By Lt. Gen. David Barno (U.S. Army, ret.)
Best Defense bureau chief, Army issues
Marty Dempsey's nomination as the next Army Chief of Staff means one thing: The U.S. Army has just won the big Powerball jackpot. For a service struggling with the grim realities of ten years of war, and facing an uncertain future of inevitable defense cuts, this wily cavalryman is exactly the right medicine to revitalize the force.
Dempsey leads the Army's Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), an organization once described as "the architect of the future Army." He's been acting commander of U.S. Central Command and served twice in Iraq. He's a scholar with a degree in English who taught at West Point. He listens and thinks. With coming budget belt-tightening, two wars winding down and a shrinking Army end strength, Dempsey is the pivot man holding a historic opportunity to re-shape the Army Next.
So -- what are the "gotta do" items in the next Chief's overflowing inbox? My top 10:
1) Finish the Fight. Both Afghanistan and Iraq will likely wind down on Dempsey's watch. Armies exist to fight and win wars -- and the U.S pays huge costs in peacetime so the Army can deliver the goods when the fire alarm rings. And this Army has delivered in spades, after some rocky starts. Now as these wars unwind, the U.S. Army must spare no energy in seeing that its remaining deployed forces, particularly in a major fight for Afghanistan, get everything the service can institutionally provide. Soldiers and their leaders have given their all for ten years, winning one war and beginning to turn the tide in another. But the bureaucratic Army track record here has been decidedly mixed (see: Rodriguez IJC HQ standup). Pull out the institutional stops.
2) Generation Keep. The officer and NCO leaders of this force rival the Greatest Generation of WWII fame. But in an Army soon to be largely back in the motor pools and on rifle ranges, these "war babies" could leave the Army in droves rather than stay in a stifling over-centralized, power-point-centric Army. The training-focused Army of the 80s and 90s so prized by today's general officer leadership is foreign to them, and returning to that auld sang lyne model may not scratch their itch. The next peacetime Army - - not the CPTs and MAJs, SSGs, and SFCs -- must change. A return to a bureaucratic garrison mindset is already becoming the natural line of drift. Micromanagement, hours of power point Quarterly Training briefs, and the occasional Combat Training Center rotation slapped atop of a newly resource-austere force could drive out many of these best and most experienced officers and NCOs in the Army's history -- people that the Army vitally needs for its next incarnation. The quality of who stays matters -- not just the raw numbers of butts in seats.
3) Reform the Army's Personnel System. The one Army system that affects every single Soldier, his or her family, and defines the arc of their life in uniform is The Personnel System. It's been largely untouched and unreformed by the longest war in the nation's history. Changing it in ways that do not flip over the apple cart in the midst of two wars is no small task. First order: build in flexibility. Get more personal adaptability and openness in assignment and promotions. Second, challenge assignment officers to abandon rigor -- and give them the tools to better manage this convoluted system as it evolves. Third, find ways to creatively ease out the perfect "up or out" industrial-age promotion pyramid: enable officers to drop back year groups, open up direct commissions for selected skills, put more warrants in place of officers in techie jobs, and make shifts easier from active to reserve (and back again). Lastly, add better civilian education for NCOs (think: a few NCO Foreign Area Officers?) and more sabbatical opportunities for all. Fewer deployments may actually free up serious time for more and better professional development -- especially if there is less tolerance for peacetime Army busy work! Changes on the Hill to the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act may be needed to support re-shaping the officer billet structure -- but the Army simply must give officers and NCOs better ability to manage their careers and their lives. In a smaller professional force competing for talent with the Googles of the world, this reform is a "must do" if the Army is to keep its best on board.
4) Find the Best Senior Leadership. Arguably the most important job of the Chief is to grow and select the Army's next cadre of Generals. Chiefs who slough this off abandon their most vital tool for shaping the Army and encouraging the next generations of officers. Bad generals -- dumb generals -- kill off innovation and risk-taking, poison the well of future talent, and leave a legacy of "ducks picking ducks" in their wake. The Chief must know his leaders -- from a 360 degree viewpoint, not just from all their shiny mirrors pointed upward. Find and eliminate the Toxic Leaders -- your junior leaders know who they are. And clearing the underbrush of the Army's hierarchical layers while opening the door to collaborative leadership outside of combat would also send a powerful message of value to every leader in the force. LTs and CPTs employ flattened "battlefield collaboration" in combat -- modern command and control has moved in that direction with chat functions and networked coordination. Home station Army leadership and garrison-based force management has not. Pick the right leaders for the force -- and get them involved from their earliest days of service in contributing to flatter decision-making, opening doors for innovation, and decentralizing control and authority to junior leaders.
5) Get Ready for the Next War. This unwelcome worry is a feature coming to a theater near you -- and both sooner and probably in a different form than most experts think. Figure it out. Debate and then decide on the next Big Idea(s) in human conflict and the Army's role in it. What does "landpower" mean in the 21st Century? Sketch out the next "AirLand Battle" -- or devise a couple likely variants. Set up the Army to dominate that fight -- but more importantly, drill it to adapt quickly when it's not quite right. Make choices -- "full spectrum ops" is not a helpful bumper sticker to a company commander taking his troops out to train. Worse, it provides next to no guidance when making tough choices on competing ideas for organization, weapons systems, or kit. The next war will not be like the last -- but who's seriously thinking about what it is going to be? Think hard too about the Army's role in preventing wars -- today there is precisely zero Army force structure devoted to "building partner capacity," helping others secure themselves. How do you avoid "failures of imagination" -- akin to those that have serially plagued the U.S. military for the last ten years?
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.