The Best Defense

A session on how the Marine Corps might do better at retaining good young officers

By Chris Mondloch
Best Defense guest columnist

Wrapping up 13 years of fighting in Afghanistan this year, the U.S. military will surely face many challenges in the near future. Transitioning to a peacetime force, large-scale personnel cuts, advancing technologies, and the growing debate over women's role in combat all signify the ever-changing nature of the armed forces. On a recent morning, the Reserve Officers Association turned to an important yet often overlooked group -- company-grade officers -- to discuss their perspective on the emerging trends and challenges facing the military today.

The discussion panel consisted of three Marine Corps officers who recently separated from the Corps as either first lieutenants or captains. All three had combat experience in Afghanistan and enjoyed serving their country -- yet decided against making a career out of the Marines. One main area of concern among the three men is the military's failure to retain competent officers after their initial service obligations are filled. The notion that certain officers are "too educated" or "too good" to remain in the military -- the Marine Corps, specifically -- is a problem, according to panelist Ben Luxenberg.

Over all else, the Marine Corps values leadership and decisiveness in its officers. Luxenberg said that those officers who proved to be competent leaders who could "make the trains run on time" were targeted for retention over top intellectual achievers after their first term of service. The lack of innovative thinkers will continue to create problems by perpetuating the notion that the military is not a place for intellectually-minded individuals. According to Luxenberg, the term "the best and the brightest," often used to describe the corps of young Marine officers, should actually be split: "the best or the brightest."

Joe Tate, an infantry officer with two deployments to Helmand Province, said he benefitted greatly from his Marine Corps leadership training but, after multiple combat tours and the additional rigors of the infantry, he felt the need to transition out of the military. One way to retain and revitalize young officers is through education and diversification. Ensuring that four- or five-year officers are afforded the opportunity to seek higher education and diversify their military resumes could offset rigorous initial tours of duty.

Andrew Tuttle, an intelligence officer who has been doing management consulting since he left the Marines in 2011, called for the military to overhaul its personnel management system. According to Tuttle, we live in the most fluid labor market ever, and the military needs to adapt. Instead of advancing along with the private sector, the military's management techniques remain archaic. For example, officers are often assigned to new duties based on numbers and availability, without taking individual talents into account.

There is no doubt that junior officers, being the future leaders of the U.S. military, are an important group to target for policymakers looking to improve the administration of the armed forces at this critical time. Retaining the "best and the brightest" -- whether they are cut from the leadership cloth or destined to become innovative staff officers -- is essential to ensuring the smooth operation of a peacetime military.

As a Marine myself, I agree that retention is a problem. On both the officer and enlisted side, I have seen too many intellectually-minded men and women who felt like the Marine Corps was not the right place for them when they finished their first term. Instead, less-cerebral "type-A" individuals have thrived and renewed their contracts, creating a disparity between bright junior Marines and their intellectually deficient senior leadership. Although I would say this is more of an issue on the enlisted side, I think it is of vital importance for the Marine Corps, and the military as a whole, to reverse this trend of the true "best and brightest" officers moving on after their first four or five years, because this is a perpetuating cycle. I can attest to the major challenges that the military faces today. We are going to need a combination of strong commanders and bright young staff officers to navigate through the changes that lie ahead.

Chris Mondloch served as an intelligence analyst for the U.S. Marine Corps for five years, including a deployment to Helmand Province, Afghanistan in 2012. He recently received his Bachelor's Degree from George Mason University.

Sgt. Bobby J. Yarbrough/DVIDS

The Best Defense

The Future of War essays (no. 7): Use the current generation’s knowledge of war to robotize a lot of what the military does

By Bill Gawne
Best Defense future of war entrant

Current trends are moving us toward increased automation of our battlefield assets and increased size of our combatant staffs. These two things mean that we've gotten very good at executing Plan A, even as it becomes harder for us to cut over to Plan B. I'd have thought that the various J-3 and J-4 officers would have learned by now to implement changes of plans quickly, but I've seen no evidence that it's happening.

It would be a good idea for DARPA to look into artificial intelligence solutions to staff officer duties. We've put a lot of money and effort into developing AI systems that replace the warfighter at the tip of the spear. Why not develop AI solutions that implement the broad knowledge and management skills of staff officers too? Industry has been moving toward the replacement of complicated service management functions by AIs in recent years.

Before the institutional knowledge of our best logisticians and operational planners is lost to attrition via retirement and downsizing, let's capture it in decision-capable automated processes that don't get tired, don't get hungry, and don't suffer from bad judgment brought on by accumulated stress. (And don't go out drinking and looking for ‘entertainment' when on liberty.)

Bill Gawne is a retired Marine master sergeant (1972-1995) whose last duty assignment was Marine Corps Studies and Analysis at Quantico, where he worked as an operations analyst. He is now employed by a contractor for the NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center, where he works on automating mission operations for NASA's science missions. This represents his own opinions, which are not necessarily those of anyone he ever worked for.

Tom note: Here's a critique of some of the Future of War stuff that has run here. There are now a total of 19 essays set to run. I may cut off the entries when we get to 25 acceptable entrants. What think you? Meantime, if you have one, here is how to send them.