is a dangerous tendency to think that any land war can be won with a combination of air power and special operations troops / light infantry on the ground. It just isn't so; we'd be nuts to get rid of heavy metal.
This is not a new concept, but certainly one that would go a long way to establish unit pride and cohesiveness. The British, at least at one time, adhered to this philosophy. Battalion commanders actually knew the men in their command by name (before name tags). It would make for a much more professional military, both in the officer corps and the enlisted ranks.
Heinlein would love this guy.
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